Germany’s hub of experimental media art presents an exhibition exploring sci-fi narratives and activist technologies.
Curated by Inke Arns and Fabian Saavedra-Lara, the exhibition “Afro-tech and the Future of Re-Invention” at HMKV unfolds speculative fictions and presents Africa as a continent of progressive technological innovation.
With 32 participating artists and 12 coinciding ‘tech projects’, “Afro-tech and the Future of Re-Invention” takes over Dortmund’s Hartware MedienKunstVerein in an exhibition that is both aesthetically and ideologically immersive. The multimedia show looks at speculative visions of the future and current developments in the field of digital technology by artists and inventors from Africa and the African diaspora through an international group show and programme series. The exposition focuses on the exploration of science-fiction narratives and concepts of technology that function according to their own rules rather than following dominant western narratives.
The project was thrust into motion after Inke Arns‘ research trip to various African countries in 2014, a journey which drew the curator’s attention to the rapid development of technological devices, apps and software solutions that have made great strides in the continent’s digitisation. Many of Arns’ encounters included visits with activist-inventors who address infrastructural problems by educating and activating a community of tech-savvy users. Several of the projects function according to principles of general accessibility and open sourcing, which allow changes in design, repurposing and continuing development. They thus represent an alternative to the dominant technological monocultures and open the arena of technological development to startup professionals and creatives.
The exhibition at HMKV exemplifies this, meaning the presented artworks and inventions appear as proofs of an already initiated technological development that could lead to a future not limited to the narrative of modernity and progress of the West – a future that is already shown in excerpts by the artistic works in the exhibition. Videos, installations, photography, drawings, records, software, sculptures and comics are considered equally-advantageous media to communicate their nonfictional and Afrofuturist aims.
‘Afrofuturism’, a term that is thrown about in art history and theory, is the reimagining of a future filled with arts, science and technology set against the African-American community’s historical experience of racism and discrimination. The term was conceived a quarter-century ago by author Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future” (1994), which looks at speculative fiction within the African diaspora. He asks (PDF Download):
Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures? Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers ― white to a man ― who have engineered our collective fantasies?
What makes Afrofuturism significantly different from standard science fiction is that it is steeped in ancient African traditions and black identity. A storyline that simply features a black character in a futuristic world is not enough. To be Afrofuturist, it must be rooted in and unapologetically celebrate the uniqueness and innovation of black culture.
Between digital inventions and references to pop culture, “Afro-tech” unfolds a science-fiction story, a story about the future, which very often involves technologies yet to come alongside technologies that are already here. The ‘Afro’ part of Afro-tech essentially grounds the entire enterprise in a particular, one could say, mythical – or fictional – place of Africa. The exhibition as a whole and its propogation of Afrofuturism is a quest both to return home and for a new diasporic future in space. In “Afrofuturism, Fiction and Technology”, the artist Harold Offeh writes:
The “Afro” in Afrofuturism figures very differently in the imagination of those outside the continent than, let us say, of contemporary Nigerians, for example… What is interesting is how Rastafarian beliefs that emerged from a New World or diasporic African experience were able to imagine a future Africa. This mythical future was then projected back onto Africa… to give Africa itself its future in one sense.
Offeh suggests that myth and imagination allow individuals to feel and see and know themselves as different people. This, the curators might claim, is the quest of the Afrofuturist exhibition: “Afro-tech’s” embodiment of the future provides a space for a re-imagining or re-invention of the self.
Curators of the HMKV have thus found it imperative to collaborate with practitioners from all realms of creative production. Frances Bodomo‘s video Afronauts is played next to Christina De Middel’s photographic series of the same name. Sherif Adel‘s extraterrestrial comic strips are supplemented by The Otolith Group‘s film essay Hydra Decapita. Kenya’s first science-fiction short film by Wanuri Kahiu plays near Tabita Rezaire’s 2017 video about electronic colonialism. The exhibition’s cross-disciplinary approach allows works that traverse time and space to work towards the same goals through radically different means. After all, time, for Afrofuturists, is a cyclical process, propelled by critique and ethnography and by undermining obsolete stereotypes.
In addition to the obvious contributions of Sun Ra, Soda_Jerk and the Detroit techno duo Drexciya, numerous artists and musicians who have been exploring Afrofuturistic concepts since the mid-20th century are present at HMKV. It is the striking conglomeration of past, present and future-oriented artworks that turns “Afro-tech” into more than an exposition; it turns the gallery space into more than a cultural meeting ground. The goals in which “Afro-tech” seeks to meet cannot be achieved through one medium alone. The stories that each artist strives to tell, similarly, cannot be minimised to any form of traditional display.
The “Afro-tech” exhibition puts Afrofuturism in dialogue with alternative technological imaginations. The speculative narratives unfolding in the artworks on display are confronted with actual inventions from “maker scenes” in different African countries. This creates a double shift in perspective: while the artworks portray decidedly African and diasporic sci-fi visions, the high-tech devices appear as evidence of a technological development that is already underway.
There are similar yet independent developments in other parts of the world revolving around diasporic future visions from the perspective of black communities and characterised by the appropriation of new production technologies. The curators of “Afro-tech” argue that this reality would be impossible to exhibit without the tangible inventions being displayed alongside the more conceptual artwork.
From Robohand, a prototype for an affordable 3-D printed prosthetic, to Uko Wapi, a startup providing digital, “checkable” addresses in lieu of physical ones, the 12 tech-projects in the exhibition provide eerily tactile answers to some of the sci-fi dreams conjured by the “Afro-tech” artists, musicians and even Afrofuturist writers like Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor or Kodwo Eshun.
The curators write in the press release:
The inventions shown in the galleries appear as evidence of a technological revolution that has already begun and could lead to a future aiming to overcome the Western narrative of modernity and progress – a future into which the artworks in the exhibition provide rarefied insights.
The artworks and technological projects are thus not only content for, but also a method of, storytelling. The “consciousness” of the artworks present and the idea of Africa as an idealised destination lends itself the kind of forward projection that Afrofuturism also expresses.
For the artists, inventors and curators, what is most important is the notion of manifestation: of ideas, images, anything that can move what is in one’s mind forward. If futurism is the process by which societal norms, language and culture are propelled into an obscure future, then Afrofuturism, particularly in the way it is dealt with in “Afro-tech”, is a willingness to drastically change one’s future, thereby changing history. The exhibition thus deals with questions of the future, identity and diaspora not only through escapism (as is common in sci-fi mediums), but also through a celebration of black innovation.
At the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and the imagination, comes a bit of mysticism. It is an ambitious vision of the future and mankind’s place in it that is continually informed by African culture and history. Without this understanding, one has a distorted view of technology itself – a warping that eviscerates humanity.
“Afro-tech and the Future of Re-invention” is on view from 21 October 2017 – 22 April 2018 at Hartware MedienKunstVerein (HMKV), Leonie-Reygers-Terrasse, 44137 Dortmund, Germany.
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