‘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.
Initially published in 4A Papers, Issue 7, 2019.  
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. The video 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. Prompting 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.
Projected onto a semi-reflective glass box, the video installation forms a ‘three-dimensional hypertext’ that literally frames and stages artworks by artists Upali Ananda and Kingsley Gunatilake. Purchased from Saskia Fernando Gallery in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, these are installed behind the projection surface as an exhibition-within-an-exhibition. Periodically the video image dissolves and white lights come on, illuminating the objects in a performative, and often lulzy, dialectical montage.
Art shapes the world
Being Human follows a young Tamil artist, performed by Oslo-based artist and designer Ilavenil Jayapalan, as he travels between the Colombo Art Biennale and the former Tamil capital of Jaffna in the north of the island. With a strong British accent (and dressed in an enviable range of stylish sports shirts), Jayapalan could well be a stand-in for Thomas as he delivers the latter’s thoughts straight to camera. Another character, a digitally generated ‘famous popstar’, looks uncannily like Taylor Swift, one of the world’s biggest selling recording artists, her face mapped onto the body of model Chantelle Pretorius. A third character, ‘a well-known painter’ (actor Peer Liening-Ewert, but I can’t tell if he is also digitally generated), is supposedly a guest of the Colombo Art Biennale. Colombo’s first Biennale was inaugurated in September 2009, just months after the end of the war, with the theme ‘Imagining Peace’, but seems to have been inactive since 2016. Being Human is also interspersed with segments of a videolink conversation with Father Alphonsus Iruthaynayagam Bernard who founded the Centre for Human Rights in Tamil Eelam (Jaffna), who is described by Thomas in the exhibition notes as a family hero. 

In one scene a young Tamil artist sitting in the courtyard of a chic Colombo cafe asks:
Supposedly art created a space for this country to heal…a space for positional view points, a space for new ideas, for freedom of thought…a space for democratic values. This is contemporary art and nowadays it is everywhere, but what exactly is it and how did it get here? 
Thomas establishes a synergy between the end of the war in Sri Lanka and the appearance of contemporary art, linked to the country’s post-war economic prosperity and the failure of processes to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations. The appearance of contemporary art in Colombo lends a veneer of cosmopolitanism, civic culture and democracy to the authoritarian state, which claims to be an arbiter of justice having eliminated Tamils under the guise of defeating terrorism. As such, contemporary art smooths the entry of capital and investment by backers who also supported Sri Lankan forces and intensifies the economic discrepancies between the north and south of the island, and projects that reshape once majority Tamil areas. A young Tamil artist states: ‘Every geopolitical issue is now negotiated as a human rights issue… Human rights is the medium by which imperial power is organised.’
For real
One striking sequence is a dizzying of montage of artwork details and white cube installation views, sourced from the web and fast cut to pulsing electronica. Later, a well-known painter comments on this meme-like proliferation of contemporary art ‘in an era of total connectedness.’ As explained by a young Tamil artist earlier, since Duchamp (Western) art has tasked the viewer with interpretation, contributing to the production of a privileged autonomous subject and affirming the theories of Emmanuel Kant (1781) of a universal human subject through whom the world can be known. Thus, a well-known painter claims that the circulation of contemporary art trains a collective performance through which a fiction of being human emerges. Regarding the nation state’s unwillingness to uphold human rights, a young Tamil artist poses the question:
Well, the idea of the individual upon which human rights is based derives from Kant’s definition of the universal human subject distinct from nature. Maybe the problem is not something that can be fixed within Human Rights International Law, maybe the problem is with the category of human itself?

In the following section a famous popstar discusses authenticity as a demand of the markets in which she operates. ‘I mean, I believe I’m genuine in what I’m doing, but that’s the paradox. So does everyone else.’ Synthesised Taylor Swift lists the way individuals perform their authentic selves on social media; posting their likes, meals, vacations etc as content from which data can be algorithmically analysed and repurposed, to in turn shape users’ behaviours. Arguably, her observations about the entertainment industry are applicable across all of networked society when she states:
If believing in your own authenticity is the basic price of admission, then authenticity itself becomes the most contested object of synthesis…Behind the ranking algorithms and sociographs, maybe simulating simulated behaviour is the only way we have of being for real. 

Like all good Tamil films, any significant development is marked by a musical interlude and Being Human does not disappoint. The soundtrack lifts into a pop song crafted by ‘reverse engineering’ hit maker Max Martin’s method of ‘Melodic Math’ (I’m guessing Swift’s ‘Wildest Dreams’). ‘Loose lips sink ships’— the song is clichéd and anthemic. Aspirational and drenched in teen yearning it is matched to a montage of adolescents pouting and gyrating at webcams. Clips of dancing girls from Tamil movies are interspersed with close-ups of a famous popstar stretching in the filtered glow of a digitally-rendered sunset, while a young Tamil artist dances under club lighting. Eyes closed and withdrawn into themselves, the animation-model and actor-artist look like they are really feeling it. At times the video dissolves and the exhibition-in-the-box illuminates, punctuating the emotion. The irony is unmissable. The track gets stuck in my head.

As the song fades, the image switches between clips of teenagers rehearsing themselves on web platforms to clusters of digitally-animated youth checking their phones and taking selfies. The voice over explains how artificial intelligences now structuring the world transform individual identities into the artefacts of their calculations, ‘machines in the ghost’. It concludes that in this era of autonomous computation, sovereignty of both individuals and states is made subject to these recursive equations. Cut to excerpts of online riot porn; Occupiers wearing Guy Fawkes masks, swarms of riot police unleashing a high pressure hose, the alt-right torch-lit march in Charlottesville and on it goes, juxtaposing the swarm behaviour of people against those determined by algorithms. The sequence climaxes with security camera footage of a bomb explosion inside a restaurant.

Being Human concludes by recalling a 2018 incident when angry Sinhala mobs attacked Muslims in the Sri Lankan district of Ampara, resulting in the death of 27-year-old Abdul Basith after his home was set on fire. The mob violence was prompted by the death of a Sinhala man following a traffic dispute with a group of Muslim youths (Mashal and Bastians 2018). The text on screen reports that Facebook algorithms helped escalate this anti-Muslim rage. Irony gives way to propaganda.

For many in Tamil diasporas, these images of mob violence echo the 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms at the onset of the war. More broadly, it speaks of a long history of class and ethnic tensions on the island. One is also reminded of Tamil-Muslim prejudices and how the LTTE attempted their own ‘ethnic cleansing’ in 1990, when they expelled Muslims from their homes with 24 hours notice. Many had lived alongside Tamils for generations (Perera 2011).

My concerns with Thomas’ work is the way he appears to romanticise the struggle for Eelam. Arguably, the very notion of Eelam arose partly as a reactionary counter-myth to the ‘homeland’ nationalism developed by the Sinhala majority while the region was under British occupation, and in the period prior to Lanka’s independence (Guneratne 2002). While Ground Zero leaves aside the LTTE, who controlled the self-governed state under the autocratic leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran, it is difficult to separate them from what constitutes Tamil self-determination. Indeed, Prabhakaran, who was killed during the final battle at Nanthikadal is still revered by many in the diasporas. So while I support the need to denounce Sinhala supremacy and demand post-war justice, I wonder if Thomas’ activities will affect the people of the north and east; Tamils and other minorities. 

Since the launch of his 2012 artistic enterprise When Platitudes Become Form Thomas, a Goldsmiths graduate, has been buying the works of promising Sri Lankan contemporary artists and ‘reconfiguring’ them for sale in the arts scenes in which he circulates. For Ground Zero works by Upali Ananda and Kingsley Gunatilake made in 2018 are subtly retitled with the year of Thomas and Kuhlmann’s 2019 installation. Displayed intact, they are nevertheless most visible in the galleries and museums of the global north as Thomas’ possessions.

It was revealing that when I visited Lanka at the end of 2014 and asked both young and established artists if they were aware of this work, I was met with silence and (feigned?) disinterest. Indeed, Thomas may well be a significant collector of contemporary Sri Lankan art. While Lankan artists I spoke with, Tamil, Sinhalese and otherwise, struggle to raise interest in international art markets and make a living from their practice, Thomas is able to access what would seem to many like excessive funds and backers. It is notable that Ground Zero was commissioned by the Russian V-A-C Foundation for the 58th Venice Biennale and has an impressive list of production credits (2019). Ground Zero can be read as a revenge piece; a display of art power that might affirm ideas about diaspora privilege and the meddling of Western-educated intellectuals that irritates many on the island struggling for peace. Thomas considers spectatorship as a material to be worked with, and certainly his art spectacles make viewers (and indeed this review) complicit in developing Thomas’ art power as a brand.

Thus it is worth contextualising Ground Zero with Thomas and Kulhmann’s other enterprise, a real-estate technology start-up, New Eelam, first exhibited at the 9th Berlin Biennale, 2016, curated by DIS and more recently at the IMA Brisbane, 2019. ‘Eelam’ loosely translates as ‘home’ and New Eelam was founded to develop an idea of flat-rate subscription housing, similar to how Netflix and Spotify stream movies and music, to cater for a mobile and flexible ‘post-work’ society liberated by automation. As described in the (corporate) video 60 million Americans can’t be wrong (2017), the proposed ‘housing cloud’ would maximise profits by trading its portfolio of flexibly-occupied apartments. Capital gains absorbed by the start-up would go towards reducing the subscription price rather than return as dividends to shareholders, making its housing/lifestyle model more accessible and desirable.

If this phenomena develops it could give rise to ‘cloud nations’ (similar to how Facebook users might be considered a population) which forms the basis of what Thomas and Kuhlmann describe as ‘liquid citizenship’, a form of citizenship based on self-selected networked ‘autonomous individuals’ with common interests rather than by geographically-bounded nation states. From such ‘reverse diasporas’ inhabiting New Eelam would emerge a form of self-governance based on common desires managed by technology, rather than by the militarised force that organised the self-governed state that inspired it.
Arguably, New Eelam sets up a process to discover what democratic forms might emerge in accelerated technocapitalism. Yet, behind its smooth rhetoric New Eelam seems similar to the kinds of entrepreneurial co-housing schemes designed for aspiring millennials that are set to expel socially and economically marginalised communities from already gentrified cities. Such initiatives are stirring debates in Berlin, where Thomas and Kuhlmann sometimes live (see Sonntag 2018) and indeed Kuhlmann admits that New Eelam:
will provide no immediate solution to the urgent problems of displacement or of those excluded from citizenship, on a longer timescale, we’re interested in how dislocation is perhaps becoming a permanent condition for more and more people (Thomas and Kulmann 2017, p.10).
Thomas and Kuhlmann have produced a thought provoking and troubling project that seems to have abandoned hampered discussions about art as a means towards global civic culture in preference for something that sounds like an alternative privatised takeover of civil society (see Thomas 2014). Will it produce as they propose a form of automated ‘luxury communalism’ based on what users really want or give rise to what metís artist and scholar Audrey Samson (2019) fears as a ‘deeply hierarchical citizenry model governed by market operations’? Given time, New Eelam may prove to be more than just a diaspora problem. 

Barratt, Martha and Samson, Audrey, 2019. ‘New Eelam,’ Burlington Contemporary, 20 March.

The Berlin Biennale, 2016.

Colombo Art Biennale, 2009.

Guneratne, Arjun, 2002. ‘What’s in a name? Aryans, Dravidians, and other myths of Sri Lankan identity.’ Neluka Silva (ed.), The Hybrid Island: Culture Crossings and the Invention of Identity in Sri Lanka, Zed Books, London, pp. 20–40.

Mashal, Mujib and Bastians, Dharisha, 2018. ‘Sri Lanka Declares State of Emergency After Mob Attacks on Muslims’, The New York Times, 6 March.

New Eelam (website).

Perera, Suvendrini, 2011. ‘Sri Lanka: landscapes of massacre.’ Shampa Biswas and Zahi Zalloua (eds), Torture: Power, Democracy and the Human Body, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, pp. 215–243.

Sonntag, Kim, 2018. ‘Open Letter by KUNSTBLOCK AND BEYOND for the protection of the non-commercial youth centres Potse and Drugstore’, 14 December.

Thomas, Christopher Kulendran and Kuhlmann, Annika, 2017. New Eelam: Tensta (exhibition guide PDF, 169KB).

Thomas, Christopher Kulendran and Kuhlmann, Annika, 2017b. 60 million Americans can’t be wrong.

Thomas, Christopher Kulendran, 2014. ‘ART & COMMERCE: Ecology Beyond Spectatorship’, DIS, 7 March.

V-A-C Foundation (website).

‘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. Its 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 lived experience or committing to transformative decolonising work. Kilomba, whose practice is anchored in her biography and subjective experience, argues that Europe is yet to understand how these histories are ‘inscribed in the 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 this  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.

‘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.
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.

More in un.

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