In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Sunday, September 12, 2010

James Sey: The South African Question and the Aesthetics of Disappearance

Twenty years ago the ANC was officially unbanned by South Africa’s apartheid government, removing one of the final political obstacles to a transition to a democratically elected government. At around the same time, in early 1991, Albie Sachs, the struggle veteran who would later serve in the Constitutional Court, and play an active role in establishing the Art Collection at Constitution Hill, published a position paper entitled ‘Preparing Ourselves for Freedom’.

The paper generated much debate, and put forward the view that South African art and literature had been homogenised and to some extent eviscerated by the perceived need to reflect the social ills of apartheid, and to establish political opposition to it. Sachs’ liberal viewpoint was that art and literature should embody diversity in subject matter and technique, and should not be constrained by a reflectionist agenda.

 Zanele Muholi, Being (right triptych), 2007,
silver gelatin prints and a Lambda print, 30 x 22.5cm each
Two decades on, and the most recent burning debate in arts and culture circles in the country concerns the rejection of the work of award-winning photographer Zanele Muholi – specifically her socialrealist fine art portraits of black lesbian couples – by the presiding minister of arts and culture Lulama Xingwana. Ironically, the minister’s walkout from an exhibition she deemed “pornographic” was staged at Constitution Hill, built to embody the new South Africa’s right to freedoms of expression, association, creed and sexual orientation. 

Many of the photographs on the exhibition were shot in a documentary vérité style, and many were in black and white. The monochromatic palette is of course intended to convey, in an aesthetically pleasing way, the stark realism of the life of its subjects, a seriously marginalised grouping within contemporary South African culture. Against the associative meanings produced in the work by its monochrome, sits the chief metaphor of postapartheid culture – that of rainbowism. The rainbow trope is generally used to refer to the tolerance and understanding of other races, cultures and belief systems in the country, embodied in our model constitution.

It’s clear from the Xingwana incident, as well as other recent instances of widely reported hate speech, such as Julius Malema’s, that the idea of a freely expressible rainbowism in South Africa is still contested terrain. Interestingly, it was reported that one of the minister’s chief objections to Muholi’s work was that it was “against nation-building”. This suggests that, at least for the ruling party, certain kinds of cultural expression are better suited to shaping the identity of the nation than others. The idea that a particular artwork could be against the idea of the nation seems to counteract the inclusiveness of both the trope of rainbowism and the country’s much-vaunted constitution.

Two possibilities arise from the minister’s position: firstly, that on the level of content, some things remain unrepresentable in post-apartheid South Africa. This is ironic in the Muholi case, since, as already discussed, the photographs are intended to give appropriately respectful public shape to a very marginalised and vilified social and sexual grouping in the country. As such they should represent exactly the right kind of artwork that a post-apartheid society needs to build the nation. Secondly, it is also possible that the colour palette and style of the works, a predominantly low-key and monochromatic documentary vérité, has misled the minister. Conditioned, as a struggle veteran herself, to associate the truth and nobility of political opposition to apartheid and the building of a democratic country with the stark realism of the agitprop poster, mural and social-realist literature, she is perhaps confused that such a palette is now being used to convey a new kind of political and social struggle.

Both of these possibilities, of course, give rise to a greater one: that South African art struggles to translate the apparently wider political freedoms of its post-apartheid era into a wider freedom of its imaging of itself. Another, perhaps better way of putting this is to say that South Africa struggles to reconcile the idea of a rainbow-hued national character for its art with the shifting shape of its post-apartheid political identity.

Of course, the idea of a national art is a difficult one to legislate. And, alongside the difficulty of legislating art in the normal course of things – for art is inherently oppositional in its fascination with the liminal, contingent and the evanescent, qualities most governments do not share – South Africa has the added burden of shaping a nascent political and cultural identity as a very young nation state. The attempt to provide South Africa with a rainbow identity in its post-apartheid guise also comes at a peculiarly difficult time for such ventures. The nation state as a phenomenon lives in uneasy disequilibrium with globalisation, itself an ongoing process currently slightly discredited because of the recent recession – a recession, ironically, brought about by virtual capitalism, supposedly the major breakthrough of the information era. The emergence of South Africa from apartheid in the early 1990s, and the beginnings of its effort to shape a new cultural and political identity, thus largely coincides with the rise of the commercial internet as the chief medium of virtual commerce, and the engine of the idea of a globalised culture of communication and representation which predominantly takes a screen-based visual form. The relative ubiquity of representation in global communications is attested to by the fact that the vast majority of digital information in the world – far more information in the internet era than the cumulative amount in the rest of history – consists of digital images.

What might be some of the characteristics of this globalised culture of representation? How, in particular, does it affect the striving after a visual lexicon and a palette which seems to express specific experiences – for example, what it is to envision being South African after apartheid?

Jonathan Crary, in introducing the new English edition of Paul Virilio’s The Aesthetics of Disappearance (2009), analyses the impact on our sense of vision of seamless duration, that technological time is “beyond any measure of lived human duration”. “Over the last century,” he writes, “vision has increasingly been denied any hierarchy of objects within which the important could be distinguished from the trivial, as figure might be isolated from ground. Without these distinctions vision becomes a derelict and uninflected mode of reception and inertia, incapable of seeing” (p.14).

Important here is the inseparable relationship between the mode of representation (a screen image) and the mode of duration it adopts (24/7 time). Virilio attempts, in this book, to recuperate an inflected mode of seeing which exists literally outside of time – in a ‘lost’, or unconscious state of seeing and being which he calls “picnolepsy”, or a sudden inexplicable absence from time. Time, understood as an endless series of discrete instants, is joined together in Virilio’s thinking by technologies of speed and light, emblematically the vision machine that is the cinema.

“Although we can no more hide the speed of light than we can the sun with our hands,” argues Virilio, “the disintegration of the transmission of the cinematic image and of the transmission of cinematic bodies will be speedily accomplished, to such an extent that soon no-one will be astonished at visual disturbances provoked by rapidity; the locomotive illusion will be thought of as the truth of vision, just as the illusion of optics will seem like those of life” (p.60). Given that the book originally appeared in French in 1980, long before the advent of the internet, this view is extraordinarily prescient. The aesthetics of disappearance is thus the disappearance of any distinction between light, speed and perception, as it becomes technologically possible to transmit images in screen-based ‘real time’. A further cultural consequence of this phenomenon is that of the replacement of durational movement – the passage of bodies through space – with motility. “Having been first mobile, then motorised, man [has] thus become motile, deliberately limiting his body’s area of influence to a few gestures, a few influences, like channel-surfing,” Virilio writes in Open Sky (2008, p.17).

What are the consequences of this shift in the regime of perception and duration for art itself? In the book Art as far as the eye can see (2007), Virilio puts the politics of art into the framework of a ubiquitous screen-based image culture: “What was still only on the drawing board with the industrial reproduction of images analysed by Walter Benjamin, literally explodes with the ‘Large-Scale Optics’ of cameras on the internet, since telesurveillance extends to telesurveillance of art… This is it, the multimedia REVELATION that surpasses the encyclopaedic REVOLUTION of the Enlightenment; this is it, the “illuminism” of telecommunications that suppresses the pictorial icon – but also the crucial importance of the glimpse de visu and in situ, to the exclusive advantage of live coverage of the perceptive field” (pp.14-15).

The key component of a regime of telesurveillance as it pertains to art, if we understand art here as a special category of seeing – as, in effect, a literal piercing glimpse – is that telesurveillance, by its technical nature, can be globalised. This gives rise to its political effect of suppressing the ‘revolutionary’ nature of knowledge and representation in the enlightenment which had sustained and underpinned the spread of both industrial capitalism and the colonial enterprise.

Virilio elaborates on this point: “[T]he great quest of the twenty-first century [is] the outstripping of the politically correct by the optically correct – this correction that is no longer the ocular correction of the glasses in our spectacles, but the secular correction of our view of the world, in the age of planetary globalisation. In effect, if totalitarian societies tried to realise such a panoptic society, the global society that is looming possesses the audiovisual tools to bring it off completely, thanks to the acceleration of reality of which the art of seeing is perhaps the very first victim” (2007, p.119).

While Virilio’s own view of the process of globalisation and its impact on art is indubitably gloomy, and wishes perhaps to imply the recovery of a view of art that cannot exist in our era, his analysis is both generally trenchant and peculiarly relevant to South African art history. A common complaint is that our geographical distance from most institutional and metropolitan art, as well as the great canons, means resorting to the study of visual representations of them. This process has been much ‘ d e m o c r a t i s e d ’ and simplified by the advent of the contents of works and museums on the internet, apparently generally accessible to all. This, it would seem, brings the South African artist, art historian and viewer into a global mainstream. But, as Virilio points out, this democratisation and globalisation of the image has another set of consequences: “All that is still fixed is in fact threatened by this ‘panoptic inertia’ of the speed of light in a vacuum; of these electromagnetic waves that dematerialise the oeuvre using the optical radiance of daylight – exclusively promoting the electro-optical radiance of the false day of screens… In an age where our view of the world has become not so much objective as teleobjective, how can we persist in being? How can we effectively resist the sudden dematerialisation of a world where everything is seen, déjà vu – already seen – and instantly forgotten?” (2007, pp.120-21). Thus the predominance of light as a panoptical medium has the paradoxical effect, not of illuminating, but of obscuring and flattening out difference. Virilio’s call for resistance, for so it is, involves necessarily overturning this regime of a screen-based radiance of constant daylight. It involves seeing differently. The dematerialisation of the world is accomplished as an aesthetics of disappearance – the disappearance of the act of critical and aesthetic seeing as technical vision everywhere proliferates. And this proliferation is a key marker of the globalisation of culture itself.

Where does the dematerialisation and globalisation of the world leave the South African question of colour? If we are now part of the global visual village, then our rainbow trope has, on one hand, reversed into its constituting element, the white beam optical radiance of the screens emitting a daylight that homogenises seeing and meaning. On the other hand, a South African colour palette can have no distinguishing force if it is simply to act as one ‘cultural’ expression of a very partial and anachronistic idea of a national identity, one that is as optically correct as it is politically correct.

Of course, the many artists working here and internationally who struggle to a truth or an object which is the meaning of the works they produce do so with a huge range of colours and means at their creative disposal. They are neither limited to the stark monochrome of the agitprop documentary image, or the colours of the nation building rainbow. Neither need they be constrained by the idea of a South African identity or indeed, a need to express relevance in a global context. Probably, the minister of arts and culture should be told.

James Sey is a Research Fellow at the Research Centre for Visual Identities in Art and Design at the University of Johannesburg 

Albie Sachs, Preparing ourselves for freedom: Culture and the ANC constitutional guidelines’, in The Drama Review, Spring 1991, Vol. 35(1), pp.187–193. 
Paul Virilio, Art as far as the eye can see (New York: Berg, 2007). 
Paul Virilio, Open Sky (London: Verso, 2008). 
Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009).

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