Injured and Injurious:
A Director’s Note

Our research as the Planetary Portals collective takes us into the bowels of Rhodes’ imperial archives, where we examine the colonial afterlives of gold and diamond mining in South Africa, looking at how colonial dreams of Empire have been and still are sustained through ‘‘changes of states’ – that is, turning clay into bricks, bricks into speculative real estate, real estate into capital, capital into speculative mining, and diamonds and gold into racialised dreams of Empire’.

With Casper Laing Ebbensgaard of University of East Anglia, Kerry Holden and Kathryn Yusoff of Queen Mary University, London, our collaboration offers a rich and daring intellectual exchange. As the collective's artist, I contribute artistic research and output drawing together literature, film, photography, and digital technologies. 

Before any critical engagement, my response to the Rhodes archive was immediate and emotional. The familiarity in what lay before me was overwhelming and within the language of these archival documents was a clear sense of the evasive language embedded in today’s capitalist reality. Language, in the sense of controlled erasure. A passive voice. A vernacular circumventing violence, as if simply circumstantial, as if bloodless and utilitarian and just a simple essential methodology. The dryness within bureaucratic documents, ledgers and transnational paper trails, as Rhodes and cohorts hungrily planned and implemented their economic ravaging of this environment and peoples, can be felt in the recent cold statistical discourse about COVID deaths. 

It was the omissions from these documents which lay stark and loud. Those huddling, unseen, in the claustrophobic blood-stained alleyways between bureaucratic declarations. Those who lay beyond the photographic record’s frame of material conquest and financialisation—where the all-conquering imperialist stood proudly in unsullied, dazzling whites before the mine, an entryway to the ever-giving prize of earth. I was interested in voices absent from the ledgers, except when these voices were noted as a resource, as hardware even. Silent participants and observers unable to give testimony from the background of a singular imagination of conquest and immortality. 

The truth remains evasively unsaid and integral to today’s public consciousness, or rather, delusions of empire—stories stitched together through absences. Absence, in this case, serves as a kind of negative space, which is principally an artistic term to describe space surrounding a subject or object. One could facetiously consider this negative space as inexistent. Still, conversely, these inverted dimensions, or narrative power, or resistant, ancient knowledge systems, languages and cultures are as crucial to understanding the pernicious existence of the central subject or object. In this case, it is the legacy of Cecil Rhodes.

I wanted to erase Rhodes from my response to this archive and illuminate the negative space instead. Our research traces the path of finance and material to today’s digital infrastructure, so I was keen to develop work in this context. The nature of digital archiving, from metadata to computer vision, building infinite networked memory objects from computation of subjective statistical origins, is an extractive and controlling methodology which one should acknowledge. 

Fronting these innovations are digital architectures with facades flirting with utopian ideas, but remain primarily structured to funnel capital from many to a few venture capitalists. Virtual real estate, monetised gaming, and NFTs take extractive methods to the minutiae of human actions and behaviour. Yet their frontispiece, gaming, and interactive 3D art dress in fantastic emancipatory utopias as interplanetary aspirations and freedom from the fallible corpus if one has enough capital for maintenance, upgrades and new skins. The underside of this gleaming behemoth enterprise are the dark, dank mines, the claustrophobic extraction, material, psychological, and cognitive, which ready critical resources for technocratic domination in an increasingly competitive multi-polar economic order.

I constructed a digital architecture of my own, the negative space of this utopian dream. In this architecture, the landscape is populated with digital archival objects and scans bristling with data specific to the Kimberley region and serves as materials to construct a barren landscape and poisoned atmosphere. I create 3D topography from satellite data I have scraped, and I illuminate  photogrammetry of Kimberlite rock, as the use and control of light is vital to domination, from light poverty in the mine to the valuation of diamonds. This light depicts Rhodes's self-aggrandising guiding light, and his quest for immortality, and speculative value placed on what is removed from the ground. I repurpose these elements to become a speculative landscape of human and inhuman decimation. Inert and inhospitable, this world still bristles with life as recorded data of living and dead, embedded into this digital geology, layers and layers of decompositions, preserved eternally in a synthesised afterlife of material earth, sustained by actual material earth.

This digital architecture enables simulated exchange with time and space and some of the details of planetary life: shifting positions of the earth as it rotates around the sun, weather forces and atmosphere attributed to each coordinate. Within this simulation, I construct and place a body, both Injured and Injurious. 

The Injured Body

This non-gendered body staggers with the accumulative weight of extractive systems: trauma, exploitation, but also profoundly buried guilt, the hauntedness and claustrophobic futility in pursuing immortality. Except this body is actually immortal, the time and space of its non-being are infinite. Yet, there is an inevitability to the injured body’s temporal fate, which must return to earth through the shaft of the mine’s  poisonous claustrophobia, through erasure, the disappearing and assimilation of languages and knowledge systems, or simply through death.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Franz Fanon gets to the core question of the colonised as a lingering idea, as a motif, as a commodity. 

‘Because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: “In reality, who am I?”

The defensive attitudes created by this violent bringing together of the colonised personality. This “sensitivity: is easily understood if we simply study and are alive to the number and depth of the injuries inflicted upon a native during a single day spent amidst the colonial regime.’

Steeped in ‘ethno-poetics’ the work I've contributed to the Portals project attempts to render some of this reach to shape humanity by reclaiming language and imagination.

This injured body houses dichotomous ailments. Echoing The Divine Comedy, in this work, the body symbolises decay and continuity.  

The body today, seen as an idea, removes itself from claims to the actual body of the oppressed. 

There might be an argument to suggest mass popularity of first-person shooter video games coincided with the West’s turn to social atomisation. Margaret Thatcher's and Ronald Reagan’s successful election campaigns in 1979 and 1980, respectively, were built around appealing to the singular needs and aspirations of the individual, both critical factors in initiating free trade and globalisation. Today, cultivation of individual desires and dreams of self-mobility are at central to much of business and, ultimately, capitalism itself.

The injured body inverses the first-person conquest and the hero narrative, instead manifesting residual legacies of such conquest. This injured body charts an alternate map of planetary and interplanetary resilience and aspiration, but also abuse. 

See Grand Theft Auto and its mythologising of black bodies and the black experience in the United States of America as something which can be temporally hemmed in, managed, stylised and inhabited. Los Angeles of the late 80s and early 90s. Rodney King, the riots and G-Funk are cut open, zombified, reveal an alternative timeline, where edges of resistance and control fray, masks fall, and the masquerade of moral and economic order lays bare its truth. 

Customisable characters enable young white men to play out their fantasies of inhabiting black bodies and the black experience, becoming their bodies, becoming them, and when done, when bored, unfulfilled, then angry, mow them down, abuser them, dispose of them, and move on without a thought.

One of the first reductive manifestations of AI voice manipulation was young white men gleefully training models on the voices of rappers like Kendrick Lamar or Drake. The excitement of becoming their fantasy— to remove and transcend the black body in their way to commodifiable cool-lustre, was a sight to behold; the fantasy of gold-dripping black virility still holds captive a certain imperial imagination.

The Injurious Body: And What of the Haunted Conqueror?

As said, this body carries both injured and injurious. It isn't so clear where and how this dichotomy defines, as can be seen in the figure’s misshapen torso, and its indefatigable source of light haloing its head. 

This injurious body is a vessel for Mark Fisher’s strain of hauntology, where the spectre of a haunted society lost in the fog of its violence surfaces and where piles of material wealth, from utilitarian kitchen design in suburban homes to towering skyscrapers, are built on burial grounds. As Fisher describes, these postmodern responses are found in the classic movies of Kubrick or schlocky 80s horror, where white families live in fear of dark apparitions which may rise from below, deep down from the mine shaft, as metaphysical earth materials intent to reclaim what it is owed. 

This injurious body unpacks the psyche of Rhodes and sets his ailing body against his dream of conquering a continent and enshrining a legacy. His burial site in Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe, leaves the earth with injury, aiming to forever impose on ancestral secrets. 

This injurious body is Macbeth reflecting on the emptiness of a life lived in blood and the futility of ambition. Guilt and remorse grip him at death, leaving him addled by meaninglessness:

“"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

It is Lady Macbeth who, while sleepwalking, is tormented by the lingering smell of blood on her hands:

“Here the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”

This body is also Marlow’s fragile disposition in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where metaphysics of the human and inhuman world he encounters seem beyond his comprehension and vocabulary. Marlow is unsettled by the aliveness of the land he passes through, where flora is never silent, and atmosphere is rich, textured, and physical. Marlow relays his bewilderment at… the impenetrability and indeterminacy of this alien environment. This notion is echoed by D.A.O.C’s score, ingeniously composed by Kyprian Rainey, which delivers an impression of what material earth might sound like: unrestful, contemplative, bursting with layers of the dead, and possibly even vengeful. 

Time as injury

““Why do you use religion as an instrument of reform?” General Booth answered: “Can you suggest anything better than religion to reform people who have gone astray?”

Rhodes paused for a moment and reflected. He then said: “I agree. You are right. I cannot suggest anything better”.

(Cecil Rhodes Archive, Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Western capitalism destabilises places of cultural origin for many of diaspora, where traditional communalism is replaced by individualism and isolation becomes a strategy to which one is beholden as a diligent economic contributor. 

A postmodern technological rupturing of cognition, where statistical frameworks of subjective origins remove many from traditions of orality and inhuman knowledge, an injury masquerading as progress. The combination of postmodernism and subjective moral imposition erodes local knowledge, as local land is poisoned or falls into the sea. The responsibility is then given to NGOs to provide sites of conservation as sophisticated marketing exercises to greenwash blood and oil.

“The only place Negros did not revolt is in the pages
of capitalist historians.”

CLR James)

Speculative Writing and Thinking

My ongoing artistic research projects ask if anything lies beyond the injured body, beyond post-colonial discourse and where the human's frayed edges meet life of the inhuman world beyond an imposing statistical gaze. I lean on the speculative in my attempts to look beyond the injured body and to ask questions about algorithmic computing and ‘AI” aspirations built on shaky metaphysical foundations. I consider the moral impositions delivered through colonialism whilst looking at the monotheistic origins of statistics and the moral ideas at their core. These now inform the theorems important to machine learning, ‘AI’ aspirations and their associated ideologies. I draw attention to how the same moral order is psychologically embedded in West Africa and arguably contributes to effectively maintaining our current economic order—the same moral imposition foundational to the technocratic control of today’s world. 

Central to my related project, Red Earth, is my book of genre-crossing prose, in which the protagonist relays what they see and hear from many dimensions of the world. Gradually revealed as a diffused, interconnected entity rather than an individual, the protagonist slowly unveils how interconnected they are with all the ghostly voices and forms of life across time and space—from slaves at rest deep into the ocean floor, to a homeless man watching a fashion shoot occur next to him, on a sidewalk—all told as unheard whispers, scattered through the book.

This work of prose becomes source material for further research and artistic experimentation to ask whether computational translation methods, developed from machine learning models of statistical origins, can ever engage equitably with languages and knowledge systems from other cultures or whether such an idea would be paradoxical by its very foundations. 

Many of my works conceptually overlap. A recent story I published (Salu, M. 2022, ‘Mythical SpeciesRetro Future, Next Nature) has a similarly speculative dimension and would typically be deemed science fiction. However, I would suggest the story’s premise is of reasonable speculation, as I relate the potential of CRISPR gene-editing and the ethical disregard towards the cognitive extraction currently facilitating the development of Artificial General Intelligence. In the story, mega-conglomerate corporations have completely replaced nation-states, and citizens are no more, as populations are all now just employees. Low-ranked employees from the ‘Global South’ become sites of interspecies experimental research, where the intelligence of extinct deep sea life, such as octopi, is regenerated within the biological and cognitive infrastructure of these ‘employees’ to aid the search for new ways to communicate with and sustain a decimated inhuman world, which, for its survival, is shifting and rebuilding in a way that is inhospitable to humans. 

The disparity of circumstances and conscious and unconscious realities of our current racial-capitalist order makes for sober speculation. Allied with climate scarcity, the fight for remaining valuable land, minerals, air and water will play out predictably. Speculative fiction gives me room to hear the haunted echoes of erasure and neglect and make room for innate ways of being lesser-known and lesser-told.