Amidst the 1981 England riots in Toxteth, a leftist militant climbs onto a box and addresses the crowd on the subject of the coming socialist utopia. Her promise that there will be jobs for all is met with derisory laughter from a group of young rioters. As the speaker details other reforms, the group begins a mocking chant: “Bigger cages, longer chains! Bigger cages, longer chains!”1

While these lines illustrate the particular time and place, they also echo the ambivalent discontent characteristic of the contemporary moment: the unending struggles to overcome the confines of systemic oppression and a stubbornly persistent capitalist realism.

Chains begin where precarity, exploitation and inequality take place. On one side, as powerful tools of oppression, forced subjugation, and slavery; on the other side, they function as symbols of solidarity—a collective force against repression.

With its material design—facilitating meticulous land surveying—the Gunther’s Chain played a pivotal role in defining property boundaries, resource allocation, and colonial expansion. Developed in the 17th century, Gunther’s Chain became an essential tool for mapping the expansive territories under British rule. The measurements conducted using the chain allowed for the delineation of borders, the allocation of resources, and the imposition of administrative structures. The chain, in the hands of surveyors and colonial officials, solidified the imperial presence on the ground, reinforcing the hierarchical power structures that defined the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. These chains snake their way through occupied territories, war zones, and transportation routes to this day, while the culture of discussion concerning them becomes increasingly restricted.

The chain also recurs as a symbol used by rulers and royalty.2 Chains were carried as ceremonial tokens, exhibiting a status of unimpeachable power. Here, the object chain perpetuates the “great chain of being” as a concept that undergirded societies since antiquity but is especially prevalent in the highly structured universes of the middle ages and the renaissance where everything was believed to be connected in an unbreakable chain from gods to minerals. Such worlds stand in sharp contrast not only to posthumanist and new materialist stances (Haraway, Barad) but also to decolonial and feminist epistemologies.3 (Queer) ecologists turn to things like lichen, mushrooms or weeds to propagate world structures and worldings oriented at non-dual storytelling. It is this continuous work of many to question how history is being made and how it continues to be written.

While the citizen-nation-state chain has been used as a symbol of unity to demonstrate the bond and loyalty among its members,4 today we ask ourselves: how can solidarity become a lasting, carefully crafted chain, a strong bond, that does not rely on a nationalist framework? This problem is evident in so-called solidarity chains as performed by Western politicians signalling unity after an attack, social media posts coming quicker than a thought and flags of solidarity which are projected onto monuments insinuating unwavering institutional friendship.

More recently, there have been discussions about imports and exports, about pushbacks and deportations versus open borders. While the German government has issued new deportation laws amidst several emerging crises that are forcing people to flee—as in Nagorno-karabakh, Gaza, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and Kurdistan, to name a few—, the imports of Russian gas or the export of weapons to Israel and Ukraine put global supply chains on the agenda once more, highlighting the intricate links between people, resources and capital. And yet the above is only the current manifestation of ongoing violence and the historical struggle against it, which requires continuous attention.

Notwithstanding the efforts of unions in Germany, whose work happens to a large extent removed from public perception—made visible in the media only in moments of mobility impairments and the like—and while workers’ protests in France and in the UK were surging recently, it is also often via the disruption of supply chains that struggles of unionisation attempt to refrain the global modes of exploitation and extraction. 

How do we account for mutual entanglements of resources allocation and ideological constraints in the near future? Will we once again resort to a dream of “bigger cages, longer chains”?

With the increasing normalisation and impact of right-wing positions and their parliamentary representation, regressive policies and human rights violations are brought to the forefront, while freedom of expression and critical discourses are kept small or prohibited. 

The rapid and ongoing succession of withdrawals from existing programs, resignation letters and disinvitations for cultural workers in Germany and elsewhere, foster a climate of fear instead of a broadly effective solidarity against oppression and exploitation.

If the strategy behind boycotting German institutions5 legitimately aims to reimagine the tools of workers’ strikes, especially in the cultural sector, with a broader view to the context of international solidarity, the convergence of its immediate effects with far-right efforts to curb the diversity of voices in this country creates a double-edged sword whose consequences are still to be accurately pondered.

Meanwhile, critical voices are repeatedly attacked in mainstream media. This forms a pattern that, at the very least, reveals the fragility of the democratic values that German cultural institutions claimed to uphold. 

For us at UMBAU, as part of a public institution, the journal represents a necessary tool to keep spaces for exchange and critique open. With Issue 3, CHAINING, we aim to act as a joint hinge between public discourses and university curricula. As a place of experimentation, failure and collective negotiation, the question swells in an institution such as an art academy: Which linkages are necessary for conscious unlearning and learning?

While we have only touched upon some challenging topics here, the 2024 issue of the journal will delve deeper into exploring the intricate connections between desire, power structures and the metaphorical materials of chains, untangling their historical and present realities. To trace these connections also means to divert from overtly linear modes of research and storytelling and look for the fringes of dominant routes, narratives and approaches. Figuratively speaking, the chain has to be overcome as a rigid line, making room for its kinetic properties and flexibilities, its ability to form meaningful bonds and a wide network of connections.6

UMBAU issue 3, CHAINING, Jan–Dec 2024. Editorial Staff: Paolo Caffoni, Charlotte Eifler, Yannick Fritz, Jule Köpke, Livia Emma Lazzarini.

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  1. Larry Law (ed.), Spectacular Times – Bigger Cages, Longer Chains, 1981. Spectacular Times is a series of small ‘pocketbooks’ in the late 1970s/early 1980s, serving as a brief introduction to situationist ideas. Thanks to Lars Pinkwart for this reference.

  2. Also known as the Livery Collar or Chain of office. Most famously worn by the British monarchy and frequently represented in paintings (e.g. on Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Moore), you might have noticed it more recently on the neck of Belit Onay, Hanover’s Mayor, during the ceremony on 22 November 2019.

  3. Silvia Federici reminds us that the conflict between Prospero and the Caliban in Shakespeare’ The Tempest it is not only a representation of colonial violence but also a crisis in the very idea of the great chain of being. Caliban and the Witch, Autonomedia, 1994, p. 134.

  4. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, London: 1983.


  6. An earlier version of this text was published in German in the print edition of Arts of The Working Class, Issue number 29.