White Bit vs Afrofuturism

There’s not enough Africa in computers, Brian Eno once said. And the same could probably be said about computer users, especially those who claim to work with obsolete technologies. It seems like a quite, uhm, white subculture. Perhaps even the “total white music” like Burzum supposdely said. Urgh.

A few months ago I went to a shop in Stockholm that sells African art. There were chairs made from tyers, bowls made of telephone wires and other so-called appropriations of technologies. To make some conversation with the shop keeper, I said “it’s good to see that they’re re-using the materials around them”. But then I felt so white that I probably became red.

Because what’s the difference, really, between using wood or wires or bits? What’s the difference if it’s 5, 50 or 5000 years old? You take stuff and turn it into other stuff. Assemble it with other things, tweak it, bend it. There’s nothing new with that. We do it with complex digital and analogue technologies now. So what? It seems a bit arrogant to put more value into something simply because it’s a manipulation of a commercial product. The historiography of this needs to look further back than circuit bending in the 1960’s.

Dweller’s Amiga disk backup in Lego.

It is of course an understandable starting point for those who are focused on breaking free from a commodity culture:  a world where all of our tools are built with a consumerist logic. Perfect presets, intuitive interfaces, constant updates: the product is the medium. If you want to be an autonomous individual, you’ll probably get sucked into discourses like noise, indeterminism, retromania and appropriation. These so-called critical tactics seem to be just as normalized as many other counter-cultural ideas of the 1960’s. But maybe it’s time to move on? That’s what I feel. All that criticism is like 100 years old so its ideological base is sort of ideologically obsolete. :)

We’ve become rather similar to a cargo cultWe build strange myths and rituals around objects that we don’t understand. There’s all kinds of weird shit being thrown at us and we don’t really know why we’re getting them and what to do with it. Some people say that it’s part of a military conspiracy, others that it’s a democratic saviour. But we all use it.

There is a similar problem with art that criticizes copyright, patents and all that. It’s considered to be subversive to use copyrighted material (less everyday, but still). In the documentary Sonic Outlaws (1995), Negativland does this. They portray themselves almost as freedom fighters (which reminds me of Punishment Park). But in the same film, Tape Beatles don’t explain their methods as a problem. It’s just a common sense thing to do. Pracitical and fun. There’s nothing to it. Of course it depends on what context you are working in and so on. But the point is: there is a risk that these methods only reinforce the thing that you want to change.

Okay okay, but where do we go from here? Afrofuturism is an interesting field to draw from. Although I just started reading about, it seems to have very useful ideas about hacking, sci-fi (not just for the future) and the relationship between humans and machines. Afrika Bambaataa, listed as a musicin in afrofuturism, was very inspired by Kraftwerk. In all their robotnik romantikz he saw an understanding of themselves as already having been robots, argues Tricia Rose and continues:

Adopting ‘the robot’ reflected a response to an existing condition: namely, that  they were labor for capitalism, that they had very little value as people in this society. So it was a way to play with the idea of robots, but also to put on an armour against manipulation which Rammelzee (below) did so well with his low-tech body suit.

The armour is a good metaphor. Good things need to be protected. Turntablism and techno built a sort of armour around political struggle and highly competent techno-skills, by camouflaging it as dance music. People were dancing to the beat of resistance without even knowing it. There was no need for outspoken counter-cultural poetry, since it was all about the music and the machines. Frequencies.

Consider how pioneers like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash were working with new technological methods. Perhaps there was not much politics in the resulting music, but as a new form of assemblage of man-music-technologies-entertainment it certainly had political relevance. Now compare that to what Reed Ghazala did with his circuit bending. He seems to be aiming more for art and democracy. Bending becomes something for high-brow shoegazing, stoners and communist librarians who want to teach kids how to reclaim the commodities. /me ducks and covers

But isn’t it more relevant to be able to program than make noise? I’d say it is. Maybe because I’m not a programmer :). For some it comes more natural to simply use what’s available, and make stuff with it. And if it’s not such an introvert process, perhaps something more useful than counter-culture comes out of it. Sometimes, it’s because there’s no other way: acute solutions to a flood, lights without electricity and sometimes it’s just quick n’ dirty trixxx.

Actually, I think this is what many artists are doing. It’s just that they are using the discourse of obsolete hacking in order to make a living from it (or sth). That’s great and I don’t blame them for it. We all make compromises, I guess. But what are they going to do when the hype is over?

9 Responses to “White Bit vs Afrofuturism”

  1. iLKke Says:

    “Because what’s the difference, really, between using wood or wires or bits?”

    One big difference is that in the latter case you would be recycling. Turning supposedly worthless items into something valuable again can go in and out of style, but that does not actually change it’s significance, does it?

  2. goto80 Says:

    Do you mean that working with wood is recycling, or..?

    I’d say that what is ‘worthless’ is almost always useful for something more. That goes for organic materials aswell as digital materials, commodities and non-commodities. The tree can be both a boat and a book. A soundchip can be a video generator or an effects unit for sound. Perhaps that was even its “intended” uses, that we talk about sometimes….

    Yes, it is always significant, I agree. Just not sure that it makes sense to separate between use and recycle in this context. Things are always part of the cycle.

  3. iLKke Says:

    Actually I meant recycling the wires, not wood.
    Agree that worth is subjective, and that’s exactly the point.
    You’ve touched on (planned or unplanned) obsolescence before. If old wires or transistors or microcontrollers keep piling up and new ones are being produced to take their place, then one can consider reusing the old ones an act of recycling. There is no common plan for old hardware (or say old furniture), apart from putting it out of sight, if one can call that a plan. It is thusly declared as _commonly_ worthless. It’s commonly perceived and commonly accepted worth is zero. This is not the case with wood (in it’s resource form), and therein lies the difference.
    It is the same principle that makes wire-bowls seem posh and exciting today when compared to oh-so-common wooden ones. Maybe they even have the added ‘value’ of the notion that we can safely discard all our no longer desirable possessions as junk, because there is a place it all goes to, where others (as in, not us), will craft useful things out of it again. So we can want and then not want them all over again.
    Perhaps this is the hypocrisy that you are noticing. Indeed, there should be no difference between wooden or wire bowls, they are both equally useful, and should be equally common. Thing is, they are not, and recycling and appropriation is considered special and posh, rather than intelligent, and is perhaps being reduced to a fad that will blow over like any other, and soon become so last-year.
    This amusingly resonates with the last paragraph of your article. Individual esthetics and outlooks are treated as expendable resources, poseurishly embraced when deemed cool, watered down in the process, and finally abandoned when the public eye turns towards the next buzzword.
    Can we ultimately run out of these as well?

    • goto80 Says:

      For me, recycling and appropriation as sort of ‘new media strategies’ both assume that old things are less useful. Maybe they are worthless to most western consumers, but to most people in the world they are perhaps quite amazing?

      But like you say – it is important that we think of it as worthless so we keep buying new stuff.

      I think recycling is going to be completely normalized again in the west too. Since the production has moved to Asia, it perhaps even makes sense for capitalism. Now it is forbidden to take stuff from the recycling points (atleast in Sweden) and that is … very silly. Perhaps by the time that is legal again trash-art, recycling and media appropriation won’t be interesting anymore.

      • k333d Says:

        why is it illegal to take things from recycling points? being san francisco, we have an artist in residency program at the dump =) http://sunsetscavenger.com/AIR/

      • goto80 Says:

        Hehe. Hippies! :) Raquel once got access to one of those in Spain. Let’s see if we can get something like that going here too.

        I’m not sure why it’s illegal but either because of health, integrity or market reasons I guess.

      • iLKke Says:

        It’s apparently illegal in a lot of countries.
        One thing that comes to mind is that whatever is put in public recycled points, for example furniture, is considered donated to the social programs. So it’s illegal to scavenge it and prevent it from reaching the intended recipients.
        That’s the theory at least, I’m sure in practice it makes little sense at times.

  4. kNINEd Says:

    good read as always… i feel some frequencies resonating with hackstability written about by venkat http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2012/04/18/hacking-the-non-disposable-planet/ exciting tyyyyyymeS

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