Detours R Us

The Trinity Session

‘Itinerant exile’ is a phrase that artist Kendell Geers (ex-South Africa) employs to describe his ‘homelessness’, outlined in a recent essay titled ‘The Affluence and the Effluence’ . Here, Geers makes much of his ‘homelessness’, a state of being he claims to experience on two levels. Firstly, as a result of the global nature of the (successful) contemporary artist, being in a new city every other week; and more trenchantly, the ins and outs of his self-imposed exile to Europe as he experiences too much guilt working as an ‘advantaged’ white artist in Africa. This ‘advantage’ seems to revolve primarily around access to technologies, specifically those that allow one to ‘travel light’. His argument seems pretty thin all round, apart perhaps from the patently obvious double bind he implies regarding excess baggage and the weight of histories. One can’t ever shake off this baggage, but one can relocate (it) to spaces where it can be better integrated, he seems to imply. Despite wanting to entertain this notion for a while, there’s a real difficulty with the analogy of ‘homelessness’ in a country where real homelessness seems an insurmountable social reality. Geers’ philosophical grapplings operate in a conflicting space of luxury, but his experience is one that many South African artists choose, for reasons he suggests or more personal ones – to leave home for the promise of greater international agency and recognition.

Guilt, crisis of identity, history and memory have been more or less recurring themes (or themes sought out and encouraged) in the work of South African artists since emerging from life under Apartheid nearly ten years ago. Before that, ‘struggle art’ was the moniker given to work that protested again the law of the state. It was work that was celebrated, usually didactic and easy to historicise. Under Apartheid, many artists were forced into exile. Others’ exile was self-imposed. In the Eighties, the liberal political party the PFP (Progressive Federal Party) was ironically nicknamed Packing for Perth, noting the option of many middle-class ‘lefty liberal’ members for emigration (most common destination: Australia) rather than risk the uncertainty of radical political transition.

Then when transition was impending, others left for reasons predicated on insecurity, trepidation – the risk of leaving seemed less great than the risk of staying put. Now, with South Africa’s cities really coming into their own, artists are still leaving, banking on the marketability of South African artists abroad, but also welcoming a playing field that seems more level all round. Even though the obsession over South African art that characterised the ‘honeymoon’ period post-democracy has waned, doors of opportunity have been opened through this belated exposure to the international market. We are now invited to be part of a network and industry that we had not been part of for many years. And we are grabbing it.

The opening up of South Africa to the world and the restructuring of local administrative systems has happened at odds with each other. The ‘opening up’ happened more rapidly than the support structures could cope with, meaning that opportunities presented themselves, and we weren’t really equipped ‘back home’ to deal with the knock-on effects of capitalising on the opportunities. We were trying to do things for the right reasons, but we all had different ideas of what those reasons might be (and perhaps still do). The success-failure of the Johannesburg Biennale might be a case in point here.

So we look abroad for our measures of success, whether we leave for short stays, or more permanently. It’s an evolution of a particular kind of identity crisis that goes beyond ‘identity’ to speak rather about ‘positioning’, both physical and virtual. This ‘brain-drain’ is not only specific in the art industry, but impacts broadly on the economy, extending to many other sectors with people wanting to escape the side effects of transition (crime, elastic economies, employment and housing crises) that brings with them an uncertain future.

As with any diaspora, ‘home’ becomes a constant point of reflection: what is it, where is it, who is this notion of ‘home’ associated with? The ironies and realities of that hackneyed phrase about whether the grass is greener on the other side seem to both escape and resound with South African artists who choose to live abroad. A recent exhibition, curated by Danish student Mads Damsbo, studying in South Africa, was called Show Me Home, and called on a group of artists to offer interpretations of this idea. While it is often limiting to regard art as a social barometer, the other ‘stuff’ in the world necessarily impacts on what and how we make, and art’s litmus-test capabilities come into play. As Damsbo notes in the introduction to the catalogue: „ Ultimately, the most exciting quality about home is that it so easily comes to speak about the identity of its inhabitants; home is both a result of deliberate choices and of elaborate, lived events – but it is also everything that is silent, hidden and secret […] What does it mean to inhabit a place? And what is it to belong to somewhere?"

The transformation of the city of Johannesburg extends far beyond its growing diaspora. The city, which has been inhabited by a new public since the termination of the Group Areas Act of the Apartheid regime, which prevented racial groups from inhabiting the same areas (with the exception of some ‘grey areas’), has undergone a range of transformations. This is evident in various developments: the move of many businesses out of a seemingly deteriorating inner city northwards towards areas like Sandton and Midrand, building towards Pretoria to create a megalopolis; the stock exchange relocating out of the inner city; the influx of thousands of illegal and legal immigrants from other African countries to Johannesburg; the renaming, rebuilding and occasionally removing of apartheid relics and public places; the restructuring to accommodate the new inhabitants and their cultures and traditions as well as their different use of the western city grid; the reinvestment and rezoning of major spaces and buildings; the fight against homelessness and crime. The list goes on.

With the burgeoning of Johannesburg has come the hyper-realities of gated suburbs, Eurotrash casinos and American-style malls, and the embracing of cultural references and styles that are imported and hybridised. Paradoxically, being ‘Proudly South African’ is what we are being encouraged to embrace, via an eponymous campaign that seeks to steer the economy from imported to locally-produced goods.

As critic, artist and academic Colin Richards has stated elsewhere: „…feeling at home is a tranquillised deception […] It is ultimately where – from the sublime to the subtle – we find native, indigenous, internal, outside, foreign, alien, all cohabiting […] It is about belonging, loss, the longing to belong. About leaving and returning; a journey, an arrival, a destination, a permanent detour, a haven, a refuge, a place forever."

Taking on this notion of a South African diaspora, a whole new glossary of terms has manifested around the broader idea of ‘home’ and its cultural representations, concerning inter/transnationalisms, localisms, globalisms, glocalisms, Sarat Maharaj’s notions of cultural translations, and Andreas Broeckmann’s thoughts on translocalisms. Put simply, home may be a sense of self first and then place, but it is assumed, at least in communities or countries that have experienced a certain amount of dislocation or transience – political, ideological or otherwise – that home and place share a spirit that allows for a discreet sense of self, linked to histories both private and public. This dislocation or transience has manifested in the restriction of movement (borders), enforced exile, discriminatory urban planning (Apartheid geographies being a case in point) and so on, and continues to do so.

It is not so much that the South African position is a unique one – quite the contrary. Artists from South Africa experience the same frustrations as artists from anywhere, but there is something resonant about being on this continent, always assumed to be a homogenous mass rather than a vast continent of many countries and a complexity of cultural heritage and post-colonial influences.

In November of this year, a show will open in New York at the Museum for African Art, called ‘Looking Both Ways’, an exhibition which looks at the cultural production of artists who have left Africa to work in other countries and how this move has impacted on their work. This issue of seeking acceptance in alien situations is something that runs through South African art quite desperately, which makes sense when one’s cultural production lacked exposure, let alone legitimacy and validation for so many years. Perhaps artists leave ‘here’ for ‘over there’ to escape the fate of wearing the many hats of artist, administrator, curator, publicist, accountant, critic and so on. But then for others who thrive on multi-faceted production, there can be no better place than South Africa where the rules are only now being written, only to be rewritten when another obstacle presents itself.

To paraphrase Andreas Broeckmann in his discussions with us about our contribution to the Cross-Border Culture labs of ‘Transmediale.03: Play Global!’, perhaps the question of 'playing global' might be a useful way of displacing the locality of the practice sufficiently to make transparent a strategy that can be discussed as a model in comparison to others. the trinity session (Stephen Hobbs, Kathryn Smith and Marcus Neustetter) has emerged out of this context. Understanding the restrictions and the opportunities for cultural practitioners in a transforming city, we have positioned ourselves in our own ways as individual artists investigating different aspects of this context, and as a collective, combining resources, strategies and network in a context such as Johannesburg.

We have seen many of our peers and associates depart for foreign places. Part of the trinity session’s networking strategy and creative interest has enforced an active communication with this diaspora, both through email information exchange and visits for meetings or casual drinks on our individual and group travels.

This exchange and travel, with constant comparison of cities in relation to Johannesburg, has stimulated a specific type of reflection of the international context and other major cities in relation to the trinity session’s position in Johannesburg.

‘Detours R Us’ is a formalized investigation of the informal findings, responses and points of view the trinity session has accumulated via the Johannesburg diaspora, presented as documentary evidence, ephemera and process-focused visual ‘evidence’. The process of information-gathering will involve interviewing a group of artists and culture workers positioned outside of the Johannesburg and South African contexts, but who have lived there in the past, to gather subjective impressions and anecdotes about being an ex-pat, a ‘when-we’ or South African abroad, informed by the other cities they now inhabit.

Given that the positioning of ‘South African’ still seems to presuppose any other kind of definitive ‘typing’ (we seem to be South African first, and then artists), this investigation also serves to establish the type of relationship ex-patriots maintain with South Africa and how they are being informed via media and personal networks on the transformation of a city and a country.