The Affluence and the Effluence
It’s been two years since I considered South Africa to be my home and two years during which I have been homeless, for I find the state of ‘itinerant exile’ far more authentic and desirable than the dis-ease of nationalism.
Today I live in London, next week Berlin, and the week after Helsinki. In each, the comfort of the banality of the 3 star hotel room with its generic plastic painting, the usual choice on television of MTV, CNN, RTL and Rai Uno, a desk, a chair, a bed and a shower. In the corner, the suitcase that I carefully selected to fit into even the smallest of aeroplanes as hand luggage, whilst still being able to carry my laptop computer, mobile telephone and some clothes and toiletries. In the time since I first embarked on this journey I have learnt the advantages of not carrying too much luggage for if I was not turned away at the check-in desk I would end up breaking my back trying to carry all those books, magazines and catalogues up and down hotel steps and cobbled streets. It was only once I understood the pain of excess luggage that I was finally able to leave Johannesburg behind.
International communication networks and the internet now make it possible to find anything everywhere in the world and have it delivered straight to you, even in Africa. It’s no longer necessary to carry around vast libraries of books lest one need refresh one's memory about the details of some obscure quotation or point of view. It’s more simple and effective to look it up on the internet or even have amazon.com deliver it the next day to your hotel room. It’s not necessary anymore to lug massive sketchbooks and notes about. They can all be burnt onto a CD-Rom or even zipped directly onto your hard drive.
Of course I would not be allowed to have such thoughts or live such a lifestyle if I still lived in Africa. I would be eaten alive by the guilt of knowing that I was privileged to be able to have instant access to the information super highway. Moreover academics and the self-appointed cultural commissars would go to great lengths to explain why what I am, and what I do, are not African enough, without being able to really define what that means. As a non-Black non-European it is easy not to have a country, to slip between the cracks of the stereotype and move unnoticed in between the cliché and the generalisation. The only constant is the present, a place inside a place where anything is possible, any everywhere is now-here. I live by the moment, stealing my identity as I go along to keep one step ahead of my history and one step outside of reality.
For all the access to information and technology that defines the contemporary experience there is also a dark side, a baroque narcissism that threatens to crush us all beneath its silicon weightlessness. Reality has been assimilated into an image, a style, a season's fashion statement, a design. Even the cadre's uniform, the camouflage of the guerrilla has been transformed into another empty signifier. Everybody from Gucci to Benetton have flirted with camouflage, washed the blood out from its function and re-presented it as a sign for being a little less than ordinary. It has even become de rigueur for art galleries to sport a name and motif as a means to declare a radical position through a name rather than through action. There is nothing sacred left in the world as meaning is prescribed and proclaimed rather than acted out. Revolutions are fought on Playstations and through mottoes and catch phrases rather than in real action. L'Anarchiste and Manifesto are perfumes and Coca-Cola is the real thing. Che Guevara has become a poster boy for teenage angst. In the age of designer dissent, truth is the result of market research and maintaining the balances of market power.
Every image can be, and is, manipulated in the media, whether it's a glossy magazine or CNN. The edit and voice-over create the emotion that supplies the image with its content. I was curious, for instance, how the long lines of Albanians leaving Kosova on CNN were mostly comprised of elderly peasants in old and dirty torn clothes, whereas the image that was broadcast of apparently the same people returning was that of young fashionable people in their 20s, dancing to techno music in celebration of the freedom that the Americans had purportedly won them. The image we have of ourselves is constructed in the languages of fashion and the codes of permissible conduct. It is on television that we now learn our value systems and moral lessons, a world of ratings and instant gratification, where soap operas, sitcoms and talkshows provide our most important role models. We are one step away from completely dissolving into an image and yet at the same time the very tools that have been used to construct this fiction of reality are also available to invert the process. On a billboard in Berlin, CNN invites us to be ”The First To Know”, for reality no longer supplies knowledge or experience as much as the experience of it on television.
The colonisation of the world from Rome to Havana has always used language as its most consequent weapon. When you steal the words out of someone's mouth and replace them with your own you can control their thoughts and even manipulate their reality, for that which cannot be named finally ceases to exist. The early Christians changed the names of the Roman gods into Christian ones in the same way that the Spanish built a cathedral right on top of the most holy indigenous site in Mexico City. To be named is also to be controlled for only that which can be named can exist.
It is upon this process of naming in order to control, that the success of the brave new world largely depends. This process of passive consumption and resulting recoding of reality results in a cultural effluence in the same way that the raw materials from the production process end up polluting our natural resources. In the same way that the survival of the planet today depends on cutting back on the harmful emissions and in recycling waste, so too must the cultural crap being fed to us be recycled and distilled. With a laptop, a modem, and a mobile, and some basic skills, anybody can hack, recycle and redistribute the truth in as many forms as there are truths. The unrelenting and unprecedented law suits against Napster in the United States should be understood as an attempt to prevent the consumer from changing their conception and process of consumption from a mindless passivity to active responsibility for that which they ingest. Already, Apple is attempting to defuse the potential revolution by transforming the process into a fashion with their latest advertising campaign that instructs the user to ”rip, mix and burn”. The very same tools of remixing reality that are the arsenal of the media empires are also open to the consumer who needs only crack the codes that lock them out or else simply download the same codes off the internet cracked by someone else. The contents of a DVD Video are, for instance, protected from duplication or editing by a very complex algorithm that is easily cracked open by small illegal programs freely distributed on the internet (DeCss)
The most radical project of the past century has been the rise of the DJ who transforms the public realm into their own private playground. Even when fashion has annulled the subversive impulse through the creation of countless clones, it has ended up giving birth to successive generations of militant remixers. At its most inspired the DJ is not unlike the hacker for both transform the ways in which they consume by engaging with their desire and its objects to redefine them, according to their personal needs and cultural space. The public realm is not the exclusive domain of the large corporations that predetermine not only what we may consume but also how we may consume. The DJ and hacker radicalise the process of consumption by making that which they consume their own by scanning, sampling, stealing, ripping and phreaking in order to edit remix, recode and upload the products back into the public realm. The transformation is from the homogenous towards the heterogeneous, the subversion of the general into the specific. The emphasis shifts away from global interest towards local import. The precise same tools that maintain the global media are used to create a local dialect.
Written language differs from its verbal expression for only in the latter are accents and dialects recognisable. The colonial process placed words into the mouths of its distant subjects through the written text and thus controlled what they could say, see and lay claim to. Their accents and imperfect intonations would forever keep them slaves to the districts of their births. Even today, as I attempt to dissolve myself into the folds of identity, my tongue always betrays me. When understood for what they are, however, the dialects and accents become the weapons of resistance that transform the passive consumer into a consequent one. The colloquial can never be assimilated into the mainstream for it will always refer back to its point of origin, always use the banal, the commonplace and local politics as the measure by which everything else is understood and judged. This vulnerability is, however, not all that different from the vulnerabilities of the value systems of the global media networks and the colonial empires who simply used their own colloquial conditions to measure reality and prescribe morality. The only difference is that their point of reference grew larger as the image of themselves was broadcast across the globe.
Language is a self-replicating virus that can only be destroyed by a stronger more resilient virus. Through the mirror of the colloquial, the tongue gets twisted and forgets its place in collecting our thoughts. The homogenous replication of the centre as norm and judge is only possible through passive consumption, through the belief that the parochial are victims or imbeciles unable to take care of themselves. The growth of Celtic nationalism and the re-membering of the Celtic tongues are as dangerous to English domination as any car bomb or
political assassination. It’s common knowledge, for instance, that a rumour spread in the right circles can be as fatal to a politicians credibility as a full-blown assassination: a ‘soft bomb’.
The colloquial should not be understood as a geographical place so much as a sensibility, a fringe, a raw experience unmediated by the needs and insecurities of the ruling classes. It manifests itself in the form of b-grade horror films, pornography, jokes, propaganda and of course sports bars. The social fringe has traditionally been inhabited by pimps, thieves, prostitutes, drunks, beggars, liars, gangsters and artists, who were dangerous on account on knowing and sympathising with both sides of the social and economic divide. When artists moved out from the fringe and towards the affluent centre, they lost their power as well as their ability to subvert social systems and codes.
There is a temptation in art to conjure up the pop artist’s use of the everyday and quotations from the mass media as the visual equivalent of this process. The raising of the everyday to the status of art. The difference is that DJs do not care about the status of the sounds they sample nor of elevating their status, as much as transforming what they sample into their own. They steal from the rich and recycle it for the poor without any moral incentive. It’s more about bringing the music industry down to the streets, and making the empire listen to the voices of its slaves. This is not the lipstick revolution of karaoke videos or serving up exotic food and massages in the name of art. It would be akin to distributing ‘by invitation only’ cards to the homeless for an opening at MOMA where they would be served tapas and expensive wine in the name of art. Instead of another football match in the art gallery circuit, the equivalent would be to arrange a match between Liverpool and Manchester United without any logos or advertising on their shirts. The colloquial is a virus that does not translate well into high culture and its strategy of assimilating every threat through the banalisation of theory and the commodification of dissent. Armed with an arsenal of contradiction, excess, obscenity, profanity and selfishness, the colloquial will always be the mirror of the ivory towers of highbrow culture and art.
I left South Africa in search of freedom of expression in an attempt to slip through the prison bars of sentimental victimhood. Since then I have become a boundary rider, always being too light for Africa and too dark for everywhere else. I carry my colloquial in my pocket and scour the television channels for its symptoms. The only place in the world where I have found freedom is on the internet or inside the Videodrome, a world of digital and analogue bits and bytes that are open for abuse as much as they love to abuse us. The violence with which I attack the image is a violence I learnt on the streets of Johannesburg, a violence that was taught to my ancestors by the missionaries and their witch-hunts, a violence that haunts and defines every bloody image of Christ nailed to a cross. I am universal because I grew up in the shadow of this image and in the blue light of the television tuned into a dead station. We worship the crucifix in the same way that we stare at the scene of a crime or a bloody accident across the tarmac. Jesus cannot save us today because every night on television news we experience more gruesome scenes or carnage than anything described in the Old Testament.
Religion, sport, pornography and horror films have always understood that moment when words are not enough, when all that we have been taught and programmed to be fails and we are reduced to sounds of despair, cries of ecstasy, the crush of a multiple orgasm, the last breath of life. What are we when our voices are as mute as any animal, when we become the drunk in the village bar singing in a voice that only he understands but never remembers? I have hidden myself away in these sounds, the cries of a country in a revolution followed by despair and chaos. As an artist living in the Post-Apartheid, Post-Communist, Post-Theory glut of Post-Modernism I prefer to live nowhere and to be nationalistic only to that which cannot be described, cannot be spoken and will not be controlled by my tongue, the moment when the digital dissolves into analogue feedback, the colloquial crush of imperfection. My tongue can lie and thus I will never trust it in the same way I do my heart and its emotions of love, hate, anger, fear, desire, pain and guilt.