Artist and philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva is the author of Toward a Global Idea of Race (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), A Dívida Impagável (Workshop of Political Imagination and Living Commons, 2019), and Unpayable Debt (Stenberg/MIT Press, 2022) and co-editor with Paula Chakravartty of Race, Empire, and the Crisis of the Subprime (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). She is a full professor at the Institute of Social Justice at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and adjunct professor at the Monash University School of Art, Architecture, and Design in Melbourne, Australia. For fall 2022, she is acting as a visiting professor at the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. In spring 2023, she will occupy the International Chair of Contemporary Philosophy of the Department of Philosophy of the Paris 8 University.
Silva’s artwork includes the films Serpent Rain (2016), 4 Waters/Deep Implicancy (2018) and Soot Breath/Corpus Infinitum (2020), all in collaboration with Arjuna Neuman, as well as the relational art practices Poethical Readings and Sensing Salon, in collaboration with Valentina Desideri. Silva has performed shows and lectures in important artistic spaces, such as the Pompidou Centre, London’s Whitechapel Gallery, the São Paulo Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim Museum and MoMA in New York. She has published in art spaces such as Canadian Art, Texte Zur Kunst, and E-Flux.
I knew I had to reach out to Denise Ferreira da Silva when I found that this renowned theorist of raciality and the present world of modern thought has a thriving art practice, which, moreover, is built largely through collaboration. Her celebrated book Toward a Global Idea of Race shows that modern thought, particularly through the fields of science and history, deliberately worked to locate self-consciousness interior to the subject, and vice versa, through gendered and racial limit cases, even when, the book brilliantly argues, historicism triumphed over universalism as the academic profession’s standard framework for discourse. In a way, the conceptualization of self-consciousness creates and maintains the boundary between interiority and exteriority, and in order for reason to prevail as the faculty for scientific discovery, that boundary needs to make the modern subject impervious to what Silva calls “affectability,” “the condition of being subjected to both natural (in the scientific and lay sense) conditions and to others’ power,” which is attributed to female and racialized people as limit cases to bolster the boundary self-consciousness establishes from the side of exteriority. And thus the modern subject emerges as a self-composed, perdurable, and self-sufficient individual. It is from here that Silva starts her intervention in critical studies of race by renegotiating what we mean by difference, and the operative moves enabled by such a shift in thought.
Silva’s ethical, political, and academic commitment feeds into and from her art practice. The portfolio that follows provides a snapshot of an ongoing, aesthetically rich, and practical experiment dedicated to pursuing the question “how to image ethics with/out the subject?,” which, as Silva notes below, came about through her collaborations with artist Valentina Desideri. When we start to look at how this practice is an endless and dogged pursuit of this question, we see a tactile, kinetic, and collective mode of meaning-making that resists the premise that an individuated person has one’s own meaning to oneself. In an interview with art professors Kerstin Stakemeier and Susanne Leeb, Silva states:
I find that something else happens when criticality comes through creative work, when the imagination pursues the ends of critique. However, I find that to get it we may have to release the artwork from the grips of understanding (which is the mental faculty to which criticality is attributed) and allow it to follow the imagination—incidentally, my “we” refers to the artist, the critic, and the audience.
And, for readers who are interested in the coincidence of occult work in The Georgia Review, which I mention in the “To Our Readers” column, there is this, from the conclusion of Toward a Global Idea of Race:
I traced the trajectory of self-consciousness, the figure who, by the end of the seventeenth century, had sent astrologers, magicians, witch doctors, and those engaged in the deciphering of the signs of the world into exile in the province of superstition . . .
This is all collective meaning-making from and out in the world.
Met with the rich entanglements of projects, we have decided to showcase the work primarily through three groupings: 1) the video- and installation-based works done with Arjuna Neuman on pages 935–38 and 942, 2) the “Poethical Readings” done with Valentina Desideri, page 939, and 3) the “Sensing Salons” and séance-based work shown on pages 940–41. Below is an interview we conducted over email during October, in which Silva focuses on how she started her collaborations with Desideri and Neuman. To start with “yes,” as she states up front, is very much a way to think with and through others before all else.
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Gerald Maa (GM): Those who come to this folio already familiar with your name will almost certainly know you for your theoretical work on race. How did you come to your studio and performance practice?
Denise Ferreira da Silva (DFS): I like to say that the reason why I started my visual art and performance practice is because I said yes. But, of course, there is more to it. Perhaps a good way of putting it is to say that, at first I was attracted to the work Valentina Desideri and I developed and to the collaboration with Arjuna Neuman because both involved research, which is something I had been doing for decades. This has been familiar and comfortable. But what fascinated me, after I said yes to the invitation, was the challenge to find and use other languages both verbal and visual. It wasn’t, or I should say it hasn’t been, about translation. The work I have been able to do in collaborations with Valentina, Arjuna, Jota Mombaça, and Michelle muSa Mattiuzzi has challenged me as well as allowed me to consider other aspects of the questions and issues that occupy my head. These are, of course, things I can say after the fact. So I can only guess that I intuitively knew that something would become possible with or through the collaborations. I couldn’t anticipate what. There is still another answer, which is that I am just too curious for my own good. If something piques my curiosity I will go for it, read, study, try it out, until I figure out how it “works.”
GM: Hearing that these are collaborations born simply by saying “yes” first and foremost out of a regard for another makes sense to me, on first impression, when it comes to trying to feel out a method—if we can call it that—common to this multiplicitous work.
Could you talk a little bit more about how the work with Desideri—the sensing salons, right?—manifested? What did these events end up looking like and feeling? How did they evolve—or not—over separate happenings?
DFS: Valentina and I met in Naples in 2011 at a conference held at the Univeristy of Naples’ La Orientale, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Frantz Fanon. It was the first time I presented what became “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Towards the End of the World.” A common friend, Stefano Harney, introduced me to Valentina Desideri, who is an Italian dancer and performer, and was based primarily at the Performing Arts Forum (PAF) in St. Erme, France. Valentina and Stefano were already collaborating back then. They had written and published one piece. Stefano was my colleague at Queen Mary University of London’s School of Business and Management. We met at a restaurant outside. There were about ten people at the table. There was also this young black man who was selling something, I can’t remember what. At the table we spoke at least six different first languages. He spoke all of them as well as some African languages. He talked with us about how he learned the languages, on the way up to the Mediterranean Sea, on the boat, moving from country to country in Europe, everywhere, anywhere migrants could find shelter and/or transport back then.
Anyway, at the time, Valentina was studying Charlotte Wolff, the German-British physician and psychoanalyst who also studied palmistry. She, Valentina, had also developed these two performance pieces, Fake Therapy and Political Therapy. Valentina was getting ready to go to London and spend time at the Welcome Foundation, I think, studying Wolff’s materials. When she told me about Wolff and palmistry, I mentioned my long-term interest in and practice of astrology (since I was fifteen) and the tarot (which I started to study seriously in 1995). I also mentioned my training as a Reiki practitioner; I’m in fact a Reiki teacher. And, at that time, in London, as I was becoming more and more disappointed with the university, in addition to volunteering as a Reiki practitioner at the Stress Project in the Holloway neighborhood in London, I was also taking courses on herbal medicine. It was a felicitous encounter in that, talking with Valentina, I could see how these things that interested, rather, fascinated me—and which I kept apart from my academic work—had another possible way of becoming part of what I did. I didn’t think that I would become a performer. I just loved the idea that there was something other than the New Age stuff and ways, which have become some sort of soft neoliberal self-managing, self-fashioning toolset. I wasn’t and still am not interested in that. At that moment, however, Valentina and I just said the usual, we should talk; maybe we could collaborate on something.
The collaboration only started a couple of years later, in 2013. Valentina invited me to teach at PAF’s spring event: a five-hour-long, three-day marathon of teaching, usually attended by over a hundred people, mostly contemporary artists, primarily but not only performers. The teaching was intense and contentious. I was confronted by the person who was then the main figure of PAF, who is now deceased. I and everyone else in the space had to deal with an unexpected explicit and intense enactment of the colonial, racial, cisheteropatriachal matrix which sustains the transparent I, which was so explicit that it was also obviously performative. But that didn’t make it any less violent and productive. It was productive of many things. (One of them is that I’m now one of the fifty persons who bought the building from him, so as to make sure it would remain the same, after his passing.) For Valentina and me, it animated us to talk about and then spend time considering whether or not the tools we had been interested in over the years—by that time I had trained Valentina in Reiki—could somehow intervene at that level, that is, at the level of how much invested we all are in that position of the transparent I.
Over the following year, we started to study, that is, we started to do readings for people, usually folks who were staying at PAF. Out of this study, we developed the question that still guides our practice: “How to Image Ethics With/Out the Subject?” When [Edinburgh-based arts organization] Arika invited me to do something for their upcoming Episode #7 event, I thought that the work I was doing with Valentina would make sense. That was the first session of Poethical Readings, which included both private individual and group readings and a performance, in which we presented a reading and showed how we were doing them back then. That same year, we were invited by Emily Pethick—who I had met in London back in 2010 and was the director of the Showroom—to do a performance there. There again we did a public talk and private individual and group readings. In 2016, Emily invited us to be part of a larger program that included a community garden and other programming involving residents in the neighborhood where the Showroom is located. For that program, we designed the Sensing Salon, which includes readings as well as workshops, given by us as guests, the study group on entangled socialities. In 2017, we held the first Sensing Salon at PAF. Like everything else, we didn’t hold any meetings in 2020 and 2021. This year we had the first post-pandemic meeting. At PAF, over a few days, we have tried out different formats, but the basics remain the same as the first Sensing Salon at the Showroom.
GM: What about Arjuna Neuman—how did you meet him? Could you talk a little about how your work with him came to be?
DFS: Well, it so happens that I also met Arjuna through Stefano Harney. The occasion was the 2016 Bergen Assembly, which Stefano co-curated as part of the curatorial collective Freethought. About seven years ago, in May or June 2015, Stefano contacted us separately about being part of Shipping and the Shipped, an installation he was curating for the next Bergen Assembly. In June 2015, he sent an email introducing us. In the email Stefano says that he had initially thought about sharing our work but decided against. He then suggested that we share work. He also mentioned that Arjuna had attended a talk I had given at the New Museum in New York recently. So I thought that I should send him a text, “Reading Art as Confrontation,” which had come out on E-Flux, as well as the link to From Left to Night by Wendelien van Oldenborgh, which was partly informed by my work, including the article “Nobodies: Law, Raciality and Violence.” Arjuna sent me links to two of his films (Multi-Cultural Dread and Caesium Forest) as well as an essay titled “The Heart of Brightness” and a link to The Many-Headed Hydra by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. The basic idea for the collaboration came from the slave ship Fredensborg, the finding of which proved Norway’s involvement in the slave trade.
Arjuna and I met over Skype and exchanged several emails sharing ideas, links, files. Unlike the collaboration with Valentina, the one with Arjuna is very well-documented. Emails, filming footage, stills, the archives for each film, and the films themselves provide points of entry for how we work together, to how our differences combine into work, as well as to the differences themselves. If you ask me directly, I cannot tell you why this collaboration worked. I’m sure Stefano had an intuition. He didn’t in regards to Valentina. With Arjuna he did. Stefano thought that Arjuna could translate my thinking around slavery, value, blackness, and total (state) violence into filmic composition. After months of correspondence and meetings, Arjuna and I were also convinced that it would be the case, that we would go to Bergen and he would record me talking about my thinking on the subjects I mentioned above. It didn’t quite work that way.
Late September 2015 we met in Bergen, for the first time, to start filming, in the shipyard. We have many hours of footage with me talking about many things, including what ends up in the film, as voice-over. Of images captured over those hours, all that is left are about three or five seconds at the end of the film, which is Serpent Rain, by the way, which turned out to be not a film about my ideas by our (Arjuna’s and my) first collaboration. The other films, 4 Waters/Deep Implicancy (2018) and Soot Breath/Corpus Infinitum (2020), followed as a matter of course. We had started the experimentation with the classic elements (earth, water, air, fire) in Serpent Rain; it made sense to us to do four more films together. Each is guided by a classic element: water for 4 Waters/Deep Implicancy and earth Soot Breath/Corpus Infinitum. Let me just say it now, in case you are wondering why these films have two titles: I don’t think we decided it, I mean, we didn’t have a long talk and decide to use two titles. While working on the films each of us came up with the phrase and when we had to decide how to title the film we used both.
Perhaps the most important aspect of our collaboration is that its most explicit artistic intervention is the deployment of the classic elements—hence the title of our current exhibition at the Belkin Gallery in Vancouver, Elemental Cinema—in a critical commentary on racial violence, criminalization of refugees, global warming. These experiments expose the links between these contemporary global processes of global state capital to modern thinking and the untenable infrastructure for existence these have helped to create and justify. In Serpent Rain, the core experiment is in how the elements support an attempt to image the halting of linear time and with that move to expose the role that slavery (and conquest, the stealing of indigenous peoples’ lands) continues to play in supporting the reproductions of capital. In 4 Waters/Deep Implicancy, the element water guides a commentary on knowledge supported by an articulation of the classic elements, but this time around figured as phase transition (earth/solid water/liquid air/gas fire/plasma) set against Plato’s solids. In Soot Breath, our third collaboration, the element earth guides a meditation on heat, in which texture and touch guides a critical commentary on extraction and the environmental devastation it causes.
What I say about Serpent Rain being a first collaboration I am not suggesting that artist-academic combos, in which the academic enters with a thesis, are not collaborations. I just don’t think they are like ours. Starting with Serpent Rain, Arjuna and I have been assembling visual, aural, and intellectual experiments, to which we contribute equally. He is the one who holds the camera. I’m there in the background gathering images of backstage, so to speak. The footage he gathers with the camera and the ones borrowed from the internet are of images we both conceive, imagine, or select. These images and sounds do not stand in for ideas. They are the appropriate presentation of the ideas, as image. The same is true about the excerpts of interviews with activists, experts, academics, scientists, etc. In the films they have the same status as the images, the text, and the sound. Each one of these components does something for the complete experiment that is the film.
As I write about the collaborations with Arjuna and Valentina, I’m realizing how similar both are—yes, they are similar beyond the fact that in both we explore the elements! Of course, there are several reasons for them to work as well as they do. But I cannot but think that the main reason is because when one of us has an idea the other takes off with it and returns the idea in a way that inspires the other to take off with it again. By the time we settle on whatever the film becomes—or the question for a reading becomes—it is like the rock and the bacteria mentioned by the Norwegian geo-biologist at the end of Serpent Rain, you can’t tell where one ends and the other starts.
Images © 2022 Denise Ferreira da Silva. Images appear courtesy of the artist.