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The Unsleep

Not all night shifts are worked by robots. In The Unsleep, Danilo Correale presents a tale at the edge of sci-fi and reality. Through a series of interviews with telecommunications workers employed in the outsourced service industries, Correale unpacks the relationship of sleep and wakefulness as modes of production and consumption, defining a new chrono-imperialistic domain.

This project then finds a theoretical underpinning in Jonathan Crary's 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, which explores the ways in which the marketplace operates through every hour of the clock. This non-stop activity has a damaging impact on forms of social and political expression, and Crary argues that, within this framework, sleep has become a form of resistance to capitalism.

The Dark Days 

While some parts of the planet are affected by the constant presence of light, in others life evolves in its absence, around recurrent power outages and blackouts. The Dark Days by Saidiya Hartman presents darkness as an unevenly distributed and designed condition. Hartman recalls her experiences in Accra, Ghana, in the midst of an energy crisis and rationing policies. The city, or at least whole areas of it, lived without electricity for half the week, and access to light was dependent on inhabitants owning a private generator.

While more privileged areas were illuminated, entire neighbourhoods remained immersed in a heavy darkness, one that is rarely seen in today’s cities.

For Hartman, that time in Accra navigating the unpowered city served to question darkness, as well as the incapacity to see, as tantamount to lack of knowledge, an idea prevalent in Western philosophy. She instead points to how the ignorance of the West has been systematically projected onto Africa, which is often labelled as “the heart of darkness, the dark continent, the blighted territory.”

Blackness, at the Limits of Nothingness

What if instead of a void or absence, darkness is, borrowing from Denise Ferreira da Silva, conceived as a type of dark matter with generative and self-actualisation potential? A “first act of creation” in a continual process of creating one’s own reality. That is the proposal of Darkness, as a First Act of Creation by scholar Ramon Amaro.

Rather than understanding darkness as a lack of illumination or absence of light, Amaro talks about an after-image – an image that continues to appear in one’s vision after the original stimulus has taken place.

While most after-images are generally treated as optical illusions, he argues, they point to the possibility that what we see in the present differs from actual reality. “They are fragments of the past brought forward into our present vision as deceptions and misrepresentations of the real,” Amaro writes. By questioning genetic memory, he in fact problematises the Black body as a technology.

Provocations on Shadow Play

Poet Momtaza Mehri mirrors this notion, writing about darkness as an errant component: “One of the many, varied archipelagos native to what we describe and ascribe as Blackness”. Referring also to Ferreira da Silva, Mehri observes the immaterial, the ephemeral, and the foundational through “Blacklight” or a “Blackened gaze”– a gaze in synchronicity with the modalities of Black expression, political subjectivity, and daily self-determination. Darkness, Mehri claims, overwhelms the capacity for representation, yet in a world where darkness is so often criminalised, visibility does not guarantee a shift in power relations.

Actually, being illegible or opaque remains transgressive and opens up avenues for freedom.

To be in the dark is not necessarily to be invisible or forgotten – it is to operate on a different frequency.

The Overview Effect

Whether addressing light pollution, forms of exploitative labour, or systemic violence and discrimination at the core of late-capitalist society, these positions invite discussion on the symbolic currency of darkness within racial, socio-political and environmental consciousness. The shaping of the latter has generally been situated in the late 1960s and 70s, as a result of the release of images of Earth from outer space to the general public.

At Christmas 1968, halfway between the moon and the Earth, the Apollo 8 astronauts sent a message upon seeing our planet. Their enthusiasm for the beauty of what they were contemplating was quickly followed by verses on the act of creation according to Christian thought. God, the Apollo 8 crew reassured their audience, created heaven and earth. “Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep,” they explained. “God then brought light, and seeing that it was good, divided the light from the darkness.”

The “overview effect”, as it is called, is prompted by a vision of Earth from outer space – a “blue marble” surrounded by darkness.

This experience reportedly impacts astronauts’ behaviour and views on life, prompting a cognitive shift. These experiences predominantly revolve around our ability to connect with the broader system of the universe.

Environmental consciousness, instead of religious fervour, was what the vision of Earth triggered in former astronaut Wubbo Ockels. The words he shared at the end of his life, which continue to resonate today, are a plea to love and conserve the Earth: “In space you see that you’re the only one. The only planet... We, we people,” Ockels lamented, "coming from the same molecules out of one bloody strong star which burst it out... Life, life is made by we. We humanity are so strong that we can save the Earth. But we also can destroy it.”

The Enigma of Vast Multiplicity

1968 was also the year when architect Aldo van Eyck designed The Enigma of Vast Multiplicity. Conceived as the Dutch entry to the Triennale di Milano, the exhibition by Van Eyck provided a disturbing view of the collapse of Western welfare societies. Visitors had to cross through a forest of tree trunks and enter into a space dressed in broken mirrors. Laughter came out of speakers.

Huge photographs depicted Western civilisation as, unlike most traditional cultures, unable to solve the problem of the large number.

“Mourn also for all butterflies,” announced a wall text. In the last space, an installation brought a message of hope – a vast multiplicity does not necessarily lead to catastrophe. A message, nevertheless, that didn’t reach the visitors. In the midst of the students protests of 1968 that led to the occupation of the Triennale, Van Eyck’s work never opened to the public. 

Mobilis in Mobile: How Can We Act in the Anthropocene?

Educated with concepts such as  “the balance of nature” and the plea that humanity has to take a few steps back to restore it, Dirk Sijmons also reflects on the impact of human action on the planet. Sijmons takes a critical approach to the discussions around the climate crisis and environmental degradation. “Now we know”, he explains, “that we will never return to that calm and stable Holocene”. His essay unpacks the different philosophical, ideological, and political positions or attitudes around the Anthropocene. It is the time for pluralism and persistent debate, Sijmons argues – the time for simple, univocal solutions is over, and going forward will be a muddling-through.

Critical and imaginative adaptation to the unexpected, the yet unseen, will guide a way forward.

In Sijmons’ work, as well as in others in this publication, design is positioned as a destructive as well as restorative endeavour – a critical practice that denaturalises conventional ways of inhabiting and experiencing the world. After all, current modes of seeing and understanding the environment are designed, and could therefore be redesigned.

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Launch

An audiocast to support the launch was released on 21 December 2020. With contributions by artist/researcher Danilo Correale, poet Momtaza Mehri, The Academy for Urban Astronauts, composer Zeger de Vos, and researcher Setareh Noorani reading an essay by Saidiya Hartman.

Team

Editors: Marina Otero Verzier, director of Research at Het Nieuwe Instituut, and Francien van Westrenen, head of Agency at Het Nieuwe Instituut; Text editing and translations: Jack Eden and Gert Staal; Design: Rudy Guedj.

Contributors: The Academy for Urban Astronauts, Ramon Amaro, Danilo Correale, Jonathan Crary, Aldo van Eyck, Ludo Groen, Bregtje van der Haak, Saidiya Hartman, Marten Kuipers, Lucy McRae, Momtaza Mehri, Melvin Moti, Johannes Schwartz, Dirk Sijmons, and Leanne Wijnsma.

Publisher: Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

I See That I See What You Don’t See is available via Idea Books from 24 December 2020. 

This publication is generously supported by The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.

Guus Beumer, artistic and general director, Het Nieuwe Instituut
Angela Rui, Marina Otero Verzier, Francien van Westrenen
Rudy Guedj
Olivier Goethals