37-2 / Editorial


Speculate this!

Kadiatou Diallo and Dominique Malaquais, for SPARCK

In September 2013, reports started coming out of Kinshasa of a cosmonaut walking the streets at odd times and places. The first sightings were in Lingwala, a neighborhood near the city center. Then came the wildly eroded streets of Kindele quarter; Kimbanseke, home, once, to the prophet Simon Kibangu; Ngwaka, the city’s toughest area; Matonge, where Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974; and, finally Massina, also known as the People’s Republic of China. Initially, people just watched the cosmonaut go by. Then they started filming. Photos and pocket films were made with cell phones. Pictures went up on Facebook. Shortly, the diaspora was commenting. Eventually, a big-name photographer got involved and posted images online. By 2014, a scholar in Europe had got wind of things and, following a brief research trip, gave her first lecture on the phenomenon.

As it happened, we knew more about the cosmonaut than most. This was a result of our close working relationship with a Kinshasa based crew—part artists’ collective, part think-tank and experimental living facility—called Kongo Astronauts. K.A. were in daily contact with the cosmonaut and, while they explained that a formal meeting was not as yet possible, they were in a position to provide us with the best images known to date: a series of photographs shot at a site some five hours South of Kinshasa, Zongo Falls. Shortly thereafter, they followed this up with a video, also shot at the falls.

The still and moving images showed the cosmonaut ambling through a forest, pushing a boulder, Sisyphus-like, up a steep embankment, and performing a ritual before the falls. In some shots, his head was covered; in others, his face was visible. Everywhere, he appeared in a silver suit bristling with extensions of various kinds.

The images had come to us in March of 2014. Following this, we heard little. The cosmonaut appeared to have ceased his Kinshasa rounds. Then, a week ago, came reports of renewed sightings, this time in the neighborhood of Limete. This prompted a series of questions that, it struck us, went to the heart of what we were trying to accomplish in this issue of FUSE.

Speculation, it seems clear, is at the core of the cosmonaut’s appearances. This is so in two regards. First is the fact that he seeks to prompt speculation among his viewers: hypothesis, conjecture, guesswork. He gives few clues as to who he is or why he chooses to amble through the city. On occasion, he has been known to help a person in need—crossing a street, changing a tire—but, as a general proposition, he does nothing in particular. This raises a lot of questions concerning what, precisely, he is about.

Second, his presence opens up spaces of possibility—of moves that might eventually be made. Not committed to any particular course of action, the cosmonaut appears to be hedging his bets. These two aspects of his appearances reveal the double nature of speculation. Besides conjecture, the latter also indicates an investment made in the hope of gain, but with the risk of loss. To speculate, in the second sense of the word, is to hedge one’s bets. The link between the two meanings is particularly obvious in the present instance. The cosmonaut is investing in the future of an as-yet-unknown prospect. Put differently, he is making space—building a possible stage for himself—which he may or may not choose to act upon in the future.

In as radically unstable a post-war context as Kinshasa’s, this double use of speculation makes a great deal of sense. AbdouMaliq Simone, one of the foremost thinkers on contemporary urban experience in the global South, points to the critical importance, for everyday navigation of the city, of making things happen. Where there are few formal jobs to be had, where shifting political, economic and social states of affairs make it exceedingly difficult to position oneself, where who and what one can count on is in constant flux, the ability to create spaces, or better yet to find breaches, into which one can temporarily insert oneself and which one can exit just as fast, means everything. [1] The cosmonaut undoubtedly sees this and has chosen to act upon it.

The result is one of the more arresting experiments in performance art that we have encountered of late. For this, indubitably, is art. The cosmonaut defines himself, and is trained, as an artist. His art, however, is not readily recognizable as such. In fact, as the foregoing suggests, it is not recognizable as much of anything at all—save, that is, itself. Nor is it signed: the man in the cosmonaut suit does not claim ownership of the persona that he inhabits as he walks the streets of Kinshasa. As such, his performances engage with a notion put forth by philosopher Stephen Wright. Art is at its most effective, politically, Wright holds, when it is not recognizable as art: when it flies under the radar screen that the art world uses to identify what is and is not of its ambit. Because it cannot be pinned down as art, it cannot be policed by an art world intimately linked to the structures of power that govern us. [2]

Much the same might be said of the works by Kongo Astronauts around which this issue of FUSE revolves. None quite fit the definition(s) of art and all engage with the notion and the practice of speculation. The first, Postcolonial Dilemna Track #02, can best be described as a visual experiment in/on extractive processes. To a screeching tune, it probes the violence visited on vast swaths of Congo by the rabid exploitation of resources—raw power (transformed into electricity), coltan (the stuff that makes cell phone and satellite communications possible), heterogenite (a compound of copper and cobalt) and all manner of precious and semi-precious gems. Many of these resources are traded and re-traded on highly volatile markets by investors who speculate extensively on minute-to-minute shifts in value. The pairing of immense wealth for some and grinding poverty for most that such speculation entails makes for radical instability that finds an echo in the formal instability of the film. Sight and sound, cuts and repeats are wed in such a manner that little makes sense, save the sense that extraordinarily violent forces are being brought into play. And yet… Listen closely, in several languages, through muffled satellite relays, and things become rather less clear-cut. There is talk of hauntings (envoûtements); technology is misappropriated and fails. Certainties as to who has access to and rules what begin to fray at the edges.

Hauntings come front and center in Postcolonial Dilemna Track #01 (Redux). Here, the focus shifts from the extraction of raw materials to that of souls, one understood as an extension of the other. Wrapped in the garb of Conradian fantasy, speculative capitalism hovers as bodies and bribes are traded. But, again, doubt enters the picture, here in the form of zombies whose allegiances are wholly unclear. Certainties fray further still.

In Young Money Billionaire (Photo Novella), a Kinshasa street slang primer, it is language that frays at the edges. Lingala, Kinshasa’s lingua franca, is shot through with words borrowed from French and reworked to suit local needs. Langila, a form of Lingala slang, plays still further havoc with the self-styled “mother tongue,” bending it to wholly new ends.  Nothing means what, on the face of things, it seems to mean—not for Lingala speakers and even less so for users of French. Nor will the primer be of much help: by the time you’re done reading it, words will have shifted, morphed, taken on new significations and forms. Langila is a wholly speculative language: it is made, remade and unmade daily in much the same way that the cosmonaut moves through the city—in order to make things happen, to set the stage for the new, the unlikely and, hence, the possible.

Emphatically lo-tech, all of the pieces we have commissioned for this issue have a certain samizdat quality. Video shot on the fly with a camera meant primarily to take still pictures; images and sounds pilfered and re-played unedited; cut-and-paste photomontages recalling a genre popular in second and third tier magazines from the 1970s. Both the films and the photo novella make use of media and modes that stand in stark counterpoise to the slick production values characterizing so much of what the art world has to offer at the edge of thetwenty-first century. Much the same might be said of the Zongo falls pictures, where, hijacked Photoshop meets cheap, over-the-counter calendar imagery, or, indeed, of the cosmonaut himself: his helmet, after all, is a plastic bucket. All of this is a deliberate decision of course, and a deeply political one at that. The point is to expose the seams of process: to get under the skin of practice in a complicated place and render visible the mechanics of making things happen. In much the same way as the cosmonaut is at work creating possibilities, his Astronaut colleagues are imagining what can be done with the building blocks at hand. This is not to say that either one—Kongo Astronauts or cosmonaut—wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to imagine more with more means. The point, rather, is that, given few means and a bent to do exactly as they please, they are intent on telling an unadorned story, both of themselves and of the place from which they work. In this, they function as a model for emergent SPARCK projects.

In December, the SPARCK team will be in Kinshasa. There, the plan is to film a series of interviews with K.A. and, hopefully, the cosmonaut. This footage, shot with much the same material as were the Postcolonial Dilemna films, will be the basis of a podcast for our ongoing Artists On Africa project, SPARCK’s latest endeavor. [3] A.O.A. is a series of conversations with artists, watchable on iTunes. It considers how creators at work on the continent make things happen, creating breaches—spaces/tools/methods—for sharing knowledge about what it may mean today to produce art (or to decide that such is beside the point) from Africa. Speculative practices, here, are a central focus: choices creators make to eschew fixed outcomes in favor of steering a contingent, and if need be a  changing path in contexts of constant flux.

With this project, we seek to plumb issues that go to the heart of who we are. As it was gaining its sea legs, SPARCK was very much focused on setting a track record: meeting objectives within a formal relationship to its funders, a foundation that generously covered its first three years of activity. [4] Entering upon the second phase of its life, it opted for a turn. Decisions as to which projects will be undertaken are now made in a distinctly more fluid way, in order to allow for greater experimentation: that is, for undertakings that involve more risks. Speculation is a fundamental matter. We invest our energies in creating possible platforms for further foray. Sometimes, this means working with no net at all, save threads of conjecture we weave over Skype, in transit or, as here, in the ether space of the Web, with partners in dialogue whose interest in us is born of similar stands.

Our collaboration with Kongo Astronauts and the relationship resulting from this have, in many respects, been emblematic of this process. What began as a conversation about possibilities, over the months morphed into a full-scale partnership, in which daily developments in Kinshasa emerged as the engine for shaping SPARCK’s contribution to this final issue of FUSE. Initially, the theme of the contribution was speculation. In time, speculation became the means and the method—the thing itself. In the process, we have come a little bit closer to what we imagine we might become. Hence the structure of this issue, which is very different from what we had planned at first. Hence, too, our thanks to FUSE, which, as it comes to a close, has opened the way for us to a new dynamic.

[1] AbdouMaliq Simone, For The City Yet to Come (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

[2] Stephen Wright, “Spy Art: Infiltrating the Real,” Afterimage 34 no. 1-2 (2006), 52.

[3] Artists on Africa.

[4] The Africa Centre, Cape Town, South Africa.


All images: Cosmonaut at Zongo Falls (2014) .Images courtesy of Kongo Astronauts.


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  1. Pingback: Kongo Astronauts dans Fuse Magazine | KONGO ASTRONAUTS

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