Issue 1/2021 - Geschichte reparieren
In her compelling contribution to Indigenous futurism, Reclamation, 2018, Thirza Jean Cuthand documents what’s to come. Premised upon a mass settler exodus to Mars, the short video portrays a broken, abandoned Earth left to Indigenous peoples who, freed of extractive devastation, toxic racism, repressive heteronormativity, and the endless wars and violence of capitalist property relations, subsequently begin the work of postcolonial environmental restoration. Delivered through familiar documentary tropes, the piece showcases interviewees discussing their newfound lives, with contextualizing footage of dystopian landscapes presented in the evidentiary mode using a handheld camera’s reality effects. The work’s futurism unleashes radical formal possibilities by both decolonizing time—reversing documentary’s conventional ties to pastness, projecting that-which-has-been onto the what’s-to-come—and generating forces of creation beyond the mimetic doubling of reified, colonial realities. It thereby lays an explosive charge in the present through performative imagination, rendering the future-as-disruption that much more probable.
Here, documentary figures as the creative practice of chronopolitics, designating the politics of time as much as the time of politics, both implying that there’s nothing natural or inevitable about how we organize temporality. As such, documentary provides a technology for opening portals into futures alternative to the now—recalling Arundhati Roy’s description of the current pandemic conjuncture: structural breakdown discloses newfound opportunities for the transformation of what’s yet to be.1 Passing through that portal, we can cast a barrier of eternity between the barbarism of the present and the justice of the hereafter.
The stakes are indeed enormous. Time has been colonized, racialized, and economized, generating what Black Quantum Futurism (BQF), the Afrofuturist collective based in Philadelphia, term the “temporal ghettos” of racial capitalism, where the “Master(’s) Clock[work Universe]” unevenly distributes spatiotemporal mobility, agency, and determination.2 Just as material inequality reigns, we also succumb to the endless present of capital’s calculative machinery, seemingly rendering resistance pointless. Time operationalized as such recalls what Jasbir Puar terms “prehensive futurity,” a chronology that “inevitablizes” a desired unfolding: “We cannot get out of the present because we are tethered to the desired future; past, present, and future feel somewhat futile as descriptions of temporal distinctions.”3 Conventional documentary tends to reify that time trap.
Cuthand’s Reclamation—a decolonization of time as much as of space—poignantly contests dominant approaches to time, including technolibertarianism’s prehensive futurity and its colonialism of land, the economy, and the infosphere, as much as of temporality. The latter’s vision of what’s-to-come is a foregone conclusion, as when billionaire tech-entrepreneur Elon Musk, in response to charges of complicity in the 2020 antidemocratic political takeover in Bolivia—in part to secure lithium reserves for global markets, including for his own Tesla cars and SpaceX project—tweeted: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” (Thankfully, recent Bolivian elections reversed the coup.) Performing the hegemonic futurity to which we’re all tethered, Musk pushes extractive colonial capitalism into any and all territories, including outer space, as well as into infinity.
But that entails destroying the lands, waters, and life chances of frontline communities worldwide, producing a growing class of the indebted, vulnerable, and disenfranchised who are subjected to all manner of police violence, incarceration, and growing deaths of despair, on top of mounting climate disasters, existential insecurity, and pandemic emergency. Given the resulting desperation, our forlorn present has triggered blunt expressions of time resistance such as Alisha Wormsley’s THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE, placed recently in arresting all-cap white letters on a black billboard in Detroit, as well as on various art objects, sculptural pieces, and installations, and in films.4 Wormsley’s revolt against being de-futured, elaborated in a proleptic tense of the present-impending—a chronopolitics of prefiguration—resonates with the ongoing battles over public monuments and their removal. The latter highlight the otherwise suppressed violence of colonialism and slavery and their aftermath, conflicts over heritage inextricable from the social production of the future, which also index the stakes of documentary today. Who has the right to produce the future?
Radical futurisms have arisen in recent years to assert this right, articulated through speculative visions of times-to-come. As witnessed internationally in the formation of aesthetic practices pledged to decolonizing the not-yet, these rescue open potentiality from the grips of capitalism’s algorithmic capture, its technogenic determination, and its biosecurities of control. Building on the precedents of Afrofuturisms of decades past—when Black sci-fi and musical experimentation projected an emancipated, technological presence in years ahead, as fictionally dramatized and historicized in the Black Audio Film Collective’s film Last Angel of History of 1996—these practices now generate new configurations of documentary in multiple sectors, including those of Indigenous futurisms, trans and queer futurisms, multispecies and socialist futurisms, and more.
One model is BQF’s documentary chronopolitics, which has given rise to video assemblages and photomontages that unleash the force of radical reversibility. They target time zones that keep racialized bodies locked in oppressive cells fortified by all manner of temporal encasements: unchanging pasts, the presence of indolence and criminality, de-futured voids. It is from these that they break out. As in BQF’s 2019 video Black Space Agency Training Video, overlapping images blur into illegibility, and shapes mirror and mutate, mimicking soundscapes filled with echoes and reverberations—all emanating from a deep psychic space of traumatic collective memory in the afterlife of slavery and in the recent past of housing segregation. “We believe that astrological events are reversed and act retrocausally from the cosmic future to influence present events that will be subsequently written on the fabric of the past by light and sound.”5 Such is a recipe for futurism’s transformative power in the present.
BQF graphs the techno-optimism of past space travel, dramatized in astronaut iconography and mirrored helmets reflecting Black faces, onto newspaper clippings reporting unfulfilled dreams of urban housing justice, resonating with the goals of BQF’s Community Futures Lab in North Philadelphia (where member Rasheeda Phillips works as a housing rights lawyer). Their cultivation of “space agency” is juridico-political and geographical as much as aesthetic and temporal, through which they constellate their pulsating lights and sounds to gain the future they want, ripped from the contradictions of racialized inequalities in resource allocation.
Those uneven geographies are upended in Cuthand’s Reclamation, resonating with the resounding world-historical project of decolonization as demanded by Indigenous formations such as Idle No More and, more recently, The Red Nation. For them, decolonization represents the return of land and sovereignty to Indigenous nations and the abolition of dominant economic arrangements and socio-political systems organized around extraction and exploitation, bringing to an end more than five hundred years of colonial history and making way for future collective emancipation. The video constructs its viewership accordingly: an emancipated people-to-come on land evacuated of oppressors, which bears on how solidarity might operate today (particularly in settler-colonial territories like North America), including in documentary practice. Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang argue that non-native solidarity with Indigenous emancipation must avoid “settler moves to innocence,” goodwill ally gestures that practice the metaphorization of decolonization by denying its essential meaning: the return of land and sovereignty to Indigenous peoples. Metaphorizing acts—which facilely extend decolonization to this and that, whether decolonizing the university or sexuality (as necessary as those are)—“problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity.“6
Ultimately, for Tuck and Wang, settler accomplices can only accept an “ethic of incommensurability” when it comes to solidarity, “relinquishing settler futurity, abandoning the hope that settlers may one day be commensurable to Native peoples,” which in turn requires an “understanding of uncommonality that un-coalesces coalition politics.”7 Accepting uncommonality leaves recourse to alternatives like those presented in radical Black praxis, dedicated to the undercommons and permanent fugitivity (as elaborated by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney8), where the refusal of property and possession—of land as much as conventional subjectivities—is the ethical truth of emancipated social experience and the only possible basis for decolonial solidarity.9 That’s exactly what Cuthand’s radical futurism offers to non-Indigenous viewers: a subjective non-place, dispossession and permanent fugitivity, and this precisely because the decolonized what’s-to-come is devoid of settler colonialism’s oppressive subjects. With the video, non-Indigenous viewers become accomplices in the abolishing of whiteness as a structure of racial division and colonial oppression and must find subsistence on other bases.10
That said, one might argue conversely that demetaphorizing decolonization shouldn’t end in the “un-coalescing of coalition politics” but rather reveal new forms of solidarity on that basis. Indeed, there’s an urgent need for alliances now more than ever—given present hyper-partisanship, social media polarization, and ethnonationalist identitarianism—in order to build collective power and disrupt the hegemony of colonial capitalist violence that harms us all, if differentially. Writing from yet another radical Indigenous perspective, Nick Estes of The Red Nation argues that Indigenous futurity is and must be “universal”: it “isn’t just for Indigenous people—it is essential for the very existence of life on the planet.”11 What’s required is a “social revolution that turns back the forces of destruction … uniting Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in common struggle” against racial, colonial capitalism.12
Instead of uncoalescing alliances of difference, another option is unifying in support of the abolition of difference, which documentary might also abet. Perched at this speculative horizon is Infinity Minus Infinity, the Otolith Group’s 2019 film, which traces racial capitalism to the colonial genocide perpetuated during the Anthropocene’s beginnings in the sixteenth-century conquest of the Americas. Their genealogy builds further, culminating in the “hostile environment” of recent British immigration policy, especially that affecting the Windrush generation of migrants living both in the afterlife of slavery and in the postcolonial wake of empire. (The Windrush generation refers to those who arrived in the UK from Caribbean islands between 1948 and 1971, only to have their residency status questioned and rejected decades later by xenophobic British migration policies.) The film’s cinematic allegory traces these complex historical networks as mediated by dance, recital, and historical truth-telling spoken by figures who appear as trans-temporal deities. The video presents what the artists call a “choreopoetics”—approximating an aesthetic form of collective speech—its script drawn from such diverse sources as the writings of Jamaican poet Una Marson, Martiniquan philosopher Édouard Glissant, Brazilian sociologist Denise Ferreira da Silva, and British geographer Kathryn Yusoff.13 One central character appears many-headed, an Indo-futurist trope signaling multiple realities, a future of many futures, a time-splitting act of metaphysical and cosmopolitical import.
With Ferreira da Silva, the artists speculate about a Blackness beyond capture, an infinity beyond infinity, in the place of the subjectivity long denied to the African diaspora by European Enlightenment modernity. Documentary is keyed to a future indeterminate, to an ultimately uncapturable zone of the decolonized fugitive. Ferreira da Silva discusses Blackness as antimatter, “negative life—that is, life that has negative value,” instrumentalized historically by Europe’s “universal measure” in defining whiteness in counterpoint as the height of self-actualizing reason.14 From its negative use-value to white reason, Blackness, in Ferreira da Silva’s deconstruction, opens onto indeterminacy, topologically connected to the uncontainable infinite—approximated in Infinity Minus Infinity by turning bodies into corporeal portals to other worlds. This is accomplished through a kind of biopolitical montage in which bodily orifices and surfaces provide screens for videos within videos, revealing ever-new scenes from the racial Capitalocene (the geological epoch shaped by colonial capital, offering a more precise descriptor than the Anthropocene15). Defining a documentary of allegorical immensity, the film’s voice-over culminates in speculating about future liberation, though “only when those myths have been incorporated one into another and recognized as constituent parts of the before- and after-life of slavery and the never-ending colonial project.”
Reverberating with Cuthand’s Reclamation as well as BQF’s chronopolitics, the video’s performative documentary proposes something like an abolitionist double negative: (1) catalyzing a disidentification not only from white supremacy but from the very logic of racial difference; and (2) compelling the nullification of the very systems—the legal and economic institutions, the techno-social and educational infrastructure, the affective and aesthetic practices—that have reproduced differentiation historically and into the present.16 It’s only appropriate that the Otolith Group, in seeking to grant aesthetic form to this complex movement of a deeply speculative, historical futurism, find recourse in the imagery of two black holes colliding, creatively adopting a computer simulation from the California Institute of Technology that shows that awesome astronomical event detected for the first time ever by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.17 Roughly thirty times the mass of the sun, each contains a gravitational singularity wherein space-time curves infinitely. The film operates in the time-space between those two black holes: after a past of unforgivable debt in the afterlife of slavery and facing a future populated by indeterminacy beyond reified difference. Its many portals reveal a not-yet of radical disruption from a history that must be obliterated but never forgotten. At its best, speculative documentary unleashes cosmopolitical force and provides the building blocks—forms, events, affects, and poetics—of new worlds; the challenge remains to organize the social movements to bring them into actuality.
* This essay is a revised version of T. J. Demos, “Radical Futurisms: Documentary’s Chronopolitics,” Trigger #2: Uncertainty, FOMU: Photography Museum (Antwerp, Belgium), December 2020, 58–64.
 Rasheedah Phillips, “Dismantling the Master(’s) Clock[work Universe], Pt. 1,” in Black Quantum Futurism: Space-Time Collapse I: From the Congo to the Carolinas (Philadelphia: AfroFuturist Affair, 2016), 25.
 Jasbir K. Puar, “‘Will Not Let Die’: Debilitation and Inhuman Biopolitics in Palestine,” in The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 148.
 “‘There Are Black People in the Future’: An Interview with Artist Alisha B. Wormsley,” Public Books (New York, NY), December 11, 2019, https://www.publicbooks.org/there-are-black-people-in-the-future-an-interview-with-artist-alisha-b-wormsley/.
 See: https://soundcloud.com/afrofuturist-affair/the-afterlife-od-events-time-distortion. On the “afterlife
of slavery,” see Saidiya V. Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 6.
 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1 (2012): 1, 10, http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630/15554.
 Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” 35, 36.
 The “undercommons” designates a modality of critical comportment, of fugitive planning and Black study, informed by the Black Radical Tradition, a place of mobile belonging for the excluded, those aware of the contradictions of the university, and society more broadly, in the grips of neoliberalism. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013).
 Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” 28.
 See Viewpoint Magazine’s collection of texts “Beyond Guilt and Privilege: Abolishing the White Race,” August 5, 2020, https://www.viewpointmag.com/. To enact this abolition grammatically, I have chosen to render white/ness in lower-case as a political revolt on the level of style.
 Nick Estes, “A Vision for the Future,” Art Canada Institute (Toronto, ON), January 2020, https://aci-iac.ca/the-essay/a-vision-for-the-future-by-nick-estes.
 Nick Estes, “A Red Deal,” Jacobin (Brooklyn, NY), August 6, 2019, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/08/red-deal-green-new-deal-ecosocialism-decolonization-indigenous-resistance-environment.
 Choreopoetics derives from the “choreopoem” aesthetics of Ntozake Shange, for whom, inspired by the Black Arts Movement in the US, it characterized innovative dramatic expression of poetry, dance, music, and song emphasizing affective response. The term was coined by Shange in her 1975 theatrical piece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Thanks to Kodwo Eshun for this reference.
 Denis Ferreira da Silva, “1 (life) ÷ 0 (blackness) = ∞ − ∞ or ∞ / ∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value,” eflux Journal, February 2017, 8, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/79/94686/1-life-0-blackness-or-on-matter-beyond-the-equation-of-value/.
 T. J. Demos, Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017); and Françoise Vergès, “Racial Capitalocene,” Verso blog, August 30, 2017, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3376-racial-capitalocene.
 As was discussed in the Burning Futures podcast series, organized by Margarita Tsomou and Maximilian Haas, HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, #5 Beyond The End Of The World?, with T. J. Demos and the Otolith Group (Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun), June 23, 2020, https://burningfutures.podigee.io/5-beyond-the-end-of-the-world.
 Animation created by the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes project (http://www.black-holes.org), https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/video/ligo20160211v3.