Kunstverein Braunschweig presents Warm Data, an online exhibition in three chapters. The exhibition encompasses artistic and activist efforts to establish online platforms where personal but non-identifying information can be shared. Meant for information or artistic gestures that also bear witness to the experience of being politically overlooked, marginalized, or threatened. As artist Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley puts it, “We are here because of those that are not.” The participating artists share an interest in queer feminist utopias and mythologies through which they formulate alternatives to still-dominant colonial and heteronormative structures and their consequences for identities, technology, sexuality, health, and spirituality.
The works in Warm Data destabilize the logic of quantifiable data, countering strict binary systems of thinking with ambiguity and opacity. A mist regularly creeps into the nocturnal street scenes of Brathwaite-Shirley’s interactive computer game Black Trans Archive. In this way the diffuse, the unpredictable, and the unnamable are granted a special quality. The work tells the stories of Black trans people, who have collaborated with the artist in the creation and programming of the game. The user provides information about themselves at the start of the game—gender, identity, privilege—depending on which the work offers different experiences. Mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion operate simultaneously; they also determine the structure of Morehshin Allahyari’s work She Who Sees the Unknown: The Archive. The findings of Allahyari’s years-long research into ancient female/non-binary/queer Persian and Arab figures are arranged in four different sections on the artist’s layered website. Access is limited by various cultural and linguistic codes. Allahyari also alludes to the problematic nature of open-source applications and allegedly accessible state libraries and archives. In the works of the artists in Warm Data, the archive is reimagined as a place for the “accumulation of shared empathy” as Mary Maggic puts it: it becomes a sanctuary and discursive space for the question of which bodies, objects, practices, and concerns have (not) been heard and should be considered in the future. Following the disillusionment with open social networks promoting democracy due to the omnipresence of hyper-commercialized Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, WeChat, Douyin/ TikTok, and Twitter bubbles, the artists are creating new congregational spaces that resist, at least to some extent, the indexicality of search engines. Tiare Ribeaux’s work Pele Plastiglomerate further broadens perspectives by deliberately focusing on alliances between human and elemental subjects. In the form of the Hawaiian deity Pelehonuamea and the Kīlauea volcano associated with her, contrasting views and forms of knowledge production meet on both sonic and visual levels in her two-channel video work, which features LiDAR scans and drone footage, as well as Hawaiian chants to honor the volcanic deity. Surveilled by elaborate monitoring processes, the outflowing lava becomes a symbol of resilience against techno-colonialism, but also an allegory of hopes for (self-)determination and healing.
Paying tribute to artists who often self-organize, without institutional support, mutually reinforcing and seamlessly shifting between the roles of curator and artist or host and guest, Morehshin Allahyari, Mary Maggic, and Luiza Prado de O. Martins have each been invited to present and discuss an artwork as part of Warm Data. See all their works in the links below.
- Morehshin Allahyari: She Who Sees the Unknown: The Archive
- Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley: Black Trans Archive
- Tiare Ribeaux: Pele Plastiglomerate, 2019
Making my way through the maze of the archive, I arrive at the fourth and last figure: a deer with the number ۶ on its head. Conditioned by the logic and experience of computer games, I am impatiently awaiting my reward for having made it this far. When I click on the heart of the animal, I get to the oldest version of the book, Ajā'ib al-makhlūqāt wa gharā'ib al-mawjūdāt in Arabic, a sexy PDF of an impressive 213.1MB size. The reward meets my expectations with this version dating back to the seventh-century Lunar Hijri (twelfth century CE). I soon learn that this copy, the oldest one known, is held at the Bavarian State Library in Munich. I abandon the archive’s browser tab to go down a rabbit hole of Wikipedia links and biographies of Orientalists and manuscript collectors. Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter and Johann Jakob Fugger: I write down these names in a draft document. On my next Schengen visa application, I think to myself, I will state my reason for traveling to Germany as “visiting the archives of Widmannstetter, the founder of European Orientalism, whose entire manuscripts collection was purchased by the Duke of Bavaria.”
I return to the tab where the PDF is loading, secretly appreciating that clicking on the file does not automatically download it onto my local hard drive. After recently organizing 1TB of films, music, PDFs, and random files I had collected between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four, more than a decade later, I am reluctant to locally download much anymore. I want things to “be there” when I need them without having to hoard, archive, organize, and be responsible for them—being a digital custodian to my data babies has been, at times, tiring and stressful. I begin to page through this PDF on my browser. I read some of it, but mostly look through the images. I chuckle at the image of two upside-down figures as I recognize their names هاروت و ماروت. The versions of their story vary depending on who you ask, but here is one:
One day God’s angels were boasting they would never disobey God if they had the chance, like humans do. To prove them wrong, God had the angels select two from among themselves to descend to Earth. Harut and Marut were selected for the journey. On Earth, the two met Zohreh (Venus) who promised she would get intimate with them if they shared God’s secret name, required to ascend to Heaven, with her. Harut and Marut shared the code with Zohreh but before she could utter the word to ascend to Heaven, God turned her into a star and sent her to the sky. God permanently banned the two angels from returning to Heaven for having shared God’s secret name. Once they repented, God gave Harut and Marut the option to choose between punishment in this life, or in the afterlife. The angels chose to be punished in this life, and they have, ever since, been suspended upside down between Heaven and Earth.
In my short journey through the archive’s different stages, I paid close attention to the instructions to crack open the codes of access. Beside the immediate punching of numbers and figures, each talisman also included additional steps concerning the material world. I began to wonder if I’d be punished for not following through. What if the greed of downloading as many PDFs as I could would get me suspended, like Harut and Marut, if I failed to fully commit to these instructions?
On the archive’s About page there is a disclaimer asking the viewer to be “gentle and respectful to this (and all similar) cultural archive/s.” I imagine a Museum of Harut and Marut where all those who took, stole, ravaged, killed, and disrespected would be revived to be suspended upside down forever. In that museum there will be a hall of suspended Widmannstetters and Fuggers, where the people whose manuscripts, lives, lands, and cultures were taken will freely study their texts and put their knowledge of the occult to good use. If you wish for such a museum to materialize, I ask that you join me by following these instructions:
What looks like a sea of bodies moving rhythmically to soothing and drone-like harmonizing asks us to stare down on the ground and remember that “we are all responsible for those buried underneath this earth…”.
I was one of the lucky few to experience Black Trans Archive as a fully immersive installation at Science Gallery London during the exhibition Genders: Shaping and Breaking the Binary, which opened just before the COVID-19 pandemic took full swing in early 2020. In the context of anti-racist protests spreading around the world in the past few years, and with the growing realization that Black trans people are one of the most at-risk group, the relevance of the net art work Black Trans Archive resonates widely.
Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, an artist, animator, and recent parent, conceived the project through six months of workshops with members of the Black trans community in the UK and Berlin. From the game script to the animations, the original soundtrack, the character design, and the overall aesthetic, it is clear that Black Trans Archive stems from a deeply personal and genuine place. Players navigate the game through a decision tree process based on their own identity, and encounter various different characters or avatars created by Black trans people. Rightfully wary of Black trans tourism from a cis-bodied audience, Brathwaite-Shirley was careful not to program a game that merely recreated the traumas of Black trans individuals, or made their traumas more consumable for an art audience. Instead, the artist transports viewers into a world where, at last, Black trans voices are protected, heard, and here to live and thrive.
While some may view the piece as a critical game or interactive artwork rather than a traditional archive, the work certainly redefines what an archive is and can become—an archive of shared empathy. Brathwaite-Shirley states that Black Trans Archive continues to grow as a body of work that is still searching for more individual stories to highlight and preserve. They hope that the project will inspire more Black trans game designers such as themselves to share their experiences and hold space in a society that has seemingly forgotten them.
Text: Mary Maggic
In a conversation with fellow Caribbean poet Derek Walcott held at Poets House in New York in 1991, Martinican writer Édouard Glissant remarked that the processes that allowed for the emergence of identity in Western cultures “needed a kind of opaqueness […] to oppose and reject the other, and to have some écran—screen—between identity and other.”
Tiare Ribeaux’s two-channel video Pele Plastiglomerate is a work experienced through a screen in the virtual exhibition space New Art City. Yet, Ribeaux’s screen feels like skin—a container, a protection, a boundary—more than the écran, a divider, theorized by Glissant.
In the first video, the camera hovers over the 3D-scanned surface of the Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii, juxtaposed with chants honoring volcanic deity Pelehonuamea. Unexpectedly, the camera dives down through the surface, only instead of entering the belly of the earth, we are taken through the scanned skin and into the emptiness of the other side of a virtual model of living earth. There is no lava, the beating pulse of the planet; it is the chanting and Kīlauea’s crackling sounds that anchor us to the living body of the land.
The second video presents us with archival footage of Kīlauea; melted rock flowing, piling up like the soft folds of a belly. Lava flows like sap, the thick substance of life that stubbornly spews from the earth among the devastation of colonialism. It melds with the artifacts of contemporary capitalism: bits of plastic and assorted trash, an iPhone, metal chains. It engulfs trees and cars in a steady, slow, and yet unstoppable advance. Its hardened surface is wrinkled like the skin of our elders; she is, after all, one of them.