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

Infospherics and a new South African psychogeography.

by James Sey

Alongside the readable structure of the city, the mappable territory which organises and arranges, lies the other structure of contingency – the structure of the city produced by its users, its inhabitants. This one evokes, determines and produces behaviours, styles, attitudes, values, pathologies. Each city therefore has at least a double character, and a double narrative, and its inhabitants play many roles within them.

The surfaces and depths of the city’s structure, its being – from the towering replications of its skyscrapers, to the hollow aortas of its undercover car parks, to the secret somatics of its circulatory systems of tar, wire, cable and pipe – all form a paradigmatic sign system, a primary cybernetic machine. Seen as such a sign system, the city should be the true locus of modern media – and aesthetic - philosophy.

Cities are sites of great novelty, great innovation, and great overload. The early avant-gardes and the great litterateurs of the industrial era focused on the city as a field of possibility, inextricable from the technologies that enabled those possibilities – traffic, advertising, cinema, factories. In this the artists are, in de Certeau’s term, ‘tacticians’ of the city. Urban aesthetic tactics are exemplified by the famous essay ‘Walking in the City’ (1984), where the city’s inhabitants find their own routes, their own street plans, that have a multitude of meanings for them. This opening up of the city is ranged against the intentions of the urban planners and developers, whose purpose is to order and organise the city’s physical character, to impose restrictions on movements and behaviours.

Urban ‘tacticians’ work in a plethora of modes, using the city to produce discourse and refine practices in many different subcultures. The city is also saturated with visual representation – from billboards and magazine covers to the endless graffiti which manifests as a signature urban aesthetic style – sprayed on the canvas which the city’s walls mutely provide.

What these urban discourses have in common is their quicksilver mutability, their existence as a set of subversions of the city’s planned and formal character – subversions with no sustained agenda. What brings them together, from being a hugely disparate set of activities and rituals, is the ways in which they are all aestheticized discourses and practices.

Perhaps the key aesthetic manoeuvre of the city is the palimpsest, the writing or drawing over onto another set of images, texts or meanings. The city, we should remember, is a giant circulatory system. It recycles things, including water and air. And images and meanings are not exempt – new billboard images replace yesterday’s product, today’s headlines usurp yesterday’s in this palimpsestuous circulation of urban meaning.
Contemporary psychogeography focuses on the interactions, impositions and palimpsests of modern urban planning upon older histories, narrative accounts and belief systems about the city. Through a matrix of myth, superstition, belief and story which underpins the newer matrix of the planned urban grid, emerges a more aesthetic version of the being of the city, and being in the city. This essentially aesthetic psychogeography utilises the materials of signification the city itself provides overlaid with a template of mythic creation, or re-creation, of a city which of course exists only in the imagination.

South Africa’s biggest city and its financial capital, Johannesburg, is now one of the finest examples anywhere in the world of the mutability of cities, their propensity for change and ‘strategic’ reorientation. Since the demise of institutional apartheid in 1990, and the advent of the democratic African National Congress-led government in 1994, the city has been subject to a process of constant physical and ideological ‘renewal’, as a means of changing its older character as an example of apartheid architecture and racial inequality.

While the general programme of renewal has been driven by an unimpeachable ideological agenda to make the city more inclusive and representative, the urban planners have run into the dilemma of the ambivalent character of the city in modernity – the way in which it is defined by, and yet resists, urban planning and governance. The process of renewal in Johannesburg is full of palimpsestuous anomalies – historical buildings have been torn down to make way for gleaming and anodyne new office blocks – but their nineteenth century facades have been retained intact in a nod to historical respect. The formidable apartheid era prison overlooking the city that was Johannesburg’s Old Fort, and which once incarcerated both Gandhi and Mandela, is now the site of an ‘experiential museum’ complex, and the state of the art architecture of the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court.

It is in cities like Johannesburg that the idea of the urban palimpsest is realised – the ‘tactic’ of refashioning the nature of the city comes to aesthetic life in a way that distances it both from the confines of the art gallery’s rules of representation, and from the graffiti artist’s bombs in the street. In the refashioning of an aesthetic identity between these two extremes, Johannesburg becomes an EveryCity of the developing world; with an always new imagining of its psychogeography, and new paths across its surfaces and its disavowed depths.

Beyond the attempts to rebuild cities like Johannesburg as part of a globalised network of homogeneous fast-food outlets and Google Earth addresses, there exists in every city a good deal of liminal space – what become, in the architecture of the modern state, “non-places”, in Marc Augé’s evocative term – a concept that links the liminal spaces of the city to the slum, shanty-town or refugee camp. The world of the non-place, he writes, is

A world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shanty-towns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity)…(this world) offers the anthropologist a new object…(1995: 63)

Such non-places are opposed in a dynamic and fluid way to ‘places’, or more formally anthropological spaces, in Merleau-Ponty’s conception of this as an existential space, the “scene of an experience of relations with the world on the part of a being ‘essentially situated in a milieu’”(65). Places and non-places interact “like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten” (64). 

The general distribution and rapid growth of slums and refugee populations should lead us to consider how the minority citizens of biopolitical states, party to the rights of such citizens, will dispense such rights over the majority of those existing in a state of exception in slums and refugee camps.

These ‘non-places’ and people who exist in a liminal way in most global societies are in some ways a negative function of the generalised regime of representation of place and people enabled by contemporary technologies like Google Earth – in which, at a couple of clicks of a mouse, any space, it seems, can be accessed and ‘experienced’ – in what Benjamin called the ‘phantasmagoria of equality’ in the culture of reproduction. In city space, an antidote to this ‘flattening’ of the experience of and affect in places might be, as we have discussed, the aesthetic processes of ‘psychogeography’ and palimpsest. Does this mean that such aesthetic manoeuvres might be an antidote to this globalised culture of representation? How does a global representation of space itself affect the striving after a visual lexicon which seems to express specific experiences?

As Virilio points out, this apparent democratisation and globalisation of the image has another set of consequences:
All that is still fixed is in fact threatened by this ‘panoptic inertia’ of the speed of light in a vacuum; of these electromagnetic waves that dematerialise the oeuvre using the optical radiance of daylight – exclusively promoting the electro-optical radiance of the false day of screens…In an age where our view of the world has become not so much objective as teleobjective, how can we persist in being? How can we effectively resist the sudden dematerialisation of a world where everything is seen, déjà vu – already seen – and instantly forgotten? (2007: 120-121)

Thus the predominance of light as a panoptical medium has the paradoxical effect, not of illuminating, but of obscuring and flattening out difference – creating the ‘phantasmagoria of equality’. The dematerialisation of the world is accomplished as the disappearance of the act of critical and aesthetic seeing as technical vision everywhere proliferates. And this proliferation is a key marker of the globalisation of culture itself.

If aesthetics as such has run the risk of dematerialisation in these new conditions of global telesurveillance culture, forms of local, liminal art have emerged as an alternative.

On its emergence from apartheid, and as part of a mission to restore a post-colonial identity and socio-political agenda, South Africa found itself with two major tasks of aesthetic introspection to undergo – how to resurrect its neglected and actively suppressed art history; and how to reconcile its new status as a nation with a new global discourse where otherness itself was becoming disavowed in favour of a discourse of global homogeneity and branding.
The process by which this emergence was undertaken is symbolic in itself – a Truth and Reconciliation Commission regulated the confession of sins, and, within its legislative boundaries, the dispensing of expiation. This therapeutic process for the nation is analogous to the treatment of a symptom.

Yet, the analogy may have been false. True analytic therapy comes with a full and free working through of repressed material – a process ruled inadmissible by the rule of SA constitutional law, which outlawed hate speech. The unanswered questions elided by the shortcomings of the TRC process are tangentially addressed by a psychogeographical bent in SA art which symbolically digs in the dirt.
As a metaphor, along with that of the palimpsest, excavation says perhaps more about the peculiarly South African artistic field than is possible in the top-down, surveillance-oriented view that comes with teleobjectivity. As Virilio puts it, ‘the field of vision has always seemed to me comparable to the ground of an archaeological excavation’.

A theoretical trope of excavation brings together the numerous views of how SA has been visually imagined by many artists as a country being constantly mined, dug up and penetrated with those of an emptied out landscape implying both the beauty of natural space and the horror of the shallow grave in a remote landscape.

Numerous artists have placed the unique profile of the mining headgear and mineshaft into the earth as a dramatic symbol of the tortured character of South Africa’s history. Just in recent times artists such as Kentridge, Steve McQueen and James Webb have all taken up the trope. Recent landscape work which meditates on the openness and beauty of the landscape along with its attendant horrors include ‘Sojourn’ by Brent Meistre, and the collections ‘Terreno Occupado’ and ‘As Terras do Fim do Mundo’ by Jo Ractliffe. A photograph in the former collection, ‘Grave’, expresses perfectly this sense of desolate beauty and attendant mortality, simultaneously expressing the hostile indifference of SA’s interior, and gesturing to its incipient violence and the commonplace history of murdered bodies finding shallow graves. The photographs in Ractliffe’s collections are even more abstracted in the minimal signs of human intervention they evince in a primitively alien landscape, where for a generation and more SA fought its apartheid territorial wars.

In these two examples in particular the landscape, as it always has tended to do in art history, stands in for a series of socio-anthropological meanings, acts as a synecdoche for a mute history not only of the landscape, but of the human struggles, tragedies and rituals it contains. The barrenness depicted here conceals, like the urban palimpsest does more easily, a deeper layer of meaning.

The tropes of excavation and palimpsest are only mechanisms, of course – they are hardly even symptoms – but they can nonetheless, as artistic practice, act as an antidote to the worst effects of Google Earth syndrome: the flattening of affect and the illusion of social and political engagement. This is the worst kind of dematerialisation of art, and SA is well placed to counter it, given that we are in a critical and theoretical position to reappraise, from a psychogeographical and aesthetico-anthropological perspective, what a new aesthetics of liminal space might mean for the infosphere.

James Sey is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Fine Art Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg
Augé, M. 1995. Non-Places: An introduction to supermodernity. London: Verso.
De Certeau, M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press
Virilio, P. 2007. Art as far as the eye can see. New York: Berg

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