by Francois Knoetze
In this short text, South-African artist Francois Knoetze presents his most recent film work and research, Core Dump. Through his artistic practice, Knoetze challenges the status of ‘progress’ and ‘mechanization’ as solely Western notions while reiterating the historical and current contribution of Africa to technological developments, both materially and not.
“Images and screens, images-screens, but also images of images that all at once fascinate, seduce, enthrall, control, captivate, oppress, haunt, and ultimately colonise the collective imagination and unconscious…”
- Joseph Tonda, L’impérialisme postcolonial: Critique de la société des éblouissements, 2015
A Core Dump is a recorded state of the working memory of a computer at a specific moment in time. If a crash occurs, the computer is able to recall this ‘imprint’ of its previous state as a means to debug and recover. This strangely poetic ‘memory’ of a computer forms the basis of my video series ‘Core Dump’; a work in four chapters which extends the metaphor of a ‘crash’ to the impending breakdown and unsustainability of the global capitalist system characterised by a glut of excess and its fascination with hypermodernity masquerading as progress.
The series, filmed in Dakar, Kinshasa, Shenzhen, and New York, explores contradictions between Silicon Valley as the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of a techno-utopia and the neo-colonial imperialist structures of this ‘Invisible Empire’. In contrast to the spectacle of technological singularity promulgated by Hollywood and Silicon Valley’s myth of progress (which is forward-looking, has no memory, no history and therefore refuses responsibility), the films consider the connections and disruptions inherent in these ideas by drawing links between conflicting designations of value and waste.
The series maps E-Waste through various stages of the global information technology production chain in order to subvert dominant digital imaginaries; from the site of material origin (the mines of the DR Congo), production (the factories of Shenzhen), consumption (the markets of New York) and refuse (the E-waste dumps of Dakar). I viewed these pieces of electronic waste as artifacts — radioactive fossils — which speak of the relationships of power forged in the Trans-Atlantic world during the nineteenth century and the dependence industrialization had on systems of slavery which establishing long-enduring binaries between race and technology, nature and civilization. I set out to look at how these practices are still deeply ingrained in the current supply chain and popular media representations of the technoscape, foregrounding strategies for artistic and political resistance which include the Non-Aligned and Negritude Movements, and the glimmering imagination spaces of early African-cinema.
In Dakar, I produced the first iteration of this project while on residency at Ker Thiossane. In this chapter, I drew from audio-visual archives, the pan-African, Marxist utopias of early African cinema (specifically the films of Ousmane Sembene), and a range of writers and thinkers — from Donna Haraway, Oulimata Gueye and Louis Chude-Sokei to Gayatri Spivak, Franz Fanon, and Aimé Césaire. In a TV repair shop, electronic waste is fused with the shop owner’s body forming a cyborg able to re-embody historical data and hack online systems in pursuit of a utopian future. This film culminates at the Centre International du Commerce Extérieur with a re-enactment of a speech delivered by Leopold Sédar Senghor at the 1975 Non-Aligned Movement Conference. Here, I seek to reactivate the concept of non-alignment as a critical and productive position.
While in Dakar, critic and curator Oulimata Gueye introduced me to Joseph Tonda, a world expert in the cultural, political and social life, and history of Gabon and the Congo. Tonda recounted a long-enduring Congolese urban legend which formed the basis of the chapter I shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo — an Afro-dystopian Sci-Fi horror that attempts to explore an idea of the Congolese imagination within Colonialism. Through situating popular myths in the contemporary digitalised imagination, this chapter speaks to the conceptual connections between the West’s notions of tech utopias and the immiserated, low-tech, former colonies it mines and dumps on to create these shimmering oases.
In Shenzhen, China’s first Special Economic Zone, the Congolese mythical character Mami Wata — often depicted as a mermaid — is transplanted into the context of the ‘world’s gadget factory’. In 2012, images and videos of Mami Wata began to rapidly circulate on the Internet and phones across the country, sparking rumors that Chinese laborers had captured her while they were installing underwater fiber optic cables in the Congo River. This chapter uses Mami Wata’s capture as a point of departure for its narrative, unfolding ideas surrounding the transmutation of myth in the Age of Internet, and the ability of digital platforms to reveal the depth and complication of contemporary Sino-African relations.
In New York, I took the robot ‘Big Dog’, developed by Boston Dynamics, as a starting point, imagining the robot escaping from the lab and finding its way to the big city. This chapter contests the idea that the city of New York is a site of freedom and progress, depicting it rather as a maze of difficult-to-navigate codified signs and systems. In this film, we follow the journey(s) of the robotic character as it is severed in two by the doors of a subway train, setting the scene for a split-screen journey through the city, ending with its eventual dumping as part of a shipment of electronic waste back in Dakar. The series comes full-circle as the two halves of the robot face each other across the ocean from opposite shores of the Atlantic.
In these films, I wanted to create narrative portraits of the uncertainty in the nervous system of a global digital machine at the brink of collapse — an imprint of our Digital Earth in this critical moment. The stories which unfold in each of the cities compare critical contexts and histories to suggest that, although technology is rapidly evolving, patterns of exploitation are deeply ingrained in the way it has and continues to be produced, consumed and represented, and that the crucial technologies involved in moving towards a more equitable world are less physical than they are social.
My research and practice in this project seek to interrogate how knowledge monopolies have falsely represented notions of ‘progress’ and ‘mechanisation’ as products of the West, disregarding the contribution — both historically and presently in the current supply chain — of Africa. It tries to uncover ways in which the materiality and immateriality of digital reality has played out to devastating effect across the continent, therefore, highlighting the need for embedding empathy into the circuitry of human relations that constitute the Digital Earth.
Produced in cooperation with Kër Thiossane (Dakar); Wits Art Museum (Johannesburg); KINACT (Kinshasa); 33 Space (Shenzhen) and ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe for the project Digital Imaginaries, funded by the TURN fund of the German Federal Cultural Foundation. This project was supported by an ANT Mobility Grant from Prohelvetia Johannesburg, financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. This project forms part of the Digital Earth Fellowship, initiated by Hivos, SIDA, and The British Council.
About the author
Francois Knoetze is a performance artist, filmmaker, and sculptor, currently based in Cape Town. Knoetze’s practice explores the life cycles of discarded objects and the intersections of material and social histories. Using material waste as a medium, he creates elaborate sculptural suits that merge the human with the synthetic. Through the personification of objects that occur with the performance of the sculptural suits, Knoetze tries to bring into view the objectification of people.