‘Sanni Est ‘War In Her’ live’, KALTBLUT.

Photo: Renata Chueire, 2019
Sanni Est is blowing up in Berlin. One lasting memory of her recent concert at Klunkerkranich was of the artist gathering people after the show to help move all the gear from the stage to her apartment, located around the corner from Neukölln Arcarden. I picked up one of the beautifully crafted Alfaia drums and followed Sanni’s housemate into the carpark below the popular rooftop bar. As we were about to step into the elevator and join a couple readying to leave, we spotted the rest of Sanni’s entourage— about twenty people, and not all Brasileirxs—each carrying a single piece of equipment. More drums, an obscure instrument in a carrier bag, a microphone stand, a drumstool…

Read more at KALTBLUT.

Ropes and Tropes: Latifa Laâbissi’s ‘White Dog’ at Tanz Im August, 17 August, HAU2, Berlin.

‘Latifa Laâbissi’s White Dog’ Photo: courtesy of the artist/Tanz Im August, 2019.
Lights up to the sound of dogs barking in the distance. Four figures sit stage right in a circle, handling a tangle of fluorescent yellow rope. From between their dextrous fingers emerges a headpiece, a cushion, a noose… They are three women of colour and a tall, lanky, bald white male. Later in the foyer my friend, a white Colombian who tells me she experienced racism as a Latinx for the first time when she studied in the US, commented that ‘the casting is definitely not colour-blind.’

The performers wear short-legged playsuits made of blue denim, a material associated with workers and the working class. It could be read as infantilising. Also, all four performers sport gold grills.

There are different ‘movements’ or configurations to the one act piece. For example, three dance together as a troupe with one hidden beneath a bundle of ropes. The tall male performer braces a Black woman upside down against his body and they dance together awkwardly. He dances solo like the trance-ritual performers captured in Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous (1955). Towards the end all four dance together in a row. Scrawling in my notebook in the dark I can later make out the words: cartoon, caricature, Gummo, Coolie dance.

White Dog, white gaze
In the discussion with Grada Kilomba following the performance billed to be about cultural appropriation, Laâbissi explains through a translator that White Dog concerns four individuals who want to build a work together. They work on knots and unraveling those knots together and thus build consensus ‘in a debate together’. Thus, it is not a work about universality but pluriversality.

White Dog is performed in a striking set designed by Nadia Lauro that evokes a jungle setting, with trees and vines made of ropes.‘Our bodies are enforested, they are part of the forest…our bodies are like branches,’ says Laâbissi. The piece was inspired by a conversation with Dénètem Touam Bona, author of Fugitif, où cours-tu? (Fugitive, where are you going?) (2016), which recounts runaway slave narratives. It’s thematics are about ‘marooning’; escape, fleeing, withdrawal. Yet the French-born artist with a Moroccan heritage, insists that the work is not representative of any particular group. Rather she states that her main concern is about the artist as a singularity—‘a dialectic between me and me’.

A comment from the audience concerned how White Dog seems to reproduce clichés about Black bodies and perhaps even reinforces racist stereotypes, particularly to do with primitivism. One could argue that the work challenges audiences to read their reactions and reception of the images it evokes, which are also inscribed in history and (colonial) systems of knowledge. Laâbissi confirmed that the piece does indeed take ‘a deep dive into these stereotypes’ and is busy with unknotting these complications. She admitted that the dancing is very permissive. As an artist heavily criticised for her use of Native American signifiers in her solo piece, Self-portrait: Camouflage (2005) Laâbissi was emphatic that she does not do censorship.

Epistemic violence
Grada Kilomba spoke of artists’ responsibility to deliver a language that goes beyond the reproduction of racist and gendered stereotypes, their associated forms of epistemic violence and modes of ‘cultural appropriation today.’

She claimed that a lot is expected of artists of colour, and noted how many of us pursue hybridity so as not to respond to what is expected of us; to represent a certain group of people or issue. Kilomba spoke of trends in contemporary art by which institutions seek out such artists who move beyond colonial narratives. While she has benefited from such interests, she admits to it being problematic given that certain artists are effectively recruited to play a role in institutional discourses. This gives rise to a situation that she describes as ‘inclusion within exclusion and raises questions about who gets funded and ultimately gets to produce new knowledge. It also worth noting who accesses these spaces; are there many people of colour?

Kilomba outlines artist strategies to subvert these machinations. For example, Kilomba who is based in Berlin is represented by Goodman Gallery in Capetown and Johannesburg. So when European institutions want to show her work in Europe, they still have to go via South Africa. Later at the bar she talked about the strategies adopted by some of her peers who set conditions about how and where their work is shown, often insisting that the interested gallery also exhibits an accompanying piece or the work of a fellow artist.

Fortress Europe
Trained in psychoanalysis and also an author and theorist, Kilomba is critical of how discussions about race and colonialism in Europe are often presented as an ‘intellectual choice’; often as part of discourse or a curriculum to be pursued as part of one’s career. In such instances the experiences of the racialised and colonised are commodified as ‘knowledge’ of which one can gain expertise without having to do the work of decolonising. Kilomba, whose practice is anchored in biography and her subjective experience, argues that Europe is yet to understand how these histories are ‘inscribed in skin of our bodies and biographies’ and indeed society.

In light of this discussion, White Dog might be understood as a thoughtful provocation that makes time for contemplating historic and ongoing processes of racialisation and the ways they are reinforced through the ways we have learned to look and make associations. It evokes a desire to flee from such a world, but that it is near impossible and there is still much work to do.

‘On the Sofa: Questions of Cultural Appropriation in Contemporary Creation’ with Grada Kilomba, Latifa Laâbissi and moderated by Sandra Noeth.

‘Raving Lite: NLC Festival’ Norient

 ‘The Nature Loves Courage Festival in Sougia, Greece was founded by DJ Abyss X. Through its foregrounding of female-identifying, queer and non-binary artists, as well as its commitment to a diversity of styles, the festival contributes to the development of what is known as post-club culture. What can this festival tell us about today's post-internet club scene?’

Read at Norient.

‘Data Science Friction’, springerin, 03/2019

Asunder (2019), Tega Brain, Julian Oliver and Bengt Sjölén, Vienna Biennale for Change 2019: Brave New Values: Shaping Our Digital World. Photo: courtesy of artists.

On the AI-based eco-management system Asunder (2019) by Tega Brain, Julian Oliver and Bengt Sjölén.

How to manage the transition of Earth’s climate into something that is less suitable for human flourishing is a polarising issue. One solution being forwarded by tech industries is to develop data-driven computational systems which prioritise ecological agendas and mitigate human influences. Such methods of ‘painting humans out of the picture’ (Cantrell et al. 2017) is often put forth as a neutral, rational and depoliticised means of managing environments. Asunder (2019) addresses such assumptions of computational neutrality and the ideological framing of the environment as system – an ecosystem – that can be monitored and managed. An AI-driven ‘autonomous environmental manager’, Asunder arises from a collaboration between artist and ‘eccentric engineer’ Tega Brain (New York City), artist and ‘critical engineer’ Julian Oliver (Berlin) and artist, independent software/hardware designer and hacker Bengt Sjolén (Stockholm) commissioned for Vienna Biennale for Change 2019: Brave New Values: Shaping Our Digital World.

Read more at springerin

Society Must Be Upended: ‘Manifestos for Queer Futures’ at HAU, Berlin Art Link

Romily Alice Walden, ‘Notes from the Underlands’ (2019), video still courtesy of artist.
Catalysed by an open call for Berlin-based artists, the performance event ‘Manifestos for Queer Futures’ premiered at HAU’s multi-venue festival, ‘The Present is not enough. Performing Queer Histories and Futures’, from June 20th to 30th. From the 270 applications received, HAU produced 26, bringing together artists who regularly perform in clubs, theatres and art spaces with those who may have never set foot on stage. Over three consecutive nights, ‘Manifestos…’ sampled the profusion of Queer cultures in Berlin. 

 Read in Berlin Art Link.

The Long Now: ‘Here-Now and There-Then’, Norient.

The Long Now, Kraftwerk Berlin, 2019. Photo: Sumugan Sivanesan
A short photo-essay…

The Long Now, the culmination of the MaerzMusik festival, occurred over thirty hours at Kraftwerk, Berlin, in cooperation with Berlin Atonal. Under the directorship of Berno Odo Polzer since 2015, Maerz Musik has developed from being a showcase of new compositional and avant garde music to become a ‘festival for time issues’ with an expanded program of lectures, workshops, screenings, panels and installations alongside concerts. Kraftwerk, a former power station for East Berlin built in the 1960s, was revived in 2006 as part of the Tresor club’s complex of venues and is renown for its atmosphere and acoustics. 

More at Norient.

‘Initials B.B.’: Bishop Black, ‘Becoming My Body’ at Ballhaus Naunynstraße

Photo: Zé de Paiva / Ballhaus Naunynstraße, 2019.
I wrote a short text for LOLA to promote Bishop Black’s debut solo piece, Becoming My Body at Ballhaus Naunynstraße, 30–31 May, as part of its ‘Postcolonial Poly Perspectives’ Festival.
‘Bishop Black seeks decolonisation’ announces the press release for Becoming My Body, Black’s first solo performance at Ballhaus Naunynstraße as part of its Postcolonial Poly Perspectives festival. Hailing from the UK, Bishop has lived in Berlin for several years where he is much admired in its queer porn scene. Black has worked with some of the industry’s most provocative figures including Venice Biennale artist Shu Lea Cheang, directors Bruce LaBruce, Erika Lust and filmmaker and DJ, Sky Deep. His contributions to queer and alt-porn were acknowledged when he was selected for the 2017 PorYes Feminist Porn Award. Themes of sexual fluidity and race arise in Bishop’s oeuvre and Becoming My Body is poised to address these issues as an amalgamation of video, sound, dance and drag. Challenging oppressive forces determined by white Christian hegemony in Europe that are being reinforced by the New Right, Black proposes to radiate and accelerate towards an open unknown.
I attended the premier last night and after B.B.’s performance I wound up in the garden chatting with Daphne, Sheeka, Wagner and Fabian. What follows are some reflections.

Black bodies are inescapably inscribed by history, art and media representations; the trauma and abjection of slavery, idealised as athletic forms with the hyper-masculine body simultaneously perceived as a threat of potential violence. As Daphne pointed out, being conditioned as such significantly shapes and restricts the way Black men dress, act or otherwise present themselves.

For his first solo performance at Ballhaus Neunynstraße, Becoming My Body, Bishop Black compels his audience to look intently at his body. Evoking images with his use of costume, props and video, B.B. makes us aware of the references by which Black bodies are read and how we project onto or identify with these images and thus the experiences we bring to an artwork. The audience entered the theatre where B.B stood waiting. He paced around, bare-chested, humming and singing. On top of his shaved scalp was a candelabra headpiece with a clutch of lit black candles, wax dripping on to his shoulders. His waist was wrapped in a long silver cloth that trailed behind him and his feet were clod in red glitter pumps. I saw the Statue of Liberty, whereas Daphne saw a Satyr. Over the course of the piece I also saw a ceremonial leader, a man servant, a trickster, a virile stud and Black bottom amongst others. As such, Becoming My Body makes us aware of the tropes by which racialised and sexualised subjectivities are formed and also of our own racisms.

Being aware of this effect of Black performance, I focused less on the images B.B. evoked and rather on how his presence registered on my body. While B.B. moved through these forms and across the stage, I made note of how I would tense and relax. I was impressed by how he could switch and shift between different modes—camp, reverent, militant, vogue. In one sequence adopting the poise of a butler, B.B. offers a platter of fried dumplings to the audience, quickly retracting when someone reached for them. ‘You can’t have it, but I can!’, he quipped before greedily biting into one. ‘Mmmmm… it’s good’

After the performance B.B. thanked the House for enabling him to be vulnerable on stage. He said he had no secrets. I thought how being able to open up on stage—which to me sounds terrifying— must have been for him empowering, perhaps even liberating. I recently read an interview with B.B. by ‘ethical adult filmmaker’ Erika Lust in which he admits to being ‘a massive exhibitionist’. What stood out for me was B.B.’s control of his body; his ability to manipulate his representation and by extension his command of the room. Surely, that must feel good?

Familiar faces in the team that produced Becoming My Body include film director Jasco Viefhues and BDSM artist Carita Abell, and are reminders of B.B.’s presence in Berlin’s queer and sex-positive scenes. I recall having first met him at the 2017 Porn Film Festival Berlin where he was a featured artist and also co-organised a workshop for Black and People of Colour (BPOC), ‘Reclaiming my image’. Even in Berlin, with its liberal attitudes, the presence of Black male bodies in public can be confrontational. Yet, Black men are readily fetishised and consumed as objects of desire when presented on stage, on screen or otherwise framed within representational formats. Becoming My Body, and much Black performance I have experienced recently, works to manipulate these learned perceptions and the socially reinforced conditions that determine what a (male) Black body should be — and thus for some of us BPOC, challenges us about how we too could be. When B.B. held aloft a two-sided mirror with one of its faces cracked, I first thought of it as an overworked trope. Nevertheless, as an object that mediated between the performer and audience, it registered on my psyche along axes of (dis)identification, projection, self-love and hate.‘We looked long and hard in the mirror and were confronted’, said Abell after the performance.

As a respected performer in queer and porn scenes, B.B. might also appear intimidating as a figure of sexual freedom, desire and defiance, especially for those already stifled by social constraints and norms. In the garden after the performance Wagner noted the majority white audience who attended B.B.’s premier and mused if the wider Black community was ready for him. For me, Becoming My Body emphasises the need for BPOCs in Berlin to seek each other out, form friendships and support each others practices. It is crucial to advocate for the infrastructures, such as Ballhhaus Naunynstraße, that concern us and engage in the conversations about us, especially under conditions where white privilege, and indeed white supremacy, prevail.