Jill Magid
Gerald Raunig
Stephen Hobbs
Dr Achille Mbembe
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16 february 2006

 

Thurs, Feb 16 2006 10:15 pm

My name is Stephen Hobbs and I am a Johannesburg based artist, curator and co-director, with Marcus Neustetter, of The Trinity Session. During our activities as public art researchers and commissioning agents for the Johannesburg Development Agency, we conducted numerous site visits, city walks, and scripto-visual mapping workshops, towards a better understanding of the manner in which public art can contribute to place making solutions in the inner city.

  On one of our site inspections at the boundary between Braamfontein and Hillbrow, we were confronted by a Senegalese man, who recognizing our cameras must have presumed we were tourists. Speaking to us in French he advised us not to enter Hillbrow. Able to understand and respond we informed him that we were Joburger's and that we were very aware of the no-go aspects of Hillbrow.  

  From the perspective of our mapping activities, we thus received first hand evidence of the potentially charged divide between these two neighbourhoods and in addition a sense of strangeness following the realization that ‘others' from the continent might have a stronger foothold of areas of the city that we had previously traversed freely.

  This sense of territoriality within the inner city, the evidence of a ‘new' African user and so on had become a reality even before the abolition of the Group Areas Act in 1990.

  As an artist whose body of work to date is predominantly dedicated to investigating the transformations and visual discourses within Johannesburg, I have come to realise that Johannesburg holds remarkable value as a laboratory for studying and immersing oneself.  It is also home to both myself and Marcus Neustetter and because we have chosen to remain in South Africa, we understand that our memories of home under apartheid for example are now radically challenged at all levels. For us, remaining here means embracing that change and using our skills as creative people to participate in, produce and influence perceptions.

  Referring back to this idea of immersion in the city, we identify Johannesburg as perhaps the best example of a South African city's conversion from an apartheid identity to a multiple African identity. In this transformation process our sense is that the city itself is catching up to the rapid reclamation strategies adopted by the new city users be they local or from the continent. The high impact change within the urban fabric of Johannesburg leaves traces of human interaction, socio- economic and even cultural endeavour.  As artists and curators there is so much opportunity to use the language of exhibition practice within public or private space to reflect on this transformation and what it means for creative interventions to play a role in reporting on this change or facilitating a seeing-ourselves approach to audience growth and development.

  An example of our approach can best be described in our project (by invitation of the French Institute of South Africa) for the Dakar Biennial in May 2006.

  During the conceptual phase of the project, the first questions we asked ourselves were; what does Dakar / Senegal look like? How does it behave as a city? And are there comparisons we can draw between Dakar and Johannesburg's newly formed African city?

  An answer to these questions would require establishing a process that was born out of the encounter with the ‘Senegalese man'.

  Our proposal acknowledges the following:

  There is a Senegalese community in Joburg, migrant, legal and illegal, engaging with the City of Johannesburg in a particular way.

  From a city comparison perspective we need to have an encounter with Dakar and this encounter should be relevant to our work in Johannesburg and other African cities.

  The language of mapping through video, photography, drawing and found materials will form the key visual documentation processes.

  The outcome of the project should have a form particular to the Dakar exhibition and a form particular to a return exhibition in Johannesburg.

  Our concept proposes the following.

  We establish a forum within which we can interview a small number of resident Senegalese immigrants. Through the interview dialogue we hope to extract information about Dakar, hand drawn maps, photographs and other information that we could use to navigate Dakar without reliance upon traditional maps or guide books. An added layer to this navigation process is that we offer to deliver something of importance to a friend or family member in Dakar.

  This process is documented and forms the basis upon which we design our own route map, from the airport or main transport arteries to the city.

  The culmination of documentary material is then processed in Dakar through a media lab that is partnering with us to produce an exhibition result.

  Upon return to Johannesburg we will recontextualise the Dakar Exhibition in Hillbrow, with a view to engaging the resident Senegalese audience.

  In both my own artistic practice and the collaborative partnership between myself and Marcus Neustetter, I think that our socially engaged processes began years ago out of notions of adding or extracting value within the set of relations accountable to the project or intervention. We realise today that our interventions are directly linked to issues of audience development, access and interpretation. That in a fragmented society like that of South Africa; audience is site or context specific and that in this sense we purpose and condition our projects to this end.  

 

shepherd steiner  

Thurs, Feb 16 2006 11:15 pm

 

My name is Shep Steiner. I am an art critic and theorist. Allow me to respond to Gerald Raunig's excellent and complex introduction by first acknowledging that his breakdown between art and politics -- and following from this, his identification of an intermediate stance that bridges this divide (something it seems he is variously for and against as I will articulate) -- is played out on the current grounds of art, and inasmuch, usefully maps out a range or spectrum of possible positions for art at the present moment. (I will be interested to hear if this adequately represents the spectrum of practices in South Africa.) If the two poles of contemporary practice are politically engaged art and traditional aesthetic practices which value beauty, and I'm sure he is right on this point, then there is no doubt that practices which attempt to bridge this divide have a certain currency or use value at the present moment. His cautionary tale that the value of these latter practices should not however be overestimated is important: as he puts it even here, “the total state is not far away.”

Thus, his compelling set of questions beginning with the aim to “look at overlapping forms of art and activism that overcome simplistic ideas of transcendent transgression;” and his interest in “how transgression (can) be imagined as both a non-totalitarian and non-transcendental phenomenon, as transgression in the plane of immanence.” Thus, also, the valuation of a kind of practice that I can only imagine as one which transparently sutures a performative and constative moment of overlap, and further that escapes this dialectical closure.

If I have adequately summarized Raunig's point of interest here, I am sympathetic to his position (with a few qualifications), but I would like to know and hear more about how he sees and how others see certain exemplary practices escaping the clutches of such totalizing imperatives and sets of ideological closures. To my mind, championing the contingencies of the momentary or the specificities of place are not enough to secure this double prerogative. Further, I would argue that rather than simply limiting or only pinning hope on the intermediate term of a spectrum of practices, possibility potentially lies within each and every unique practice that makes up the cultural spectrum. This is not cultural relativism, this confronts the problem of value in Democracy head on, by recognizing that potentiality is an aporetic structure, seated in unique and exemplary forms of practice that entirely escapes systematization. In other words, to take the example of activist art, because the category of the aesthetic underwrites the use-value of whatever terms of political engagement seem urgent at whatever time and place, then that unique aesthetic moment can be opened up to change -- but not completely, the aesthetic is a slippery fish, it is variable, changes from moment to moment, and only thrives only in a hypoxic environment – it never really comes up for air, but only seems to surface or materialize when constative and perfomative moments find a comfortable unity.

In a sense then, one of the interesting things Raunig seems to be proposing here, and I would like to hear him say more on this touchy issue, is showing up the paucity of practices that position themselves vis-à-vis other practices in the cultural field -- simplistic transgression being presumably a transgression that at least in part takes a stand against someone or something else. To some extent he shows the designations of Left and Right to be the leftovers of an older vocabulary that no longer have as good a purchase on the landscape as they once did, though he is not willing to entirely dismiss the vocabulary for fear of falling into relativism or the hands of conservative politics and worse. Given that Raunig's vocabulary is rooted in Deleuze and Guattari I would be interested to hear how artists and critics negotiate this terrain in the South African context. Especially I would be interested in hearing about the ways in which they do so by prioritizing what Deleuze and Guatarri call in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, “an asignifying intensive utilization of language.”(22) They say unequivocably: “There is nothing that is major or revolutionary except the minor.”(26) The very literary origin of their politics interests me. I think it has a purchase on our experience of narrative in contemporary art, on how contemporary art offers up a range of ways to live differently. Most interestingly perhaps, it reminds us that their politics for a minor literature is grounded in a very traditional and even modernist notion of expression, something that they explicitly argue is not reterritorializable in sense. So much for dismissing the highest art in the highest places; even if it is a bourgeois archaism or a left over of the twentieth century, such practices remain one of a number of possibilities of what art can be.

Moreover, it gestures toward ways of conceptualizing more recent collective, collaborative, spontaneous, or intentional projects, etc., that may in fact be mining new forms of expression, and not targeting new audiences, as Raunig deftly puts it. In any case, the provocative call that Raunig puts forth for “transgression… imagined as both a non-totalitarian and non-transcendental phenomenon, as transgression in the plane of immanence” remains: I hope to have only focused his point on the question of expression, and expanded the possible field of inclusiveness.

 

Joseph Gaylard

Thu, 16 Feb 2006 23:47:31 -0800

Am not quite sure what ed's post is a riposte too, so maybe some clarity on the points put forward in gerald's post might be in order. It seems to contrast a socially engaged arts practice that revolves around extending participation/engagement/involvement in the arts to a wider audience for a multitude of possible purposes (recreation, education, therapy, etc) with a sort of 'bad boy' art activism that is located very much in the domain of contemporary high art. But then i am not sure what is being said beyond that.... Gerald could you clarify? I am a little skeptical/wary about the whole idea of 'transgression' in the context of contemporary art - I am always struck by how weighty the language of contemporary high art is relative to its manifest impact on the social order. Areas that are having the most profound impact on society - law and medicine, for example - use a much more modest vocabulary to describe their field of practice. I am not sure that the dichotomy between 'community-based' practice and transgressive high art that gerald is proposing is necessarily a healthy one (though i may have misunderstood his point). There is surely a continuum between them, and it would be unfortunate for both realms to be ghettoised - artists working directly with communities being relegated to a kind of cottage industry, and artists doing the circuits of contemporary high art (dokumenta etc) being doomed to a noisy insignificance in the greater scheme of things. One of the interesting and encouraging (i think) things about art in the SA context is the way in which many artists play up and down this continuum of possibilities around approach, format and audience; i think stephen in his commentary may be alluding to some of this....