Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness

We’ve been processing, refining and commercialising it for hundreds of years. We’ve turned it into a key actor of our nutrition, binged on it and used taxes to reduce its consumption. But what if sugar actually had the upper hand over us? What if sugar had domesticated us? This is the kind of questions that Nadine Botha asks us to consider. Her project Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness takes us on a journey across history, cultures, economy, geopolitics, bodies and minds with sugar as our guide. Or rather as the grey eminence that stealthily engineered much of the world as we know it today.

Nadine Botha, Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness (screenshot of the website), 2019-2020

Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness “aspires to develop an alternative history of the rise of modernity and the spread of colonialism from the perspective of sugar itself.” Because Botha’s radically non-anthropocentric exercise allows us to understand how sugar has not only materially built today’s reality but also neurobiologically ­shaped our perception of it, it fits perfectly into the research behind (UN)REAL, an exhibition curated by William Myers for Science Gallery Rotterdam. The show challenges our understanding of what is real when so much of what we experience is digital or influenced by the changing chemistry and architecture of our brain.

I spent half an afternoon clicking all over the Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness website. Going from “Triangular Trade” to “Deep Decolonisation” and meeting Adam Smith, Charles Manson and Pharaohs in the process. I learnt a lot but I still wanted to know more about the project. So I contacted Nadine Botha. She is a research designer preoccupied with how unseen systems are shaping important aspects of our daily lives and she kindly answered my questions:

Nadine Botha, Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness, 2019-2020

Hi Nadine! Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness attempts to re-imagine human history from a non-anthropocentric perspective. What does the sugar-centric perspective bring to our understanding of history and society?

The intention behind looking at human history from the non-anthropocentric perspective of sugar is to invite an awareness of reality and knowledge as being designed paradigms in which we operate.

Sugar is a particularly unique substance. On the one hand, the industrialised farming of sugar since the 15th-century has changed what we eat and how we enjoy it, as well as completely restructured our society, economy, ecology, culture, and even bodies and minds. On the other hand, it is the basis of carbon-based life — defined as a sugar metabolising organism. Given these two sides, sugar has very explicit and demonstrable material and abstract affects in the present-day modernity/coloniality designed environment, as well as being so microscopically and omnisciently vast as to baffle comprehension.

In other words, humans think we control it, but it could very well be that sugar controls humans. But what is human even?

Given that sugar production and consumption has grown exponentially over the past 500 years, concomitant with colonialism and the intellectual project of defining some organisms and people as human and others not, I got to wondering how much of this definition of what is “human” is based on sugar’s impact on increasing brain function and the senses, and the historical decisions that were made out of what appeared to be reason but might have been sugar addiction.

These days we are becoming more aware of the impact of sugar on our moods and mental capabilities, and slowly also how the big food and pharmaceutical industrial complexes rely on people — often people who because of coloniality are most socioeconomically disadvantaged — developing a sugar addiction to the detriment of their health. How does our perspective on history, the present and what is human change when we consider that sugar may have been the engineer behind this all?

By clicking through the website of the project, I encountered many terms, historical facts and ideas (deep colonisation, plantationocene, etc.) I didn’t know about. But you’re a designer, not an historian. So what made your approach to collecting and presenting information different from the one that an historian or sociologist would have adopted?

History is a designed narrative — perhaps it could even be argued that history is essential to the notion “human”. Out of an infinite set of occurrences, a specific set of occurrences are spun together through a seemingly linear, causal narrative that serves the interest of those who are constructing it. The project considers how the historical narrative that we take for granted as the factual reasons for present conditions could be completely different if we look at it from another perspective, that of sugar’s. Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness is an inquiry into how we can redesign our knowledge structures and lenses of reality, and how if we think differently about our past, new ways of thinking about the future can emerge. If we consider design to be a hinge between our material environment and the intangible realm of ideas, politics, beliefs, relations and emotions, could a different medium of conversation and knowledge building be designed? One of the biggest opportunities for a research designer is to bring knowledge that is otherwise academically silo-ed into conversation, so for instance while the research started in existing historical and sociological literature, it expanded to the realms of biochemistry, evolution, religion, folklore, philosophy and memes. A lot of things also cropped up through side projects — plantationocene I came across through Donna Haraway, and the link between happiness and Adam Smith through Sara Ahmed.

Once one starts looking, it can feel like everything can be traced back to sugar — even COVID19 has 10x higher change of adverse effects in people with Diabetes 2, caused by sugar addiction. This research was packaged in “granules” — the pink ones that you see on the website, and the posts shared on Instagram. These granules formed the basis of workshops in which people were invited to link granules by spinning their own historical yarns. These yarns — like deep colonisation — are the white granules on the website. At this stage the sources have been left ambiguous, to create an interplay between the believable and fanciful in the construction of a speculative alternative history. The yarns — like deep colonisation — are the white granules on the website, which has been conceived as a growing rhizome that represents an inconsistent, contradictory, wildly imaginative alternative history. Acting as a mirror, this speculative history demonstrates the inconsistent contradictory nature of our dominant narrative of history on which reality is based.

The information on the project page is organised in small clusters. What is the logic between and inside these clusters. Why not organise the information chronologically for example?

There’s a lot of revisionist historical work going on at the moment, to reposition people who by virtue of race, gender or sexuality have been written out of history. This is essential, however this project is less interested in maintaining the dominant historical narrative and filling in gaps, than in questioning the premises and structure of the dominant historical narrative. Why do we think history runs linearly from the past to the present? In physics the “arrow of time” states that the theoretical statements that describe events on a microscopic level remain true even if time is reversed, however what remains unsolved is why it appears otherwise on the macroscopic level. For many non-Western cultures, however, this is not an issue: history and time do not only run in one direction. When information is presented to us in a chronological linear format, we tend to assume that events act causally on each other, and that it is inevitable that one follows the next. Such a construction can very easily leave out key counter events and make events look more or less important than they were, and it is disempowering as it makes the present and future seem inevitable. The website hopes to jar people’s expected order of events and invite them to make their own interconnections between events.

Nadine Botha, Sugar A Cosmology Of Whiteness (screenshot from the instagram feed of the project)

Nadine Botha, Sugar A Cosmology Of Whiteness (screenshot from the instagram feed of the project)

I love the Columbus and Castro swap. How did you get to associate these two in this type of story? What is the name of this type of playful manipulation of history by the way? Retro speculative history? Alternate fiction?

The Columbus and Castro swap was one of the yarns that emerged from the workshops. In cinema, this genre might be called alt history. In design I like the term speculative alternative history as it plays into the speculative and critical design paradigms of inviting us to become more conscious of our present, and unlike cinema, not only proposes an alternative narrative but also explores an alternative methodology.

Nadine Botha X Neuhaus Sugar: A Cosmology at Hew Nieuwe Instituut

Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness also forms the basis of workshops. What happens during these workshops? What do participants get to do? What kind of futures do they imagine?

In the workshops, we start with becoming aware of sugar’s impact on our bodies and experiences, then expand that to our environment through somatic activities, automatic writing and discussion. People then use these insights to spin a yarn connecting a couple of granules. For me, the workshops are the project. The initial research into literature gives the workshops a starting basis, but it was very important to open up the research and conceptualisation process as soon as possible. Otherwise it’s not really imagining history from sugar’s point of view, it’s just imagining history from Nadine’s point of view. While the website rhizome presents an archive of the results, the real rhizome is the one that spreads between participants and their families and friends, and how they become aware of the ubiquity of sugar and coloniality, and designed nature of narratives and history.

Nadine Botha, Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness at Science Gallery at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam. Photo: Lisa Eileen

What do we see in the works you are exhibiting at the Science Gallery in Rotterdam? What do these images represent?

Three of the sugar granules have been materialised as windows or lenses. What seems like glass, is in fact sugar cooked and cooled in the same way that Hollywood makes special effects glass. The lenses are cracked and broken, just as what was perceived as modernity and reality is revealed to be coloniality and construction. The first one on the left shows the veins of a leaf or tree transposed on a cross-section of the brain, to evoke how sugar is the basic energy unit of life. The second one, in the middle, shows an Islamic pattern and a tea/coffee pot, pointing to how originally sugar came from the Middle East before being taken to the Americas by Columbus, where it met its beloved companions tea and coffee. The third one is a microscopic view pointing to the ubiquity of sugar: there is sugar in every (carbon-based) living being on the planet.

Nadine Botha, Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness, 2019-2020

How do these works (and Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness in general) fit in the theme of the exhibition (UN)REAL?

If fish can’t see the water, then for most people we can’t see the sugar. The world that we cannot imagine without capitalism is less than 500 years old — a blink of the eye for the 4.5-billion-year-old planet — and to a much larger degree than we realise, built on sugar. Sugar as a political motivation, bodily fuel, cultural concept and social aspiration. But what makes sugar so fascinating, is that it is not only “real” as in functioning in the objective plane, but also a genetic predisposition to seek out sweet food and a psychoactive substance that affects the functioning of our brain and body: enhancing our senses to make the external seem more real than the internal and as inducing responses like anxiety to this untethering, but also giving our brains the energy required for the incredible intellectual advances of the past 500 years. “Real” and “reality” are words that date back to the 15th-century, when the systems and arguments used to substantiate colonialism were being made. The common understanding of real is that it is objectively verifiable by an independent observer, but what that actually it is a social construct of agreeing to see the same thing. What if what we see is co-created with sugar? What if what we see is not only co-created with sugar, but also with all the other critters that make up our microbiome? What is real? What is unreal?

What’s next for Sugar?

The project is certainly a long-term project, and I would like to present the workshops in as many places as possible around the world in order to let the rhizomatic alternative history grow beyond the Western-centric realm. I’m particularly interested not only in taking the project to countries that were previously sugar colonies, but also back along the pre-colonial Silk Route through the Middle East to sugar’s origins in India and China to uncover the sugar history that has been erased by the colonial narrative. Until travel opens up again though, I am refiguring the workshop for the Zoom era and exploring institutional partnerships.

Thanks Nadine!

Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness is part of the exhibition (UN)REAL, an exhibition curated by William Myers for Science Gallery Rotterdam at Erasmus MC.