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

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Maureen de Jager: Playing dirty: earth/water/wind in Lindi Arbi’s Last One Standing

Video Still from Lindi Arbi's Last One Standing
Frustrated by the bureaucracy impeding her South Korean residency, 2010 Spier Award winner Lindi Arbi threw her materials down the stairs. Picture it: 40kg of expanding polyurethane bubbling and puffing, filling out the negative spaces like an abject Rachel Whiteread. Then she wrapped this inverted staircase in plastic and took it to the beach, for her altogether uncanny performance, Last One Standing. In the resulting video – a collaboration between Arbi and Korean film-maker, Junebum Park – we see Arbi and her assistants tethering and securing the ominous parcel. The tide comes in; the parcel is adrift. The tide goes out; the parcel is beached in glutinous mud.

In the context of this colloquium, I introduce Last One Standing to reflect on the status of real dirt in a glib technocracy – the kind of dirt so dirty that it resists being sampled and streamlined into the synthetic. How does technology cope with excessive materiality, I ask, and what happens to the dirt on our hands when its matter is mediated and dematerialised? In Arbi’s video, allusions to real dirt predominate. The terrain is muddy, the tethered sculpture is muddy, even the palette seems a dull, muddy grey. Ironically, however, the performance was recorded at high resolution; thus the scene may be muddy but the picture is crystal clear…
In response to this paradox, I argue that technology’s aversion to dirt is amply in evidence, as is its tendency to sanitise. At the same time, I suggest that the real dirty-work of Last One Standing lies not in the visuals but in the sound (or, more accurately, in their disjunction). For the clarity of what we see is distinctly at odds with the deafening, distorted crackle that we hear: a ‘bad’ recording of the gusting wind which drowns out almost everything else. In effect, the soundtrack captures the wind not as a sound but as a presence – as a series of waves which assault the recording equipment and then, in turn, assault our ears. Being a register of impact, this ‘dirty’ sound ruptures the sanitising screen of the synthetic: it reaches us materially (albeit invisibly), carrying real clout.

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