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

Spatial tourism: ‘Interspatial Commerce’ within Contemporary South African Art

by Mary Corrigall 

“A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch,”
 - Deleuze and Guattari

“You could tell your mother you were going on a package holiday to Kabul, with a stopover in Haiti and Detroit, and she wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But tell her you’re going to Joburg and she’ll be absolutely convinced that you’ll come home with no wallet, no watch and no head,” observed TV personality and journalist Jeremy Clarkson . After a short stay in this notorious South African conurbation Clarkson discovered it wasn’t quite the “lawless Wild West frontier town paralysed by corruption and disease”. This prompted him to amend his attitude and declare that Joburg was in fact a city “for softies.”

Surprisingly, it was Joburger’s who protested against this sentiment: the Joburg Clarkson had experienced to-and-fro from his swanky hotel room in the company of a bodyguard was not the ‘real’ Joburg. The ‘real’ Joburg couldn’t be glimpsed from a Sandton hotel room. The ‘real’ Joburg existed in places like Hillbrow among the dilapidated skyscrapers that characterise the city’s skyline. In locales where brave photo journalists with experience in war torn territories such as Guy Tillim  captured the sombre portraits of the hopeless inhabitants living in what has been perceived to be the core of a dirty and diseased city. In such a context ‘dirt’ is equated with entropy, impoverishment and disempowerment.

Artists who may have wished to upturn attitudes attached to these mythologized spaces such as Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse with their 2008 study of the Ponte, a landmark building whose demise was viewed as emblematic of the dystopian post-apartheid landscape, often reinforced negative perceptions while perpetuating the notion that ‘coming to terms’ with Joburg intrinsically involves confronting the inner city. For viewers perusing these images from the comfort of a white cube in the suburbs , their encounter with Joburg’s inner city was aestheticised and mediated from a distance. In this sense they were ‘dirty’ images in that they offered synthesised experiences.

The search for the ‘real’ Joburg has remained a persistent motif in South African culture, from blogs dubbed The Real Joburg, to films like Jozi (2010), which saw a white South African only able to reconcile with his ambivalent relationship to the city when he had come in contact with the “real” Joburg – a scene which shows him sitting in a taxi in the inner city. Contributing to this impulse a number of collaborative site-specific art projects have facilitated intimate excursions through some of Joburg’s most precarious zones, thereby activating new relationships with these socially/ politically loaded spaces.

I term the rise of this form of artistic intervention-cum-performance as “interspatial commerce.” It is a subversion of Nicholas Bourriaud’s  notion of “interhuman commerce,” an alternative “communication zone” where new models of sociability are advanced. Bourriaud observes this outcome as specific to a kind of art or “theory of form”, which has no physical manifestation. It is an abstract and intangible art product that is solely created to engender social interaction .

The social element that Bourriaud identifies as being particular to what he terms relational aesthetics, is not the driving motive behind the form of experience I am exploring here, though inevitably, social relations are a by-product of interspatial commerce. As the word ‘interspatial’ designates, it is the relationship between spaces that forms the central motif of these experiential site-specific projects. ‘Interspatial’ also gives expression to the fact that the subjects/participants/artists are located between spaces, both psychologically and physically - most of these interspatial projects involve visiting a multitude of sites. As Henri Lefebvre  observes: “space is not a thing but rather a set of relations between things.”

The title of Stephen Hobbs and Marcus Neustetter’s Hillbrow/Dakar/Hillbrow (2007) demonstrates this project’s emphasis on the interrelationship between spaces, which involved journeys through both Hillbrow and Dakar. The Hillbrow leg culminated in a group walk from the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Art Gallery through streets of that no-go zone with the purpose of visiting a Congolese night club. Thus the interspatial relationship between the gallery and the world outside also came into focus.

Just as Clarkson’s image of Joburg was challenged when he encountered it in person so too were the participants perceptions of Hillbrow transformed when they traversed it on foot. “You can actually cross over into deep dark and dangerous Hillbrow and meet and learn about each other and actually enjoy a meaningful exchange with someone,” Hobbs observed.

Documentation of Hillbrow/Dakar/Hillbrow was exhibited at the UJ Gallery in 2007. It mostly consisted of maps – hand-drawn ones of Dakar by Senegalese immigrants based in Hillbrow, who relied on memory to construct them were juxtaposed with Google Earth maps, thus enhancing the disjuncture between memory and dispassionate, though equally distorted, renderings of space. This evoked a phenomenon that Lefebrve  suggests “straddles the breach between science and utopia, reality and ideality, conceived and lived.”

The exhibition was almost peripheral to the work itself: ‘the interspatial commerce’ to which it alluded took place outside of the gallery – it was a fleeting, intangible and ‘clean’ experience unsullied by technological mediation. Thus it seems that in a world in which social interaction is becoming more and more virtual, real-time, unmediated physical encounters have become a valuable commodity. They also have significant impact in identifying the “breach between science and utopia.” In the context of Joburg they work at countering selective photographic depictions of the inner city, which fix it in a permanent state of degeneration. 

The re-interrogation of Joburg’s inner city appears to be empirically grounded, though its reappraisal is linked to an epistemological shift that Sarah Nuttal and Achille Mbembe describe as “a reinterrogation of Africa in general as a sign in modern formations of knowledge. ” They too identify a gap between: “the way things are and the way they appear in theory and discourse.” This chasm is the ambiguity that the title of their book, Joburg an Elusive Metropolis (2008), refers, which is also indicative of their desire to reconsider the paradigms underpinning how knowledge of this city is derived, without pinning them down. This echoes the sentiment that artists who are engineering encounters with the inner city are embracing; the ‘interspatial commerce’ they are generating occurs outside of controlled environments like a gallery, consequently they are only able to create the pretext for a multitude of subjective encounters in highly dynamic settings.

This past year has seen a number of site-specific interspatial tours take place in the inner city. They tend to be interdisciplinary performances. In Performing the Streetlights artist Vaughn Sadie collaborated with Sello Pesa, a dancer and choreographer, in a number of site-specific performances around the western side of the inner city. Set at night the performances were largely engineered to demonstrate the ways in which the streetlights and other light props enforced boundaries within the urban context. In one performance, Pesa rolled around a traffic island. The hard concrete contours contrasted with his soft, vulnerable frame, and dirt and grit on the ground covered his body. ‘Dirt’ in this context alluded to a heightened physical encounter with a built environment.

Pesa and his Ntsoana Contemporary Dance group followed this project with In House, a variety of site-specific performances around Joburg’s inner city, northern suburbs and the township of Soweto. Performances ranged from theatrical numbers, performance art and traditional Spanish dance, which were mostly performed in incongruent settings. Humphrey Maleka enacted the history of colonialism and white domination in the back garden of a white-owned suburban home thus challenging white ascendancy from within. The fraught domestic relationship that Gerard Bester and Athena Mazarakis acted out at the Alf Khumalo museum in Soweto, would have been more appropriately set in the suburban home where Maleka performed. By reversing the settings, Pesa summoned an interspatial exchange, which challenged preconceived notions of those environments.

German curator Christopher Gurk chose Hillbrow as one of the settings for the X-Homes project, a Goethe Institute initiative that took place during the World Cup. Groups of two were lead by residents to over five homes and a hotel room in the neighbourhood where they were treated to variety of performances executed by filmmakers, musicians, installation artists and performance artists. In this way the politics of space were addressed via different modes of perceiving.  Almost all the performances were immersive in the sense that the audience were an integral part of the action.

Paul Grootboom, the director and playwright, forced audience members to take on the role of two prospective tenants perusing an overcrowded flat in Hillbrow. As the participants began to relax into their roles, they were confronted with a synthesised performance of domestic violence that appeared authentic. So while the X-Homes project was designed to demythologise Hillbrow it suggested that some of the myths were founded in truth. Other narratives were reconstructions of events with the actual inhabitants/protagonists making an appearance.

Audience members walked between each location and were, therefore, also exposed to authentic life on the streets, which were surprisingly clean. Most found the environment to be non-threatening. The juxtaposition between fictional performances and reality, engendered a destabilising context in which fact and fiction, the ‘cooked’ and the ‘raw,’ became indistinguishable from each other. As the imagined and the real collided, preconceived notions were dislodged, allowing participants to inhabit Hillbrow without any baggage - except for their tourist status.

Even though the audience were sometimes embedded within the performances, their outsider position was inescapable. So while it initially seemed that this project facilitated an encounter that was more authentic, less ‘dirty’ and less voyeuristic than viewing images of Joburg’s inner city via photographic depictions it was clear this might be impossible to circumvent. Put plainly: this form of art or type of experience still sees affluent suburbanites surreptitiously spying on the less-privileged. To some degree this voyeuristic position was no different to the disengaged and passive nature of consuming object-based art. In other words it doesn’t quite conform to Bourriaud’s argument that “relational art privileges inter-subjective relations over detached opticality.”

These face-to-face encounters are also fleeting and thus superficial. Unless one embraces Bourriaud’s  concept of the role of contemporary practice, which should “not position itself as the termination point of the creative process but as a site of navigation, a portal, a generator of activities.”

In this light one could view these spatial tours as generating “an experience” that is intended to inspire other similar kinds of experiences that “set new ways of living and models of action ”. So while some of the participants might not visit a nightclub in Hillbrow again, they might attempt to walk around the city centre – an activity many suburbanites avoid. Consequently, these performances are in line Bourriaud’s  assertion that contemporary art “restores the world to us, as an experience to be lived.” In the South African context, it also works towards healing “spatial dislocation, the class differentiation and the racial polarisation imprinted on the urban landscape by apartheid state-sanctioned segregation and planning.” 

This kind of experiential art could also counter the pervasive “process of dis-embedding, whereby we have been as it were evicted from the world”  that has been brought about in the wake of globalisation, resulting in the erosion of historical connections to established social spaces, or widened them to include a multitude of translocal associations.

Should or can artists play a role in restoring a sense of belonging? Particularly in a location such as Joburg’s inner city where the majority of the population are recent arrivals, thus there exists a “veritable vacuum of belonging, where almost no one presently living there can claim an overarching sense of origin in this place.”  Do these kinds of ephemeral real-time art initiatives make a case for raw, un-synthesised un-dirty experiential art or is a ‘clean’ encounter an impossible ideal? Undoubtedly this colloquium’s focus on ‘the dirty’ has almost obviated the necessity to unpack its antithesis and its relationship to the former.

Mary Corrigall is an art critic and journalist. She is also a Research Associate at the Research Centre for Visual Identities in Art and Design at the University of Johannesburg

  End Notes
Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (2004)p2
  Dare you to visit Joburg, the city for softies. The Sunday Times (UK), 1 March 2009
  In the Jo'burg (2004) series Guy Tillim makes a study of the the residents of dilapidated buildings in Hillbrow and surrounding areas in the inner-city
  Subotzky did show a study of the Ponte as part of the In Context exhibition at Arts on Main in the inner city, but the exhibition of the series was displayed at the Goodman Gallery in Parkview
  In Relational Aesthetics (2002) p17
  Such as Philippe Parreno’s 1995 work which involved inviting friends and acquaintances to make crafts in a gallery on May Day

  In The Production of Space (2008) p83
  Ibid p60
  Joburg an Elusive Metropolis, 2008 p25
  Claire Bishop in Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics: October (Fall 2004, No. 110) p61
  In PostProduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World (2002) p19
  Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (2002) p 13
  PostProduction (2002) p32
  Mbembe, Nuttal, Joburg an Elusive Metropolis (2008) p15
  Ian Buchanan and Gregg Lambert, Deleuze and Space (2005) p124
  Richard Tomlinson, Emerging Perspective on the postapartheid city (2003) p129

No comments:

Post a Comment