Sarat Maharaj + Gilane Tawadros
“We Were Nobody, We Were Nothing”: North/South Soundings of Modernity and Memories of Underdevelopment
What are the ways in which contemporary art practices and communications shape up and interact in the development context today? This chapter takes off from a discussion about ‘Faultlines’, a show Gilane Tawadros curated for the Africa Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003. With globalization, sectors of the “developing world” are increasingly drawn into the orbit of “advanced world” institutions—into the art-culture industry, the gallery-museum-biennale system and the communication-information economy. These entanglements are probed through a range of artworks, films, performances and projects from across the world. Intensified interconnections brought on by globalization, migration, cultural mix and translation, and new technologies mean re-mapping the classic North/ South, developed/
developing divides. It does remain the grim, principal fault. But new problems also crop up “after development” in the advanced world—new “zones of morbidity and backwardness”—putting into question notions of development as linear progress. Alongside this, we have criticisms of the drift of development and modernity from inside the developing world itself. Contemporary art-communicative activities and strategies explore and embody the dilemmas thrown up under these circumstances, sometimes also intimating alternative models and other values.
Sarat Maharaj: In today’s interconnecting, globalizing world, the business of tackling unfreedoms and exclusions cannot be put off to some time “after basic development has taken place.” The communications sphere becomes an essential medium through which individual participants and players identify, interpret and represent their social and cultural wants and needs. In doing this, they begin to shape development itself—orchestrating the process as opposed to having it simply thrust upon them. But what communicative structures and art activities can contribute to this shaping process? To opening up new self-reflexive mental, emotional, semantic dimensions—both for voicing “backwardness” and for stepping out of it? I wonder, Gilane, whether we might look at this a little bit in the light of your research as curator of ‘Faultlines’?
Gilane Tawadros: In addressing the key words of communication and development in a global context, we need to distinguish between communications for and on behalf of a globalized capital economy and other types. The former tends to be homogenous, emerging principally from the centers of financial and political power. Its forms are largely unilateral. Although they might be inflected with different accents—capital enterprises have been ingenious with inflecting communications so they can apparently speak to and “fit in” with different spaces and places. They are nonetheless particular messages with predetermined outcomes within the context of the global economy. Some art practices, on the other hand, create possibilities for another kind of communication—a space, in my view, about dialogue and exchange rather than something one-way. Contemporary art is not always clear-cut or transparent, nor is it homogenous or unilateral. For example, in Moataz Nasr’s installation ‘One Ear of Dough, One Ear of Clay’ (2001), the video piece depicts ordinary Egyptians in the street, hunching their shoulders. The gesture is repeated over and over by individuals of various ages, genders and social classes. It is a colloquial, physical gesture—a shrug that suggests: “So what can I do about it? That’s just the way it is.” The work comments on political apathy, questioning why people with a history of political engagement at every level of the social order, in direct and instrumental ways, are not as involved politically at this juncture. In his installation ‘Tabla’ (Venice, 2003), a huge video screen depicting a drummer playing on a traditional Egyptian drum, or tabla, dominates the space. We don’t see his face or head, just the tabla clutched between his legs and his hands beating out a powerful, continuous rhythm. The noise ricochets through the exhibition scattered with tablas of varying sizes, like a geographical map of the Nile Delta.
The sound is deafening, relentless. You register the work acoustically before you read it visually, as the sound of difference. Arab music is very much about atonality and dissonance. But it’s also a sound that takes over the space and overwhelms the viewer. Furthermore, there is a disparity between the single tabla, with a sound that is distinctive and powerful, and the reverberations from others that are connected to the main screen and which create sounds in response. The piece works on a number of levels such as the question of political agency, and of how individuals are implicated in the political situations in which they find themselves.
SM: Your example is arresting not least because Nasr’s tabla parallels a wider involvement of today’s visual artists with “high-decibel sound saturation.” How to make sense of this? One way is to press the distinction you imply between types and terrains of communication—to look at their archaeologies. From the nineteen sixties, the spread of communications and consumerist culture—television, radio, cinema, advertising, fashion, sport, transport, popular culture, commodity design—saw an increased grooming and styling of the “look” of the everyday, right down to its micro-texture; this “aestheticization” was summed up pointedly by The Situationists as “the production of the spectacle.” Later, the stakes were raised as reality came to be seen as processed by the artistry of digital simulation technologies. Had this rather stolen the thunder of artists if not upstaged the “creativity” once associated with “fine art”? What kind of art was possible that did not simply mirror “the spectacle” or become ensnared by it? But let us also ask right away whether this was an issue at all for practitioners outside “the developed world,” outside mainstream, advanced consumerist art-culture circuits?
By 2000, electronic systems—satellite, cable,
digital terrestrial television and radio, dial-up
Internet and broadband services, mobiles,
SMS texting, cash-points, video, Nintendo games, iPods, etc.—set on course an intensified “visualization” of everyday info-data flows. These signifying systems and image economies amount to “retinal regimes”—a term that connotes, amongst other things, a sense of sheer overload and a glut of images, signs, and visual representations. Could sound scan the visual? Supplement it? Or if not, short-circuit it in the face of its “retinal condition”? Sonic constructions, multiple frequencies, noise, sonic dirt vibes, inundations and interference become the stuff with which to probe, if not shatter, the “spectacle,” and to dispel its ambient muzak. They serve as “antidotes” that blank out info-spin-jabber in order to allude to other communicative wavelengths, alternative acoustic awareness. In ‘Popular Music from Vittula’, this sense of difference and of other possibilities is symbolized by the jarring, raw rock’n roll, awkwardly eked out by stubby-fingered, speechless Niila or by the farm worker turned music teacher who had lost his fingers in an accident and now strummed the guitar with a thick, penile thumb. The sounds they manage to croak out are painful spasms of release of coming to voice, and of prizing open a chink in the numb silence of “backwardness.”
By the nineteen eighties the term “spectacle” takes on an almost entirely pejorative connotation. In the cross-tongued, global Babel of today’s image-info-data circulation, it seems better to speak of “retinal regimes,” a term with an oscillating positive-negative charge. It signals the pervasive syntax or “visual Esperanto” of the
contemporary “knowledge economy.” Although the latter is billed as cutting across the developed/developing barrier, outside advanced centers, its infrastructures are still sparse, with patchy access. This is roughly comparable to the lack, in the developing world, of modern gallery-museum systems and art education-communication structures of the sort that are the staples of the developed world’s art-culture industry.
Nevertheless, practitioners have invented diverse strategies within Internet and new media domains. Sites and networks devised by ‘Raqs Media Collective’ (India), ‘Open Circle’ (India), or ‘Trinity’ (South Africa), are engaged in “adisciplinary” maneuvers—almost ad lib assemblages of info-images and discourses, experimental inquiry tools interacting with social action, performance, learning sessions, and investigative tours of urban spaces that have a feel of the random walkabout and happening. The “transborder pants,” with multiple-use pockets designed by ‘Torolab’ (Mexico), can switch over for immigrant or American usage according to how citizenship status embodies and inspects the politics of belonging in the “laboratory conditions” of the US/Mexico border. These projects are think-know-act contraptions that may not look like “art” but count as art in their open-ended semantic fission. To pigeonhole them as “developing world artworks” rather misses the point. As emerging art-communication ploys, they question the norm of the airtight modern gallery-museum system, whether inside the developed world or out.
GT: This goes back to whether by communication we mean a one-way conversation or a dialogue. Too often, both in the arena of development and the artworld, the developed world is seen as having opportunities and goods to offer, and the developing world as the consumer who is potentially available in fantastic numbers. It’s more complicated than this because the product, in terms of the artworks being made in the developing world, are packaged, taken back and presented to consumers in the developed world.
Here, the artworks are framed in particular ways, which define and prescribe how they’re read. This is often in narrow terms, either as part of a national or ethnographic discourse, or as illustrations of preconceived ideas of what the “developing other’s” creative discourse is about.
But the critical point for me is that the work of contemporary artists within the African continent I did get to see—even if my range of evidence was somewhat limited—offered up many ideas, possibilities and points of engagement that I hadn’t seen in the developed world. I came back to London having travelled in Johannesburg and Cairo, for example, thinking that, “here I am in this capital of the developed world where all this infrastructure exists, and where there are all these opportunities, but the work I’m looking at appears so empty.” It was decidedly lacking in the substance we are talking about. What is considered to be at the top of the hierarchy of communication worlds actually seemed empty of knowledge—however full it might be with information. They seemed more akin to global, commercial communications products. I found in Johannesburg and Cairo artists working without infrastructure, in extremely difficult circumstances, without wider cultural or, in some cases, moral support, and working in quite isolated spaces. Yet I found work that challenged me, that was not in any way aping Western practice but opening up new forms of artistic practice in making and communication. There are artists in both cities dealing with specific, local questions; they are by no means turning their back on the rest of the world. Nor indeed are they ignorant of the realities of being part of a globalized economy. They are making work that focuses on particular issues but they undoubtedly have a relevance and resonance beyond these particular contexts. If anything, one’s sense of being in a globalized economy (and the awareness from artists of its implications) is more heightened in Johannesburg and Cairo than in London or Helsinki.
SM: The global/local imbrications you touch on highlight why we should not pit the local as somehow “primordial” against the global—the “either/or” trap. At the end of Apartheid, the focus was on coaxing the local gallery-museum system out of received racial designations, on encouraging development beyond these barriers, and on plugging South Africa into global art-culture circulation through events such as the Biennale. Thinking in official circles gravitated towards the former. After the second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, the “global option” was scrapped. Under the “local” umbrella, ‘Serafina II’ (1999)—a musical centered on HIV/AIDS awareness that was backed by the Health Minister Nkosazane Zuma, but mired in controversy—was promoted. It was a “follow up” to the original ‘Serafina’ (1989)—a documentary look at Apartheid around the time of the 1976 Soweto uprisings. Today this approach to creativity and development is perhaps sustained in Henning Mankell’s story projects, which are a mix of art-communication-education, and where those affected by AIDS/HIV are encouraged to write about themselves, their families, their kith, kin and clan, and their histories. It is an “archive of the everyday” for the orphans left behind, (‘Uganda Child Aid Project’, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, September 28, 2004).
In the meantime, the “global option” of the Biennale has begun to proliferate across the developing world, taking the edge off what artists felt was a “legitimation test” they had to pass in the heyday of singular Euro-events such as the Venice Biennale. It has steadily come to be seen less as an “importation,” and potentially a global/local transaction site for devolving art activities and according to regional idioms. As with Sharjah, United Arab Emirates or Kwanju, South Korea, it is also a mechanism for kick starting local urban regeneration and development.
The developed/developing “entanglements” that show up with globalization amount to a ceaseless process of translation across their lines. With high-speed communications, migrations, dispersals and movements of people, translation becomes an everyday affair—a process of churning out difference, divergence, and teeming diversity. This flies in the face of globalization’s overall standardizing drive that breaks down “the difference of the other” so as to render the “foreign and alien” culturally digestible. This kind of filtering, taking a logic of assimilation and of making the “other” into the “same” however, can also tip over into forms of xenophobia as we may observe from trends across the North European social democracies once known for their “tolerance.” With today’s translation-migratory drifts, the contemporary appears as a crisscrossing of heterogeneous, ever-mutating identities, multiple tongues, and disjunctive ways of knowing and living. This suggests we have to move beyond Jürgen Habermas’s sphere of “communicative action,” where everyday transaction seems to be ultimately between relatively similar cultural subjects and social actors. Though he supplements this by pointing to the “inclusion of the other,” his underlying conceptual scheme is made up of discursive agents with comparatively fixed identities tuned into the same cultural wavelength. They interact on a ready made ground from which they set about shaping a shared living space through ideals they thrash out between themselves in steady “dialogic” exchange. The ground is one of transparent, rational deliberation: interlocutors think and speak within much the same cognitive parameters. But is today’s translation-migration-globalizing scene on as even a keel as this? It is rather more riddled with untranslatable elements, riven with the sense of epistemic non-fit, and unsquarable cultural difference—more a cacophonic Babel than a dialogic swap.
It is shot through with a feeling of the “radical other in our midst” who is neither “visible nor audible,” except perhaps in whittled-down, pre-given terms. The symptomatic figures of this space are its “deterritorialized” cases—those classified “sans papiers, non-citizens, clandestine, illegals, deportees, and infiltrators.” But it is the black hole of non-communicating communication represented by the “suicide bomber” that seems definitive. How to piece together a “commons” out of this Babelian space? An ever-changing ground where self/other can forge a “lingo to parley” and to live in and through difference and multiplicity?
An excerpt from:
“We Were Nobody, We Were Nothing: North/South Soundings of Modernity and Memories of Underdevelopment” in Media & Glocal Change. Rethinking Communication for Development. Ed. O. Hemer & T. Tufte. Clasco, Buenos Aires, Brazil, Nordicom, Goteborg University. Sweden 2005.
 Niemi, Mikael: Popular Music from Vittula, 2003