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, July 6, 2011

The Dirt is Real – The Rest is Synthetic: The Rough Works of Aryan Kaganof

by Anton Krueger

Aryan Kaganof, was born Ian Kerkhof in 1964. He grew up in Durban and left for Amsterdam in 1984, because, in his own words he didn’t feel like “running around in a uniform shooting at blacks”. He moved back to South Africa in ‘99 to meet – for the first time – his biological father, who was terminally ill. Aryan lived with him during the last months of his life, an experience recounted in Uselessly (Jacana, 2006). His father was a Jewish man called Caganoff. Kagan is a Russian equivalent of Cohen, and the “off” means “descended from”, so Kaganof is the son of Cohen. And then Ian renamed himself Aryan, (from the Sanskrit arya, meaning “noble”), because Hitler said that no Jew would ever be an Aryan, and he thought that might be kind of funny. So that’s where Aryan Kaganof’s peculiar name comes from.

Since his rebranding and re-adoption of South Africa, Kaganof has forced himself rather insistently onto the local cultural landscape with works in the widest range of media imaginable – film, text, fine art, music. Within these categories, he’s been viciously prolific; producing poetry, novels, memoir, philosophy, blues, noise music, painting, etching, performance, documentary, music videos, narrative stories and more. He most often refers to what he does as “editing” and “remixing” and some of his principles are spelled out in a 24 part manifesto on the “RE:MIX” on the back cover of Nostalgia for the Future (2009). Here are two of his points:

The atomic unit of the RE:MIX is not the shot, but the fragment – which is a clump, a volatile, conglomerate. Granular, dense and stuck together.

The RE:MIXER  poeticizes the image by emphasizing its musical values (chromatic oppositions, dissonances and compositional rhyme)…

Nostalgia consists of varying frames of found footage, mixed with very personal tapes, and spliced together in a multiplicity of frames to create a curious new rhythm. Working on RE:MIXING is, according to Kaganof “like working on oneself, on one’s own interpretation. On one’s way of seeing things.” He cuts up and reshapes cultural products which one has seen before, and yet something seeps through; some fungi, something unnameable. Something dirty. And this is exactly his appeal. Henk Ooosterling says:

[Kaganof’s] films don’t follow a story line. They follow an image. He employs that image like a tone in a musical piece, setting it in motion, driving it along, draining it of its colour, letting it flow apart or run over into other images, staccato and dazzling or slowly diminishing, vaguely trilled or clear and taut.    

This lack of focus in narrative plot, theme, or image resolution contribute to the sullying of the image. When I first met him in 2004, Kaganof was fond of wearing SADF military battle fatigues (browns) which he’d personalized with stencils, like “Hou my vas corporal”. There was another one I remember that read: “I’m for the emancipation of the out of focus.”

To be analytical is to be clear. To be synthetic is to be fuzzy. If you’re going to bring things together, especially disparate entities, there are going to be a lot of overlapping borders, a lot of blurry boundaries. Here’s another little gem from the manifesto: “The re:mixer is fascinated with working at the very limits of coherence.”

So a lot of Kaganof’s films tend to be kind of blurry. He’s not one for high-res. When he made the world’s first feature film shot entirely on Celphones (Sugarman, 2007) somebody asked him why he didn’t just use bad cameras with low resolution; but his aim is to play with alternative ways of producing images and finding out what the side effects are of messing about with new media. 

The framing concept of the “Synthetic Dirt” colloquium comes from the chapter in Peter Brook’s The Empty Space (1968) about the “Rough Theatre” ; and whether singing guttural blues with his band Freedom Fighter or in performance pieces such as Catherine Henegan’s The Shooting Gallery (2006) there is certainly something rough about Kaganof’s approach, not only in terms of content but also stylistically. Robyn Sassen complained that The Shooting Gallery was “poorly strung together”  while she acknowledged that there were a number of powerful images in the piece.  There’s no getting around it, a lot of Kaganof’s work can come across as unrefined and unpolished, as if he could have spent more time crafting his concept and planning his productions.

Kaganof prefers to act rather than to think. He’s said outrageous things like “Thinking is vulgar; the pastime of intellectual peasants; thinking is always too slow.”  What matters to Kaganof is not preferences for good or bad; but action and non-action – whether one Wills or not. Most of Aryan’s products are entirely self produced in short bursts of energy. In his narrative films there is little subtlety of emotion or characterization, and his plotlines (such as they exist) veer towards stereotype, using thickly applied repetitions. The music in some of his films can be glaring, repetitive and unpleasant; the content takes a strong stomach and can bring about nausea. I’ve walked out of his film on Ron Athey because I felt ill, I wanted to throw up; and  yet, the film affected me on a visceral level. It made me aware of my own body and its limitations, of the blood in my veins, my mortality. It broke through the illusion of existing in a safe cocoon removed from inevitable old age, sickness and death. 

Moving on then to another kind of dirt, Kaganof’s images are not only thematically and digitally dirtied, but they also deal with what is considered filthy by polite society. Many of Kaganof’s films are vulgar, they’ve shown people vomiting (into each other’s mouths no less), urinating, having anal sex, injecting drugs and so on. They’re offensive, as are any of these acts committed in a public place, as is releasing any of the body’s mortal fragments into the social sphere. What could be dirtier than what we expel? Anna Tilroe writes: “for Kaganof the body must endure everything it fears: torture, sexual excess, sensual chaos”.  She goes on to say that: “inherent in that transcendent is violation: a transgression of borders that is neither socially nor politically acceptable.”

For Julia Kristeva, the body only becomes socially acceptable when it is able to enter the realm of signification, when it is able to keep abjection at bay. She says: “The body must bear no trace of its debt to nature: it must be clean and proper in order to be fully symbolic”.   We have to bolster the illusion of civilization, keeping it well away from the body’s functions, and perhaps this might be one way of proposing a dividing line between “dirty” and “clean” – society is clean; culture is clean / while the naked, trembling, aging, dying, sick body is dirty. The body away from language, outside of the synthesizing (and anesthetizing) effects of culture is dirty.

It seems a strange dichotomy that a person who revels in the digital medium, so often favours the earthy. Ashraf Jamal and Rat Western’s call for papers for this colloquium posits “the human” on the other side of “the synthetic”, which struck me as a little odd, because isn’t being synthetic exactly what culture is all about? Isn’t all culture fake? Artificial? Made up? Imaginary? All too human? What is not fake in culture is the Dionysian that bursts through – the body, when it tries to burst out of its symbolic confines.

So perhaps Kaganof is not a good example of “Synthetic Dirt”, because the dirt he supplies is not synthetic. What is synthetic is everything else which is not the dirt. His plotlines, his characters, his settings, his scenes – more often than not these can be extremely synthetic, almost in the sense of being parodic. The characters are clichéd, the scenes often a pastiche of other films. (At their funniest moments we recognise the films they come from.)  On the other hand, he’s managed to capture the painfully masochistic celebrations of Ron Athey and filmed Mathew Barney shitting pearls onto a velvet cushion held by supermodel Helena Christenson,  and he has Thom Hoffmann having anal sex while reciting the Lord’s prayer;  moments which dirty up all of our expectations of what cinema should be doing, and which constitute just about the most original footage I’ve ever seen.

In defining postdramatic theatre, Hans-Thies Lehmann says:

The ‘principles of narration and figuration’ and the order of a ‘fable’ (story) are disappearing in the contemporary ‘no longer dramatic theatre text’ (Poschmann). An ‘autonomization of language’ develops...texts in which language appears not as the speech of characters – if there still are definable characters at all – but as an autonomous theatricality. 

If I could fashion a link here between “postdramatic theatre” and Kaganof’s “postnarrative film”, it seems that in Kaganof’s oeuvre there is an autonomization of the image. Images no longer refer to scenes of conflict, to contexts available to narrative explanation. (When I asked him where some of the footage from Nostalgia for the Future and Nique ta Mere came from, and if some of it was “found footage”, he replied that no, this was “lost footage”.) 

Where postdramatic theatre uses “language surfaces”, here there is a surface of flickering images which draw attention to their flickering nature. The movies have always been flickering, the great illusion has been trying to present a stable image, so this is a process of emphasising and laying bare the way film works on the eye. These flickering images present a very different view of human subjectivity. I don’t think they lack an interest in the human subject, but this creature is far from autonomous. Lehmann again:

What finds articulation here is less intentionality – a characteristic of the subject – than its failure, less conscious will than desire, less the “I” than the ‘subject of the unconscious” .

To return to his RE:MIX manifesto, Kaganof writes: “The RE:MIX is a practice of diluting or hemorrhaging the subject in a fragmented, particled sound/vision language…”  This hemorrhaged subject comes at the cost, though, of what the  prologue to SMS Sanctuary, defines as “The staging of the author as the work itself”. And here Kaganof’s greatest strength comes to the fore, despite his repeated injunctions towards the dissolution of the subject, it is the strong subject of himself as an artist with a powerful personality, which leads to his prodigious output. He is continually performing himself, no matter how much he seems to have dissolved within these dirty technologies.

The performance work, The Shooting Gallery, starts out with Kaganof hanging naked upside down from the ceiling for about 10-15 minutes, while media images are flashed onto his body, clothing him in news, in media, in digital representation. This image is central to Kaganof’s work – the synthesis of the dirty image and the dirty body. And the placing of himself at the centre of his work.

In conclusion, I’d like to return to Peter Brook’s idea of the Rough Theatre and extend it to the metaphor of roughage in one’s diet. Very sophisticated food is inevitably very well processed. Cake flour, for example, is highly refined. It goes through the mill again and again, through committee after committee to get rid of the lumps, so that it arrives on our plate beautifully creamy and light and delicious. We also know, however, that highly processed foods like white bread and cake tend to stick in our guts. We don’t digest them very well. So ironically, the most processed foods are the most difficult for our stomachs to process because they’ve become so complicated, they’re so very many steps removed from the original food groups they came from.

A rougher, less pure, unrefined product may at times contribute to what we need; since too much sophistication, too much refinement can sit in the throat; can make one sick, like too many syrupy Hollywood meringues. In this sense, Kaganof’s works are raw, uncooked; savage displays of sometimes brutal ideas; actions without concept; and yet, perhaps they contribute towards a much needed cleansing of the colon of the unconscious.

Anton Krueger is a writer and lectures in Drama at Rhodes University.

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