An underlying current in the six web-residency calls – despite their diversity in intellectual legacy and emotional orientation – was the signaling of a failure. Not just the unfolding collapse of the geo-territorial and chrono-political now, but a foreclosure of the planetary and human time and space that allows only for a failed future. The different web-residencies that ambitiously, provocatively, and radically responded to these calls of dealing with the imminent failure of future and the future of our unfolding failure, were strongest when they asked for a system reboot in order to liberate ourselves from the fixity of the past and to embrace the hyper-possibility of a speculative future. It is with this manifesto in mind that I narrowed down on the list of two projects that resonated with me as embodying the spirit of the residencies and the urgency of the worlds that they inhabit, inherit, and ingrain.
1st Prize: Natasha Tontey, ‘From Pest to Power’
Natasha Tontey’s ‘From Pest to Power’ is a playful, repulsive, and celebratory repackaging of the insectoid fascination as ‘food of the future’ and as ‘the evolution of the organic human’ captures the perverseness and the appropriation of our planetary glitch, in all its cynicism and celebration. Tontey picks up the common thread of cockroaches and their mythical survival abilities – images that abound both the futures of atomic warfare and destruction of life, as well as the apocalypse chic of global climate collapse – and turns it into a morbidly erotic, mysteriously spiritual, and farcically profound thesis on the future of power where sheer biological survival might become the axis of measuring the force of life.
As she draws upon multiple discourses on cockroaches, turning them into memes (perhaps the successor to cats on the internet are going to be cockroaches), and extolling them as role models for survival, Tontey produces a deep-seated critique of intersectional layers that also replays the emergence of East Asia, first as a pest and then in our bio-political futures, as a power and seat of imminent threat.
Her glorification of cockroaches betrays the tyranny of the hygiene regimes which use contagion as a vector for racism and discrimination, often pathologising communities and geographies that are associated with cockroaches. Her presentation of the cockroach as a future mate, imagines a different kind of a cyborg that turns away from the Silicon Valley obsession with technological singularity and data-driven genetic manipulations for immortality in precarious futures. Instead, she offers a mutated, post-anthropocene human future that is more bio-punk and co-evolutionary than the survival race where the richest will win. She traces the genealogy of cockroach and diets in different parts of the world to mock at the neo-orientalist rediscovery of insects as super foods that are becoming trends in the gentrified sterile modernities of the North-West, and reminds us of the indigenous and local practices where cockroaches are more than vermin. And in a mimicry of orientalist tropes of spiritual wisdom – though she remains committedly ironical, not exposing, in her text or her rippling aesthetics, whether we should take her utterings as literal or metaphorical – she introduces the cockroaches as the vehicles of ‘Asian spiritualism’, drawing upon Indonesian texts that celebrate the cosmic cult of the cockroach.
Tontey’s work stood out among all the different projects because she remains so stoically amused at the bewilderment of the recipient of her work. There is humour there, if you care to find it. There is joy there, if you scratch beneath the surface of literalness. There is critique there, if you can hear it over the pattering sound of cockroaches scuttling in the dark. There is an inversion of the monstrous and the embrace of revulsion, taking the opportunity of a planetary glitch and entering into a parallel universe of confabulated cringe where cockroach reigns supreme – a universe that no longer seeks to mend, amend, cure, and heal the age of extinction that we are living through, but calls for a re-visioning of the future that we want to build with new systems and new blocks of meaning that are embodied in her artistic research and aesthetic practice. At the same time, she does not resign herself to a politics of despair, and she doesn’t allow her interlocutors to give up and engage in fashionable gestures of critical politics, but continues to challenge our own role in shaping the future of the planet, in one instance, even inviting us to fornicate with the cockroach to save our species. Tontey’s project, on several readings and experiences, remained as unforgettable and immersive as a nightmare where you dream of thousands of cockroaches, in all their species diversity, slowly crawling up your spine, only to wake up and realise that it is a reality.
2nd Prize: Pedro Oliveira, ‘On the apparently meaningless texture of noise’
Pedro Oliveira’s collection of interactive sound essays, ‘On the apparently meaningless texture of noise’ also begins with another kind of ‘vermin’ as a point of departure. Oliveira directly addresses the degradation and dehumanization of people seeking political asylum and refuge in the wake of the civil wars and humanitarian crises in the ‘Middle-East’. He looks at the ways in which computational mediation – especially AI algorithms trained on sound database – enables different forms of taxonomy and classification that reduces these humans fleeing for their lives into files, data sets, and bodies of suspicion as Europe deals with them through the cold and unsettling language and logistics of resource management.
However, in a global spectacle which has been instrumentalised and saturated with performances and images that shape the narrative of the crises, Oliveira’s intervention is through sound, and his exploration is in the institutions of care that are mobilized as forms of control under the guise of personal identification. He begins in a post-representational world, looking at Germany’s attempts at regulating the inflow and verifying the needs of the asylum seekers through accent recognition algorithms and creates a tapestry of sound, text, machine parsing, and institutional power in his compelling essays. His political orientation is clear and is supported by an aesthetic choice that both amplifies and illustrates his interest in a theory of absence. Looking at the gaps in the narratives of intelligibility, he captures the sonic landscape of humans waiting to claim life, and creates synthesized and modularized sounds that are both haunting in their repetition, and surprising in their ability to create a primacy of connection between the unseen subject and the unknowing listener.
In Oliveira’s essays is an aesthetic intervention that refuses to essentialize the human persons in this process across the binary of victims-perpetrator, and instead locates us all as complicit, connected, and bound through the covenant of self-care. The essays present a fascinating in-road into examining the narratives of this massive human dislocation caused by institutions of war and violence, and also capturing the irony of them re-emerging as humanitarian structures of power trying to save those who they had put in conditions of extinction. Repeated listenings and
navigating through the text of his fractured sound and poetry leaves one ambiguous and certain, in a strange duality, questioning and reaffirming the need and organization of care where we are not always sure what our roles are going to be.
Both Tontey and Oliveira present a full frontal acknowledgement of a future failure, and also indicate that reworking this system is not going to be a solution. At the same time, in their political performance and aesthetic intervention, they show that future failure is not the same as a failed future, and reconfiguring our acts and facts, logics and logistics, aesthetics and action of being human might still give us an alternative future worth living for; a future worth fighting for.
All images: »Hash Award 2020«, Kooperation des ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe und Akademie Schloss Solitude, am 21. Februar 2020, ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe. © ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, Foto: Elias Siebert