File Note 116: Christian Nyampeta - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Denise Ferreira da Silva



Togetherward Images References Quote Biography Credits


“How to live together,” Christian Nyampeta responded, in an interview for Radius1 — a migratory radio station he initiated in 2014 — can only be captured “through living”. Listening to him reflect on how that particular operation is a “composition of work by many” —  a “conversion of forces” — reminded me that the adverb how, as used in this phrase how to live together, implies a question, a question that also presupposes a negative assessment of a given (or other, single or many) how, without necessarily anticipating a command, a plan, or a suggestion. Nyampeta’s rendering of how precedes (rather than proceeds to) a departure from a command, a plan, a suggestion or even an evaluation.2 His how inhabits the presumed question just to refuse it. It is an invitation. His how does not/cannot anticipate, that is, prescribe or inscribe the form of the gathering it announces. Nyampeta’s how is an invitation to gather, to live togetherward without rule or norm, in commonality, that is, in harmonia. 

Let me begin with an example of the question Nyampeta’s invitation refuses. When considering ‘how to live together’ in regard to 12th and 13th century monastic life in Europe, Giorgio Agamben reflects on the ethical-juridical programme3 that came to prevail in the Post-Enlightenment period, the one with which the tools of modern representation have colonised the world and everything in it. For Agamben the question presents itself in the form of a quest for a conception of existence based on a ‘form-of-life’ which does not result from a choice between Life or Law. The Franciscan experience, he states, enables the thinking of “a form-of-life, a human life entirely removed from the grasp of the law and a use of bodies and of the world that would never be substantiated into an appropriation … [but instead] as common use.”4 There is no need to go as far as excavating the historical-materialist opposition between ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ lurking underneath this statement. For, the separation of Life and Law opens a gap at the core of the project through which one can peer into the onto-epistemological context from which the very problem, and its solution — that is, collapsing the distinction between Life and Law — emerges. What the opposition exposes is precisely the co-existence of two modes of answering the question of whether humans [can] live together. Law, Immanuel Kant postulates, exemplifies transcendental reason’s capacity to guide human beings and help them to build peaceful polities in spite of their ‘unsociable sociality’.5 For Hegel, that guidance is History, or the progressive movement toward a fully developed and autonomous Spirit, or reason. Put differently, it is the ability of reason to conceive a shared Life. In both Kant and Hegel, living together requires a twofold determination: the outer determination of the Law, understood as regulation or commandment; and the inner determination of Life, understood as self-fulfillment. When Nyampeta’s how inhabits the presumed question as an invitation, it refuses not only the distinction between Life and Law as Agamben does, but the very terms themselves. The invitation to live together presumes its possibility in the very form of the address.

What becomes of living, working, existing, when results are gathered from an invitation, an enticement, an attraction, rather than from regulation or actualisation and the particular ways through which these make the many into one? Harmonia, or the union of two by mere apposition, I find, is a possible figuring of a gathering that presumes neither the operation of a rule nor the actualisation of an essence. Living togetherward, towards each other, I find, corresponds to Nyampeta’s proposition with regard to sound as a mode of inhabitation. Towards each other, apposed, whether making music, talking or listening to the radio, or working together as a reflection on collective experiences, Togetherward, I find, captures Nyampeta’s insight into how the many meanings of one word inhabit the same semantic field. Instead of being gathered together by the determination of semiotics (linguistics) or usage (history), the word and its meanings inhabit a similar space to which every speaker, writer, or translator has unconditional access. What happens to signification, communication, and conversation when words and their meanings are released? An iteration of the invitation inhabiting Nyampeta’s how — the gathering for the translation of philosophical texts he has identified — might just release these texts from the rules of philosophical and anthropological signification as each translator approaches these texts (apposed) to each other’s varied and distinct experiences of exile. 

While Nyampeta’s how inhabits an invitation — not a rule or a custom — it also exposes his work to a questioning of its ethical basis.  This unavoidably rests on the framework of cultural difference; through which anthropology has historically reduced every form of thinking that is not (of) western thought to something less than philosophy. Fortunately, however, his how escapes the dichotomy — life (custom) versus law (rule) — that organises the above anthropological distinction. How to live together in creation, conversation, and translation indexes poethical polyphonic inhabitation, and its capacity to seep through the economic, gender, sexual, national, racial and linguistic divides produced by and through global (racial/colonial) capital. Harmonia — togetherward in apposition or a composition without determination — as I find in Nyampeta’s work, is about existing generously to each other. And so is ubuntu.


1 Radius is modelled after the teachings of the late Cameroonian musician, musical theorist and novelist Francis Bebey.

2 Explicitly in the many incarnations of How to Live Together (Radius, Stroom Den Haag, 2014, Prototypes, The Showroom, 2014; Storefront, CASCO, 2013), and implicitly in other works.

3 What characterises the Post-Enlightenment ethical-juridical programme is the question of whether Law (formal causality, regulation, or force) or Life (final causality, actualisation, or essence) renders social life possible. For an elaboration of this argument see generally Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

4 Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form- of-Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013, xiii)

5 See generally Immanuel Kant, Towards Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History. (New Haven, CT & London: Yale University Press, 2006.)

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'A new reality requires a new word.' Lorenzo Valla


Christian Nyampeta (b. 1981) creates fictions, models, dialogues and commentaries, concerned with the difficulties of being in common. Recent contributions include (all 2017): Intimate Trespass: Hapticality, Waywardness, and the Practice of Entanglement — A study day with Saidiya Hartman, organised by Dr Rizvana Bradley and the Serpentine Gallery; Now is the Time of Monsters. What Comes After Nations? at HKW in Berlin; and Displacement and the Making of the Modern World at Brown University, Providence. In 2014 Nyampeta had a solo exhibition, How to Live Together, at The Showroom, London as part of their Communal Knowledge programme. Other recent exhibitions include Space Force Construction, the inaugural exhibition of the V-A-C Foundation headquarters in Venice, co-organised by the Art Institute of Chicago (2017). Nyampeta convenes the Nyanza Working Group of Another Roadmap School Africa Cluster. He runs Radius, an online and occasionally inhabitable radio station, and he is a research student at the Visual Cultures Department at Goldsmiths, University of London.


Denise Ferreira da Silva is Professor and Director of the Social Justice Institute (GRSJ), University of British Columbia, Canada.

Supported by Camden Art Centre’s Artists for Artists Fund, Kingdom of the Netherlands and Mondriaan Fonds.