Taking as its starting point a family archive of 16mm colour material recorded in 1950’s Congo, We called her cyborg aunt is an ongoing artistic research project into the rhetorics and epistemic frameworks surrounding the “use” of technology, underlining the continuity of hierarchies and ideological assumptions in the way technological protocols and terminology (re)produce social injustices. The lecture-performance has been presented on- and offline in various iterations since 2018. In this iteration, the audio part of the lecture-performance is extended with the script and an annotated bibliography.
Send out the moving vocality!
There are no ——- in this herstory, she said. There are acts of de-archiving, un-winding, un-discovering, un-capturing, de-centering, dis-logging, dis-harmony, dis-occidentation, ex-cluding, ex-tracting, ex-cavating, trans-literating, trans-versioning, re-languaging, re-synchronising, re-reading, re-writing, in-verting, in-sourcing… inter-facing between bodies and bodies of knowledge are all that counts as technologies, linking and binding together not just as humans to another, as speaker and audience but as companion, operator, source, medium, user, critic, ally, avatar, support, dependant, contact, carrier, messenger, askari… ..wait… askari? What relation does that describe?
askari originates in Arabic (عسكري) via Persian meaning “soldier”. As a loanword for militant bodies, it proliferates along trade networks around the Indian Ocean and eventually, the African continent. By the 19th century of the Gregorian calendar, askari becomes a common term in the languages of colonising European nations on the African continent, a common denominator for indigenous soldiers enlisted in colonial armies. A loanword for “hired” bodies.
Bodies to be “hired”, to be “owned”, rendered into “instruments”? A campaign against Swahili-Arab slave trade provides a humanitarian guise, a rhetorical justification, for the Belgian king Leopold II to expand military presence in Congo. Built on the source code of racism, the land and indigenous populations, here and elsewhere, are transformed according to the default configuration of colonial knowledge — segmenting, quantifying, dominating, mastering, turning into USE value — until all is put the “right” place, extracted, to feed into the imperial machine;
“What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine” says cyberneticist Norbert Wiener.
With Wendy Chun, the technology of race is a symbolic machine to foreclose, inhibit and force bodies, experiences in the domain of the unthought — Bits and pieces held together by the violence of erasure, repression aggregated via askaris in the force publique. Resistance is abundant yet the proof mostly not committed to the archive. Démeure faite de défaites (abode made of defeats). From the forgotten footnotes, often ignored lineages and links and unresolved contentieux, but as a matter of pluristorical facts, the chorus whispers;
What counts as a technology? What is a technology of resistance?
Where are we now? Where are we situated? This is a military base. This is Kamina base in the Belgian occupied Congo. Running on the twin operating systems of colonialism and the Cold War, it was a waypoint in a global network of warfare and control. Expanded from 1950 onward to become the largest military base in central Africa. The perfect location for a pilot school because of its cloudless sky, perpetually training bodies and machines, bodies as privileged machines. A physical backup; a refuge for the Belgian government in case of a Soviet invasion, never to be deployed. A segregated community, organised according to the technology of race.
This was what I called home, she said.
We called her cyborg aunt – because of all the plastic and metal parts that throughout the years had been put into her body until the flesh and blood could not hold up. The bolts in her body tied her to bed, surrounded by other prosthetics and a remote control. All familiar materials, supply chain links tying her to her upbringing on this base, surrounded by large sources of copper, cobalt and coltan that are vital today for the production of every “smart” device. You are very likely carrying a particle of this land in your pocket.
A sense of place.
Through the shutter, the walled garden is inhabited by the the daily life of the smallest polemic platoon – the nuclear family. Norms and expectations set the frame for the everyday choreographies as habits, rituals and ceremonies. Predictable routines that here and now become a source. Once these boxes are opened, herstories is what spills out. Exposed to oxygen, the images start smelling like acid.
Remnants of possible selves live on in habits. The writing of bodies into systems, implicit and explicit. The writing of systems into and onto bodies. Over and over again. Daily drivers that script bodies as a polemic body: it says a lot, provokes without speaking. A circuit board of ideology. Follow the source, follow the assumptions. Every body a deeply material, networked body of knowledge.
Yet the story cannot tell itself without the willingness to imagine what it cannot tell… How do bodies know? How do bodies not know? Entangled, across input and output, read and write, where does the knowledge of activation and reactivation go? From where to where? she asks.
Import time. Linkages and lineages. In the Western conception of linear, unidirectional, progressive time, time is a straight and straightening line, a space for orderly accumulation, the future a space to be conquered according to the metric of “progress”.
Who has access to a future? She asks. Do you believe that time is on your side? If then, what if?
Cybernetics put forward communications as control, fragmented bodies perpetually in motion in an expanded and expanding system of feedback loops. The arrow of time is folded, multiplied into an infinite iterative loop between accepted input and desired output and in between a process of error correction.
In the hope of abandoning the stuff of politics, cybernetic choreographies describe society as an automated machine. Just as the cyborg — the cybernetic organism — sets out to disband the categories of human and machine, cybernetics reformats the body as digital information yet its movement remains a physical, material force, analogue analogies. Feedback, resonance, noise.
Updating to remain the same. The distinction between analogue and digital supporting the technology of race. Other systems, other societies either too primitive or too abstract. The 1960s countercultural cybernetics proclaimed analogue systems to be more concrete, more “real”, more “natural”… McLuhan says “cybernetics takes us back into the TRIBAL world of integral patterns and corporate awareness”… negative feedback, white noise?
What is the space carved by nodes and edges? Whose terms activate the terminal? How to see those we do not see because of temporal discontinuity?
When does language cease to be a tool for searching and describing, and rather becomes a tool to exclude everything that does not have a name?
I feel out of sync, she says.
Tired eyes and tired minds, mute links and conflicted timelines. Exhausted and exhausting analogies…
What are you listening to? she asks.
The surround sound of daily life, a playlist of explicit and implicit directions. What you hear depends on how you move. Caught up in voluntary and involuntary choreographies of access to bodies and the possible directions structuring them. Soft cues and error messages that go under the skin. Patched movements and silicon shades between transparency and opacity.
Decentralise everything, activists say. Private servers. Peer-to-peer politics. No more middle man, no more institutional mediation. Resilient infrastructures without hierarchies. Affective networks of excess. The many dialects of Android. Executing open-source ideologies.
But the violence of connecting and disconnecting vulnerable bodies with acting avatars, acting categories remains. Is it easier to be paranoid about privacy when your personhood is never put into question?
please prove that you’re human
From serf to server, labour racialised and naturalised. An economy of metaphors which gave birth to the cloud mythology, dissipating responsibility while centralising data bodies in neat little suburbs. The gentrification of the internet is ongoing. Top level domains and dominions.
Do you have to believe in it for it to work? She asks.
Just as the mythology of cybernetics as a radical scientific discipline is said to have brought itself into existence autopoetically, it destroys itself by failing to believe in itself any longer. Committed to the archive, living on as the un-dead.
Data bodies are produced, processed, conjured and transformed into value, according to legacy worldviews.
How do you describe mechanisms being exposed, the feeling of knowing how a narrative has been constructed as it unfolds, yet not being able to control it? Blind spots, lingering in plain sight.
What mediates between bodies, she asks.
Vulnerable bodies and acting avatars, acting bodies and vulnerable avatars.
The meaning of the Zinkisi sculptures are attributed by their social use, activations encoded by the content of the sculpture’s belly and the nails put into the sculpture . The more nails, the more problems incanted into that object. Power as consensus.
By the end of the 1950’s the askaris in Kamina would slowly undermine the functioning of the mental infrastructure of colonial occupation. The refusal to cooperate, dragging the feet. The power of other ——, le temps que l’on met a marcher (to put the times in motion).
Today, the former askaris in Kamina are trained by Chinese instructors to become operators of another ——, but no, rien n’est écrit d’avance (nothing is written in advance).
Analogies are difficult. Analogies are ideology. Analogies want something.
IF there is no history of ideas, just the material of analytical worlds and the work  to trans-late that which is separated across chronological, spatial and cultural distances, tracing the routes between sources and destinations…
IF all bodies are prophecies, speculations (strikethrough) polemic bodies that are not reducible to terminal terminology. Polemic bodies machine knowing the shards of the de-archive, dispersed, re-fusing representation. Abstractions held close. Nodes wrapped in edges.
IF this position from the present creates what that past and future looks like, what it means at every moment to not look forward.
IF knowing is that which arises between the body, the landscape and the interface — an infinity of traces un-learning, un-thinking, de-archiving, un-winding, in-verting, di-vesting, in-cluding, re-languaging, re-configured, in-sourcing…
THEN this will have been a generous compilation of language protocols that build the base for everything they are not. Permanently recalculating routes, forking pasts for emergent structurings.
Will you be my third, fourth, fifth,… party? She asks.
“Whoever helps to speak or explain, I will cite them. The difference is the citation is going to come out my mouth, my imagination. What I will have done when I do that, is to make the world come to me or remake it in part in my image.” Hortense J. Spillers (2021), Politics of Citation,
Re-tracing language moving between registers and disciplines in the form of terminology, analogies and metaphors and the social relations they are grounded in, this act of re-searching also implies foregrounding the practice of referencing as locating relations between source and citation. Used as a protocol of generosity and accountability, referencing establishes a network of recognition, companionship, critique and/or contextualisation. As McKittrick points to, referencing is however also a protocol of authentication, authenticating belonging on positivist terms through normative practices that value transparency and decide what counts as legitimate knowledge and in extension, what counts as (un)computable or (un)relatable. How to account for knowledges and ways of being that are excess to those systems? Equally, how to enter in a conversation with traces made invisible by archival practices and restrictive choreographies of (institutional) access? How to materialise imaginations for which there is no vocabulary yet? How to develop a perspective from the missing source? Working with these tensions is poetics as much as politics. Before knowing it, this work is inspired by Hartmans approach of “critical fabulations” to materialise the (missing) linkages, lineages and, not the least, temporalities and reroute them in other forms of narration. How can poetic narration as a method bring about such recursive reconfigurations for relating in open-ended terms?
A methodological chorus arising from Sara Ahmed (2019), What’s the use? On the uses of use, Duke University Press; Katherine McKittrick (2021), Dear Science and other Stories, Duke University Press; Saidiya Hartman (2008), Venus in Two Acts, Small Axe, Number 26, pp. 1-14; Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2018), M Archive: After the End of the World; Emily Drabinski (2013), Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction, Brooklyn Library Faculty Publications.
dis-logging, a term introduced by F.S, Obfuscation Workshop, 7.5.2021, https://3rd.obfuscationworkshop.org/
Norbert Wiener, quoted by Louis Chode-Sokei (2016), The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics, Oxbow Books.
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2009), Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race, Camera Obscura 24, pp. 7–35, side by side with Nelly Y. Pinkrah (2020), The digital has been around for a while, Contemporary & #11, https://contemporaryand.com/magazines/the-digital-has-been-around-for-a-while/
David Renton, David Seddon and Leo Zeilig (2007), The Congo: Plunder and Resistance, Zed Books, cited by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay (2019), Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, Verso.
Césaire’s Abode (from Demeure I) resonates with Machado recalling Derrida’s etymological origin of the archive as the house of the ruler, to counterpose it powerfully with Hartmans insistence on seeing the traces through the archives designed to bury them. Aimé Césaire (1994), La Poesié, Editions du Seuil; Carmen Maria Machado (2020), In the Dream House, Serpents Tail.
The contentieux refers to a list of lines of open conflicts compiled by the Congolese delegation during the negotiations in the run-up of the independence of Congo in 1960. Underlining how the continuing influence of non-Congolese actors on financial flows and economic ownership stands in the way of self-determined economic policy, it is quasi a bug report of decolonisation. Jacob Sabakinu Kivilu (1993), La specificité de la colonisation et de la décolonisation du Zaire, republished in publiekeacties (2017), Wanneer we spreken over kolonisatie/Quand on parle de la colonisation.
For a wonder of diagrammatical drawings tracing past and present thinking on pan-african intellectual and political networks, see Chimurenga Chronic, October 2018, https://chimurengachronic.co.za/inprint_posts/on-circulations-and-the-african-imagination-of-a-borderless-world-october-2018/.
In regard of thinking technologies of resistance, see Shawls Everfair, a neo-victorian steampunk alternative history exploring the premise that a resistant community in colonial Congo had adopted and developed steam technology as their own. Nisi Shawl (2016), Everfair, Tor Books.
Sourced from the archives of the Belgian armed forces, the exhibition project La Réduit by Sven Augustijnen use images and plans for the Kamina Base. Sven Augustijnen (2016), La Réduit, La Loge, https://www.la-loge.be/en/archives/le-reduit-by-sven-augustijnen
For an in-depth discussion of everyday technologies in a colonial context, see Rudolf Mrázek (2002), Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony, Princeton University Press.
On the continuities between colonial infrastructure, collective trauma and contemporary technological infrastructures, listen and watch Lupe Fiasco (2018), WAV Files and Tabita Rezaire (2018), Deep Down Tidal
Miriyam Aouragh (2018), De beperkingen van Wit Privilege: Shortcuts in de antiracisme strijd, https://socialisme.nu/de-beperkingen-van-wit-privilege-shortcuts-in-de-antiracisme-strijd/
Gloria Wekker (2016), White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, Duke University Press; Grada Kilomba (2013), Who can speak? Decolonizing Knowledge, in: Utopia of Alliances, Conditions of impossibilities and the vocabulary of decoloniality conflictual histories in hegemonic spaces, edited by the editorial group for writing insurgent geneologies, Löcker; Aline Bosuma W’Okungu Bakili, Anissa Boudjaini, Anne Wetsi Mpoma, Djia Mambu, Emma-Lee Amponsah, Emmanuelle Nsunda, Gia Abrassart, Heleen Debeuckelaere, Joëlle Sambi Nzeba, Lisette Ma Neza, Melat Gebeyaw Nigussie, Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, Modi Ntambwe, Munganyende Hélène Chirstelle, Olave Nduwanje, Sabrine Ingabire, Shari Aku Legbedje (2020), edited by publiekeacties, Being imposed upon, Onomatopee Projects, 2020.
Johannes Fabian (2014), Time and the Other, Columbia University Press; Rasheedah Philips (2019), Afrofuturism & Non-Linear Time, Funambulist 24; Rahul Rao (2020), Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality, Oxford University Press; Ana Teixeira Pinto (2019), Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years? Some Notes on Futurism, Futurity, and Truancy; Florence Ifeoma Okoye (2020), Designing the Afrofuture: What Does Afrofuturist Technology Look Like?, In: The Comet – Afrofuturism 2.0, Edited by Natasha A. Kelly in cooperation with HAU Hebbel Am Ufer, Orlanda Verlag, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.
Peter Asaro (2010), Whatever happened to cybernetics?. In G. Friesinger, J.Grenzfurthner, T. Ballhausen, & V. Bauer (Eds.),Geist in der Maschine. Medien, Prozesse und Räume der Kybernetik, pp. 39–49, Turia & Kant; Ron Eglash (1995), African influences in cybernetics” in Chris Gray, The Cyborg Handbook, Routledge.
In affinity with Chun’s critique of homophily as operating principle of algorithmic filtering, Eglash discusses the racist tropes in distinctions between analogue and digital. A similar observation is made by Mugrefya in regard of Paul Otlet, an icon of early information studies, stressing the need to acknowledge that the latters racism is not a bug but a feature of his thinking. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2016), Updating to remain the same: Habitual New Media, MIT Press; Ron Eglash (1999), African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, Rutgers University Press, Elodie Mugrefya (2020), Omission and Validation, in: DiVersions v2, edited by Constant (Elodie Mugrefya & Femke Snelting), https://diversions.constantvzw.org/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page
In regard of symbolic and economical connections between labour, black bodies and imaginations of technology and automata, see Louis Chode-Sokei (2016); Ron Eglash (1999), François Knoetze (2018), Core Dump: Kinshasa
Tung-Hui Hu (2015), A Prehistory of the Cloud, MIT Press.
Sadie Plant (1998), Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, Fourth Estate; David F. Noble (1992), A World without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science, Knopf.
Mercedes Bunz, Elizabeth de Freitas, Hank Gerba, Jessica Edwards, Stamatia Portanova, Deep Colonialisms & Non-Linear Learning, Panel Discussion, Recursive Colonialism, 02.12.2020, https://recursivecolonialism.com/topics/deep-colonialism/
Nkhensani Mkhari (2021), The more people who participate and believe in the power of a nkisi, the more power it will accrue, Akademie Solitude, https://www.akademie-solitude.de/de/web-residencies/the-more-people-who-participate-and-believe-in-the-power-of-a-nkisi-the-more-power-it-will-accrue/
Sarah Maldoror (1972), Sambizanga.
Françoise Vergès, La pensée décoloniale, Université populaire de Bordeaux, 17.04.19.
Kader Attia, Ana Teixeira Pinto, Anselm Franke (2020-2021), Whose universal? Podcast, Haus der Kulturen der Welt.
Goda Klumbytė, Loren Britton (2020), Abstracting Otherwise: In search for a common strategy for arts and computing, ASAP Journal, Vol. 5.1 (2020), pp. 19-44
Molefi Kete Asante (2020), Afrocentricity and Afrofuturism 2.0: Countdown to the Future, In: The Comet – Afrofuturism 2.0, Edited by Natasha A. Kelly in cooperation with HAU Hebbel Am Ufer, Orlanda Verlag, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.
Peter Hermans, We called her cyborg aunt, 2018-2021(v), CC4R (https://gitlab.constantvzw.org/unbound/cc4r)