by Nestor Siré and Steffen Köhn
On the Media Wall and Unthinking Photography
From 14 October to 10 January, 2021-2022
Basic Necessities portraits the dynamics of the informal economy in Cuba as it unfolds in Telegram groups and analyses the eclectic and creative uses of product photography within this digital context.
When the COVID-19 pandemic led to scarcities in the government-run shops, the inhabitants of Cuba’s capital Havana begun to use semi-public chat groups on messaging applications such as Telegram or WhatsApp for accessing food, hygiene products, medication and other basic necessities. During the period of isolation and the government's #quedateencasa (stay at home) campaign, these groups created digital spaces where people shared information about the availability of products in the state-owned shops, creative entrepreneurs created online delivery services, and black-market vendors offered scarce goods for sale. Some of them quickly garnered member numbers in the ten thousand and became an inescapable necessity for many Habaneros seeking to fulfill their daily basic needs.
First WhatsApp and then increasingly Telegram replaced the traditional black market that had always existed in Cuba, stepping in when state delivery systems failed to deliver. Instead of relying on a few trusted contacts in their neighborhood, people now turn to chat groups because they have a much wider reach and are perfectly organized. Despite persisting internet scarcity, digital black markets are nothing new in the Cuban context. Since 2007, the online classifieds website Revolico has facilitated the buying and sale of foreign consumer products such as smartphones, computers, or clothes by international brands that are brought into the country by importers (so-called mulas). It is also used to be (and still is) distributed as an offline archive file through Cuba’s offline distribution network the Paquete Semanal. Yet the recent expansion of internet access has created new opportunities for illicit e-commerce. The rapid success of chat groups as online market spaces became possible only when the government introduced a 3G network in December 2018 (and upgraded it to LTE in summer 2019) and smartphone owners were finally able to enjoy 24/7 internet connection, a prerequisite for participation within these groups.
Based on long-term artistic/ethnographic research into these practices, Basic Necessities presents a real-time documentation of the fascinating social dynamics within these groups and the current day-to-day economic situation in Havana: What products are currently in high demand? What is available through state distribution channels? What is impossible to obtain? What is the current price of a kilogram of chicken meat? This video installation for the Media Wall offers a visual record of the functioning and aesthetics of this digital black-market via four of the most active Telegram groups and documents the interactions of some 300 thousand users. Further, it provides an investigation into the everyday visual genre of product photography, into the peculiar ways in which black market sellers present their products.
For the online version of Basic Necessities, we developed a meta search engine that allows users to access hundreds of Telegram groups at the same time. Our server will be connected to the API of TgCuba, an online platform dedicated to the search of information in Cuban Telegram groups. This platform updates its database in real time and has about 497 groups with about 707.7K users and approximately 20.3M posts. At the end of the exhibition, our server will contain a database formed by the searches made by users during its duration.
Basic Necessities is a commission by The Photographers’ Gallery digital programmes, as part of the Imagin(in)g Networks programme.
(*1988), lives and works in Havana, Cuba.
Nestor Siré's artistic practice intervenes directly in specific contexts in order to analyse social and cultural phenomena. His artistic methodology consists in expanding social structures in such a way as to find more effective ways through which art can intervene in the complex relationships between official and informal networks. More specifically, the idiosyncrasies of digital culture in the Cuban context; focuses on unofficial methods for circulating information and goods, such as alternative forms of economic production, and phenomena resulting from social creativity.
His works have been shown in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Havana), Queens Museum (New York), Rhizome (New York), New Museum (New York), Hong-Gah Museum (Taipei), Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Mexico City), Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Santa Fe (Argentina), among other places. He has participated in events such as the Manifesta 13 Biennial (France), Gwangju Biennale (South Korea), Curitiba Biennial (Brazil), the Havana Biennial (Cuba) and the Asunción International Biennale (Paraguay), the Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Cuba and the Oberhausen International Festival of Short Film (Germany).
(*1980), lives and works in Berlin.
Steffen Köhn is a filmmaker, anthropologist and video artist who uses ethnography to understand contemporary sociotechnical landscapes. For his video- and installation works he engages in local collaborations with gig workers, software developers, or science fiction writers to explore viable alternatives to current distributions of technological access and arrangements of power.
His works have been shown at the Academy of the Arts Berlin, Kunsthaus Graz, Vienna Art Week, Hong Gah Museum Taipei, Lulea Biennial, and the ethnographic museums of Copenhagen and Dresden. His films have been screened (among others) at the Berlinale, Rotterdam International Film Festival, and the Word Film Festival Montreal.