Basic Necessities - Nestor Siré and Steffen Köhn

Thu 14 Oct 2021 - Mon 10 Jan 2022

On the Media Wall and Unthinking Photography from 14 October

Basic Necessities shows the increasing digitisation of the informal economy in Cuba, exposing the images and interactions between Cubans buying and selling goods through online chat groups.

Screenshots of four telegram channels, showing products including eggs, medication, and soft drinks

Basic Necessities - Nestor Siré and Steffen Köhn

Thu 14 Oct 2021 - Mon 10 Jan 2022

On the Media Wall and Unthinking Photography from 14 October

Basic Necessities shows the increasing digitisation of the informal economy in Cuba, exposing the images and interactions between Cubans buying and selling goods through online chat groups.

When the COVID-19 pandemic led to scarcities in government-run shops, many inhabitants of Cuba’s capital Havana turned to chat groups in order to access everyday products. Messaging applications such as Telegram and WhatsApp replaced the traditional black market in Cuba for accessing food, hygiene products, medication and other basic necessities. During the government's #quedateencasa (stay at home) campaign, some of the groups quickly garnered members in the ten thousands, and became an inescapable necessity for many Habaneros seeking to fulfil their daily needs.

Digital black markets are nothing new in Cuba, despite persistent internet scarcity. Since 2007, the classifieds website Revolico has facilitated the exchange of foreign consumer products such as smartphones, computers or clothes by international brands that are imported into the country by importers (so-called mulas). 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, enabling smartphone owners to finally be able to enjoy a reliable internet connection.

Based on long-term research, Basic Necessities offers a startling documentation of societal needs in a time of crisis. The project allows us to see in what products are currently in high demand; what goods are available through state distribution channels; what are impossible to obtain and even what the current price of a kilogram of chicken meat is.

 

Combined image of several telegram channels displaying household goods for sale

The video installed on the Media Wall is a visual record of the functioning and aesthetics of this digital black-market via four of the most active Telegram groups, documenting the interactions between some 300,000 users. The project highlights an eclectic genre of product photographs posted by black market sellers - a spontaneous mixture of appropriated stock photography and casual snapshots - that simultaneously offers inadvertent access into Habaneros’ day-to-day lives.

The online extension of Basic Necessities, available to view on Unthinking Photography, allows visitors to search live through hundreds of Telegram groups using a repository created by Rafael Rodríguez. The content, captured over the period of the exhibition, will be fed back into the database using bots installed in more than 400 Cuban group chats currently populated by more than 700,000 users.

Screenshot of the Basic Necessities browser, showing results for the search 'Spaghetti', including images of pasta and prices

Further reading

Nestor Siré interviewed, by Marloes de Valk on Unthinking.Photography: https://unthinking.photography/articles/interview-with-nestor-sire

¿Qué bots cubanos usar en Telegram? (Which cuban bots to use in Telegram?) by Alberto C. Toppin. https://eltoque.com/que-bots-cubanos-usar-en-telegram

Köhn, Steffen. 2019. “Unpacking El Paquete - The Poetics and Politics of Cuba’s Offline Data Sharing Network”. Digital Culture & Society 5(1): 105-124. https://mediarep.org/handle/doc/16622

Biographies

Nestor Siré

(*1988), lives and works in Havana, Cuba. www.nestorsire.com

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).

 

Steffen Köhn  

(*1980), lives and works in Berlin. www.steffenkoehn.com

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.

 

Basic Necessities is a new commission by The Photographers’ Gallery digital programmes, as part of the Imagin(in)g Networks year-long theme.