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Solidarity: a conversation between Joshua Virasami, TJ Demos and Mads Ryle (Part 2)

As part of ONCA gallery's Some of Us Did Not Die 2018 Lost Species Day programme in Brighton, UK, The Democracy Center's Mads Ryle hosted this discussion on solidarity and ecological justice. The audio and transcript are divided into three sections - this is part two, containing the discussion between TJ and Joshua

Each year ONCA gallery in Brighton, UK, takes part in an international programme of events as part of Lost Species Day. In 2018 ONCA hosted an artist’s residency and series of events responding to themes of biodiversity, racial justice, and environmental justice. This was curated by Imani Robinson, artist and member of SYFU (sorryyoufeeluncomfortable) Collective.

As part of this series Mads Ryle of the Democracy Center hosted a talk and discussion with Joshua Virasami of Black Lives Matter UK and art historian TJ Demos, Director of the Center for Creative Ecologies. The audio recordings and accompanying transcripts are divided into three parts. Part Two here contains Joshua’s response to TJ’s presentation and discussion between the two and some members of the audience about the themes raised, including modes of solidarity and the possibility of building an intersectional movement that responds to racial, social, ecological and other forms of injustice.

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Solidarity: a conversation between Joshua Virasami, TJ Demos and Mads Ryle (Part 1)


Mads Ryle: …Thanks to TJ – you have given us heaps of food for thought. As I think you know this event belongs to a series which er, the starting point is based around the day of lost species and the idea of extinction. And this year there’s a kind of very explicit project to try to think beyond what you are talking about there, with regards to, the kind of not-human boundaries, how we think about extinction to move towards um, a different kind of er, politics of environmentalism. So you’ve brought up lots of very interesting points and… I think between the three of us, you know our work is concerned with you know, inside borders of the US, inside borders of the U.K, across borders. What you say about Black Lives Matter’s statement about the kind of borderlessness of these oppressions um, is really interesting and so I think there’s loads of interesting things for us to pick up on about how the different contexts in which we’re working you know, relate to each other. So thank you very much and I’m going to let Joshua take the mic now and respond to you.

Joshua (JV): Hey T.J.

TJ: Hey.

JV: Thank you very much for that talk, it was er, very informative and very emotive and very useful for thinking about how we can move forward in our environmentalism to make it not just more inclusive but more powerful and more effective. Um, when you were speaking I was thinking that actually this is a beautiful thing here, that this form of environmentalism is actually not.. you know you showed us the statement from Blacks Lives Matter but it reminded me of – and actually a lot of what you’re talking about reminds me of – an article I read recently by Françoise Vergès who wrote, I don’t know if you’ve heard of her or anybody here has heard of her but she’s a French historian, academic and activist and she’s written an essay called er, ‘The Racial Capitalocene’ which kind of draws upon the capitalocene we talked about – racial capitalism. And in it she mentions a group that er, I think the full name of it, I’ll say the full name so I get it correct. It was a group that met for the first National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit. That’s why I have to look at my paper, it’s quite a lot. That was 1991, a year after I was born and a lot of the ideas and principles kind of drew on decolonial epistemologies or looked at decoloniality as an informing principle of how they engage in environmentalism. And one of the first kind of principles – because they tried to expound principles, which is where I think we should be going with these ideas, how do we lay the groundwork – one of the first principles was to affirm, or reaffirm their interconnectedness to the sanctity and sacredness of Mother Earth. And I think the kind of principles I was speaking about, although Black Lives Matter said it in 2015 – and some of my colleagues were involved in creating that – it goes back to 1991 and actually even if I think about – I’ve spoken before about – when I was reading um, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which is a book about the struggle against white settlers in the conquest of Indo-America. It was a very, very important book written by Dee Brown. And if you hear the language that many of the indigenous people use, it’s a form of environmentalism that recalls on that kind of sanctity that was spoken about in 1991. So what I’m trying to say is that, listening to you, I feel like there is a richness in this environmentalism – it’s actually older than the environmentalism that we hear about here that started with conservationism in the 19th century or whatever, it’s a lot older than that.

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Solidarity: a conversation between Joshua Virasami, TJ Demos and Mads Ryle (Part 3)

So you were speaking about expanding outside the technoscientific rationality um, and Mundane Afrofuturism. Françoise Vergès talks about Afrofuturism as an idea, as a philosophy and school of thought, and critical race pedagogy. And I’ll add to that that the decolonial work that when I was part of Wretched Of The Earth, when we began the group about three years ago, it was in response to the fact that the People’s Climate March which was going to happen in London in the UK, was going to have inflatable animals at the front of the march. This kind of harks back to what we were talking about with the er, possible poor avenue that environmentalism might go down with Extinction Rebellion – I don’t think they’ll go down that avenue but that kind of thing. And so we kind of, as a group of, I think the phrase was front-line indigenous and POC groups that were concerned with environmentalism, the idea was to put those narratives of um, “Still Fighting CO2onialism” – so ‘colonialism’ with CO2 – putting that at the front of the thing. And something that we did as well, I don’t know if anyone knows it but we blockaded city airport, talking about environmental racism and talking about 14th, 15th, 16th centuries, and talking about how colonialism plays a role and actually if you factor that in, Britain is er, as a per capita contributor over the 500 year period, is the biggest contributor to climate change, if you take a historical look at it. So add that decolonial epistemologies to it.

What I’m trying to ask in a very long-winded way: what does this offer our understanding of solidarity? When we think about Mundane Afrofuturism, or Afrofuturism and critical race pedagogies as another rationality, another paradigm, another pedagogy… What does that offer us in terms of how we’re going to approach our work in the mind of solidarity?

TJ: Um, well thanks Josh, there was a lot, um, that you said there that I would love to respond to. From ways of making an intersectionalist movement and alliance-building even stronger, I think that’s a really important strategic goal er, in addition to all the academic and theoretical considerations. Ultimately, I think that’s what we, what we want right? We need an urgent movement that can include more people and can be more um, grounded and radical in terms of what it er, what it can, you know how it’s defining the struggle itself. So again, I would completely agree with that. And I think Françoise Vergès’s work is really relevant. She’s an important figure, whose er… I appreciate her work and her relations to postcolonial studies and now people are using this, as you’re pointing out, more, the term ‘decolonial studies’. Decolonisation is an important intervention in postcolonial studies because people are realising that coloniality hasn’t really ended, it’s still ongoing in all sorts of ways. So I think Françoise’s work is really important there and in terms of rethinking also the Anthropocene and drawing it back so that it’s not just about the industrial revolution and ways of thinking about so-called generic categories of human activities and the impact of human activities on the environment. Something that I think is really important if we’re talking about the Anthropocene is to bring it back to 1492 er, with the conquest in the Americas, which some people are doing, right, to insist that really the beginnings of the impacts that have led to current day catastrophic climate transformation, at their origins are integrally related to the formations of imperialisms and slavery and genocide. And that’s really important to think about. And these forms are still in a variety of ways still in existence in relationship to contemporary er, corporate land grabs, extractivism and economic arrangements that are organised around keeping whole countries in the global South in forms of structural indebtedness. This is another kind of extraction that we’re seeing today that is operating very much along racial lines.

So I think in terms of your last question about how can we think about this material in relationship to solidarity, with also an important qualifier that people like Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang in their essay ‘Decolonisation is Not a Metaphor’ point out, where they say that we have to be wary of making superficial claims of solidarity simply drawn around the language of decolonisation, that ultimately doesn’t mean anything else than a kind of academic, um, trendiness, where ultimately decolonisation is about return of land and sovereignty to indigenous peoples all around the world, and I think that is really crucial to point out. We have to think about potentially superficial solidarities. But beyond that, I think that if we’re wanting to build movements, it’s really important to build these understandings of an expanded notion of climate and environment that encompasses the social and cultural, economic and racial dimensions within its initial conceptualisations, so that movements can build out and expand on that basis. Let me give you a more concrete example. In Santa Cruz, I’m a member of some activist organisations organised around the Democratic Socialists of America. This is just one important point in an anti-capitalist progressive politics in the States, which is anti-Trumpist obviously and in some ways against the dominant parties of the Democrats and the Republicans in the States and trying to invent a new kind of politics entirely. At times you notice even within considerations of environment and climate within groups like that, that it leans toward, generally, a Marxist informed eco-socialism, that’s largely – as much as I support a lot of the aims and even the structural uh analysis of the conditions of capitalism present and past – there tends to be still a kind of limitation in relationship to considerations of race and other forms of non-economic inequalities that fall out of the picture. And so you have a perpetuation on the left in the States even within radical organisations of a kind of largely not necessarily white supremacist, but definitely a white eco-socialism. And even though some of its elements are interesting and important, it’s still very limited in its conceptualisation, because it is completely overlooking coloniality and also racial capitalism. It is also inadvertently surrendering possibilities for alliance-building to communities beyond elite white members of social organisations. And you can see this even in organisations like, Greenpeace – some of the major environmental movements that I wouldn’t want to oppose at all, I am supportive of it, but there are inadequate considerations of the intersectionalist possibilities of different groups. And I think that’s really what we need more than anything, to develop a movement of movements. And I think it is important to get this embedded within the organisation of the mission statements and the original conceptualisations of environment and climate within social movement building, so that politics can develop out of that in much more ambitious and radical ways.

JV: Thank you. That’s a lot of food for thought. There was a bit towards the end where you were talking about the kind of eco-socialism, and it kind of reminded me of the final points you were making, which I thought were really really interesting, I didn’t think you were gonna – you kind of dropped those as little bombs towards the end – and I feel like that was really interesting, and I wanted you to expand on them. When you were talking about the risks of environmental nationalism, organicism and how far-right populism is actually finding its space within that, within environmental discourse. On the way here, I was thinking to myself, at least they haven’t done that yet –  but you know, yes they have, I’m just ignorant. Looking at how tricky and slippery, um, yeah tricky and slippery that movement is, you know? Here we are seeing how it’s trying to usurp the Brexit, the whole debate around Brexit and find a place within the Brexit movement and even in France, not to say that the whole of the movement in France, the yellow vest movement in France, is to do with that at all – it’s a working class insurgency – but they do find a way to work themselves into that movement as well. I think, um, that if what you are saying is right then we face a real big issue, because that’s a fast growing and very popular movement, the right-wing populist movement. So, what do you think, you know, we have left-wing populism here, and you have it over there. What do you think our role is as people who are kind of considering this more considered and nuanced environmentalism? How do we – and this is a big question – how do we take that to these spaces and weave that in? Because we can sit here and we can talk about these things, and I think they’re very important and they can inform our practice – but there’s a fast-moving political world around us, and a lot of us feel concerned about that movement – the fact that, you know, those people we thought wouldn’t have had those populist tendencies are suddenly you know, your aunty, uncle, fish and chip shop owner  – are kind of slipping in. So, it’d be good to think about how we take these ideas and work them into… Because, you know, the Labour Party here is considering how to be far more progressive on climate change. So how do we think we take that to the different politics around us. Does that make sense?

TJ: Yeah. Well, um, I can really only speak for myself and my own position. Because it’s you know, um… I think it’s crucial for someone like me, who is in an academic position, who’s a white guy, who’s attempting to engage with this kind of intersectionalist politics organised around climate justice to try to ultimately take the, um, some of the lessons of decolonisation and bring that to the university context, to the cultural sector, to teaching and forms of radical pedagogy, and to my own activism. I think the way that someone like me can do it is to disrupt the canon, to insist on expanding the references so that we are not always citing the same old people within the academic context. We need ultimately to decolonise the university. It’s a major space of green neoliberal capitalism and the production of mass indebtedness. That’s how I think of it, what I’m trying to do in this context. In relationship to my activism, it means ultimately that we have to be on alert about these limited conceptions of what environment and climate mean, to try to bring in other voices and to make these connections and diversify and make it a space of activist politics more open to the voices of frontline communities and indigenous communities, and communities of colour. That’s really crucial as a step forward – to try to change the general conditions of exclusivity in these environments. So, um, and that goes of course for the art world as well, the art’s systems are generally often spaces of unexamined white supremacy, that are funded and sponsored by the fossil fuel industry – there’s a lot activism of course in the UK around this and internationally in relationship to Culture Not Oil and Liberate Tate. I think those are really important forces but maybe they don’t go far enough in relationship to anti-blackness and making allowances for Black Lives Matter and dealing with forms of migrant solidarity. These are all really crucial to avoid the dangers that continually exist of the kind of populist environmental nationalism. For instance, in the States you have people who are supporting a kind of local organicism that are also articulating anti-migrant, pro-Trump wall or US/Mexico border positions. So, this is something, you know, the lines are pretty clearly drawn, but we have to continue to attempt to er, to do what we can to disrupt the energies of, you know, kind of elite liberal green capitalism – this is where I continually see my work and my contribution. So, I hope that gets to some of your question.

JV: Yep.

MADS: We can do one more exchange?

JV: Yeah sure. So I, I read your, the essay that you wrote online. And er, I kind of, you speak about the kind of, you spoke about geoengineering here, the kind of adaptation, the mechanistic adaptation of what, the kind of Promethean, that Cedric Robinson would call it, kind of adaptation, like ‘we can fix it’, right. And on there you talk about how, I think, you talk about how the neocons, even though, kind of have a, er, what’s that word, when like, er, like double consciousness, like, yeah, exactly – so I was wondering if you could, kind of, speak a bit more about what – I’d like to know a bit more about what that means, how, how are they going to claim that, how, what is it going to mean in terms of geoengineering? I’m sure you’ve done research, if you can just explain a bit more, what we should be aware of, what we should be cautious of, what’s coming. So, yeah, I asked about the good stuff, now I want to know about the bad, ominous, scary stuff.

TJ: Yeah. This is a quickly developing area of research where hundreds of millions of dollars and enormous economic resources are going into this, to try to develop technological strategies to mitigate climate change. And Harvard University is involved with this. David Keith is one of the major practitioners from the engineering field, who works at Harvard, and is right now, um, developing experimental research applications of geoengineering that he intends to actually test in the atmosphere above the States in the next, uh, few years. People like Bill Gates of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry, uh, the Google founders are the people who are funding this material. So it’s coming largely from private Silicon Valley capital – like I said, increasingly massive amounts of funding is going into this. And basically what it means is that people are giving up completely on any ambition to stop, uh, the causes of climate transformation within, um, capitalist, petrocapitalism. So that we’re, in other words, implicitly accepting conditions as they exist – of extreme economic inequality where a only handful of people own as much wealth worldwide as the bottom half of the human population combined. Right, so geoengineering and techno-fixes like this are basically implicitly an endorsement of the current status quo, and even stand to make things even worse. And as we start to see these geoengineering devices come into being, it’s going to be harder and harder for global South, of climate justice movements, and more radical and political-minded NGOs like, uh, the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany, and the ETC group, are strongly anti-geoengineering, but the term isn’t even taking off with them in any major way within the artistic fields. I find that really striking, and I think it’s really important for us to pay attention to this development, because from my research it’s becoming one of the most important and widely spread types of, um, hegemonic ways of addressing the climate challenge, and that it spells, it really spells, disaster for all of us in terms of, uh, the unintended consequences: if you do solar radiation management here, then what will the implications be elsewhere? Like, we know that it’ll likely disrupt monsoon seasons and rainfall in areas like South Asia. Whole areas of the earth are potentially going to be affected by this in ways that will only likely extend and intensify conditions of climate and environmental inequality. Again, in relationship to economics and race and geographical location. So the conditions of, uh global inequality stand to be worsened in all sorts of – even incalculable – ways. So this is just adding catastrophe to catastrophe. So um, I think that the simple slogan of climate justice which is, uh, “we want system change not climate change” – in other words we have to address ourselves – human, capitalist, technological systems – this has to be one with any way that we think about, um, climate and environmental, uh, solutions that are real and ultimately radically-minded and anticapitalist. So, um, the more research you do on this the scarier it gets, and it’s something ultimately that we all need to pay attention to.

JV: Thank you.

MADS: Um, I could listen to you and Josh talk all day, but we do have some audience members here who I expect some of them might like to address a couple of questions at you TJ if you can give us a little bit more of your time?

TJ: Sure – I can, go ahead.

MADS: Maybe I’m gonna, if it’s safe to do so, try and turn you round so that you can see the people in the room. Do you mind Josh? [they turn the laptop around] Yeah, so um maybe time for just a couple of questions – does anyone have any that they would like to ask TJ before he goes? Yes, Amy.

Q: I have a question, it’s for TJ and Josh. Is there any groups or campaigns or anything that you’re particularly excited about in relation to environmental justice in the UK or the US – or anywhere – but mainly in the UK?

MADS: Did you hear that, TJ?

TJ: No, I didn’t get it.

MADS: So, um, the question is, to both you and Josh, what groups or movements, uh, you’re aware of, you know, in the US or the UK, or elsewhere, but especially in those two locations, which you’re excited about because of the ways that they combine environmental and racial and social justice?

TJ: Um, well, for me, I think um, I’m interested in the possibilities of, uh, DSA in the States. That’s a radical political organisation that’s growing and it’s beginning to have initial impact on even electoral politics, which some have felt like, uh, it’s just impossible to do anything about. But uh, we’ve seen people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez coming into Congress in New York, which is – she’s a DSA member – it’s a really interesting, promising development. More along the lines of social movements, I think what we’ve seen across the States and Canada and North America is the indigenous resurgence of all sorts of positions, beginning with Standing Rock and the NoDAPL struggle. I think this is really crucial – IdleNoMore in Canada – these are really important developments in relationship to indigenous approaches to decoloniality, and contesting settler colonialism in the States and Canada, as well as extending them into Central and South America, and so IdleNoMore is a really important networking organisation based in Canadian First Nations peoples, but it extends broadly across the Americas. And one other local and smaller group in the Bay Area in Oakland in California is Movement Generation – they’re a really interesting POC climate justice based movement. They, um, someone who’s involved in Movement Generation is Boots Riley, maybe you saw his film Sorry To Bother You – he’s a really interesting figure that’s done, who’s doing a lot of work around, uh, forms of structural racism, and economic inequality, and his work also relates to Movement Generation’s discussions of how to promote climate, radical climate justice thinking with, um, with a new generation of POC communities. So I think this is really, I think these are really inspiring developments and need to grow even more, and connect to each other in addition to Black Lives Matter. So there’s actually a lot going on; it just needs to be scaled up so it has a massive transformative effect in the time that we need it to happen.

JV: Um, I’m probably a bit biased but also I guess Black Lives Matter. I think the Black Lives Matter that formed the indigenous solidarities network, especially coming from Toronto, Black Lives Matter Toronto, and Standing Rock is really inspirational. Um, maybe this is a bit of a cop-out, but I think a kind of growing movement, a growing, yeah a movement that’s interested in having discussions and interested in drawing out what a decolonial environmentalism or a decolonised environmentalism – that kind of movement excites me, because that’s the thinking that makes the substance behind what I hope will become really radical praxis and material differences in people’s lives. Like, there was a group called Gentle Radical that did some film screenings in Cardiff and Swansea and a few of us went there and we kind of spoke, and that kind of – and then Friends of the Earth, somewhere else, had some people come and speak there.  That kind of movement is exciting for me. There’s a group called Inter-Island Collective which is based in, well, mainly they, they’ve made a home for themselves called Moku – I think it’s a Maori term for, like, ‘home’ – because a lot of Pacific Island people come and stay and move through London and make themselves a home there. And they’re doing a lot of work kind of interrupting, um, institutions mainly, and thinking about, thinking about environmentalism, they’re thinking about legacies of colonialism, they’re thinking about, um, repatriation of sacred items in different institutions, and the work they’re doing, which is kind of a recovering of those epistemologies that were attempted to be wiped out in what people term ‘epistemicides’. That work really excites me, because there’s a lot to learn, and there’s a lot of ‘felt’ work, yeah, and it makes you feel whole in a way that a lot of the learning we have here doesn’t. So, that group is cool, and if you want to know more about them, I can definitely give you information after. Maybe we can even have food together, or some shit like that.

MADS: Do we have time for one more question TJ, before you go? Yes? Do we have another question from the audience TJ?

TJ: Yes. Yep.

Q: Let me see if I can get this… You mentioned earlier that, um, you’ve got the green liberal agenda. Groups like Extinction Rebellion, need to listen to and improve the voices, the understanding of Black Lives Matter and these other groups – is that, am I understanding that correct?

MADS: So, there’s a, like, point of clarification that, um, TJ, you’re saying that groups like, for example, Extinction Rebellion need to create more space and awareness for incorporating the perspectives of groups like Black Lives Matter, which I think is more or less what you said, yeah?

TJ: At least from my perspective that’s what I’m seeing here, although I would hesitate from, you know, putting myself in any position of saying what Extinction Rebellion needs to do. But go on with your question.

Q: OK. So given that at this moment in time, that conversation is needed that’s of the results of the, of the 1492 colonisation of America, the European expansion. And the fact that in the last 150 years people that were oppressed and dispossessed of their land and resources, in this, in that basic colonialism suddenly have the space to have a voice, because they’ve become economically stronger, because, er, I don’t know, capitalism has eaten Marxism essentially, and incorporated it. But if we take a… if we expand our, the breadth of our look at what we mean by colonialism, we could also include in there the Bantu colonialism of Africa, their wiping out of various other populations in Africa, the Chinese Mandarin Cantonese colonisation of that whole area of China and Southeast Asia and their… So, historically speaking, our present dialogue is between two particular groups of people – I’m wondering how long our voice is going to be relevant at all?

MADS: ‘Our voice’ – sorry, I’m going to have to try and re-tell all of that because you won’t have heard that – but when you say ‘our voice’ you’re talking about a conversation there that’s between groups, say, in the UK and the US context?

Q: Yeah.

MADS: So let me try to sort of, kind of try and give you a summary of what I think you’re getting at.

Q: I suppose I mean our conversation right now, it’s – yeah. I suppose that something might be going on in China, or India, or…

MADS: OK, so I think, um, that what’s being driven at is, um, that the conversation we’re having in the room here, and kind of within our movement more broadly, which relates to – which kind of goes back to the histories, the specific histories of colonialism around European expansion into the west, to the Americas – that that’s one part of a conversation, and there are others going on globally which might relate to other historical periods, other expansions, other colonialisms and –

Q: Imperialisms

MADS: Yep, imperialisms –

Q: Not so much now –

MADS: Yep, so, thank you, imperialisms – so, the question, the kind of end point to the question is, to what extent is this conversation, the one we’re having here, going to continue to be – uh, I don’t know, maybe the one that seems most relevant when there are these other historical patterns and conversations emerging as well around things which have happened in other places at other times. So, yes – please go ahead.

TJ: Um, OK – it was a little broken up but from what I’m getting, the question is about how do we deal with the global and differentiated, historically and geographically specific emergence of different kinds of colonialism. So neo-colonialism is today, so that we need to, you know, pay attention to the specific formations in different parts of the world. I think, if that’s the question, I would agree with that – we have to indeed pay attention to this, and we have to consider in some ways also the spread of this kind of right wing populism that is continuing, as far as I can see, a kind of conservative revolution that’s been going on at least since the 70s and 1980s. Like if you think of Thomas Picardy’s analysis, this right wing revolution started with the beginnings of implementation of neoliberalism in the late 1970s. So today, we could talk about, for instance, that this kind of right wing populism or even fascism, within places as diverse as the Philippines under Duterte, or Brasil with the new president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, we’re seeing a spread of what some are beginning to call – even within the carefully researched and guarded language of academic research – the development of a new kind of fascism today. And the question I think that we all have to consider is that if the politics that are failing to address the ongoing massive climate breakdown… the question is, is it indeed a failure? Or is that a logical outcome of the successes of this spread of a kind of new model right wing populist continuation of a conservative revolution – or the globalisation of different modalities of fascism today. Is that not the success of these economic models? How will, how will radical voices like ours be heard? This is a major question for political organising, it seems like there’s not much hope right now, at least for the moment for electoral politics. That’s why I think something that’s interesting about both Black Lives Matter approaches to direct action as well Extinction Rebellion’s conclusion that direct action and social movement power, people power, is the only way forward. I think this is really interesting – that’s all the more reason to make sure that we’re carefully considering our political analyses within the social movement context, so that we’re not tempted by these, these risks of very limited or inadequate approaches to climate and environment. So, again this is a really complicated question! I wish I could be there in person so we could discuss this more, in more nuanced ways without all the technological mediation. But thanks very much for the conversation, and Josh, I’d love to, if you could let me know if there were references that you pointed out, I didn’t quite get them down, but maybe you could write me after this. So, yeah, thanks Persephone!

MADS: Thanks so much TJ!

Solidarity: a conversation between Joshua Virasami, TJ Demos and Mads Ryle (Part 2)
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