In collaboration with Nestor Siré
commissioned by The Photographer’s Gallery London
The impact of Covid-19 on the global economy, supply chains and every part of public life, inevitably led to crippling scarcities of the most basic of products across the world. The inhabitants of Cuba’s capital city, Havana, facing the lack of essential goods in the government-run shops, began to use chat groups on messaging applications such as Telegram or WhatsApp in order to access food, hygiene products, medication and other basic necessities.
Basic Necessities is a video-installation and online project that looks at the dynamics of informal economies in Cuba as manifested by the increasing use of these digital platforms. In particular, the work analyses the eclectic and creative uses of product photography within these contexts, reflecting real-time documentation of the current day-to-day economic situation in Havana and revealing the fascinating social undercurrents present within these immaculately organised groups.
Throughout the period of enforced isolation under the Cuban government’s #quedateencasa (stay at home) campaign, these platforms created essential spaces where citizens were able to share information about the availability of products in state-owned shops, creative entrepreneurs could offer online delivery services, and black-market vendors traded scarce goods. The groups quickly garnered tens of thousands of members and became an inescapable necessity for many Habaneros seeking to fulfill their basic daily needs.
WhatsApp – and increasingly Telegram – replaced the traditional black markets that had always existed in Cuba, stepping in when state delivery systems failed to deliver. Instead of relying on a few trusted contacts in their neighborhood, people turned to group chats not only because of their wide reach but because of their effectiveness.
Digital black markets have always been prevalent in Cuba, despite persistent internet scarcity. Since 2007, the classifieds website Revolico has facilitated the exchange of foreign consumer products such as smartphones, computers or clothes by international brands brought into the country by importers (so-called mulas), and distributed as a collection of files through Cuba’s offline distribution network El Paquete Semanal. The recent expansion of internet access has created enhanced opportunities for illicit e-commerce. The rapid success of chat groups as online marketplaces became possible only when the government introduced a 3G network in December 2018 (and upgraded it to LTE in summer 2019). These infrastructures enabled smartphone owners to finally be able to enjoy a 24/7 internet connection, a prerequisite for participation within these groups.
Taking a creative and research-based approach to exploring these practices, Basic Necessities offers a startling documentation of societal needs in a time of crisis and an intriguing investigation into the genre of product photography by examining the ways in which black market vendors present – and sell – their products on these platforms. The project allows us to see in real time what products are currently in high demand; what goods are available through state distribution channels; what are impossible to obtain and even what the current price of a kilogram of chicken meat is.
This video installation on the Media Wall offers a visual record of the functioning and aesthetics of this digital black-market via four of the most active Telegram groups and documents the interactions of some 300,000 users; While the online presentation on Unthinking Photography, allows visitors to be able to search through hundreds of Telegram groups using a repository created by Rafael Rodríguez. The content, captured over the period of the exhibition, will be fed back into the database using bots installed in more than 400 Cuban group chats currently populated by more than 700,000 users.