Photographer and Filmmaker
Photographer and Filmmaker
Anna Ehrenstein’s work ironically and humorously explores the possibilities and limitations of virtual reality to bridge the gaps created by eurocentrism, colonialism and racism.
'Tools for Conviviality' was produced by Anna Ehrenstein in collaboration with Awa Seck, DonKafele, Lydia Likibi, Nyamwathi Gichau and Saliou Ba.
Unseen Platform: ‘Tools for Conviviality’ takes from philosopher Ivan Illich’s 1973 work of the same name. Can you expand on how the principles of the text guided your project?
Anna Ehrenstein: I came across Ivan Illich’s writing through the work of Paul Gilroy, a critical race scholar known for his work on the black Atlantic and opinions on why ‘convivial tools’ are key for cross-cultural interaction.
Illich’s work saw a distinction between the tools and production processes that governed 1970s US society. He was critical of the tools that alienated people, such as the medical-industrial complex or the car industry, and argued that people should take control of the tools that helped them lead happier lives – “convivial tools” – such as alternative forms of critical pedagogy, or a bicycle.
The project itself is set in Dakar, Senegal. Many people migrate there because, as well as having a rich cultural history and stable economy, it has loose visa regulations and you can work without a passport. I applied my learnings from Illich’s work with everyone I collaborated with and spoke with them about the kinds of tools they use day-to-day. The different chapters of Illich’s book served as a basis for my oral research. For example, with Nyamwathi we focused on the medical complex and health, and with Awa on social networks.
What kinds of research, conversations and activities did you and your collaborators partake in?
From the beginning I wanted to be clear that this would be a collaborative process, and that I shouldn’t start with a preconceived image of what to do. Nyamwathi, for example, sent me to places in Dakar she visits for self-care, like group meditation or yoga sessions. I went, took photographs and Nyamwathi made the image selection. The Mandala-Collage was as a result of this exchange. The video work emerged from structured improvisation, visual and oral research. It was important that we created work that benefited my collaborators as well as myself. I would often step back from my role to do what made sense for them.
The project statement addresses the prominence of technology and what it means for cross-cultural exchange, mobility and migration in the present day. How have these factors been beneficial and/or reductive to your experience and work?
I’ve definitely benefited from the democratisation of certain technologies. A decade ago 3D video technology would not have been available to me or my peers, but today it is much more accessible and affordable. I also depend on digital networks for the work I do – I discovered everyone I collaborated with on this project on social media.
On the other hand, certain parameters that are key to the history of photography – which is one of the major tools of the colonial project – are intensifying due to technology’s ubiquity. I spoke critically with my collaborators about how 360° video facilitates voyeurism and how surveillance capitalism is taking advantage of these tools to exploit human interaction and behaviour. Within this framework, these technologies are complicit in de-humanising human subjects and repeating colonial trajectories.
Your visual language relies strongly on iconography. Why does this strategy prove useful for the purpose of this project?
As with many of my projects I use iconographical elements to translate the various sensory aspects of my research into a visual form. Sometimes that means translating oral concepts into visual language by means of symbolism. Art often feels like the only field where you can do research that is both scientific and associative, and iconography helps to blur these boundaries. ‘Tools for Conviviality’ thinks about how digital technology shapes cross-cultural exchange, so my use of colour and the “poor image” serves well as a vehicle for what we're talking about.
How has surrealism helped as a narrative device? Do the principles of Afrofuturism inform your work at all?
We adopted a surreal colour scheme to break from the stereotype of the exoticised Other and to comment on the impossibility of an authentic image. It was also important for me to be present in the video work, to reverse the gaze, and become a subject of the narrative. As global warming, digitised technologies and neoliberal financial capital run rife, Illich’s writings are now more urgent than ever. To visualise technology flying around a person’s head might be a more accurate depiction of what’s happening than a conventional representation of a piece of technology in use.
Afrofuturism is a literary and artistic concept that combines speculative technologies with ancient mythologies. ‘Tools for Conviviality’ might make sense with the current technologies it uses, but not with science fiction or fictional technologies. I am often asked whether I consider this work to be part of the afro-futuristic movement or aesthetic and I think there are two reasons for that. First, afrofuturism has been popularised within the media lately. Second, it has something to do with a subconscious racial bias that is an inherent part of us and western society. The technologies depicted within the images or video work are contemporary, but they are not futuristic. No one would call this science fiction if European or white subjects were depicted, but the moment the black body merges with digital technology it is read as futuristic. In fact, many cities across the African continent are leading in technological innovation today but its people have been excluded from mainstream Western conversations. African technology is erased from the historical canon.
Interview by Georgie Sinclair