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PhD project

The work of abyss and time: towards an emancipatory poetics of the tropics and critical autoethnographic practices of research within media art.

This doctoral project by artist and educator Luiz Zanotello engenders a postcolonial understanding of time, space and movement by means of artistic research methods. The project examines the contradictory effects of the abyssal line of thought within the tropics as a starting point.

2021 - 2025
Luiz Zanotello

Located between the imaginary-concrete line separating the global north and south into zones of being and non-being (Fanon, 1967), the tropics are sites where opposing ecologies of knowledge - hegemonic and subaltern - coexist and are mutually in friction. Such friction configures the tropics as liminal sites of encounter (Anzaldúa, 2015), political resistance, knowledge production, and dynamic transformation that are influenced by the long-lasting effects of the abyssal line (Santos, 2018). The abyssal line, as argued by Santos, acts through cognitive and material dispossession, extraction and universalization put in place by the imperial project of colonialism and capitalism. Such line radically separates humans, not-fully-humans and non-humans into separate categories (Santos, 2014; Ferreira da Silva, 2016) while turning the epistemologies of the global south (that traditionally transgress such classifications) as either absent or irrelevant to hegemonic discourse. Meanwhile, the coexistence of disparate modes of knowing within the tropics obscure a number of paradoxes and contradictions (Cucicanqui, 2020) that cross both material and cognitive ecologies. In response to these insights, this project examines the following initial research question: how do tropical epistemologies, practices and technologies embody temporal, spatial and kinetic contradictions in resistance to the dispossession, extraction and universalization promoted by the abyssal line of thought?

In order to address this central research question, this research project intends to rescue non-dichotomic modes of thinking-feeling (Santos, 2014; Escobar, 2015; Cucicanqui, 2020) prominent in tropical epistemologies in order to engender a contemporary, post-colonial understanding (or warm reason as in Santos, 2014) of time, space, and movement. In particular, it combines critical auto-ethnographic methods (Holman Jones, 2016; Fournier, 2021) with tropical artistic practices of re-appropriation (such as gambiarra within technology, anthropophagia within visual art, remixing within music, magical realism within literature) as methodologies of research through the arts. Both sides produce insights and formulate concepts that are born in the movement between the two modes of knowledge production (Bergermann et. al., 2021). The research proceeds by an analysis of tropical tropes as material-discursive phenomena (Barad, 2007) that enact one or more of the contradictions of the postcolonial condition. Research objects such as the tropical sunlight, forest, rain, afterglow, shore, desert, flood, landfall, among others, are elements that, appropriated by the abyssal exotification of the tropics, can be broken together-apart (Barad, 2014) and re-appropriated to operate trans-literally (Fedorova, 2016) towards an emancipatory, and yet unknown, tropical truth (Veloso, 1997). In this sense, the privileged perspective from the arts in addressing said objects is taken into account, since the arts are able to operate productively at seeing (sensing) and not merely recognizing ambivalences, multiplicities and contradictions that occur at the limits of knowledge (Bippus, 2015).

Together with auto-ethnographic writing, artistic experimentation is intrinsically linked within this research to the furthering of concepts and theoretical formulations. Transmedia (Elleström, 2019) in character, these experiments take part within a studio practice where different media are re-appropriated, through a tropical perspective, in an attempt of translation (Latour, 1999) and transduction (Fedorova, 2016) between disciplines. Electronic prototypes, experimental video, digital photography, found objects, archival materials, and digital media are used as tools of research to enact material circumstances of space, time and movement. Such elements are both collected and constructed between the author’s residence in Germany and his place of birth in Brazil. At a later stage, these will be presented in the form of installations within exhibitions to generate and further a collective discourse on the topic. As a result, this work engages with the additional question of which particular ways can critical autoethnographic research methods operate together with tropical artistic practices of media/technological re-appropriation to inquire on postcolonial understandings of time, space and movement?

Lastly, the research crosses the fields of artistic research and media art in relation to postcolonial studies, media theory, sociology and philosophy. By combining (artistic and embodied) practices and (critical and philosophical) theories from both sides of the abyssal line, this research aims at contributing to the further development of these fields. On the one hand, it provides transdisciplinary methods of knowledge production through the arts built upon tropical, non-dichotomic modes of thinking-feeling. On the other hand, it engenders a postcolonial understanding of time, space, and movement that emancipate from the strict categorical imperatives of the abyssal line of thinking. The outcomes of this research will take the form of  a written PhD thesis developed alongside a complementary artistic body of work. Through the above mentioned stages, it is the aim of this research to provide alternatives to the cognitive and aesthetic conditions that lead to the further repetition of the abyssal line within art and academia, and thus act towards an enhanced global cognitive justice  (Visvanathan, 1997; Santos, 2018).

Anzaldúa, G., & Keating, A. L. (2015). Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: rewriting identity, spirituality, reality. Durham: Duke University Press.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Barad, K. (2014). Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart. In Parallax, 20:3, 168-187.

Bippus, E. (2013). Artistic Experiments as Research. In Experimental Systems Future Knowledge in Artistic Research, p. 122-135. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

Elleström, L. (2020). Transmediation: Communication Across Media Borders. New York. Routledge.

Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove Press.

Fedorova, K. (2016). Transmediality, Transliteracy, Transduction and Aesthetics of the Technological Sublime. In Acoustic Space, Vol. 15. Geneva: Motto.

Ferreira da Silva, D. (2016). On Difference Without Separability. In 32nd Bienal De São Paulo Art Biennial: Incerteza viva, p. 57-65. São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

Glissant, É. (2010). Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press.

Santos, B. D. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. New York: Routledge.

Santos, B. D. (2018). The end of the cognitive empire: the coming of age of epistemologies of the South. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rivera Cusicanqui, S. (2020). Ch'ixinakax utxiwa: on practices and discourses of decolonization. Cambridge: Polity.

Veloso, C. (2003). Tropical Truth: A Story Of Music And Revolution In Brazil. Da Capo Press.

Visvanathan, Shiv. (1997). A Carnival for Science: Essays on science, technology and development. London: Oxford University Press.


  • Prof.dr. A. Haarmann
  • Prof.dr. A. Sick
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