Mutable Matter

Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the Project Updates category.

Super-natural futures: One possible dialogue between Afrofuturism and the Anthropocene

Image: Ellen Gallagher, ‘Abu Simbel’

Two types of invitations seem to be floating into my inbox with increasing frequency, for talks and exhibitions on the Anthropocene and Afrofuturism respectively. The latter was the subject of Union Black/The British Library’s Space Children, Kosmica’s ‘Astroculture’ event at the Arts Catalyst, Tate Modern’s Afrofuturism’s Others and the Photographers Gallery’s Afronauts by Cristina de Middel. Afrofuturism even cropped up at UCL’s interdisciplinary Cosmologies symposium as an example of a ‘dissident cosmology’. As discussed in a previous post, much Anthropocene themed art uses geology as a starting point to re-think the human as a geologic agent. Afrofuturism, by contrast, (re)imagines African (especially African diaspora) pasts and futures through flamboyant scifi and spiritual aesthetics. Canonical examples include the music Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, Nona Hendryx and Drexciya, the writing of Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson and Samuel Delaney, and the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rammellzee and Renée Cox.

Despite their apparently different aesthetics and citational practices, there seems to be a dialogue between the two genres that goes beyond mere navigation between far pasts and futures. Looking at the common reference of the cosmic and its role as both origin and culturally marked space, the first part of the dialogue could be summed up as: who (or what) makes the future? Is it geologic or cosmic forces? Is it humans? And, if it is humans, what sorts of humans? Poor, rich, Black, White, male, female, straight, gay? Scientists or politicians? None of these assumed polarities? Here, Afrofuturism does not provide an answer, but possibilities. First of all, it confronts us with our expectations of ‘race’. As Lisa Yaszek writes:

‘[f]rom the ongoing war on terror to Hurricane Katrina, it seems that we are trapped in an historical moment when we can think about the future only in terms of disaster — and that disaster is almost always associated with the racial other.’

Or, in Anthropocene terms: rich White people cause disaster, poor Black people are its victims. While people in the ‘global North’ indeed have a disproportional share in furthering climate change, such framings have led to warnings about a potential resurgence of ‘old… tropes of racial capability’, as issued, for instance, by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Nigel Clark. Rather than trying to silence the debate, they call for an exploration of ‘the ‘primitivism’ inscribed in our bodies, psyches and cultures’. It is such inscriptions of primitivism that Afrofuturism plays with, not only regarding African cultures, but all cultures. The play with Egyptian origins and aesthetics by Sun Ra and Ellen Gallagher exemplifies the historical struggle over cultural legacies and the construction of ‘high culture’ and primitivism.

Image: Still from Sun Ra’s ‘Space is the Place’ film

Although often humorous in nature, the Egyptian imagery points to questions about whom this construction continues to serve and about how it can be rewritten. The origin of Afrofuturism in the ‘global North’ further contributes to the cultural challenge. As South African digital artist Tegan Bristow phrases it: ‘[u]nlike what it suggests, Afrofuturism has nothing to do with Africa, and everything to do with cyberculture in the West’. Seen from this angle, the origin as well as the necessity of the term ‘Afrofuturism’ underscore the fact that the ‘African’ and African diaspora have routinely been excluded from ‘modern’ and techno-futurist visions and set apart from the ‘mainstream’ (there is an excellent talk by Madhu Dubey on this topic here). Here I am reminded of Octavia Butler’s response (around 7 minutes in) to a White science fiction author who argued that there is no necessity for Black people to appear in their novels, because statements about the Other can be made through aliens. In an inversion of stereotypes, some Afrofuturist commentators highlight the ‘primitivism’ of a science that seeks to classify the ‘primitive’, pointing to mainstream science’s contribution to racism and genocide at various moments in history (examples can be found in Alondra Nelson’s book Body and Soul and in this catalogue on Ellen Gallagher).

Dipesh Chakrabarty on ‘History on an expanded canvas: The Anthropocene’s invitation’ at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.

Similarly, the Anthropocene discourse practices inversion as a strategy to unsettle visions of modernity and to search for new models of human agency. Although scientists have not been able to agree on a potential beginning for the proposed new era, the industrial revolution and its heavy reliance on fossil fuel consumption remains a strong contender. When it comes to our (primitive?) dependency on these energy sources, scientists and social scientists have started to re-examine preconceived notions of cause and effect: are fossil fuels shaping human society and not the other way round? (Yusoff, Moore, Roddier) What kind of agency do humans have to affect social and environmental change? Are new strategies in order? Again, such debates, draw on arguments about our current interpretation of ‘modernity’: what kind of ‘rationality’ should modernity (and ‘modern science’) follow? Do ‘subaltern modernities’ reflect a more accurate vision of modernity? Can humans see themselves as a ‘species’?

AFROGALACTICA: A short history of the future from Kapwani Kiwanga on Vimeo.

Turning back to Afrofuturism, sociologist and writer Alondra Nelson suggests that it represents more than a critique of modernity – it is about ‘aspirations for modernity’. Rather than dwelling on the negative, it ‘enables thought about a lineage of work that propels future other work’ that co-shapes the future. It is occupied with the ‘living future’ (to use Barbara Adam & Chris Groves’s term), the potential for different futures inherent in the present. One trajectory that Afrofuturism pursues is a reshuffling of difference. According to Nelson, popular interest in genetics and the potential discovery of links to previously unknown, geographically distributed ancestors, is, despite its focus on physical difference, already unsettling and reshaping identities, both at the micro and macrolevel (audio here).

Ellen Gallagher, ‘IGBT’

In this context, an important question was asked at the Tate Modern, in conjunction with artist Ellen Gallagher’s AxMe exhibition: who can be an Afrofuturist? Entitled, ‘Afrofuturism’s Others’, the organisers, panellists and audience explored whether Afrofuturists could be anything other than African American. In discussing the work of Kara Walker, Lili Reynaud Dewar, Larissa Sansour, Mehreen Murtaza, Jean Genet, Ellen Gallagher and others, the case was made that Afrofuturism contemplates an absence of racial and geographical boundaries. In particular, the speakers considered the problematic, but also potentially productive relation between racialization, as turning certain humans into part of the ‘productive landscape’, and ‘species being’, which is also a materialisation, but one that can go either way in terms of dealing with difference (the work of Sylvia Wynter was mentioned). The works discussed included examples of deliberate and accidental solidarities: art and music that referenced ‘Afrofuturists’ or became interpreted as ‘Afrofuturist’ on the basis of aesthetic (mis)interpretation (curator and co-organiser Zoe Whitley described a humorous encounter where she misread a painted black figure as signifying ‘Black’).

Image: Mehreen Murtaza, ‘Divine Invasion’

Here, a second trajectory seems to emerge that asks not only ‘what is ‘afro’, but ‘what could the ‘afro’ be and do?’ This takes us to the ‘Africa is (not) a country’ awareness campaign (example blog here). As many African Americans point out, the slavery system often deprived them of more detailed knowledge about their ancestry other than ‘African’. At the same time, the ‘African’ has acquired meaning for the community and is increasingly also tied to particular political imaginations. During my visit to Detroit, I found that African American activists were talking about promoting an ‘African model’ of community and of reshaped institutions against the ‘White corporate’ model. At a film screening of Branwen Okpako’s ‘The Education of Auma Obama’ at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, African visions of trajectories for modernity again came up, prompted by Auma Obama’s discussion (in the film) with Kenyan students about the kind of lifestyles they are hoping to pursue. Obama asked her students to consider what premise notions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ are based on. Development of/towards what? Industrial farming, increased levels of consumption, loss of community? Why could certain ‘African’ models of living not hold the key to human development? Seen through the lens of Afrofuturism, one could say that if the ‘afro’ can be shaped into something coherent, this move does not necessarily imply a wish to do away with nuances and differences. Instead, it could be read as a productively employed and reframed cliché that critiques a privileged socio-economic model. Its future trajectory could indeed transcend its current context. The question here might be phrased as: can established categories be rejected by getting contemporary ‘non-Others’ to adopt the model that is normally deemed ‘other’?

Image: from Cristina de Middel, ‘Afronauts’

The corresponding Anthropocene question might be put as ‘what could the ‘geo’’ be and do? The logic seems to be that if the human can be a geologic force, how else is human life geophysical – and how could this perspective lead to a more constructive reframing of politics and the social? Especially since, thanks to climate change, the stability of the ‘meteorological White middle class’ (as a recent German TV satire described Europe) might become seriously unsettled… So far, quite a few proposals have tried to put human politics into perspective: we might do all these politics for economic power – but at the end of the day, when oil is used up, the water is polluted and the temperature is up, our role as a geologic force might be unsatisfactorily short. Shouldn’t humans work more in cooperation in the face of geophysical processes that will carry on without consideration of human needs? It is interesting to note that some of the most interesting proposals have again been excluded from the ‘mainstream’ and have been consigned to the area of ‘post-colonial ecologies’. I am thinking here especially of French-Caribbean discussions of geopoetics (Maximin, Glissant, Condé etc). Conversely, scholars from post-colonial studies, such as DeLoughrey and Handley, have criticised that ‘Westerners’ are in search of ‘Other’ models to bring a much needed conceptual injection. This debate raises questions about the conditions under which dialogue should take place.

Ellen Gallagher, Detail from ‘Afrylic’

For me, visiting Ellen Gallagher’s exhibition at the Tate Modern (on view until 1 September 2013) synthesized the dialogue between Anthropocene and Afrofuturism even more intensely (enter the ‘Afrocene’?). Walking through the different rooms, I was struck by what I experienced as a ‘hypermaterialisation’ of layers and layers of material and meaning. Many art critics have commented on her relationship with the material, for example, Gallagher’s wish to ‘maintain the ‘vulnerability’ of her materials and their forms’ (Shiff), her use of African American wigs as a conduit to the supernatural (de Zegher), but few manage to capture the intensity of an entire retrospective. Robin Kelly comes the closest: he describes his encounter with Ellen Gallagher’s work as ‘confounding’.

‘To confound is not simply to confuse, but to surprise or perplex by challenging received wisdom. It also means to mix up or fail to discern differences between things.’

I don’t think any term could be more accurate. To me, Gallagher’s shifts between meanings of medicine and wig adverts, ‘high’ and ‘low’ art/culture references, ‘nature’ (I especially loved the title ‘Double Natural’) and ‘blackness’, marine creatures, minstrel imagery, ambiguous organic shapes and political pamphlets rendered tangible the multiple ways in which people are being materialised and enlisted as part of social and economic production: overworked and stuck in a job you cannot get out of? Pop a pill. More ‘organic’ than society’s ideal? Neighbours throwing bombs into your house? Buy a wig. Keep calm and carry on. The sheer ridiculousness of the enterprise as well as our complicity in it becomes apparent. Does Gallagher suggest any way out? It seemed to me that she was perhaps implying that the path towards more productive forms of materialisation may lie not only in realising the ridiculousness, but to start from it. Geology and politics? Ridiculous! Africans in space? Ridiculous! A more equal global society? Ridiculous! Or is it?

CFP: Seminar on Caribbean Literature & Space

Image source: Race in the Americas

The announcement below was posted by Patricia Noxolo on the Critical Geography Forum and looks very exciting. My forthcoming article ‘We are the world? Between geopoetics and geopolitics’ discusses some proposals for rethinking human-world relationships from French-Caribbean theory and literature (in comparison with Simone Weil). Having come across authors such as Daniel Maximin, Édouard Glissant, Maryse Condé, and Suzanne and Aimé Césaire quite recently, I was struck by how their work had not been taken up in geography more widely, especially in the discourse around materiality. It is great to see that the seminar is setting out to discuss the spaces and spatial flows of Caribbean literature as well as their conceptual offerings.
Dr Patricia Noxolo, on behalf of the Race in the Americas (RITA) group, seeks papers from postgraduate students and established academics on the theme of Caribbean literature and space.
The seminar will be held on Friday 8th November, in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield, and attendance will be free of charge.
Submissions on any aspect of the spatialities of Caribbean literature are welcome. These might include:
* The spaces within Caribbean literature (how authors and works describe and theorise space and spatiality, e.g. mythological or fantasy spaces, global space, regional, national, rural or urban spaces, communal spaces, the home or the body as a space);
* The spatial flows of Caribbean literature (how Caribbean literature has been published, distributed and read in different places or along different global routes);
* The ‘spaces’ occupied by Caribbean literature (positions taken by Caribbean literature in different disciplines, and the role it has played in global and local reading cultures)
 DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS:  Monday 16th September 2013.  Please send all submissions to
Please note that a limited number of postgraduate travel bursaries will be available to support participation in this event, funded by the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) (  To apply, please send a CV along with your abstract, including a brief outline of your postgraduate research and current institutional affiliation, and an estimated breakdown of your travel costs.
The Race in the Americas (RITA) group is holding a series of four seminars across the UK during the academic year 2013-14 as part of the Regional Seminar Series, which is funded by the Institute for the Study of the Americas (  Full details of the seminar series are available at

400ppm commentaries at Society & Space


Over at the Society & Space blog, Kathryn Yusoff has just uploaded the forum on the 400ppm concentration. Entitled ‘Exit Holocene, Enter Anthropocene’, the forum brings together a set of eleven short commentaries on the latest atmospheric CO2 ‘milestone’. In my contribution to this forum, I grapple with the rather abstract figure of 400 parts per million in the form of a mini-review-dialogue with two ‘growth objectors’, Isabelle Stengers and François Roddier.

AAG 2013 update


Looking forward to next week’s Association of American Geographers conference in Los Angeles.
I will now be speaking in two sessions at the AAG, as I have just been added to a roundtable discussion on the Anthropocene with Nigel Clark (Lancaster), Andrea Nightingale (Edinburgh), Noel Castree (Manchester), Luke Bergman (Washington) and Keith Woodward (Wisconsin-Madison).

This year, there is also a mobile app for the conference, which can be downloaded here.

New articles in Theory, Culture & Society and Geography Compass


Two of my articles have just come out. A commissioned piece on ‘experimental geographies’ and a theoretical article, which also talks about experimentation – with the inhuman.

Angela Last, ‘Negotiating the Inhuman: Bakhtin, Materiality and the Instrumentalization of Climate Change’, Theory, Culture & Society.


The article argues that the work of literary theorist Mikhail M. Bakhtin presents a starting point for thinking about the instrumentalization of climate change. Bakhtin’s conceptualization of human–world relationships, encapsulated in the concept of ‘cosmic terror’, places a strong focus on our perception of the ‘inhuman’. Suggesting a link between the perceived alienness and instability of the world and in the exploitation of the resulting fear of change by political and religious forces, Bakhtin asserts that the latter can only be resisted if our desire for a false stability in the world is overcome. The key to this overcoming of fear, for him, lies in recognizing and confronting the worldly relations of the human body. This consciousness represents the beginning of one’s ‘deautomatization’ from following established patterns of reactions to predicted or real changes. In the vein of several theorists and artists of his time who explored similar ‘deautomatization’ strategies – examples include Shklovsky’s ‘ostranenie’, Brecht’s ‘Verfremdung’, Artaud’s emotional ‘cruelty’ and Bataille’s ‘base materialism’ – Bakhtin proposes a more playful and widely accessible experimentation to deconstruct our ‘habitual picture of the world’. Experimentation is envisioned to take place across the material and the textual to increase possibilities for action. Through engaging with Bakhtin’s ideas, this article seeks to draw attention to relations between the imagination of the world and political agency, and the need to include these relations in our own experiments with creating climate change awareness.

Angela Last, ‘Experimental Geographies’, Geography Compass.


The proliferation of the term ‘experimental’ in human geography has given rise to the question of how geographers experiment. Given the range of different examples – from explorations of sensory methods to attempts at transforming the role of publics in decision-making – it becomes clear that one cannot talk about a unified experimental geographical approach. While projects share common themes such as challenging methodological limitations or wishing to play a more active part in the ‘production of space’, they also show fundamental differences in their attitude towards knowledge-making and intervention in the world. A starting point for further research and debate, rather than a comprehensive survey, this article outlines themes, differences and productive tensions within the discourse, and highlights the need to examine the wider politics that experimental approaches are embedded in.

Mutable Matter @ AAG 2013

Image source: Michael C.C. Lin from the forthcoming book Architecture in the Anthropocene: Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, edited by Etienne Turpin (Hong Kong: MAP Office/MAP Books Publishers, 2013)

Next year, I will be participating in an AAG session entitled ‘Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating ‘Anthropos” (session abstract posted below). The session is organised by  Harlan Morehouse (University of Minnesota) and Elizabeth Johnson (University of Wisconsin). Am very much looking forward to the discussions! Here is my presentation abstract:

We are the World: Ideologies and material representations

For the majority of social theorists, human relations with materiality, the world and the cosmos have been connected to fear and alienation, and to the instrumentalisation of these sentiments to gain political influence. At any moment in history, representations of materiality have been used politically to deny aspects of human/world relations and to undermine productive responses. Current examples include the denial of anthropogenic climate change and, conversely, calls for the abolition of democracy, deemed ‘unable to deal’ with the consequences of future planetary transformations, in favour of more authoritarian structures.
The work of authors such as Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin and Simone Weil acknowledges the importance of thinking at and beyond the planetary scale to counter the instrumentalisation of alienation and the construction of ‘preferred realities’. For these authors, identification with the world and the cosmos has nothing to do with escapism or ‘materialising’ humans, but with warding oneself against being reduced to passive matter by ideologies that deny certain material relations through idealised constructions. For Weil, for instance, to identify with the universe means to cultivate a preoccupation not with tangible materialism, but with an intangible one, focused on thoughts and ‘the perpetual exchange of matter’, in which humans take part.
Bringing together past and present writing on materiality, this paper seeks to highlight the significance of representing human-world relations for constructions of political agency and to propose early and mid-twentieth century conceptualisations of ‘great reality’ as one potential pathway for thinking the human as a geological political agent.

Call for Papers: Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (Los Angeles, April 9-13, 2013)

Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating ‘Anthropos’

Organisers: Harlan Morehouse and Elizabeth Johnson.

In 2000, Crutzen and Stoermer gave name to a new geological epoch. The “Anthropocene” demarked a post-Holocene present and future in which human activity was understood to be the dominant agent of change in the global environment (2000). Understandably, such a sweeping claim has been viewed unfavorably within critical geographical and environmental scholarship, generating arguments that Crutzen and Stoermer’s concept only offers a new, albeit negative, story of human’s mastery of the earth’s processes. Nigel Clark (2011), for example, has suggested that the term neglects the presence – and force – of terrestrial processes that exist independently from human relationships. Similar criticisms have emerged from the substantial and diverse literature on more-than-human geographies, which aim to dislodge anthropocentrism by granting nonhuman actors and processes more prominent positions in everyday events as well as the meaning and experience of social, political, and historical change (cf. Latour 2004, Serres 2010, Bennett 2011, Badmington 2000, Braun and Whatmore 2010, Castree et al. 2004).

These perspectives have been instrumental in shaping critical responses to Crutzen and Stoermer’s hyperbolic claims. However, recent work in philosophy and the humanities invites an alternative reading of the “Anthropocene,” one that that is more sympathetic to these critiques and that does not elevate or reinscribe humanity as the principal agent of global environmental change, but rather situates it as one force in a field of material processes (Morton 2012). Further, such a reading would recognize unique states of affairs that signal the “collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” (Chakrabarty 2009) – a sentiment paralleling the suggestion that the Anthropocene announces a shift from the human as biological entity to that of humanity as a geological agent. In these sessions we wish to revisit the idea of the Anthropocene in order to work towards a politics capable of responding to the epistemological and ontological challenges posed by 21st century environmental uncertainty. In spite of its originary hyperbole, the idea of the Anthropocene nevertheless compels us to rethink life amongst the myriad and strange mixtures of social, natural, and socio-natural processes, and in doing so come to terms with materialities that far outstrip the relative inconsequentiality of a human experience of space and time. Or, to echo Morton, it inspires us to ‘think big, and maybe even bigger than that’ (2010). Framing questions include, but are not limited to:

• How does the introduction of global, geological humanity as a singular subject challenge, complement, and/or modify discourses of critical environmental thought?

• If we identify the ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene with something as ‘massively distributed in space and time’ (Morton 2010), what limitations do we (as individuals) experience? And what are the implications for considering issues of environmental ethics, responsibility, and politics?

• In what ways does the meaning of “human” change in the movement between biological and geological agency?

• How might critical environmental thought acknowledge the crucial role independent terrestrial processes play in the constitution and experience of material realities while acknowledging humanity’s capacity to shape the earth at multiple scales and in numerous ways?

In light of the above, the organizers of this session welcome novel socio-ecological perspectives that critically reflect on the idea of the Anthropocene, examining its impacts on 21st century environmental thought and politics. Please send inquiries / abstracts of no more than 250 words to Harlan Morehouse ( and Elizabeth Johnson ( by October 5th 2012.

Badmington, N. (2000). Posthumanism. New York, Palgrave.
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Braun, B. and S. Whatmore (2010). “The Stuff of Politics: An Introduction.” Political Matter. Minneapolis, MN: U. of Minnesota Press.
Castree, N., C. Nash, et al. (2004). “Mapping posthumanism: an exchange.” Environment and Planning A 36: 1341-1363.
Chakrabarty, D. (2009). “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35(Winter): 197-222.
Clark, N. (2011). Inhuman nature : sociable life on a dynamic planet. Los Angeles ; London, SAGE.
Crutzen, P.J. and Stoermer, E.F. (2000). “The Anthropocene.” IGBP Newsletter 41(17): 17- 18.
Latour, B. (2004). Politics of Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morton, T. (2012). “On Entering the Anthropocene.” A lecture at the Environmental Humanities Symposium, University of New South Wales, August 23, 2012. Available at
Morton, T. (2010). The ecological thought. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Serres, M. (2010). Biogea. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Press.

Geography Podcasts/Sounds Like Detroit

While uploading my Sounds Like Detroit podcast, I also created an open Soundcloud group called Geography Podcasts. This imaginatively titled group seeks to function as a resource and discussion platform, to to share and bring together geographically informed sound work, including landscape recordings, lectures, commentary, educational programmes, fiction, experimental pieces. Please share, if you know any sonically minded geographers.

The first track on there is my Sounds Like Detroit podcast for the Imaging Detroit project:

For those who are more on the visually attentive side, the film version of Sounds Like Detroit can be found here:

Sounds Like Detroit from MutableMatter on Vimeo.

(for some reason this low res version has a glitch in the end titles that the hi res version doesn’t…)

Here is the blurb from the Imaging Detroit programme:

Sounds Like Detroit operates at two levels. Playing with the visual and musical representation of Detroit, it asks: what is generic and what is unique about Detroit? Does its uniqueness perhaps lie in its ability to reflect back the commonalities people want to see? What is the ‘spirit of Detroit’ and can it be present in other places?’

For more information on the project, please visit

Counter-Experiment Detroit

‘So, what brings you to this place of Post-Fordism?’ Somewhat confusingly, I was asked this question not in Detroit, but at a Jamaican food stall in Hulme, Manchester. Having literally just returned from Detroit, this felt like an odd reprise – as did seeing the ruined entrails of the Hulme Hippodrome where my band was performing at a fundraiser for Youth Village. It seemed like an apt place to write something on a very different festival, Imaging Detroit, which was put on at Detroit’s Perrien Park by MODCaR, a ‘coalition of builders, writers, designers, photographers, teachers, filmmakers, landscapers, graphic designers and students’ founded by architects Mireille Roddier, Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges and sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning (TCAUP). Having lost my notes somewhere in the dark while fiddling with the film projector, I have to reconstruct things from memory. (I hope I do get the chance to listen back to all of the panels, although there were many irretrievable informal conversations going on in the park, between and amongst Detroiters and visitors.)

For those who have not read my earlier posts, I participated in the Imaging Detroit festival as a MODCaR fellow, contributing a short ‘illustrated podcast’ called ‘Sounds Like Detroit’. The festival aimed to draw attention to – and discuss – what could be described as a ‘representation war’ over the city. So far, the people at MODCaR have unearthed over 150 documentaries on the birthplace of Fordism, most of them produced in the last few years: by activists, artist, film-makers from inside and outside Detroit, and, more recently, by big corporations.

About fifty of those films were debated by the Imaging Detroit audience and so called ‘discourse jockeys’ (moderators/discussants) under the six most prominent film themes: Culture Now!, Productive Pastoral, Reboot, Post-America, Do-it-together and Pride. Since these representations continue to affect Detroiters in a myriad of ways, the discussions often became very agitated and emotional. Due to my inability to give a summary of the entire event, I will focus on the term that most stuck with me: experimentation – a term that is currently proliferating in academic and activist circles, an empassioned example being Doreen Massey’s recent call for experimentation at the ‘Maps for an Island Planet’ event.

Discourse jockeys Brandon Walley, Miguel Robles-Duran, Andrew Herscher, Cornelius Harris, Cezanne Charles, David Adler on the ‘Culture Now!’ panel.

Detroit has often been described as a socio-economic experiment. Its mythical chief experimenter, Henry Ford, has become associated with the proliferation of a new mass production system, technological innovation, intrusive worker control (through the company’s own ‘Sociological Department’), encouragement of working class property ownership and the staging of Ford’s own version of industrial history in the Greenfield model village. Detroit’s infrastructure, characterised by isolated neighbourhoods (dis)connected by freeways, counts as a combined experiment in car culture promotion and racial segregation.

At Imaging Detroit, experimentation featured strongly as a theme in both panels and films. While some people saw themselves as victims of capitalist/corporate/white American experimentation, others asserted the role of the experimenter. Those that regarded themselves as experimented on often voiced hope for an influx of either large or small businesses in order to normalise the city. The experimenters, on the other hand, made clear that Detroiters were not powerless guinea pigs, but in fact leading the way in matters such as civil rights, workers rights and alternative imaginaries against corporate America. Obviously, no neat separation between experimenters and experimented could be traced, as people frequently felt part of both positions: as victims of a ‘shock doctrine’ approach to public services (to use the words of activist Shea Howell who, I think also suggested that ‘those people who keep arguing for less government involvement in their lives should all move to Detroit!’*), and as people who are honing tactics against and beyond it.  –* a reader has pointed out that the ‘less government involvement’ comment was not made by Shea Howell, but by Margi Dewar. Apologies!

So why Detroit? Coming across to me from the different and differing voices during the festival was a sense that it is exactly this history of inequality and aggressive advertisement of individualist consumer culture that serves as a provocation to try something else. Audrey Hunter, an interviewee in the film ‘Détroit, un rêve en ruine’, gave an example of the inspiration that many black activists in the city draw on: the tension between the concepts they associate with ‘African’ and ‘American’. For experimenters such as her, the African symbolises the ‘we/us/our whereas the American signifies ‘I/me/mine’:

‘As long as you keep functioning as an individual, we can’t even take advantage of the blight to take control of our community, to build what it is that we won’t build.’

This image was occasionally evoked against the perceived media stereotype of Detroit as being ‘full of enterprising young white people and… then there are these ‘soulful’ black people’ (discourse jockey Cornelius Harris). The question of control, or rather the struggle over control of representations of the city, was crucial to many debates.

This struggle, to me, was particularly made present through the series Detroit: Overdrive: loud, fast and ultra-high definition (the biggest file size in the whole programme), this adrenaline-inducing documentary comes as slick and corporate as it gets. Sponsored by General Motors and aired by the Discovery Channel’s ironically titled Planet Green, this documentary is clearly produced as a counter-narrative to both economic blight and alternative economics. It is interesting that, while many ‘blight’ stories seem intended mostly as cautionary fables for audiences outside of the city, Detroit: Overdrive sought to inspire both inside and outside. Advertised in downtown Detroit on huge billboards, the posters claimed: ‘This is your story – we are just telling it!’ And what is the story? Detroit as the continued seat of All-American commerce and innovation, now turning out products such as Kid Rock’s ‘Badass’ beer and Motor City themed designer jeans.

Image: Sven Gustafson, A Healthier Michigan

This strategy, to quote ‘discourse jockey’ and photographer Noah Stephens, can be summarised as: ‘Gentrify the popular imagination of Detroit.’ This may raise alarm bells with people in cities such as London where gentrification has very negative associations with misguided development, rarely benefitting those it claims to support, e.g. Docklands-like social segregation or higher rents forcing out the original population, something which, according to local film-maker Oren Goldenberg, is already happening in some parts of Detroit. In the case of Detroit: Overdrive, and documentaries in this vein, it felt as if the over-the-top, big budget representation of innovation as a driver of prosperity had been wheeled out as a piece of heavy artillery against the ramshackle army of comparatively lo-fi images of ridicule, doom and utopian visions (although, it has to be said, some low budget ‘gentrification’ attempts also exist). Like the media wars during the American presidential elections, the struggle for the supremacy of visions appears to be in full swing: whose vision will take hold of the popular imagination? Will alternative experiments stand a chance against the corporate PR machine? And what do these experiments consist of?

The latter question seems to be the most difficult, as it became evident from listening to all of the panels. There was a feeling that people from outside Detroit were attracted to the city precisely for this experimentation, but often just ‘parachuted in, talking and doing nothing’ (audience comment). In the first panel, the suggestion was made for Detroiters to network with other ‘experimental spaces’ in the world, to learn from one another’s unique strategies against common problems, and to disseminate this knowledge (e.g. discourse jockey Miguel Robles-Duran). Here, Sabine Gruffat’s film ‘I have always been a dreamer’, an unlikely comparison (at first glance) of Detroit and Dubai, provided food for thought. In this sense, Imaging Detroit did feel like a moment of learning and experimentation, albeit on a small scale. How much experimentation took place and will take place by its participants? This is difficult to track and perhaps an irrelevant question. What seems, on the other hand, more relevant, is that Detroit, as a place of exchanging and working on visions is, indeed, ‘open for business’.

Big THANK YOU to the whole MODCaR team for having me & to all who came and participated!

(Dear Readers: Feel free to post links to related projects/media in the comments!)