We spoke with the artist Renzo Martens on Zoom on two occasions in October about his recent film White Cube. The film follows the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC), a plantation workers’ cooperative based on a former Unilever plantation in the Congolese town of Lusanga, as they attempt to end the destructive system of monoculture on their lands – by building upon it the ‘white cube’ of the title. In November we met in person for the U.S. premiere of the film for DOC NYC in New York City. The following is a synthesis of conversations on Martens’ ongoing 15-year project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), its complex engagement with the global contemporary art economy and its ties to extractivist economic practices in the post-colonial Global South.
Martens first gained notoriety for his 2008 film, Episode III: Enjoy Poverty which became the foundation for his subsequent work in the DRC and the subject matter of White Cube. Our interest in his work began over 10 years ago with Enjoy Poverty, which remains an unsettling work. The title of the film spells out an antithesis of empty promises made by Western visitors and the economic benefits derived from the marketplace for images of poverty. This troubling dynamic, which Martens willingly implicates himself in, is exposed in Enjoy Poverty as the perpetuation of colonial immiseration in Sub-Saharan Africa through the mechanisms of Western aid. Poverty is underscored as a resource that unlocks financial liquidity which ultimately cycles back to donor states.
Martens plays the film’s protagonist, a character who is part social practice artist and part Fitzcarraldo, who travels to the DRC to instruct the purported beneficiaries of humanitarian aid to directly partake in lucrative spoils typically restricted to Westerners like himself. Martens’ turn as a European do-gooder in the film is delivered with remarkable exactness, leading some commentators to conflate the artist with his persona. The character’s mix of naivete and obstinance guides his capture of harrowing video depictions of starving children, casualties of war, and the inhumane working conditions that mark the lives of displaced plantation workers and their families. His treatment of subjects is direct and unburnished. In doing so, the film does little to ease the compunction of its Western audiences.
The character played by Martens in Enjoy Poverty appropriates the role of free-market evangelist by recruiting a group of local photographers to recalibrate their output to match the violent subject matter extracted from their community by Western photojournalists. However, this agonizing process only serves to highlight that such profitable enterprises are beyond their reach: press credentials and access to the photography market of the Global North is denied by the head of a local NGO. With his limited authority, Martens can only serve as a middleman between the photographers and the lucrative economy of “concerned photography” that furnishes the enjoyment of poverty for cosmopolitan audiences.
The centerpiece of Enjoy Poverty is the inclusion of a blinking neon sign that reads “Please Enjoy Poverty” The sculpture is hauled deep into the jungle by a team of porters where it is activated by a portable generator which powers its message. The glowing sign serves as a de facto signifier for contemporary art and anticipates the building of the white cube a decade later. Curator Charles Esche explains that “the sign goes from a provocation in the beginning to a statement of acquiescence and numbness at the end. It is a reality that Martens puts himself in and cannot change, at least not in the course of this film.”
Even as Enjoy Poverty slyly reveals fundamental contradictions that structure the humanitarian apparatus of NGOs and news agencies, the film’s scenarios have a limited material impact on the lives of the communities that work the palm-oil plantation in the DRC. Subsequent projects narrativized in White Cube demonstrate a refined focus on the economy and impact of global contemporary art. Martens doubles-down on his commitment to Lusanga by enmeshing his work with the livelihoods of plantation workers. By decentering the tenets of Euro-American institutional critique, Martens has managed to provide more than symbolic acts of protestation. He has helped CATPC to build a lasting infrastructure by rerouting the flow of capital from contemporary art markets and institutions.
In Enjoy Poverty, Martens is unable to secure press credentials for the local photographers, however in White Cube he tactfully leverages the significant critical response to Enjoy Poverty to connect the CATPC to contemporary art venues in the Global North. In the opening minutes of White Cube Martens exclaims, “I made a film in Congo ten years ago. And then I was invited to present it at Tate Modern in London. When I entered that museum, I saw ‘Unilever’ logos all over the white walls of the museum… Unilever, Unilever, the Unilever series… The greatest, most famous artists of the world, financed by Unilever.” The sources of Unilever’s corporate financing of contemporary art can be traced directly to the former palm-oil plantations of the Congo where workers earn less than $1/day. The aim of White Cube is to reverse this cycle by bringing contemporary art to the Congo through the building of the OMA-designed white cube in Lusanga and through international exhibitions by CAPTC.
Enjoy Poverty unfolds in relation to news and advocacy images produced in the Global South, while White Cube tracks the economy and circulation of art objects produced by CATPC. In the nearly 14 years since the release of Enjoy Poverty, cloud computing and digital rendering has made objects more suitable to circulation. The deployment of 3D laser scanning to capture CATPC’s handmade sculptures in Lusanga creates the possibility of their re-materialization as printed chocolate sculptures in Belgium.
At about the halfway point of White Cube, Martens steps aside as the film’s protagonist and is replaced by Matthieu Kasiama, a charismatic CATPC member who travels to New York City to represent the group at a major exhibition at the Sculpture Center in 2017. The exhibition opening and corresponding panel discussion feature prominently in the second half of White Cube. We were present in-person for these events and noticed Martens on the sidelines or behind a camera as Kasiama took center stage. A shift to the background is indicative of the role Martens is currently taking in his collaborative work with CATPC. Concomitantly, the first group of sculptures made by CATPC featured in White Cube are indebted to Pende sculptural conventions, but according to Martens the recent works by the members of the group is quickly establishing their own unique idiom.
White Cube ends without providing the audience a glimpse inside the white cube gallery. This withholding points to the direction of current and future projects becoming less bound to conventions of contemporary art institutions and markets. Instead, CAPTC is looking toward producing its next film, land reclamation projects, and experiments with weirder economies.
João Enxuto and Erica Love: The white cube is designed to mimic the neutrality of global museum infrastructure. Like most Global South museums designed by architectural firms from the Global North, it functions as an image signaling globalization. In the film we never get a glimpse inside the white cube. Are the contents of the white cube relevant? And how long will the cooperative [CATPC] need to live under its shadow?
Renzo Martens: The white cube that was built in Lusanga is this quintessential white cube and which was also the brief, if you will, to the people at OMA [an architecture firm founded by Rem Koolhaas]: that it simply needs to be a white cube. I have various contradictory thoughts about it, so I’ll just rehearse a few of them here.
The most simple one is that white cubes have been financed with plantation labor. Critical artists critique inequalities and then, if they’re lucky, exhibit this work in prominent white cubes themselves being financed by that system so it’s kind of a dead end. It’s not right economically or socially. So, it was partially about trying to make all of this come together on a plantation. To some degree, debates about precarious labor and debates about new institution building are only held in New York or Berlin.
I wanted to not just test this regime of critical art that critiques but to really use it in a place where it could actually matter. The first step was simply to have the white cube at the disposal of whomever is there, which happens to be CATPC. They recently sent me text messages and some images of the white cube. They are conducting a mock trial against the white cube so, we’ll see what they do with it, but it sounds like a fun idea. It’s only possible because it’s there. They have one in their backyard, so they can easily put the white cube on trial. How would that happen if it was in New York?
Of course, one problem is that, indeed, the thing that is being repatriated is this Western white cube. And you could argue that it’s the last thing they need. Nobody in Lusanga said “Renzo, what we really need is a white cube,” that didn’t happen. The people on plantations have been there for four or five generations and are still living on $8 a month, so what can, if anything, the white cube mean to them?
I think it’s one of the rare white cubes that takes responsibility for what it is to be a white cube. But it also functions in the way that white cubes do worldwide, because there is symbolic value to whatever is around a white cube, it brings visibility, legitimization, and capital. And now the land around this white cube is owned by CATPC.
JE and EL: Yes, it worked as you’ve outlined, the white cube helped to legitimize CATPC as artists which, in turn, helped to create critical and market interest in their art. And in the end, they’ve been able to buy back their land via the sales of their art. So, in a sense, this simple white cube helped the community own the land on which it stands.
RM: I agree, I mean that’s kind of almost a lucky stroke: building a narrative that goes wrong in the first part of White Cube when the community [in Boteka] wants their land back and they see my presence as an opportunity to make that happen. So, it’s kind of a beautiful turn of events that a few years later Matthieu [Kasiama] who becomes successful with his art also simply wants his land back.
JE and EL: Yes, at the end of White Cube Matthieu Kasiama declares, “Between art and land, I would choose both. But if I’m told to take only one, I would take the land.” So there seems to be an evolution in the mechanism of capital, moving from using the global art market and those flows, to one which has to do with the land itself, but then there’s also the tension between the global and the local. The material part is important, you know, having a room of one’s own.
RM: Where are you going to put your chair to even think about art?
JE and EL: Yeah, exactly and it seems like the trajectory of this entire project is going towards procuring land with less of a focus on making art, maybe they’re not mutually exclusive, maybe they’re going to work together?
RM: I agree, it could begin with having the land and then building financial structures on top of it. I think this piece in the New York Times says it really well: it’s not just the art that needs to be repatriated, so much more has been stolen, I mean I think we fail to understand how deep that trauma is from everything the colonialists did in their search for new markets and the confiscation of resources day after day. And so, the art is one terribly important aspect but it’s not everything: it’s the land, it’s the language, it’s religion – everything was burned to the ground. I think we hardly understand how deep this has shifted people’s lives. Belgian and British missionaries were always confiscating land and there was no way you could turn against it, if you revolted, you would be killed immediately.
JE and EL: And these conditions resonate and relate to the characters you’ve played, as the Western missionary who, in some ways, speaks the language of the oppressor or administers an oppressive system, such as global capital and the art market. In Enjoy Poverty the performance is more explicit, you acted as a sort of agent or a missionary. We’ve noticed that when discussing your work with art students or others in the art field there’s a lot of focus on the character you portray in your films. How would you respond with respect to your role in White Cube?
RM: I have been critiqued because it was the act of a white man to put a white cube there and I think that’s exactly the responsibility I need to take. I’m not saying this is the white man’s burden but that I’m taking responsibility for the fact that I’m an artist and as an artist, I’m tied in with these inequalities and that simply critiquing these inequalities is not going to change the inequalities, one needs to go a few steps further.
JE and EL: It seems myopic to just see your project as a white man bringing a white cube to the Congo since it’s not taking into account the history of Unilever. As White Cube explains and shows, Unilever has underpaid their plantation workers for generations and then funneled millions into supporting white cubes throughout the Western world. Your project is a direct response to this dynamic.
RM: I must admit that I play with it a little bit, I think you know, in the first scenes of White Cube you see me dressed in a white shirt.
JE and EL: Business casual.
RM: Yes, you see me as a kind of quintessential white man, but I think it’s a responsibility to make myself knowable as such. There are alternatives: I could hire an actor – obviously I could do that – but I have decided to take the role that I’ve been given anyway. The people that really wear the white shirts and that really call the shots economically, they will never allow themselves to be filmed like that. So, I’m a stand-in for power and for ways to change that power.
JE and EL: It’s always messy when art goes beyond just the representation of an idea. Perhaps that’s what people in the art world are uncomfortable with. And we think that part of the goal of a group like Weird Economies is acknowledging the messiness of economy and finance. A direct engagement with capitalism is usually a non-starter for many individuals involved in the art field.
What’s exciting is that your work has always dealt directly with economic realities on the ground, and you’ve tried to introduce new kinds of financial arrangements which can be made actionable. That sounded a little bit like a conclusion…we’re really interested in seeing where a lot of this ends up going in the coming months. Thank you so much for speaking with us.