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

Thursday, July 7, 2011

am I a victim of this wicked game: synthetic dirt vs. aesthetic clean

by Bettina Malcomess

 This paper begins with a series of images. The first is of Julius Malema walking with Winnie Mandela in front of Johannesburg high court, escorted by his bodyguards wearing black suits and red ties and carrying Dashprod SAR M14 rifles (used for urban street combat). The second is from the music video of New Wave Kwaito-Elecontronica musician, Spoek Mathambo. Directed by Pieter Hugo, the image is of Mathambo lying on his side on the ground, his head and most of his torso covered in a white, chalky powder, his knees drawn up close to his body, being beaten with what appear to be tyre inner tubings by children covered in a shiny black liquid. The third is a photograph, in the catalogue for ‘Endgame’ by Michael McGarry, of a figure in a ‘wooden mask of Hu Jintao (President of China), a ghillie suit (US military camoflauge) and an ‘AK47’ (an adapted toy gun). The caption reads: ‘The person in the photograph is my girlfriend’s parents gardener…I paid him R100 for a three hour shoot’. The last is an image by artist Gerald Machona, a still from a film shot in Harare, which shows Machona dancing on a rooftop ledge, wearing a mask made out of Zimbabwean dollars, some of which he throws into the air.

Dirty or Clean?
The title of my paper is adapted from Pipi-lotti Rist’s ‘I am a victim of this song’, her appropriation of Chris Isaak’s melancholic ballad: ‘Wicked Game’. This is in a sense an attempt at a close, critical reading of image-making across a spectrum of production, from fine art practice to newspapers and music video’s, as a synthetic process. I take synthesis to refer to the ‘combination’ or bringing together of parts, as such the ‘synthetic’ is the product of this process. Making a deconstructive turn, I would like to shade the ‘synthetic’ with its usage in legal philosophy to refer to the person ficta, the ‘construct’ that allows many parts to act as a single entity.  It is the ‘synthesis’, the bringing together of elements of the ‘real’ with the ‘constructed’ that interests me, and more so the ‘naturalness’ of constructed or ‘synthetic’ images –the ease with which they circulate and assume a kind of concreteness. Peter Brooke’s idea of ‘synthetic dirt’ must be located within the critical concern in the 1960’s and 70’s with the informatization (Negri and Hardt’s term) of the world, as already ‘synthetically’ produced or as de Bord declared: mediated through images. The difficulty of ‘art’ to register as a critical image practice within or against the ‘spectacle’ without merely reproducing it is at the heart of the question of an aesthetics or perhaps a ‘synthetics’ of ‘dirt’. ‘Synthetic Dirt’ according to Peter Brooke consists of the reintegration of mortal elements into a recording, i.e. a sampling of ‘noise’, in excess of the ‘clean’ reproduction of the score. However, if these are ‘sampled’ noises then ‘dirt’ amounts to a recorded or found component of the ‘real’ that is combined with the constructed (the ‘clean’) so as to afford the fiction of complete realism. However, if the ‘dirt’ is already synthetically produced, a difficulty enters into our category, ‘dirt’ seems to already be contaminated with its opposite: ‘clean’.

It is my argument that South African art practice in general approaches an aesthetic that is much more ‘clean’ than ‘dirty’, and in fact its ‘synthesis’ of the elements of the ‘real’ with the constructed results in a product that is most often object based and readily commodifiable. Work rarely challenges the aesthetics of clear, discrete display in gallery spaces or museums, and often when work is more process based, site-specific, performative or ephemeral it is left out of the critical conversation or edited, ‘de-saturated’ and reframed for purposes of exhibition. A ‘clean’ aesthetic poses few questions to modes of representation in museums or galleries, and hence to the reception and status quo of audiences. I propose that the reason for this displacement of the ‘dirty’ is symptomatic of a disavowal  of these structural concerns and an obsession with our own ‘synthesis’, the invention of our own ‘togetherness’, so as to emerge as the fictional collective identity: the South African contemporary.

In fact the media and the current political discourse produce images in a much more ‘dirty’ way, presenting an interesting counterpoint to the ‘clean’ mode of image production that dominates contemporary South African visual art. Here the obvious example is Julius Malema, master player of political paegeantry, with his contingent of costumed body guards, complete with automatic weapons as props. More curious is a kind of recurrence of an aesthetics of the Carnivalesque  in the use of masks in the public sphere to represent dissent. For example, in a march for sex-worker rights in Johannesburg protestors wore masks, and debate around the access to information bill saw the ‘Right to Know’ campaign wearing masks portraying the minister of safety and security to a parliamentary committee meeting, resulting on their disbandment from parliament. More disturbing are the images of the shooting of Andries Tatane, displayed on the front page of the star newspaper. Shot on an amateur cell-phone camera, the mode of display as a narrative sequence of stills was instantly codified with the now familiar rawness of the contemporary video document, reminiscent of media images of the Arab Spring.  Each of the above instances effects an elision between the categories of the ‘dirty’, the ‘real’ and the ‘synthetic’. Here ‘dirt’ reveals itself to be already ‘synthetic’, while the reality beyond images is already dirtied by its own future becoming image. This begs the question, where is the real ‘dirt’?

Let us return to the images described. This set of ‘disturbing’ images all directly engage political power and violence in some way, albeit operating at very different levels of the ‘synthetic’ and the ‘aesthetic’, the ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’. In question here, is how an image making practice that attempts to engage directly with the political or social is able to ‘synthesize’ this material without ‘the dirt’ becoming ‘clean’, i.e. overly synthetic or aestheticised? Perhaps what is at stake here is finding a way of reading across these very different fields of image production, a kind of recurring motif or structure that collapses the distinction between clean and dirty, constructed and real.

Here, I am curious about the recurrence of the mask or masking in the work of several artists, as well as has been mentioned in the ‘performance’ of political dissent.

The Way of the Masks: Machona, Mathambo and Hugo

The mask features in the work of Athi-Patra Ruga, Dineo Bopabe, and others, I have limited my discussion to exemplary instances of masking in the work of McGarry, and Pieter Hugo (in both his exhibition ‘Nollywood’ and in the music video he directed for Spoek Mathambo). Here, the mask inserts a figure of disturbance into the synthetic process, acting as surreal intervention into an ethnographic mode, often producing images that are uncanny and difficult to read. In the Endgame catalogue, the mask is combined with the constructed mise-en-scene and military costume, accompanied by captions detailing costs of costumes and props, and payments to subjects. These captions insert the images into a real economy, underscoring this extra information as ‘synthetic dirt’. In Hugo’s Nollywood series the mask references both theatrical and film performance, as well as I would argue a kind of carnivalesque and grotesque in order to disrupt viewer expectations around violence in images of Africa. In Hugo’s music video production for Spoek Mathambo’s cover of Joy Division’s ‘Control’, the use of ‘masking’ by the covering of performers with white powder and black liquid evokes images of vigilante violence, necklacing and xenophobia. Far from being flattened by the film’s slick, black and white grading the work is disturbing for exactly its imbrication of the clean with the dirty, the irreducibility of the white powder | black liquid as signifiers of difference and violence.

Both artists, however, remain within the framework of the tourist, the observer who mines an imaginary of the continent, in the case of Hugo, as photographic quest, and in the case of McGarry as strategic conceptualist.

Unexpected affinities

‘My work investigates the ongoing ramifications of Western Imperialism within the African continent’
McGary’s work is unusual in its application of conceptual practice to the postcolonial, however, the ease with which he theorizes his practice in the Endgame catalogue hints at an all too comfortably conceptual position, which sets up and maintains a stable set of binaries. Although McGarry’s accomplished book provides several levels of engagement and potential for double reading and self-reflexivity, the hint is in the high definition film, ‘Will to Power. While the film presents itself as satire, the ambition of its scale and high gloss finish with the use of such loaded locations as Great Zimbabwe sit strangely within the complexities of the ‘reality’ it attempts to point to: political dictatorship in Africa. The film inserts itself into the genre of critical works about leadership, but fails to escape its own resemblance formally to high-end action cinema and fashion, so that the potential irony is lost to a kind of literalness, where everything flattens out, becoming all too ‘clean’.

It is perhaps interesting to compare the image of Julius Malema’s bodyguards with McGarry’s altered machine guns. Employing methods of both surrealist sculpture and fetish ritual practices the resulting plastic works and the photographs sit strangely between the ‘clean’ and the ‘dirty’. The objects disturb these categories in a way that the film and some of the all too strategic positioning of the book’s text does not. The same is true of McGarry’s use of the mask as a kind of disruptive element of the ‘clean’ image. It is here that we begin to see a commerce between mask as a trope of difference in fine art and the use of the mask in the protest images, perhaps in contrast to the unmasked performance of Malema’s bodyguards.

Unmasking Dissent

It is the work of Zimbabwean artist Gerald Machona that best situates the mask and masking within a direct contact zone with the political. Rancière defines the political as the space of dissensus, this is curiously in opposition to the place of the state which polices dissent , i.e. which is built on consensus, the enforced construction of the ‘synthetic person’. Taking the category of dissensus as the basis of the political, some of the most radical art practices to emerge in the last few years have been those that are dematerialised and performative. What distinguishes Machona’s work from that of Hugo and McGarry is that the mask is used in situ, in Harare, on a rooftop that was inadvertently located near to a Zanu PF office, leading to the Machona’s detainment along with artist Dan Halter and a photographer. Two things should be noted, the positioning of the performance near to the Zanu PF office was not intentional and the accusations had centred around the use of Zimbabwean dollars in the performance and as material for the mask. Any gesture with that currency is inherently politicised. Machona’s work is an adaption of the Gule Wamkhulu dance, a traditional, ceremonial dance performed by Malawian immigrants in Zimbabwe, and his concern is to adapt the dance and the mask to specific public sites to explore the complex place of immigrant identity. While the performance was done to produce a video work and a set of relatively ‘clean’ stills, what distinguishes Machona’s use of the mask is its ‘liveness’, its transformative and temporary quality.  Each configuration of the ‘mask’ shifts according to the context and set of issues Machona is working with and out of contingency Machona has to recycle the dollars as he has access to a limited amount. The mask does not exist as an autonomous object outside of the performance.

As such the ‘policing’  of Machona’s performance suggests we are in the same territory as the political use of masks/masking as disruptive device in protests, courting the very real effects of political violence and power. In mythology and ritual the ‘mask’ has a transformative power, enabling the wearer to become an ‘other’, a double-consciousness is held in tension, the insider occupies the position of the ‘outsider’.  As such, have we found the real dirt? Perhaps the real experience of dirtiness is located where we are no longer able to distinguish the very categories of dirty and clean, or real and synthetic. It is the mask and the performance of masking that disrupts the seamlessness of the experience of viewing, of interpretation and genre so that basic oppositions no longer hold: the raw is the cooked, the face is the mask, the person ficta is the fact.

Bettina Malcomess lectures in theory and history of aesthetics at the Michaelis School of Fine Art and the UCT Department of Architecture.

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