‘Persepolis Now?’ A Utopian Stage at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin. MAP Magazine

A Utopian Stage, SAVVY Contemporary Berlin, 2019.
A Utopian Stage at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin. Curated by Vali Mahlouji | Archeology of the Final Decade. 

The Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis ran for a decade between 1967 and 1977 in Iran. Generously funded by the government, oil companies and the Festival’s founding patron Empress Farah Pahlavi, it was described as ‘…the most important performing arts event in the world’ by Professor Enrico Fulchignoni, director of UNESCO’s International Committee for Cinema and Television, 1975. An ‘artistic pilgrimage’ which promised to open cross-cultural dialogue in a post-colonial world, it was held annually in Shiraz, city of poets, and staged at one of Iran’s most spectacular sites, the ruins of Persepolis, a ceremonial city of the Persian Empire built circa 515 BCE.

Held during a period of heightened tensions between the monarchy and groups pursuing constitutional reforms, the Festival was described as a ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ by Vali Mahlouji, curator of A Utopian Stage. Organised under the auspices of National Iranian Radio and Television, a committee of artists and intellectuals sought to invite work from around the world. During a time of post-colonial optimism and possibility, this signaled a move away from European domination and the emergence of Third World confidence, giving way to a fluid exchange ‘across geographies, histories and forms’, on a scale that we might still marvel at today. However, regardless of accolades, the Festival troubled Iran’s internal security forces, Shia clergy and hardline Leftist organisations and was closed down in 1978. The following year’s revolution replaced 275 years of Shah rule with an Islamic Republic.

More at MAP.

‘Is this what democracy looks like?’ Immersion: Palast Der Republik, Berliner Festspiel, 8–10 March 2019.

‘Immersion: Palast der Republik’ Photo: Mathias Voelzke/Berliner Festspiel (2019)

Palast der Republik
Billed as ‘art, discourse and parliament’, the Immersion programme at Haus der Berliner Festspiel staged a symbolic reconstruction of the Palast der Republik. As an ideological ‘people’s house’, the Palast der Republik was the seat of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) parliament between 1976 and 1990. It was a bold architectural experiment with theatres, galleries, restaurant, bars and a bowling alley that stood on the site of the former Berlin Palace, originally built in the 15th Century and the residence of Prussian royalty. Damaged during World War II, the Berlin Palace was demolished by the East German Government in the 1950s. Found to be contaminated with asbestos, Palast der Republik was abandoned in 1990, then demolished in 2003. In its place the reconstructed Berlin City Palace is due to open later this year, stirring debate about the politics of remembrance and the legacy of the GDR. The New Berlin City Palace will host the Humboldt Forum, a museum to showcase objects held in Germany’s ethnological collections, drawing criticisms about the providence of these items and accusations of ‘colonial amnesia’. 

Featuring talks, performances, music, films and installations Palast der Republik transformed Haus der Berliner Festspiel into an art, politics and entertainment complex. Recalling the people’s roundtables convened in the interim period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first free East German elections, the programme was bookended by two constitutions. The first day revisited the ‘New Constitution for the GDR’ (1990), a ‘people’s constitution’ drafted by representatives of civil society groups. The last day moved beyond local issues to consider proposals for a Transnational European Constitution to be eventually taken to the European Parliament.  

Eastern Empowerment  
Palast der Republik was inaugurated by an installation, Wolkenreich, by Klaus Pobitzer, who obscured the façade of the Haus der Berliner Festspiel with a thick cloud of fog. Although located in what was once been West Berlin, the bronzed mirrored windows of the Festspiel are reminiscent of those featured on the Palast, and as the smoke cleared and the simulacrum emerged, one could make out an insignia affixed to them. Akin to the GDR’s national emblem that hung above the entrance of the original, here the hammer and compass encircled in a wreath of rye was replaced by the hexagonal design of the Festpiel’s main stage. As patrons made their way into the building transformed, the fading dusk enhanced the theatrics of this first act, as a place out of time.

By one entrance stood an assemblage of the actual chairs used in the GDR parliament. Recovered last year from a warehouse in Berlin, they were presented as found—bent, dusty and strung with cobwebs—as the installation Sturzlage by Gabriele Dolf-Bonekämper. They seemed to pronounce that the Palast was not exhumed for the sake of nostalgia, but rather for critical reappraisal.

Following a short choreographic work in the foyer Odori, the Shit! by Trajall Harrell, the first discursive event was a ‘revue of ideas’, Verfasst euch! (Constitute yourself!) which included keynote addresses by philosopher Susan Buck-Morss and professor of law and novelist Bernhard Schlink. Although from the West, Schlink became involved in the roundtables following a teaching appointment to Humbolt University soon after the fall of the Wall in November 1989. He emphasised that his primary concern in drafting the Constitution was that it could be enforced by the people. The ‘New Constitution for the GDR’ was completed on 4 April 1990, after the first free parliamentary elections on 18 March. Schlink recalled it was immediately eliminated by the new parliament, but did play a role in later discussions and informed many of the protests that followed as the East was restructured.

‘Wolkenreich und Sturzlage’ Photo: Eike Walkenhorst/Berliner Festspiel (2019)

There Is No Alternative
Saturday featured two discussions about the policies of privatisation implemented as the East merged with the West. These roundtables titled Schwarzbuch (Blackbook) focused on the Treunhand, an agency established to manage the sale of East German assets and infrastructure. Described by economic historian Jörg Roesler as a ‘pure privatisation machine’, the Treunhand is regarded as pioneering European neoliberalism.

Berhnd Gehrke, a writer, historian and educator who represented trade unions in the 1989 roundtables, spoke of the mass sell-off of the GDR’s factories and industries leading to job losses and the devaluing of skills and capital. With the ‘credit-worthiness’ of the former East weakened, even those with savings were unable to secure loans to purchase the apartments in which they lived. Thus, the Treunhand paved the way for investors from the West to scoop up buildings whole, causing frustration, humiliation and disillusionment amongst those ‘wage dependent’ in the GDR. Indeed, according to author and filmmaker Inge Kloepfer the Treunhand effectively produced a ‘new German underclass’ and primed the conditions that have given rise to the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) political party in Berlin.

Journalist Aris Chatzistefanou, whose documentary Catastroika (2012), investigates parallels between the Treunhand and the EU Troïka (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund), argued that the measures trailed in Germany in 1990 were honed in Greece 2009. Anastasia Frantzeskaki, an activist and dockside trade union representative concurred, claiming that the transfer of Greek state assets to private holdings occurred over a single night.

The discussion concluded as Duvurlar—Mauern—Walls (2000) screened in the balkon-cum-kino overlooking the main theatre. Made by a then young Turkish–North American émigré, Can Candan, the film documented the experience of Berlin’s Turkish communities in the first decade of Reunification, who had established themselves in the city since the 1960s as guest workers, ironically filling the labour shortages caused by partition. Candan’s documentary presents a nuanced discussion of East-West prejudices intensified by gentrification through interviews with vendors selling sections of the wall in streets markets, community spokespersons and first and second generation Deutsch-Türken youth.

It is significant that Palast der Republik opened on 8 March, International Women’s day and a public holiday in Berlin. In her opening keynote Susan Buck-Morss recalled the five-day demonstration held by women in Iran on this day in 1979, as a precursor to 1989 and as possibly the first revolution of the 21st Century. Indeed, artist and filmmaker Elke Rosenfeld, a co-curator of the programme who was a teenager in the East at that time, claimed that non-violent liberation marked the passage into the 21st century, gesturing to a longer history of women’s struggles. In the programme’s first roundtable Nach dem Protest (After the Protest), Tatjana Böhm spoke of the Independent Womens Association and their concerns of work, home and individual rights, reminding audiences that legal abortion remains an issue in Germany. The panel closed with a video message from Bini Adamczak, author of Communism for Kids (2014), who declared that global feminism was the most successful counter-fascism movement, linking together its historical waves.

A performance-installation, Caen Amour, by Trajal Harrell introduced another thread of ‘herstory’ into Friday night’s proceedings. As an imaginative re-staging of the ‘hoochie koochie shows’ that toured the USA in the early 1900s, the ‘all-female revue’ was performed by a mixed-gender ensemble. The audience moved between the stage front, where the exotic dances were performed, and the back of the set where the dancers hurriedly traded costumes. Harrell prompted them to reflect on the dynamics of performing, consuming and reinforcing gender and racial stereotypes and to consider other possibilities glimpsed in these liminal spaces.

Given that Saturday was billed as a ‘circus of ideas’ it was fitting that the second day of Palast der Republik culminated in the queer cabaret CHEAP. As a self-contained mini-event, CHEAP included screenings and projections, interviews, live music, performances and vodka shots, bringing together several threads of the programme concerned with gendered violence in the former socialist states. Defiantly underground, CHEAP shone a light on LGBT+ identities and experiences, using ‘joy, laughter and erotic desire as political weapons’.

‘CHEAP’ Photo: Eike Walkenhorst/Berliner Festspiel (2019)

Passage to the 21st Century
Day three of Palast der Republik opened on a rainy Sunday afternoon for a parliamentary hearing, with the theatre at capacity for the keynote address by former Greek finance minister, Yanous Varifakis. Having resigned from Greek politics, Varifakis is currently the German candidate for the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. Formed in 2015, DiEM25 is the first trans-European party campaigning for election into the European parliament, building a popular front against ‘austerity, privatisation and socialism for oligarchs’. It is notable that DiEM25 launched in February 2016 at Berlin’s iconic Volksbühne theatre, in what was once the GDR. Varifakis emphasised the role of the European Central Bank as an institution that ‘supports no states but has nineteen states supporting it’, and as a key instrument for a system that generates crises it cannot resolve. He warned that the disaffection brought on by the EU Troïka’s demands for structural adjustments is like history repeating in Europe, and might forsee ‘the hatching of the serpent’s egg’.

One of the first acts of any democratic process is the drafting of a constitution, and the climax of Palast der Republik, gathered together eleven delegates to each put forth proposals. These included the phasing out of plastics, enabling children to vote, the communalising of ‘big companies’, the right to housing, the reparation of objects and restitution of wealth acquired via colonial projects amongst calls to ‘de-Westernise’ Europe. Some proposals were awkwardly put. For example, author and activist Lorenzo Marsili arguing for what sounded like a digital commons phrased it as ‘Google as a human right.’ Indeed Varoufakis pledging that humanity deserved ‘mechanical slaves’ seemed out-of-step with current discussions about developments in robotics and synthetic intelligences.

One notable delegate was the political theorist and author, Vijay Prashad, an Indian national and scholar of the Tricontinental alliances. Comprised of the postcolonial states of Asia, Africa, Latin America and including the former Yugoslavia, the Non-aligned Movement formed as an alternative to the Cold War socialist and capitalist blocs, and were often raised during the programme as a precursor to the formations that were being presently rehearsed. Invited to give the ‘last word’ Prashad’s presence provoked the possibility of a New European Parliament that would include seats for members of all democratic nations, in acknowledgement of the legacies of colonialism and gesturing towards the horizon of global democracy.

‘Delegates’ Photo: Eike Walkenhorst/Berliner Festspiel (2019)

Practical Experiences
Immersion’s Palast der Republik elaborated on recent trends in political theatre and art that adopt the parliamentary form. These include the New World Summits founded by artist Jonas Staal, Yael Batana’s What if Women Ruled the World? (2017) and the Rights of Nature Tribunals. Palast der Republik evoked a social space for audiences to move freely between discussion, debate, leisure and entertainment; interweaving different moods and expressions. By deconstructing of the ‘lost dream of postcommunism’ as the preconditions for its reconstitution, Immersion staged what one audience member called ‘practical experiences’ of democracy. Rather than the participatory distractions of post-truth ‘democratism’ it is in the herstorical play of the people’s house that the stirrings of a community yet-to-come are most strongly felt.

‘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.