Isaac Kariuki

Artist Interview

September 14, 2020
Isaac is a visual artist and writer from Nairobi, living in London. His practice spans video, sculpture, photography, 3D art and performance lectures. Within these moulds, he address displacement and surveillance of minority groups, and internet culture in relation to the Global South. He has exhibited at the Tate Modern, Kadist (Paris) and the Kampala Art Biennale among others as well as holding lectures at the Tate Britain and the Chelsea College of Arts. He is currently a resident at Somerset House.

Hello Isaac, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background?

Hey! I grew up in Nairobi, but I’ve been in London for about 8 years. A lot of my childhood was spent on road trips with the family. We love dry savannahs, especially watching theWildebeest migration. I grew up close to Westlands, the business district, and that’s where I spent a lot my weekends, just in malls, around street vendors, buying pirated VCDs and going to the movies. Nairobi’s changed a lot in the last decade. The newer malls and apartments are just asset fraud empty structures. I can’t count how many malls there are now. I moved to the UK to study digital art, first in Kent then London at Central Saint Martins.The despotic buildings in Kenya are nothing compared to what I see in London!

How would you describe your practice to someone new?

Everything falls under visual art, whether producing it or critiquing it. I recently told someone that, really, my work is about globalisation, i.e., how does western dominating monoculture seep into countries in the Global South and marginalised communities elsewhere, and how do those communities respond to it. So in Precious Metals, a new project I was happily commissioned by arebyte Gallery for their Powerplay exhibition when I told the curatorRebecca the idea: I was really interested in the kind of scenarios recent immigrants find themselves in countries like the U.K, where due to poverty, drought, war, etc, they had to flee and enter a country that not just shut the doors on them, but equally, extremely eager to exploit their desperation for cheap labour. The recent immigrants can sometimes neither have proper work papers or the social capital to slide around easy, so they rely on services outside the clear channels, like illegally rented homes, using their roommate’s Uber Eats account to earn money, things like that. It’s a grey market, in between the clear and blackmarket. I didn’t want to have people front and centre, that would defeat their privacy concerns, so I thought of making sculptures of watches, these are things people carry with them everywhere, they also contain heavy social symbolism. Gold, silver, rhodium, things like that on wristwatches also move in and out of the black and clear market.

To people in the West, things like the black market, mobs, hidden businesses, can be aesthetic, cool or edgy, but for a lot of people, this is how they reproduce themselves in a hostile world.

Still from Precious Metals, 2020
Youtube Search Screenshot for Precious Metals Courtesy Youtube

How did you get into photography and writing? Who were your biggest influences starting out?

I thought I was going to be a fashion photographer with art photography intuition, so I was really into high concept, playful stuff that people like LaChapelle would produce. I wanted to frame visual archetypes and observations into fun shoots but in the end, you’re still selling cheap laboured clothes, white aspiration and orientalism. I had a lot of problems where I couldn’t just shoot street casted bouncers – the Nike swoosh had to be at the bottom corners. It feels gross and just against all my politics, lol, so I took the fashion part out of the equation.

I was and still am mostly an editor. I wrote my first official thing in 2016, it was a piece on the10-year anniversary of Nelly Furtado’s Loose album. I just needed to praise it! I don’t know another album that swings from Promiscuous to a devotional Christian marriage song. From then on I really enjoyed writing. It’s always an idea that burrows into my mind and I can’t get it out until I write about it. I became really obsessed with counterfeit cameras and so I wrote that for Photoworks Annual, which I believe is out now.

How did your interests in internet culture and privacy concerns especially of young people of color come to be?

I didn’t have full, always available, working internet until I moved into student halls in my first year of university. The login page always let you know that you’re making a bargain for your privacy in order to gain access to the internet. Constantly seeing that pop-up just gets to you. Then a year later Citizenfour was released, the Edward Snowden documentary; thenFacebook’s attempt to court India by providing internet infrastructure, with the caveat that you must log in and browse through Facebook. Everything about surveillance is just neoliberal control: it’s ever-expanding and pathetically mundane.

A lot of the privacy and data experts are liberals who only ask that Google and Microsoft be more transparent, or less shitty. They don’t demand full destruction of these platforms. They also rarely consider the material effect surveillance tools have on black and brown people.How algorithmic decisions land people in jail, and most recently, an error did that. I love talking about the nebulous ‘black twitter’ but I also know how frightening it is that our culture is happening on a private, centralised platform. It doesn’t really feel radical or countercultural to do things on these platforms when we’re just increasing their profit margin and buying into the idea that they are ultimately good. There’s also now an app that gives you a stake in them data-mining your phone usage, but it’s all couched in black culture motifs and familiarity. It’s endless. When people say how bad facial recognition is on black and brown people, I’m just thankful these things are worse at their jobs than we thought. Let’s not buy into them.

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We really enjoy your writing Is Online Piracy an Art Form?, published in Garage Magazine. It makes us curious about what are your thoughts on internet piracy in relation to privacy?

Thank you! I’m really proud of that essay. I think piracy is like the evil step-brother of the internet and it will never let total surveillance win. Piracy demands anonymity, it asks that you come educated on how to hide yourself before you look for free stuff. Most people only know about VPNs because of wanting to watch something. Sites like the Piratebay keep coming back like weeds, it’s incredible. There’s a vaguely socialist bent to piracy. I think about this a lot. People stealthily recording movies in theatres, letting their computer fans whirl for hours as they record live television, just to give to total strangers for free? Altruism right next to hair-plug adverts.    

A lot of the internet begs us to be atomised, to see yourself in direct opposition to the rest of the world. Companies benefit from this paranoia and self-interest because you’re building your brand or your faction. Piracy deals in the opposite, sharing music you burned from a CD shows a disinterest in your self-interests. Piracy abhors a vacuum.

Can you tell us a bit more about Diaspora Drama? What are some of your favorite moments when putting this project together? Would you consider making your own publication again?

I started it out of the blue because I lowkey wanted to mock diaspora art, like poems about the motherland and trees, but that was so bad-faith and people can smell that. So I thought of just making a zine about young people of colour online working with new media. Also wanted to ask where things were going now that POC-led subcultures were being co-opted by the mainstream (fashion and television particularly) and if woke-capitalism would really free us.

I think all my favourite moments were on the final issue, D2K, me and Zahra interviewed Mitski on the road; an artist replicating every Kim Kardashian selfie, a conversation about Taiwanese Geopolitics by way of soaps; the London riots annotated by Kirk Franklin lyrics; a Second Life editorial. It contained everything I prided in the zine: playfulness, slightly off-putting and internationalist.

I would love to make another publication! I rarely mention it but I was meant to make a special issue of the zine with M.I.A. for her Southbank residency but it fell out of the budget constraints.

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Can you tell us more about CBT (Coding, Braiding Transmissions)? What was the inception of the collaboration? Have you run into any technical difficulties? How did you overcome it?

So in Coding : Braiding : Transmissions, Tamar Clarke-Brown, who I collabed with, had an idea of mixing coding and braiding hair, we developed it over a couple months and I suggested things like linking it to surveillance networks. We were thinking about tech utopianism, the way tech start-ups project universality with their products, but months later we find out they were just spyware and used to destroy black communities. (I’m currently using Nextdoor, just trying to borrow a power drill, and the amount of cops in training is extremely troubling.)

We especially made a performance and lecture series tracing the anti-surveillance tools enslaved Africans in Colombia used by briaidng escape routes to their hairs and looking at the timeline and politics of black hair. We made software with Daniel Sikar where performers would braid their hair and through GoPro cameras on their heads, would be sending each other encrypted messages because the camera was picking up the hand movement and the language we created to go with it.

We’ve performed it maybe 4 times and the A/V stuff was always a slight problem because we used an X-Box Kinect which is extremely outdated. We performed at the Tate Modern and it went really well up until the last 5 minutes when the screen just went blue, nothing was working and we were trying everything but we just had so much technology happening at the same time and we couldn’t just be smooth-sailing for 2 hours, it’s usually a 20-minute performance, max.

Coding Braiding Transmission,2017
Photography medium format
Coding Braiding Transmission Still, 2018
Tate Modern

What are you working on these days?

Aside from the arebyte exhibition, I’m researching at the moment, going deeper into grey market and the dark web. But truthfully, I’m getting really into gardening and just trying to keep my venus fly trap happy.

What would you want to make if we are in a perfect world with unlimited time and budget?

I always wanted to extend my SIM Card project into actual working SIM cards, where as soon as you walk in to the space, you could switch cards and use it, completely decentralised and the assurance that no one’s listening to your calls. I don’t know how much a phone-tower is but I imagine that’s hefty. I also want to make a public access tv station that runs 24/7 and it’s just edutainment.

SIM Card Project, 2016
SIM Card Project, 2016

Have you seen or read anything interesting lately that you would like to share?

I can barely finish reading a single sentence in quarantine. I’m in a zoom reading group where we read the End of Policing, the book a lot of people started once the Minneapolis uprising began. And it’s kind of funny because we don’t think the book is leftist enough.

I’ve also been reading all I can about the mutual aid networks and activism from the AIDS crisis. It’s so heart-breaking but also incredible. I watched How to Survive a Plague and it’s phenomenal.

I’m finishing Orange is the New Black. I’m on the final season. I’m trying to get everyone into it because it gets extremely anti-carceral. There’s stories about recidivism, how class dictates your sentencing, restorative justice, etc. All the things that are currently being talked about in the wake of the upending of racial hegemony by the police and prison state. Everyone dropped out of the show when they killed off a fan-fave, but who told you a show about a women’s prison would be fan-service? I highly recommend the last 2 seasons.

Do you have any bad habits? How do they affect your work and your daily life?

I’m very consequential. Doing something will either ruin my life or be the best decision I ever make. It builds procrastination. I think more people are consequential rather than perfectionists.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us? Any fun facts our readers can learn about you?

I love pigeons. They’re such characters. They’re not scared of humans or see them as above them. I think they’re beautiful creatures and very neglected and shut out, given how caring and social they are. I tried to count how many pictures I’d taken of them on my iPhone and it was about 120+

For More of Kariuki:  |  @iisaaacc