‘A diaspora problem?’ Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Annika Kuhlmann’s Ground Zero and New Eelam, 4A Papers.

Installation view of Being Human (2019), Christopher Kulendran Thomas in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, digital projection on acrylic. Presented in Ground Zero, Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin, 11 September – 15 December 2019.
Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti. Commissioned by V–A–C Foundation. Courtesy Schinkel Pavillon.
Ground Zero (2019) is a slick and arresting spectacle by the young British-Tamil artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas in collaboration with Berlin-based curator Annika Kuhlmann. Opening during Berlin Art Week (11–15 September 2019), the installation has prompted much talk. The centrepiece of the exhibition is Being Human (2019), a twenty-minute thesis-video/scripted docu-fiction told through three figures: ‘a young Tamil artist’, ‘a famous popstar’ and ‘a well-known painter’. It plays on tropes of the artist interview, with its implications of the artist-as-genius in canonical Western art histories and as neoliberalism’s ideal subject, the creative entrepreneur.  

Being Human puts forward a complex argument that draws on Thomas’ family’s involvement in the Tamil struggle for independence and the self-governed state of Eelam, in the north of Sri Lanka. Provoking a thirty-year civil war, the dream of Eelam was brutally quashed in May 2009 when Sri Lankan armed forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), killing between 40,000 and 100,000 Tamils. A decade on, Being Human addresses the failure of International Human Rights Law to bring justice for Tamils. Returning to concepts in European philosophy and Western art that gave rise to the idea of the universal human subject from which Human Rights Law is derived, the video questions the very category of the human in an era of algorithmic decision-making and networked governance.

Read at 4A Papers

‘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.