Riots: Slow Cancellation of the Future, ifa-Galerie, Berlin, January 26 – April 2, 2018
In March 2018, with scorching temperatures of the Indian summer peaking, tens of thousands of farmers descended on Mumbai. Despite walking for six days, they waited to enter the city at midnight on their way to the state legislature building, so as not to disrupt traffic. It was an unusual scene: red flags with hammer and sickle, red caps and bloodied bare feet pressed a panorama of revolutionary icons into the empty nocturnal roads of one of the most densely populated urban sprawls in the world. The rally was led by the All India Kisan Sabha, which is the farmers’ front of the Communist Party of India, demanding more governmental support for the largest workforce sector in India.
When day broke, the clenched fists loosened up a bit and the government moved on to exploit this vulnerability. Before the farmers could enact the final rounds of proclamations, it was announced that the government would meet all their demands. The march ended prematurely at the Azad Maidan, a large, open stadium where farmers sat exhausted in the sun listening to politicians express solidarity. Afterwards, the rally was absorbed by the city, scattering participants between residential buildings, roads and train stations. When news coverage of the rally appeared, the commentaries concentrated on the self-disciplined movement of protesters through Mumbai, which gathered sympathies among the residents and authorities alike. The focus of such accounts was not that such a large protest happened, but rather that nothing violent happened. The tactic of dismantling the “Kisan Long March” before it could do harm galvanized broad acceptance for both the farmers’ and the politicians’ agitations. Everybody could go back to work on Monday.
How should we understand the implications of this peculiar event/non-event, in which a riot that didn’t happen became a powerful image of political consensus? Usually riots are thought to bear a close or even intrinsic relation to dissent. On both the left and the right, riots are often viewed as the climax of occupations, strikes, blockades, rallies, or any other form of mass civil disobedience; riots aren’t supposed to strike deals. As a concrete manifestation of the suppressed rage of underrepresented communities, they disrupt the function of neoliberal governmentality, in which compliant citizens are molded through policing, surveillance, and taxation policies. To appropriately grasp the operational modes and the political traction of riots, one thus has to acknowledge representational crises within civil society. Presently, it is above all the crises of electoral representation with newly rising right-wing governments exerting power through the exacerbation of ethnic, racial, economic, and ecological conflicts.
As the affect theorist Laurent Berlant has asked, “When is public withdrawal a gesture seeking to sustain attachment and attain repair, and what does that have to do with trying to incite conscience in others, forcing them to experience affectively the political condition of being out of control in the middle of managing the world?”(Laurent Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011), p. 231.) Berlant’s endeavor here is directed toward rewiring contemporary considerations of silent protest. Silent protest, she argues, is a form of detachment from a sphere of politics that is so corrupted that it cannot listen at all. Following this argument, can we grasp the polyvalent logic of riots today by seeking out such points of detachment from the operational cycles of the corrupted political sphere? How could we understand or imagine what such an aesthetic reordering might look like? What could be the potentials of an affective, aesthetical-political approach to mass incidents? What sort of sensorium might correspond to this reimagination of riots?
The exhibition Riots: Slow Cancellation of the Future formed a rare and exemplary attempt to respond to the complexity of riots by taking such questions seriously. Curated by Natasha Ginwala and Krisztina Hunya, and accompanied by lectures and talks organized in collaborative effort with Gal Kirn and Niloufar Tajeri, it gathered together artworks, research positions, and performances concerned with an aesthetic reassessment of riots. Eschewing classification, the exhibition invited visitors to experience riots on numerous levels, ranging from the micropolitics of aesthetics to the level of the mass or crowd, conceiving of these in a world that has severed the idea of (an all-inclusive) society. Such collectivities, long associated with the social theory of modernity, are reintroduced as a multitude in the sense of an emergent civil body that “assembles to demand rights, dignity, and representation.”(Dilip Gaonkar, “Demos Noir: Coveting Crowds and Fearing Riots,” a lecture presented at the public program Riots: Dissent and Spectres, Control and Ruptures held in conjunction with the exhibition, Acud, Berlin, January 26, 2018.) The different kinds of uprisings cited by the exhibition were effectively interconnected into a kind of hybrid sensorium, a trans-subjective sensory apparatus consisting of sound installations, of visual images operating at different scales, of intimate accounts of loss and of imagined fetishes that guided the visitor through an experiential shift. In one of the exhibition’s strongest claims, the curators explained this shift as “evoking a phenomenology of the multitude.”(See the introduction to Riots: Slow cancellation of the future at: http://untietotie.org/#exhibition/chapter4.)
At the entrance to the gallery space, two works by Dilip Gaonkar and Jitish Kallat formed a passage that introduced the visitor to this shift. Gaonkar’s untitled video collage gathered material from feature films, newsreels, and documentaries to represent a cycle of confrontation between people, police, and power from around the world. In one of the first sequences of the collage a double leg-amputee participating in an unidentified protest resists advancing riot police solely with the tension of his disabled body. By dropping the perspective to the ground level, the footage renders weak resistance as a powerful obstruction – a living blockade – able to use physical disability to disable the march of the police. For a moment the relations between power and vulnerability are set out of order, suggesting that stillness, like silence, can disorient force.
When approaching Anger at the Speed of Freight (2010), an installation by the Mumbai-based Kallat, the viewer found herself confronted with a miniature mob scattered over the gallery floor. An entanglement of wrath and weakness seemed to be driving the commotion in front of her feet, superimposing an aerial perspective and a pedestrian perspective. Although in observing the installation the viewer remained standing straight, her gaze helicoptered above the scene, assuming the vantage point of the police. The commotion on the ground seemed to be a mass crime situation, with aggressors and victims indecipherable in an outburst of violence. Squatting down next to the installation bestowed the viewer with an inverse insight guided by the pedestrian perspective of the mob.
On the other hand, the installation could just as well have depicted a train station, a road intersection, or an open space in Mumbai during a political rally. Streets congested with (more or less aggressive) crowds constitute the megacities of today, of which Mumbai is typical, with its directionless sprawl filled with improvised existence of the displaced and dispossessed. Being forced out into the overspilling zones of shantytowns by the government, reality becomes a reservoir for disasters unfolding daily. Reliable shelter cannot be found in such places. The only tangible strategy of survival is to claim a “space of appearance” (Hannah Arendt, 1958), of enactment and social attentiveness, however impermanent. Such a space has the potential to decompress unrealized political consciousnesses and to render visible and perceivable the corporeality of precaritized populations. In this sense, Kallat’s miniature mob might as well be pushing for free space, sweating on a construction site, or simply struggling for existence.
The artist and curator Ala Younis’ research-based installation Pat-riot-against the slow cancellation of the future (2018) established a conceptual space between the works by Gaonkar and Kallat. It departs from two archival references: filmic material of bread riots in Egypt in 1977, and radio reports in Jordan following the arrival of Gulf War refugees from Iraq in 1990. Here, pocket stereoscopes–a device for viewing separate stereoscopic images– were mounted over seemingly random images of multitudes on the move, creating an illusion of profundity through detailed differentiation of those depicted. One double film still captures a woman marching resolutely during the bread riots, raising the concern of confusing a nonviolent rally with mass violence. A glance through the stereoscope finds tension behind the banner the woman is clutching tightly as the rally collapses into turmoil. The granularity of this detail makes it hard to determine whether the men in the background are melting into an unruly mob or if a riot is being roused through provocation, agitprop, and police violence.
In her meticulous employment of a technology that tricks the audience to automatically fill gaps in an incomplete image, Younis motivates further cross-examination of how riots are mediated today. Technical images like aerial shots, drone images, mobile camera pics, and surveillance videos extend into a vast, volatile territory of synthetic visuality that is utilized to police behavior. The questions that Younis’s work raises go beyond the observation that these technical images incorporate what artist Hito Steyerl terms “informational spam.” Rather, they subtly remind us that policies differentiating information from spam are already in place when we look at images. What a given media technology displays is not determined by its viewer or even by its user, but rather by the algorithms governing its function. Ultimately, works like Younis’s suggest that critical media literacy requires the capacity to counteract this overload of visual data.
One of the exhibition’s most striking strategies of aesthetic disobedience was found in a group of four works by the Berlin-based artist Satch Hoyt: the sculptural works Bula Matari (2013) and Riot (2014), and the sound pieces Sonic Transmission (2015) and Portcullis (2009). The name Bula Matari, for which this first work is titled, refers to the Congolese nickname “stonebreaker” acquired by the gruesome Welsh colonist Henry Morton Stanley; in this eponymous piece, a bullwhip and two police batons were arranged to form a glossy black cross on the wall. Together they linked colonial tyranny in Central Africa with the often-racialized violence of riot police reaching from the Victorian era until today, while also activating the cross as the symbol of an unsolicited religious “redemption” that was imposed through deception and violation. In the other sculptural work, chunks of Swarowski crystals were used to spell “Riot” on a firehose box, formally tagging it. The ironic subversion of a tool of oppression hints at an appropriative declaration of ownership: riots may be brought under control, but never bought. By introducing irony, such pieces allowed visitors a degree of imaginative freedom while nonetheless maintaining their grip on the ethical complexity of the issues addressed.
A similar decompression was found in certain presentations connected to the exhibition, especially in the very personal recollections of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles by the artist Vaginal Davis. Her talk, “No One Leaves Delilah - A (W)rap on Riots,” delved into the details of this event from the most vulnerable and unfiltered perspective, that of a minor –– Davis was a child when the riots occurred –– framing the riots as both extremely threatening and yet somehow captivating through its enabling a new communal presence in the streets.(For more information related to her talk see https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2109&v=BztgEUa5Y74.) Such an empathic view effectively countered the ways that protesters are typically criminalized, a tactic the philosopher Dariouche Kechavarzi-Tehrani has linked to a “strongly racist discourse on crowds and a colonial management of lives and spaces.”(Dariouche Kechavarzi-Tehrani, “Twelve Years After the 2005 Revolts in French Banlieues: Decolonial Reflections on the Concept of Riots,” a lecture presented at Riots: Dissent and Spectres, Control and Ruptures, Acud, Berlin, January 27, 2018.)
This line of analysis formed one of the exhibition’s most generative contributions to a critical reassessment of the cultural politics of riots –– a topic that is all too pertinent in the current moment, given the ongoing crisis of liberal democracies and the ascendance of far-right and fascist forces, together with the threat these forces pose to any kind of dissensual civil body. In a media ecology increasingly dominated by toxic populism, public awareness is occupied with scenarios of rioting collectives while sites of potential protest are brought under control of special police units and private security companies.(During the Gilets jaunes protests in Paris in November 2018, the French police employed its special forces “Brigade anti-criminalité” (BAC). The BAC wears civil clothes, mostly black, and mix themselves among the protesters mostly causing dispersion and terror.) What renders the riotization of communities – as we might call the phenomenon of systematic criminalization of protesters – exceptional in our contemporary political condition is that the mechanism for regulating activism ended up not just being over-policed, but militarized and eventually privatized. So in the aftermath of turning a social crisis in the banlieues into a “thugocracy,” of establishing “violence on many sides” in order to moderate right-wing extremism, and of inventing a “Black Bloc” to radicalize leftist organizations, governments are able to combine the interests of securitization and privatization. To adjust to this process of living “the political depression produced by brutal relations of ownership, control, security, and their fantasmatic justifications in liberal political economies” entails what Gaonkar promises we are already experiencing in India – a “raising of riots to an artform.” Adding up to this, the exhibition argued persuasively for what can be called a collective effort to form a non-sovereign monument for a shared experience of multitudes.