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

Friday, July 8, 2011

(Not) Everything counts in large amounts: Dusty Realism and the productive ‘archive’ of the in between

by Alexander Opper
This paper addresses two recent conceptually linked works by the author, employing dust as vehicle and metaphor for the challenging of established values and meanings attached to the museum archive. The horizontal cornice surfaces of the Johannesburg Art Gallery’s (JAG) exhibition halls bear testimony to the fact that dust – in its cumulative, undisturbed presence – physically and conceptually bridges and deconstructs the constructed divides between colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid space. Dust is unsettling in its main characteristic, its invariable tendency to settle. The settled state of dust is deceptive though, as it implies an ongoing, quiet and thick mobility of infinite settling. In its stubborn omnipresence it prefers the horizontal position of rest to the vertical surface of display. The non-linear and Dusty Realism, as I refer to it here, of this fugitive and permanent museum ‘resident’ overrides and overwrites the futile attempts of museum curators to neatly and chronologically categorise the contents of any museum archive. It embodies the Deriddean notions of margin and centre and reversal and doubling: in the two works discussed here, the ostensibly residual nature of dust is catapulted onto the museum’s centre stage. Here it operates simultaneously as a destabilising catalyst for new readings – and as an unsettling mirror – of the archive as we know it. Although museum dust remains relatively dry, due to the strict rules of control around temperature and humidity in such buildings, it retains an inherently sticky quality. Like glue, it clings to, binds, and is itself a constituent element of the synthetic archive it tenuously holds together.

The first work presented here, Accumulation #1 (2010) was made for the show,
‘Time’s Arrow: Live Readings of the JAG Collection’. It uses the pervasive ‘apolitical’ nature of dust – specifically the 100-year old accumulation of dust on the above-mentioned museum cornices – to interrogate and undermine the traditionally measured and ascribed notions of value attached to the ideologically selected contents of the museum archive. The second work, Accumulation #2 (2010), attempts to analyse the work I open with, and continues an ongoing engagement with alternative readings, and probing of conventional definitions of the archive, situated within the author’s broader interest of a critical-spatial pursuit of the ‘undoing’ of site-specific architectural spaces and contexts. Added to this wider concern of institutional critique, this paper attempts to tease out the rich advantages of a multimodal approach to artistic practice, through the pursuit of practice-led research. The writing – about dust as a vehicle for the expression and simultaneous critique of accumulation – allows for the surfacing of enlightening understandings and constructive misunderstandings, of what has been made by the author, what it might mean and where it might lead to.

Accumulation #1 consists of a large-scale ‘drawing’, made with dust collected in the
JAG from the horizontal surfaces of the cornices in the three exhibition halls which housed the ‘Time’s Arrow’ exhibition. For this site-specific work I collected approximately 100 years worth of dust which had, up until that point, accumulated on top of the JAG's cornices. The undisturbed quality of my chosen ‘site’ for this work relies on the fact that the invisible horizontal surfaces of these cornices find themselves so high up that cleaning them on a regular basis, or at all, seems nonsensical. Invariably much of the dust matter which settles in the JAG comes from the produced and lived 'archive' of the park and the city surrounding the museum. This dust is carried into the museum spaces by visitors to and employees of the JAG on an ongoing basis. In these hard-to-reach places, dust has been permitted to steadily settle and has been more or less undisturbed for the 100-year existence of the museum. The work, through interruption, attempts to draw attention to this entropic transfer of invisible slowness: on one level the dusty exchange of de- and re-materialisation, between the enclosed space of the museum and its greater physical context, embodies a natural, continuous, unintentional loop of Robert Smithson’s site/non-site experiments. Removed from its marginal state of quiet obscurity, I translated the elusive dust into a frozen ‘drawing’ of itself. In many ways the absurd attempt at making this work, which freezes something as inherently fugitive as dust, is a trace or a ‘vestige’, in the sense that Jean-Luc Nancy refers to it, of roughly a century’s worth of accumulated matter of absolutely no real or measurable value. Its capturing and distillation, framed by steel and trapped behind tempered glass, exhibited in a suspended state of endless levitation, comments on and interrogates the politics and codes underlying the more recognised and accepted systems used to ascribe monetary and symbolic value to the other contents housed in the JAG’s official but, to a large extent, equally invisible collection. In many ways the futile attempt at manipulating formless dust, into a static form of itself, becomes strangely valuable as a speculative mirror held up against the museum archive which, as a strict system of selection and control, is illusive and invisible in other ways. Dust, in its formless diffusion and limitless pervasiveness, extends even further on the non-hierarchic aspects Gilles Deleuze ascribes to the free systems embodied by the rhizome and the fold. Dust adds a spatial dimension to influence, which neither the rhizome nor the fold are able to achieve. Its limitlessness allows it to exist freely in and outside the archive. At the core of this work, the systemlessness of dust is used as a catalyst to challenge the limits of the strict system which defines the museum archive.

Although the archive consists of a bounded and controlled territoriality of art – a space of memory – its fixed nature is crucial as a ‘comparative framework’, the description Boris Groys employs in his book of essays Art Power, to describe the reliable role of the museum as a counter to the prolific but often thin influence of the media, in terms of defining which art has validity. Groys elucidates this point in his essay ‘Equal Aesthetic Rights’: “The global media market lacks in particular the historic memory that would enable the spectator to compare the past with the present and thereby determine what is truly new and genuinely contemporary about the present.” In the abstract for this paper, I refer to the idea of dust representing a persistent homage to Kasimir Malevich’s 1919 call (in On the Museum (see Groys’s essay ‘On the New’)) for the reduction of museums and their collections to space-saving powder – via his suggested burning of everything old and outdated, to make way for the new. As evocative as this idea still is, it is no longer relevant in a contemporary context where, as Groys posits, “the territory of art is organised around … the rejection of any aesthetic judgement”. Groys’s reference to the ‘regime of equal aesthetic rights for all artworks’ – and the current relational stance reflected by the contemporary art world, resisting purely aesthetic value judgements – have surpassed the violent and non-compromising stance of defining the ‘new’, as advocated by the earlier avant-garde of Malevich and his colleagues. In the context of this paper, truly factual dust serves as a productive analogy for the particles, pixels, bytes and print matter which make up the dense but often undiscerning constituents of the media’s artistic information highway. The (dusty) museums, according to Groys, are: “a place where we are reminded of the egalitarian projects of the past and where we can learn to resist the dictatorship of contemporary taste.”

Dust is not selected or selective – it is uninvited and invasive and forces its way into every nook and cranny of the recognisable and recognised archive. The “Time’s Arrow” exhibition attempted to wake up a slumbering and lazy archive. The intention of the curator, Anthea Buys, was in a sense to undo the archive via, as stated in artists brief, “a time-based exhibition [which] looks at the relationship between the formation of the JAG’s collection and how this collection is viewed, read, imagined, forgotten, resented, buried and dug up again years later”. The allusions to excavation reinforce the temporal and messy aspects of the gallery’s collection and the archive more broadly. The ‘drawing’ which emerged from the process of Accumulation #1, although frozen in its formal appearance, talks about not allowing the dust of archival potential to settle at all, but instead to capitalise on the turbulent prospects of mixing up the traditionally hallowed and chronologically linear nature of the archive. Dust is in and of the world and is, in the Bourriaudian sense, relational to the core. Ironically, its unstoppable, accumulating and viral presence is the most alive aspect of the dead museum and dead archive. The mining, to use an obvious Johannesburg analogy, of the museum’s cornices re-verses and re-members 100 years of collecting. It also re-represents the essence of the collection in a somewhat unbecoming way in order to address directly what was hinted at by the curatorial brief, that is “to excavate aesthetic or philosophical possibilities that expand the sense in which an art collection constitutes an archive”. The brief for the exhibition hints at a reading of time as multi-directional versus the deterministic qualities and operations of linear time which generally underlie most archival structures. In this context dust-matter, in its dissipated and asymmetrical essence, challenges “the notion of traceable origins – that validate certain narratives of history in favour of others”. Whereas archives are always constructed from a specific ideological perspective, dust, in its dirty anti-perspectival essence, is here used to challenge the construction of history from single and privileged perspectives.

The subsequent work, Accumulation #2, documents the ‘unreachable’ parts of the museum – the cornices, where dust has been permitted to settle and has been more or less undisturbed for the almost 100-year existence of the JAG. The work follows on directly from its predecessor but was not part of the Time’s Arrow show. It was developed afterwards and was shown at a group show entitled ‘The Spirit is not an Idea says the Penguin’ (2010). The work consists of three parts: A text elucidates on the origins and value of the collected dust from the cornices of the JAG’s exhibition spaces; A pair of photographs communicate the two ‘faces’ of the cornice respectively: the invisible, unimportant horizontal surface on which dust collects, and the spotless, presentable surface, which is always visible to the museum visitor; finally, a physical dust sample from the JAG’S cornices is displayed under a protective glass dome which is in turn placed on a stylised wooden cornice. An important art-historical reference, in the context of the development of the above work, is Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965). As crucial as language was to Kosuth’s practice, the insertion of Accumulation #2 into the contemporary art world attempts to deconstruct and synthetically reveal the flaws of the archive’s fixities. The dead serious irony of the work’s postulating inversion of a poor material as the double of, or, in the most extreme case, the actual archive, highlights the necessity for an urgent and conversant cracking open and reinterpretation of museum systems and hierarchies.

Both works discussed in this paper emphasise that the world, real and virtual, is lived in and through motion – they attempt to challenges and topple stasis. In a nod to Groys’s “logic of equal aesthetic rights”, Accumulation #1 and #2 have a revelatory role to serve as important reminders of and cautions against the ubiquitous and overly selective constructions of histories, and regulators of value and taste. Dust is ambiguously and simultaneously peripheral and central. It is not to be underestimated: Its mostly marginal connotations recently slipped into a radically central position – in its ashen Icelandic form – inflicting prolonged global paralysis on the world’s transport systems. Dust ‘reminds’ the increasingly synthetic world that it is real, and longs to make the virtual world more real. Perhaps, in acknowledgement of the obsolescence of delineation between real and virtual, dust, through its nomadically driven particle nature, could ‘learn’ to achieve the ultimate nth degree of pulverisation, allowing it to infiltrate the virtual and in so doing, at last, alchemically link the two realms.

In conclusion I return to Nancy’s important notion of the vestige or trace, which he (in Philosophers on Art from Kant to the Postmodernists) carefully contextualises as a way of extending on Hegel’s premise of “art as the sensible presentation of an idea”. Nancy claims that “the vestiginal is not an essence … [and] art today is its own vestige … It is not a degraded representation of the idea, nor the presentation of a degraded idea; it presents what is not “Idea”: motion, coming, passage, the going-on of coming-to-presence. Thus, in Dante’s Inferno, an added settling of the boat, or the sliding of a few stones, indicate to the damned – but do not let them see – the invisible passage of a living soul”.

Alexander Opper is an architect, artist, designer and writer.  He lectures in the Department of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg’s, where he heads the Masters programme.

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