‘A problem of the middle class (a belated letter from São Paulo)’, un Projects, March 2019.

Installation view with Days of being free (2018), Wura-Natasha Ogunji. Credit: Sivanesan.
This took forever, it’s a relief to get it out. 

SP33 occurred during a time of intense political upheaval in Brazil. The impeachment of popularly elected president Dilma Roussef of the Workers Party in 2016 set the scene for the then-minor conservative politician Jair Bolsonaro to rise as a populist right-wing presidential candidate. Often dubbed the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ for his nationalist stance and divisive rhetoric, Bolsonaro is better understood as a product of Brazil’s military, representing the interests of its former dictatorship (1964 – 1985). Many fear that his recent ascent to the Presidency marks the return of that regime.

The build-up to the October election saw significant protests in Brazil’s major cities. The #EleNão (Not Him) campaign brought millions into the streets protesting Bolsonaro’s stance on Black people, Indigenous people, women and gender non-conforming people, propelled by anguish and anger over the assassination of queer Black councilor Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro in March of 2018. Earlier this year, investigators disclosed that employees close to Bolsonaro’s family have been linked to her killing (Ramalho, 2019).

Further fueling the mood of disaffection, a fire in Rio de Janeiro’s Museo Nacional on 2 September 2018 destroyed much of its collection, just days before the Bienal opened. It remains an enormous tragedy that many argue could have been prevented if the museum were properly funded and managed. Events that followed were tainted with a sense of this loss; what Brazilians might call saudade.

Over several attempts to review this Bienal, I found myself swinging between poles of schadenfreude and saudade. It irked me to discuss the staging, production and consumption of contemporary art as I came to grips with ingrained divisions of race and class and intense social inequalities in Brazil, all the while as an authoritarian government was ushered in.

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Transmediale 2019: ‘What Moves You?’

The festival closing panel with Carolina García Cataño, Donatella Della Ratta, Geert Lovink, Fernanda Monteiro Moderated by Sumugan Sivanesan.
Transmediale 2019, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin Sunday 03 February 2019.

‘Linn da Quebrada leads trans-black resistance in Bolsonaro's Brazil’, Deutsche Welle, January 2019

Jup do Barrio and Linn da Quabrada at HAU, Berlin. Photo: Camille Blake/CTM 2019

Dubbed the ‘Crazy Black Queen of the favelas,’ Brazilian trans-black singer and performer Linn da Quebrada is back in Berlin for a series of shows and talks at a time when her community has come under increasing attack.

Read at DW

‘Marking Histories’ Discontents: Frontier Imaginaries’ ‘Trade Markings’’, un Magazine

Marking Histories’ Discontents: Frontier Imaginaries Edtion No. 5, ‘Trade Markings’, Van Abbe Museum Eindhoven, 7 April — 1 July 2018

Frontier Imaginaries is a roving art and research platform founded by Amsterdam-based and Brisbane-raised curator Vivian Ziherl. Dedicated to studying the frontier in the global era, Ziherl emphasises that ‘the frontier is not a border.’ Rather, it is better understood as a threshold, beyond which what exists is ontologically different to where the perceiver is located. In colonial contexts the frontier distinguishes between civilised and uncivilised territories, like the North American notion of the ‘Wild West’ or in Australia what is often referred to as ‘the Bush,’ territories over which settlers’ have long sought to exert control.

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Installation view, L-R: Gordon Hookey, ‘Murriland! #1’ 2016; Farida Sedoc, ‘Move on over or we’ll move on over you’ 2018 and ‘Grass Roots’ 2018; Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, ‘History of Zaire’ 1973–1974. Photo: Marcel de Buck.

‘Eine Frage schwärzer Liquidität’, Springerin 02/2018

Jonathan Beller delivering his keynote Derivative Living, Transmediale, Haus der Kulturen der Welt 2018. Photo: Adam Berry

A Question of Black Liquidity: Critical Race Media Theory @ Transmediale: Face Value  Berlin, 31 January–4 February 2018
Published in deutsch, in English below.

‘Face Value’ marked an intersectional turn for Transmediale, Berlin’s premier festival of media arts and digital culture, with a program poised to address relations of class, gender and race built into media and technology systems.

In the first of the festival’s keynote lectures, feminist postcolonial scholar Françiose Vergès elaborated on her recent text about the ‘Racial Capitalocene’, drawing on the work of influential Black thinker Cederic J. Robinson. Robinson’s critique of capitalism’s appropriation of Black labor power as ‘constant capital’(i) was picked up by Jonathan Beller in his keynote, ‘Derivative Living,’ the following night. Alongside Lisa Nakamura, another keynote speaker at this year’s Transmediale and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, who featured at the festival last year, their work announces a field of critical race media theory.

Beller’s mostly pessimistic analysis of life under a regime of ‘computational racial capitalism’ recalls Robinson’s findings that capitalism arose from conditions that were already racializing the peoples of feudal Europe. These modes of differentiation expanded with European colonialism, leading to the ‘obligatory’ development of the negro slave, whose labor power was necessary for the emergent world economy.

The racialized character of labor remains, most obviously as structural global inequalities continue to produce differentials in globalised labor markets, and thus supply ‘cheap labor’ in the former colonized parts of the world. More recently, forms of immaterial labor and communicative capitalism have flourished in the wake of social media which has come to dominate our modes of representation. Beller notes that platforms such as Facebook, have established a distributed means of production that exploit our affective, attentional and metabolic capacities as ‘deterritorialized factories’ and he is critical of such processes of ‘digitization’ which often operate under the guise of digital culture.

Record keeping is historically a racialising, gendering and class-defining process of differentiation; of classifying people as quantities, statistics, resources and assets. Information is not value-neutral, nor are the media-technological formations by which it is analysed, circulated and proliferated independent of ideology. ‘Colonialism merely gives way to computational colonialism,’ is how Beller describes the simultaneous processes of ‘informationization, computerization and financialization’ undertaken by platforms which are intensified by the centralization of information with supranational media-technology corporations such as Google and Facebook, and the concentration of financial power with banks and states. Echoing Robinson, he claims all of us are rendered as fixed capital by a totalizing system of computational capitalism.

Surprisingly, Beller glimpses some potential for emancipation in recent experiments with these very processes, in particular the activities of the Economic Space Agency (ECSA), a start-up of sorts developing alternative finance on the blockchain-based platform Ethereum. Blockchain, an innovation of the vanguard cryptocurrency Bitcoin, is a ‘trustless’ computational means of validating and securing transactions on a public ledger that is relayed across a network, removing the need for a centralising authority like a bank. Ethereum is effectively the first blockchain-based distributed computing operating system, enabling developers to build applications for it that make use of smart-contracts—digital protocols which execute and enforce agreed-upon tasks, and that are arguably more secure in guaranteeing transactions than methods vulnerable to human foibles. Without recourse to an overseeing authority, on Ethereum there is an opportunity to ‘open-source finance.’ ECSA’s ‘Space program’ proposes to do this by facilitating the ‘interoperation of a plurality of micro-economies’ in new economic space. Participating ‘econauts’ would determine their own terms of value creation, issue tokens or cryptocurrencies to leverage their activities and engage in trade to support other like-minded communities. Making use of ubiquitous computing ‘everyday people’ could take control of their financialization and thus according to ECSA, ‘the design of economic space becomes a means of collective self-expression.’(ii)

‘Don’t take things at face value,’ cautioned Transmediale’s artistic director Kristoffer Gansing at the festival press preview. So it would be prudent to consider who stands to profit from developments in speculative computational finance. Legal scholar Robert Herian(iii) warns us to be wary of those using technological innovation to mask motives that differ from those whom they claim it will benefit. For entrepreneurs, the attraction of ‘disruptive’ technologies such as blockchain lies in their capacity to open up new markets and competition, and technological innovation is a means to gain advantages over competitors. Contrary to the dream of decentralisation and diversity, market success tends towards the consolidation of power and economic monopolization, so Herian argues, rather than usurp the status quo, disruption in markets is most often ‘radically conservative.’

Cedric Robinson reminds us that the foundational figure of capitalism’s world system was not the worker but the slave. The profit motive implies that many of those who participate in liquidity and trade simply want to get rich, so would not those who come to power in alternative economies reproduce the same violence on which capitalism is predicated? Might the self-financialization of social activism, as Beller suggests with the example of Black Lives Matter, deepen the dynamics of the gig economy which commandeers self-expression as market differentiation, as social competition and ultimately unfreedom? As one respondent from the audience pointedly asked: ‘Where does the Black body enter into cryptocurrency other than being a client in jail?’(iv)

Such anxieties underpinned several discussions at Transmediale that were attentive to who was enabled to speak and who was privileged enough to attend. Undoubtedly these concerns trouble all of us ‘non-Blacks’ engaged with Black thought. I am taken by the writing of another festival participant Aria Dean, whose ‘Notes on Blacceleration’ locates a strain of radical Black thinking which mobilizes and accelerates Black peoples’ long history as living capital and speculative value; as those historically cast as sub-human re-make themselves as inhuman, counter-human and anti-human in their efforts to move with, through and beyond capitalism’s modes of repression and alienation. Learning from these histories and practices, we might be reminded in our attempts to wrest control of derivative living that social life need not be a competition, lest it become yet another race to the bottom.

i Cederic J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Zed Press, London (1983).

ii  See Economic Space Agency (ECSA), ‘On Intensive Self-issuance: Economic Space Agency and the Space Platform’, in: Gloerich, Lovink, de Vries (eds), MoneyLab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam (2018).

iii See Robert Herian, ‘Blockchain and the Distributed Reproduction of Capitalist Class Power’, in: Gloerich, Lovink, de Vries (eds), MoneyLab Reader #2: Overcoming the Hype, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam (2018).

iv An audio recording of Beller’s keynote is archived on Transmediale’s website.

Read at Springerin.

‘Escaping the arts of governing: Notes on Jonas Staal’s PhD Defense’, Temporary Art Review

Jonas Staal’s PhD Defense, Great Auditorium, Leiden University Photo: Ruben Hamelink

Escaping the Arts of Governing: Notes on Jonas Staal’s PhD Defense

Jonas Staal declares himself to be a propaganda artist. Given the pressures to professionalize, it is unusual for an artist to describe themselves with a term often associated with authoritarianism. Yet, unlike many artists passing through formal art education, Staal has no interest in reflecting and commenting on the ambiguities of the world, but rather proposes to change it.

More at Temporary Art Review

‘Chelsea Manning changes face at Berlin's Transmediale festival 2018’, Deutsche Welle, January 2018

‘Probably Chelsea’ (installation view), 2017, Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea Manning.

The American artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg first had contact with Chelsea Manning in 2015 when the whistleblower was serving a thirty-five year sentence for leaking classified information while working as a US army intelligence analyst in Iraq. But before the two had even messaged, sent letters or spoken, Dewey-Hagborg had received hair clippings and cheek swabs from Manning after they had been smuggled out of the prison.

Read in DW