In Guangzhou’s Nanfei Bar, regulars have a few drinks and chat about a range of issues, from local life to global current affairs. Meanwhile, Chinese women writers from the previous century look back at them from black-and-white photos fixed to the walls and windows of the bar. Their gaze is pensive; vigilant, as though their very eyes are participating in a parallel discussion.
These images are part of the exhibition Ansible by Jeronimo Voss – a montage of images, text, video, and captions. On the Nanfei Bar’s second floor, a video installation slips seamlessly into its surrounding environment, portraying women writers earnestly discussing issues related to the 1920s Guangzhou’s syndicalist movement. This fictional scene from China’s early Republican era transcends space and time to merge with the Guangzhou of a century later.
Before 1927, anarchist and syndicalist ideas, as well as modern organizational practices based on the notion of the Commune, were widespread in Guangzhou. The analysis of political movements across geographies is what moves Voss, an active participant in Synnika, a collective and experimental space for practice and theory in Frankfurt/Main. Since opening its doors in 2019, the space has been working with different self-organized spaces and initiatives related to Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta region in the South of China. It was from this cross-border dialogue that the collaborative project Escaping Involution and the exhibition Ansible were born.
In the exhibition, Voss uses the aesthetics of online communication, interface windows, and web-conference profile images as part of the artist’s speculations with “Ansible”, a concept conceived by science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin to designate a tool that achieves real-time, long-distance communication. In her novel The Dispossessed (1974), the protagonist remembers his life in an isolated, or rather involuted, anarcho-communist society. He left his home planet in order to invent the Ansible, which eventually becomes part of an interstellar communication system of a broader political construct that Le Guin refers to as the “League of All Worlds”, or the “Ekumen”.
Voss’s artistic reference to Le Guin begins with the instantaneous connectivity available to us in our everyday lives, speculating about its inherent implications and providing a demonstration of how the Ansible might serve as a tool for social interaction and participation in a near future. Voss stages fictional conversations to imagine instantaneous communication spanning space and time in which Ursula K. Le Guin plays a central role. By drawing from Guangzhou’s anarchist past, a significant dialogue is established between Chinese writers Ding Ling, He Zhen, Bai Wei, Xie Bingying, Feng Keng, and Le Guin – writers united by a shared discourse on questions of social struggle.
Bai Wei: Once you build up an economy and see it running, however alternative it might be, a little bubble – it can be a rat race to keep it going, especially if you distrust the outside world. You need to shield it like a fresh plant in a tropical storm –
Ding Ling: –like a propertarian?
Bai Wei: I don’t mean like an entrepreneur is running business; it’s a different kind of competition. But I get your point: the alternative becomes something you own and protect: in this case, collectively, as a syndicate. And they wanted to see it growing, nurture it, feed it, and eventually get fed by it at some point.
In a debate about syndicalist organizations, Voss uses the image of revolutionary playwright Bai Wei as a web conference profile, articulating a notion reminiscent of the modern-day phenomenon of Involution before returning to a question specific to the social tendencies of her age.
A voice from the future travels back to the liberation movement intellectuals of the Republican period, demonstrating that dialogue is built on the need for reciprocity – be it across space or time:
Le Guin: Responsibility is a temporal relationship. The responsible promise holds time together. Once we understand time, and how to work with it instead of against it, we are able to build a community in which we can speak to each other.
The discussion of "time" is crucial in Voss's work. The "Involution" model is evident first and foremost in the present social system, which uses time as a unit of economic value. Through the means of communication and transport, the global expansion of capital overcame many barriers of time and space, but human beings have not gained leisure and liberation from it – the use of time was seen as the supreme law, which, in turn, exacerbated the scarcity of time. As Jonathan Crary concludes in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, we are forced to produce continuously while consuming ourselves, our world and our collective capacity to imagine a common future.
He Zhen: The network was called ADC, Administration and Distribution Coordination. It was a coordinating system for all syndicates, federatives, and individuals.
They didn’t govern persons; they administered necessary labor. Social interchange is neither mediated through money nor through state bureaucracy. It was an economy of time, visualizing how the available resources could be recombined to form schools, factories, playgrounds, or starships.
In “Ansible”, Voss proposes a system for Administration and Distribution Coordination, one that coordinates the activities of a variety of associations so that everyone can rationalize available resources at a maximum reduction of necessary labor. Comparable to the conceptions formulated in the radical leftist text L'insurrection Qui Vient by the Comité invisible, this idea of the Commune is to free up as much disposable time as possible for everyone, offering escape from the tyranny of the clock.
As a tool of the "League of All Worlds" in Le Guin’s novel, the Ansible is both a technical device and an ethical concept of temporality. In the case of the latter, the Ansible establishes a particular form of time. We are driven to imagine a mediation between a sequential and circular understanding of the clock, “becoming and being, cause and effect.”
The reconfiguration of the temporal order by the Ansible could also be related to the concept of the hyper-cultural universe. In his text "Die Zeit bedenken" ("Reflections on Time"), Vilém Flusser depicts the "Bit-Universum" of point time, in which possibilities (Möglichkeiten) outside of the mythological or historical sphere are "strewn" like particles and are "within reach." In Hyperkulturalität: Kultur und Globalisierung (“Hyper-culturality: Culture and Globalization), Byung-Chul Han suggests that Flusser might have interpreted networking as a practice of love and recognition. "Networking creates a hyperspace of possibilities, which in turn allows for the expansion of the future. The here and now in the hyper cultural universe does not have a sense of angst or isolation; it is love and networking that are its essential characteristics."
In The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin has formulated a narrative structure resembling a Möbius strip, something that Voss has also achieved in Ansible, between the content of his artwork and the extensive collaborative nature of its production. In the context of the exhibition, the montage of images and captions continues to the rhythm of electronic drum beats composed by musician Lain Iwakura, a.k.a. Ezili-i Sabbahs. A glimmer of the possibility of the Möbius strip lies in the cyclical, back-and-forth nature of a reciprocal process.
It is worth mentioning that, today, many similar debates and conversations are taking place in communities in Guangzhou and beyond. Some visitors to the exhibition reflected that the show reminded them of Soeng Joeng Toi (SJT), a former co-governance organization and practice space in Guangzhou, which closed and disbanded last year. Although SJT once had a vision of generating more connections, the dialogue between the participants broke down and collapsed. In fact, the form of dialogue does not guarantee its own validity and continuity; conflict is always part of it. According to Xiaotian, one of the curators of Escaping Involution, this is similar to the revelation brought by Covid: "Technical means cannot eradicate the viruses in nature.” Just as network meetings or Ansibles only mediate conversations, they cannot neutralize the conflicts they contain. But at least it is possible to make an optimistic, Flusserian judgment – the space of networking allows for an expansion of the future.
After all of the effort we have put into confronting "involution,” “escaping” then becomes a topic of constant discussion. Where is “escaping” going to go? Gilles Deleuze argues that the line of escape is the real transformative force leading to a constant generation in deterritorialization. “Escaping” creates the future, precisely because it does not have a predetermined direction. As Xiaotian exclaims, “Abstraction is sometimes more intriguing and fascinating, allowing one to look up at the stars from the pain of reality.”
The window facing the street from the second floor of Nanfei Bar is covered by a photo taken a few months earlier, a view from the roof of the syndicate housing project where Synnika is located. You see a lot of office space in high-rise buildings, as well as the ruins of a building. What could be done with all that empty space that is only half-used, or not used at all? Ansible brings this question to Guangzhou.
Are we able to set in motion a form of communication that can address similar problems plaguing distant places? How much more will the spirit of mutual association symbolized by the Ansible come to life in reality? This is, I believe, the crux of the Ansible: the multifaceted way in which we share, debate, and attend to the issues we face.
Translated by Stephen Nashef, Nicole Deng.
.  From Ansible (2022) by Jeronimo Voss  Such as Soeng Joeng Toi, Miao&ChaoCoop, Prickly Paper, Pansi Cave (Qianyang Zuo).  Escaping Involution is the title of a series of exhibition openings in Frankfurt/Main and Guangzhou in 2022/2023. One of these openings was Ansible at Guangzhou’s Nanfei collective, hosted by HBStation and Synnika. For more, see: www.escapinginvolution.com. Involution 内卷 is a term that went viral in early 2020 in China. It refers to the hyper-competitive environment that has increasingly come to characterize both work and education in China. Its contemporary use in China was inspired by Clifford Geertz’s 1963 anthropological book, Agricultural Involution.  Today, there is hardly any trace of the history of Guangzhou’s other socialism to be found in the city itself. Most historical work has been done by historians from outside of China, most notably by Arif Dirlik, who published the book Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution in 1991. [5-8] From Ansible (2022) by Jeronimo Voss. IMAGE CREDITS Installation views, photos by Wu Wenli.