Homo Economicus, the East India Company and Industrial Espionage

A conversation with Laura Malacart (LM) and Sara de Jong (SdJ)

SdJ: What were the sources of inspiration for developing your current installation for the Who are We? Project? What discoveries did you make in the process that have found a place in your artistic intervention?

LM: I addressed the question in Who are We? with a brand new piece work. I think the most pressing issue when we think of identity is economy because economy overrides everything else: race, class, gender, sexual identity all become secondary to capital. This issue is exemplified when it comes to the praxis of citizenship – the complex process whereby an individual is able to acquire citizenship in a precisely justified praxis, becomes irrelevant if the individual has sufficient capital (citizenship by investment).

So, in responding to the question ‘Who are We?’ with my work, I went back to Foucault, homo economicus, and the origins of neoliberal capitalism. I went as back as far as 1600 with the birth of the first corporation in the West (of course). The East India Company started with £72,000 and a group of merchants set to exploit the ‘Indian subcontinent’. Its history is significant and bears certain parallels to the now in terms of how powerful a corporation can become to the extent of imposing legislation and influencing military actions.

One discovery I made was that of the figure of Robert Fortune, a botanist and expert in Chinese culture, hired by the East India to penetrate China and ‘obtain’ the secret of tea, which indeed he achieved in what has been considered the first instance of industrial espionage where he obtained 20,000 plants and seedlings that he shipped directly to the Darjeeling plantations in India and that became the locus of the great British tea industry.

Laura Malacart: Robert


History can be absolutely crucial. We have witnessed a trend in the arts devoted to the reconfiguring of the archive and therefore considering the fact that canonical histories have been consigned to posterity because of specific political reasons (Benjamin’s history of the victorious for instance or feminism and hidden histories).  History has to be constantly revisited; we are in history, it is not a question of distance, I think the present is just as historical, because it is its product and because it is connected to socio-political developments.

This was illustrated in my other discovery: although I knew that the East India Co. had been dismantled in the 1800s following a revolt in India, I had no idea that the brand of the company had been bought in 2010 by a London based Indian entrepreneur and indeed I have walked past luxury tea shops called The East India Company in London without even realising. The shops have adopted the brand of the 1600 company including its notable heart shaped logo. This again illustrates the way in which the economy overrides other categories; this makes it possible for an Indian entrepreneur to buy, market and make profit with the East India Co. brand.

That the essence of a nation is represented by a commodity; stolen and imported tea representing Britishness, brings us full circle – My answer and point of departure for the question ‘Who are We?’ is that we are subjects structured by economies, which led to the first corporation. When the first very ugly corporation is reborn from its ashes in 2010, ‘purified’ of history by using history exclusively to signify ‘longevity = quality’, this clearly proves that a brand denies history its role. Identity becomes homogenised to a one fits all – just as tea is for everyone.

When we think of conventional symbols of national identity like a language, flag, history, religion, dialect, ethnicity, values – England is unified by a commodity, and this makes sense because London is the most prominent European financial market (but until how long after Brexit?).

Laura Malacart: I am Robert


Language, Taal, Lingua

SdJ: Uit je verschillende werken blijkt je fascinatie voor taal en vertaling. Waarom denk je dat taal en vertaling belangrijke thema’s zijn? In hoeverre is je eigen meertaligheid belangrijk voor je kunst? En in welke talen denk je dat je werk met publiek communiceert?

Google Translate : Il tuo lavoro dimostra un interesse per le lingue e la traduzione, perche’ pensi che queste siano questioni importanti? In che misura il tuo multilinguismo è importante per la tua arte? E in quale lingua pensi che il tuo lavoro stia comunicando con il pubblico?

LM: Thanks for this question about language, translation and the relation between my own plurilingualism and art. When we have to define what is human often the category of human is defined via the creation and use of a signifying (arbitrary) language. Language is the human interface when it comes to external communication and also possibly contributing to shaping consciousness and selfhood (whether one subscribes to Lacanian theory or not, the ‘inner voice’ is partly linguistic).

My practice focuses on language because of its dual nature: it has a cultural, and ‘natural’ bias and a significant role in shaping thinking. At the same time, when we think of the voice, we have language in an embodied form operating as a social interface and a marker of singularity.

This territory is significantly political and it traverses the body. Languages translate economically according to the market power of their originating countries and of course English has already taken precedence as lingua franca, followed by I believe 3 other ‘strong’ languages – Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish.

On the other hand my interest in language comes from a background in comparative literatures, from being an ‘integrated foreigner’ and also coming from a mixed culture family and an awareness (that will be familiar to you) that one is a different person when speaking different languages. Given that much of my practice deals with problematising fixed positions, this is an ideal context. If we add that contemporary theories of translations state that translation is not equivalence, I use this idea to generate a creative space that elaborates on source and target and to critique power relations between them. At times this is done via ‘innocent’ strategies like pedagogical performance…

Forse non ho risposto alla tua domanda… I do need to stress that language/s are important because they are political. My multilingualism has given me the vantage point of a fish out of water that realises there is water (the medium). I pay great attention to context and use language to construct something that can be related to or as an entry point. When you practice communicating in a language that is inevitably material, language is multidimensional (like the voice) even if it’s a single word on a white background.

Learning, (Pseudo) Pedagogy, and Ideology

SdJ: Learning as a theme runs through various installations that you have created, in some instances representing learners, as in the Voicings project, in others, putting audience members in the role of learners, such as in The Little Book of Answers. What do you find interesting about learning?

Your work also plays with the inversion of who is the learner and who is the teacher, which disrupts common positions in the power/knowledge nexus. How do you do that? Why do you find this important?

LM: My strategy in an age of saturation is concerned with not using the strategies used by the mass media and to think about the specifics of each project in its own context and how its specificity has broader relevance. (Pseudo)pedagogy is a fairly recent mode for me that developed with participatory work as a way to embody experiences – since the work is not conceived as entertainment then it’s pedagogic in some way.

In Voicings I give professional actors a challenge to their craft, in the Little Book of Answers I am dealing with the general public so the challenge is more accessible and of a more general nature. I am not sure I invert the teacher learner role, it’s more about thinking creatively about what is being taught, why and how. Maybe how these methods can be used not for teaching but as deconstructive tools.

Laura Malacart: I am Robert


Learning is political- what curriculum is chosen is going to affect people’s subjectivities and political attitudes – it creates ideologies and in extreme cases it is specifically designed to create propaganda (creationism etc).

It is important to create awareness about the ideological role of education, the nature and power that specific paradigms hold… let’s think about the distinctions between humanities and sciences and their economic cachet… this is why I hover in the social sciences domain as they sort of straddle these contexts…

A vast amount of money in national budgets is deployed to Defence (a definition that masks itself in the opposite semantic meaning of what it is… ). Defence and Entertainment are the industries with the highest funding, this is why it makes sense that gaming is one of the most profitable and funded industry.  And since you mention that disruption of positions, in gaming roles are up for grab…

Laura is is a research-based visual artist. She has a practice-related doctorate on the politics and representation of the voice in fine art (2011, Slade School of Art, UCL). Her practice is multidisciplinary and she recently collaborated with a sociologist at Manchester University on The Little Book of Answers, a participatory performance on the praxis of citizenship made for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

Sara de Jong is a researcher in the Citizenship and Governance Strategic Research Area at the Open University exploring the politics of NGOs and civil society engagement in the context of migration, in light of postcolonial continuities.

The conversation below gives a glimpse into an ongoing dialogue between Laura and Sara by Skype and on email, traversing the distances between the UK, Spain, Italy and the United States.

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