Limitlessness and Limitations: Defining Dark Matters

by American Artist and Zainab Aliyu

During the Summer of 2020, "Dark Matters: On Blackness, Surveillance and the Whiteness of the Screen" was an online course we taught at the School for Poetic Computation (SFPC). SFPC is an independent educational organization founded in New York in 2013 that offers courses at the intersection of software, hardware, art, poetry, and criticism. For ten weeks, we stewarded and taught this class over the video platform Zoom. Thirty students convened over and through national borders to study alongside us and with one another. We engaged in intimate practices of unlearning, deep listening, and reflection. Most importantly, we studied “under the university,” a framing we borrow from cultural theorists Fred Moten and Stefano Harney which they call the Undercommons.

1 Surveillance 
contributed by Lluvia Nisaye
2 Poetic Computation
An act of resistance against the utilitarian notions of “efficiency” and "progress" that often replicate structures of domination and capitalist agendas.
contributed by Zainab Aliyu
3 Zoom
A video-conferencing platform that became extremely popular in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within weeks, many professional institutions and universities mandated the use of Zoom by employees rather than other more familiar video-conferencing platforms. Though applications such as Skype and FaceTime have built their names to be synonymous with the act of video-calling, Zoom immediately overcame their familiarity through mere ubiquity. Zoom’s popularity has raised privacy concerns for many critics of networked technology, and though the FBI issued a warning about Zoom’s teleconferences being hijacked to display violent imagery and hate speech, it is still considered a popular platform for mass video-conferencing in the United States as of August 2020.
contributed by American Artist
4 Study
“When you think about what study is, the way that we understand it as a practice, we’re talking about getting together with others, and determining what needs to be learned together, and spending time with that material, spending time with each other, without any objective, without any end point, without any sense that we will ever escape our feeling that we are permanently immature, premature, without credit, and in a kind of mutual bad debt to each other, which we don’t intend to repay.” - Stephano Harney on "Study"
contributed by American Artist

The class takes its namesake from Simone Browne's book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. This critical text winds personal, political, and pop-cultural narratives of racial gaze and sousveillance to address the origins of so many recurring dynamics of power that operate through high technology. The readings in our class began with Wendy Hui Kyong Chun's critique of software and ideology's tendencies towards obfuscation, as well as American Artist's Black Gooey Universe and imagining of an unsovereign technology. Over the four semesters that this class has been taught, we have introduced authors to the curriculum such as Jackie Wang, David N. Pellow, Lisa Sun-Hee Park, and Ruha Benjamin. Selected work by these authors hold the origins of the interface to account for the continuation of racial capitalism, the debt state, colonialism, the white racial frame, and other global practices that are deeply rooted in the colonial history of the United States.

5 Racial Gaze 
the scrutinizing of blackness,
looking so hard that,
that-the-one-that's-looking’s eyes
into hallucination,
contributed by ilona altman
6 Sousveillance
sousveillance - instagram - surveillance - cops - profit by Sus Labowitz
We observe each other using our senses and what we gather remains in a closed loop. We interact person to person on social media, watching and wondering about each other through likes and clicks. In ways that are both obvious and obfuscated from us, police and advertisers monitor our behaviors and connections using data that could follow us forever. By storing our memories online, we are trackable and traceable in an ever expanding spiral outwards, with all roads leading to profit.
contributed by Sus Labowitz
7 Software
An anthropomorphic and intangible category of data prescribed by humans.
contributed by Cameron Granger
8 Ideology
A projection of ideas that may or may not be agreed upon but rather accepted by a dominant group / oligarchy (to be consumed)
contributed by Krystal Maughan
9 Obfuscation
"the action of making something obscure, unclear, or unintelligible"
I remember being at a town hall meeting listening to a white woman explain her ideas around police presence at the pride parade in toronto.
She talked, talked, and talked for about 10 minutes
Utilizing convoluted and academic words
A Black woman asked: wait, what did she just say?
Another Black woman responded: she just said that shit is fucked up!
Effective mileage!
That's a lot of expensive words put together and evaporating in the air. What is the point of reading so damn much and so many years of school for your thoughts to be completely inaccessible.
Hidden operations are effective operations.
contributed by Lluvia Nisaye
10 Black Gooey Universe
In collaboration with Angus Fletcher, Krystal Maughan, Rahel Aima and Sara K.R.
contributed by Sara K.R.
11 Interface
The means by which an object is acted upon.
contributed by Ryan Patterson
12 Racial Capitalism
a system of apportioning exploitability, humanity, and extractability along racial lines in order to subsidize whiteness as quality of life, as access to rights.
contributed by Makayla Bailey
13 Debt State ⤑☌ (Cellular): 
A bright flash
overwhelms my mitochondrial energy  ҉ 
Taking eager residence across the rivers of our bloodstream,
nanobots cluster together, erecting ATP tolls. ¤
—just a breath—and the energy currency of the cell
sanctioned and sorted for motion ⍄
contributed by Lauren Monzon
14 Colonialism
the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.
The continued economic exploitation of a country, occupied politically and physically by nations outside of its original inhabitants. Colonialism continues on after occupation has ended through an absence of reparations.
contributed by Tristan Sauer
15 White Racial Frame: 
The architecture of White supremacy that posits Whiteness as invisible, neutral, entirely abstracted into the mainframe. The blank white GUI, replete with a blinking cursor; the general culture of light. A transposition of culpability, to be replaced with weaponised fragility. 𝘐𝘵 𝘴𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 𝘧𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯, 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘪𝘵'𝘴 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 𝘴𝘤𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘧𝘢𝘤𝘵.
contributed by rahel aima

Dark Matters reminds us about the panoptic models and codes that construct the world we live in, their embedded value systems, as well as the need for our ongoing reckoning with them. This class has given us intentional time to tend to ourselves as we contend with this predatory state, to study the material while existing within the systems we are learning to name. Together, we studied theory, but theory is nothing without the lived experiences that inform it. The duration of our time together coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing movement for Black Lives (particularly in response to the murder of George Floyd), and the calling out of various academic institutions and places of work (including our own) for their perpetuation of anti-blackness. These issues framed all of our conversations and largely informed our communal ethic of sharing, creating, and relating with one another. Through our co-learning, we can better understand how structures are compromised, and we can begin to imagine strategies for future resistance, and what an outside to the structures we participate in might actually look and feel like.

16 Panopticon
contributed by Kevin He
17  Predatory State
a system or economy set up to suck and withhold resources from those without access to power and capital to those deemed worthy within it. It is then sustained through the continuation of manipulative capitalist practices to maintain the state.
contributed by Tash Nikol Smith
18  Anti-Blackness
The Google search results for "unprofessional hair" feature mostly black women and their hair that is not straight.
contributed by Makayla Bailey
19  Communal Ethic
set of values or principle beliefs that individuals share through experience, regional proximity, and/or culture — often developed as a response to oppression and having a shared moral value for a reciprocally driven world upholding respect for nature and humanity.
contributed by Tash Nikol Smith

Our self-published book The Dictionary of Dark Matters is the culmination of all of that thought. It is a 500+ page (and growing) collaborative people's dictionary written over the course of ten weeks and assembled through collaborative channels on It is an abundance of poetry, prose, creative writing, personal history and illustration filled with terms we have come across during our time together. For transparency, every voice within the dictionary is uniquely represented with the contributor's preference in typography. By archiving our histories and inserting our human experiences into the critical theories we are learning, we are looking inwardly and actively engaging with the way we move through the world. It feels progressively vital, helping us to not just interrogate the technologies, systems, and policies that regulate civil rights, but also inquire about whose bodies remain captive. The dictionary can be viewed in its entirety at and

20 People's Dictionary
An infinitely capacious, colorful lexicon of voices giving meaning to the breadth of our collective, lived experiences.
An assemblage of knowledge established within our mutual histories, liberated from predestined meaning, where there is no mandating of prescriptive language, nor any other tools of the elitist, and colonial literary industrial complex.
Toni Morrison reminds us that “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; [it] does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”
A People’s Dictionary is a subversive inquiry into the constraints of language and the other inherently oppressive structures which hinder our potential to imagine the Beyond. It asks questions like: “Which experiences inform theory? What is intellectual authority? Who gets to dictate what it means to be human?”
contributed by Zainab Aliyu
21 Abundance
A large quantity of a specific thing or resource
contributed by Matt Ross
Obvious from the outside, not hidden, how it works and who does the work are obvious. Allows for direct computing with the device, no barrier of interface.
contributed by Sus Labowitz

This piece appears in the Annual 2021, themed “tend.” 

American Artist is an artist whose work considers Black labor and visibility within networked life. Artist is an alumnus of the Whitney Independent Study Program and a lecturer at The New School. They teach critical theory at the School for Poetic Computation (SFPC). Recent solo exhibitions include My Blue Window, 2019, Queens Museum, NY and I'm Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die), 2019, Koenig & Clinton, NY.

Zainab Aliyu ("Zai") is a Nigerian-American cultural worker based in New York. Her work interrogates the cybernetic and temporal entanglement embedded within societal dynamics to reveal that not only are all sociotechnological systems of hegemony interconnected, but that we are all implicated through time.