We have begun to communicate with the animals, and the stars

Amelia Barikin

All is magic, all is simple, it is like living in paradise. We do not need cars, or planes. We do not need motorbikes either. We move through light, through sound … through ideas. From here I can get to the North Pole in half a second. When I want something, I just have to think about it and that comes directly. If I want to eat chicken, it comes well cooked and I eat it without doing anything. When I want to make love. I directly think about my wife. And she also thinks about me. And through telepathy we make love, like that. All goes quickly. Like at light speed.

—Neïl Beloufa, Kempinski, 2007

How to speak or write the future into being? Perhaps it depends on whether you’re a magician or a linguist. “For the linguist”, theorist Christopher Bracken explains, “metaphor and metonymy are relations between signs; for the magician, though, they are relations between things. The theory of magic works on the premise that physical forces can be deployed by discursive means.”1 Magic is a way of bringing something into being—a conflation of the sign and the object that posits a direct connection between physical and mental realities. It is from this conjunction that certain cultures have construed magic’s negative connotations: magic as naïve, mistaken, primitive, confused, illogical, dangerous, immoral; magic as heretical, superstitious, or anathema to truth. To practice magic is to insist that signs and ideas do not ‘represent’ or refer in a secondary way to the ‘world-in-itself’, but are instead active and direct participants in its primary constitution.

In 1913, Sigmund Freud attempted to explain magical thinking as the ‘projection outwards of internal perceptions’, and, in his book Totem and Taboo, related it back to two kinds of magical practice: imitative magic and contagious magic.2 Imitative magic is based on aspects of mimesis (the voodoo doll that stands in for the subject), and is guided by the construction of ‘likeness’ or imitation as a manifestation of power. Contagious magic works at far greater distances, spreading like a virus between contacts on the move. In Bracken’s words, the “techniques of contagious magic operate on the principle of contiguity. They assume that objects that were once in contact continue to act on each other at a distance. If you want to influence someone, speak her name, for it remains connected to her even when uttered in her absence.”3

To a magician or a sorcerer familiar with the principles of contagious magic, thought is gifted with the same value as objects: the world inscribed in discourse and the world of objects and matter are contiguous. This is a question of value. For magical thinking, a stone is of no less importance than an idea, a desire no less real than an ocean.4

Historically, artists have had little difficulty negotiating this territory, in so far as they are usually well versed in manipulating the various shades of illusion and intensity that condition the appearance of the ‘real’. “What forces us”, Nietzsche questioned, “to suppose there is an essential opposition of ‘true’ and ‘false’? Is it not sufficient to assume degrees of apparentness, and, as it were, lighter and darker shadows and shades of appearance – different ‘values’ to use the language of painters? Why couldn’t the world that concerns us be a fiction?”5 But if Nietzsche’s question now appears to say as much about magic as it is does science and art, that is because contemporary relations between magic, art, science, and fiction have become increasingly forced to confront the unravelling of universals and absolutes—an unravelling fuelled by the rejection of dogma as dogmatic, and by the revelations of contingency in the fabric of the universe.


Neïl Beloufa’s short film Kempinski was shot in Mali in 2007 during a trip he took to Africa while still a student. The assignment was to produce a documentary film. He recalls: “There was a partnership between a hospital, and a bank … I felt at that moment that there was a paternalist or exotic expectation for what we were doing. I wanted to be a rebel, to shift the rules of the game in order to not ‘take’ anything from the people I would film and to reverse western post-colonial representations.”6


Kempinski opens with an image of language: the letters KEMPINSKI, spelled out atop an urban building like a strangely displaced parallel to the iconic Hollywood sign. The mise-en-scène melds documentary techniques with the aesthetics of low-budget SF to create a hypnotic, meditative montage. On the soundtrack, animal calls merge with abstract, low frequency electronics, troubling the familiar with a suggestion of the unknown. A man holding a lamp stands amidst a group of oxen in the dark. Contours of faces and bodies are illuminated by his hand-held fluorescent, which throws a small pool of light onto the immediate environment. Addressing the camera directly, the man speaks fondly of his animal friends. “There is a very good agreement between us”, he explains. “Yesterday, my wife the cow gave birth to two small calves and the baptism is for tomorrow. The orchestra will come. Five oxen organised it. There are guitarists, pianist, bassist, so the party will be beautiful. I am the only man on this planet with these animals.”

Later, other small vignettes unfold in which various people explain something of their circumstances in a similarly direct address to the camera. Despite the fantastical imagery that marks their tales, it is surprisingly difficult to gauge the veracity of their statements. Each story is delivered with sincerity, and the details are at times correlated by the testimonies of others. Beloufa’s ‘reversal’ of post-colonial expectations unfolds on a plane of radical uncertainty, a void space of unlearning that preys on cultural projections to cloud semiotic moorings.

As the stories accumulate, however, a relationship emerges between the content of the spoken narratives and the structure of the film. “We see the buildings like stars”, one man says. “They are superimposed with stars. We only see the light. It’s not like cement or, I don’t know, bricks … the buildings are in light form … we enter when we want. We go out when we want and how we want. But that does not show.” Language here takes on the mantle of code, a series of statements to be deciphered, as if the revelation of intent might be achieved simply by a tweak in perspective. We are told of cars that talk—but perhaps this is already true of the present, in a world where fridges and cars and phones communicate in the tongues of humans. We hear descriptions of travelling through sound, of sex at the speed of light—but maybe this is just another way of expressing the effect of virtual communication, or the projection of data across the gulfs of time and space. The present becomes the future across the screen of the present, and it is unclear at which time we might finally come to rest.


Much of this restlessness can be put down to Beloufa’s structuring of the film. He explains: “Kempinski respects the official documentary rules as nothing is scripted … As a basic parameter I simply asked Malian people that I met to talk about the future in the present tense.”7 It is because of this small grammatical shift, or ‘conjugational mistake’ as Beloufa calls it, that Kempinski is usually described as a ‘science fiction documentary’ in which Mali residents are interviewed about their visions of the future. But this description doesn’t do justice to the temporal complexity of the work, partly because the ‘reveal’ of Beloufa’s intervention (the substitution of present tense for future tense, an instruction to speak of the future as if it had already arrived) is given only in the film’s credits, with the inclusion of the line ‘Kempinski: imaginer le futur au présent’. Awareness of the film’s ‘futurity’ then differs according to whether the film is encountered on a loop in a gallery, online, or as a one-off screening in a cinema. The temporality of the narrative mutates according to its context, in alignment with the rules conditioning its display.

Although all human languages enable the expression of temporal proximity and distance to some degree, there still remains, as linguist Wolfgang Klein notes, “a clear difference between the temporal properties of a situation (state, process, event) itself and the mental representation which the speaker has of this situation, when he or she sets out to speak about it.”8 It is therefore, he continues, “the speaker’s mental representation, rather than the situation itself, which is crucial for the linguistic expression of time.”9 In Kempinski, although time is encoded in language, the narration constantly brings mental representations and linguistic ‘situations’ into alliance. Numerous scenarios are envisaged in which ideas are manifested as action and ideas and objects are equated: “We do not distinguish anymore between normal materials, animals, and men”, explains one man, again illuminated by the artificial light of a lamp,

“we have begun to communicate with stars, with animals.”

If this is an imagining of the future (and it could be the present, or it could be utopia), it is not a future shaped by technological innovation, or even a future familiar from the iconography of science fiction. As Beloufa has confessed, “the interesting thing about the project, and which I wasn’t really expecting, is that even though science fiction?s global culture is known [in Mali], most of what they said correlated to a more animistic universe, which surpasses my own understanding.”10 The Malians’ predictions for the future seem to be tied to discourse: the suggestion is that evolution will progress through the way things are ‘spoken’ and ‘imaged’ and circulated. A similar principle is at work in what Bracken calls ‘magical science’: in which he predicts, “signs will no longer stand for things but actualise them.”11 Bracken writes of the future but the roots of this conflation between sign and object are ancient. The same principles can be found in rituals of sorcery, in the animist beliefs of numerous cultures across the globe, and in the speculative capacities of science fiction texts, too.

To adopt a science-fictional methodology is to commit to radical contingency, and insist on the efficacy of imagination in generating possible worlds. The ‘futures’ of science fiction arrive through processes of speculation and extrapolation, including, as Beloufa’s film demonstrates, through the dispersal of sign properties into object properties. But the affect of the utterance still depends on its capacity to actualise desire, a desire manifested in Kempinski by the enfolding of the future back into the present. “Once you think about something”, we are told, “you have it in front of you. It is not a machine. It is the human being’s thought. It is the flow of your imaginations … and you can do whatever you want.” In Kempinski, the ability to ‘make real’ a world through image and speech is dependent on the collapse of desire into actuality, a collapse that appears to be perpetrated under the influence of contagious magic.

  1. Christopher Bracken, Magical Criticism: The Recourse of Savage Philosophy, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2007, 3. []
  2. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey and others (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 13:18. []
  3. Bracken, Magical Criticism, 3. []
  4. Although magical thinking appears blatantly oppositional to recent discourse around speculative materialism, there may be something to be said of their shared investment in non-human agencies … a consideration of non-relation as a key property of the anti-anthropocentric, perhaps? See Quentin Meillassoux, After Infinitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, Continuum: London and New York, 2008. []
  5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1966), 34. []
  6. Neïl Beloufa, ‘#SolarPanel: Neïl Beloufa Q&A with Cecelia Alemani’, Highlineartumblr, posted November 20, 2013, available at http://highlineart.tumblr.com/post/67567564504/solarpanel-neil-beloufa. Accessed March 19, 2014. []
  7. Neïl Beloufa, ‘Rackroom interview: Neïl Beloufa & Andrew Berardini’, Artslant, August 2009, available at http://www.artslant.com/ny/artists/rackroom/19590 []
  8. Wolfgang Klein and Ping Li (eds), The Expression of Time, Walter de Gruyter GmBH: Berlin, 2009, 3. []
  9. Klein and Li, The Expression of Time, 3. []
  10. Beloufa, ‘Rackroom interview’, Artslant, 2009 []
  11. Bracken, Magical Criticism, 11. []
Amelia Barikin is a writer and independent curator. Her book Parallel Presents: The Art of Pierre Huyghe was published by MIT Press in 2012; her co-edited anthology Making Worlds: Art and Science Fiction was published by Surpllus in 2013.