Sunday, July 8, 2012

Don't Panic

The site of the exhibition of Don’t Panic (at the Centre for Historical Reenactments), curated by Gaby Ngcobo is a elegant example of the fluidity between thinking of universalism, (the experience of climate change) and particularities and identities of the African vantage point, as well as the viewpoints of a variety of generations of artists. Ngcobo gives us an arena to view these varying images and points of view and we are left to our own minds to make sense of it. This is how art creates a space that is flexible, in which intellectuals and mainstream viewers can debate the efficacy of visual and audio strategies. There are some artists that create direct human and formal responses to the idea of nature, such as the sun, of Sean Slemons drawings on the wall and floor demarking the pathway of the sun as it moves in reaction to the human made architecture of the building and window. Slemons reminds us that we can create gestures in concert with our world without interrupting its processes. The pathway is made as a large drawing that increases its density as the day moves on. The piece is formally elegant in its transition from the wall to the floor. Donna KuKama is presenting a video with a extremely disruptive sound element, as we stands her hair is waving in the wind against the background of a rock formation. The geologic site reminds us of the ancient period of time, her dress is contemporary, and her hair waves over her face, which brings to mind her identity as well as loss of identity. Her waving hair signifies that she is a black woman, yet we do not know her as a person. So she is presenting herself as a metaphor and an icon in the natural environment. She looks cold, as the wind blows, and is steadfast in her standing position. She confronts the viewers and we are to begin to understand what she is trying to communicate to us mutely. KuKama is also performing live for us today at the Center for Historical Reenactments. She is performing as a bank teller selling certificates on gold paper, and asking for financial exchange for something that would suggest a purchase on the future. The question is also what are we purchasing? The vegetables are placed on the desk and arranged in piles suggesting piles of money or currency. The idea of food as luxury, or food as commodity is brought forward.

They suggest that currency can be as simple as food, but also that food is so urgent for human beings. Donna’s voice can only be heard by the person in line whose turn it is to engage her. Therefore the audience is peaked by its interaction with her. Her manner is calm and serious as she assumes this character with authenticity. Viewers are deprived of hearing their exchange, and therefore are required to line up themselves in order to truly know what the bank is all about. KuKama is also right on time as she uses the platform of the bank in a moment when we all are wondering particularly about the role of banks their abuses. Viewers take this skeptical energy to donna as they react in parting with their currency.

The range of works in this exhibition is wide. They deal with both the content of the issue of climate change, but they locate in an African dialogue. Some of them have humor, and all have certain formal qualities, and some react to the locale of a particular African experience. The challenge of facing the end of a world as we knew it is so absurd that we as viewers immediately look for the corners where we are familiar, or the intimate places where we can find our purpose.

The title of Don’t Panic is taken from Ruth Sacks, video. Sacks skywrote these words using an airplane into the sky. She chose the day of human rights in South Africa to write these words. She asks viewers to look up, and not panic about the ecological disaster, not panic about the lack of human rights perhaps. In this she draws a line between the conditions of human beings and the condition of the larger natural world. Sacks today serves us a lunch, which is conceived of as a repaying her climate debt of using an airplane and its fuel in the atmosphere. The lunch is lovingly prepared by a cooking artisan, who thinks of food as her work, using local cheeses, and meats, and African grilling traditions. The meal was like no other I have had in Africa, it was fresh, delicious, authentic, abundant for us viewers and eaters. The international area of food+art is current and thoughtfully conceived. We are in fellowship together as participants, and the generosity of spirit of this work is potently felt.

Gabi Ngcobo is purposefully providing a constellation of works that articulate nodes of how to think about climate as global disaster. The works confront what still exists at a time of disaster, these may or may not be examples of natural beauty, these may or may not be hints of disaster. The nodes do not illustrate the scope of the problem. The art asks questions of viewers who must then question their own vantage points and assumptions. Human beings wrestling with the indifference of nature have to have thoughts and draw intellectual and emotional conclusions. Human beings can then remind us of the biologic and geographic locations, as well as economic and racial disparities, social dilemmas, and political problems etc. The function of art is to stir this pot with potent thoughts and arguments, and spur the viewers to connect dots and create projects of remedy. One critical question perhaps is the one that asks in the saving of nature what hierarchies are being created and by whom?
Art can perhaps suggest, yet not exactly supply the action steps, but rather foment these to become urgent.

The identity or question of audience then comes forward. Who is the audience for these works? In our hearts artists hope that the scope is wide, often the audience is more rarified. Thus, the forms of our work  also migrates across spaces such as both white cubes, black cubes, or mainstream locations like public works, and particularly on line locations such as social networks, and digital video networks such as You Tube etc. The life of a written publication is also key to the works living beyond their physical confines, like the Don’t Panic catalogue for example. This circles back to the Center For Historical Reenactments and its commitment to providing a space to work on projects in the context of post Apartheid society. This flexibility of this model addresses post trauma in a sanctioned space. The existence of the first exhibition in the public gallery of Durban is another foray in engaging the fallible government entities as well.  Don’t Panic succeeds in both subject, and context, for art and the conversation it inspires.

Kim Anno

Why epistemologies of the south?

JWTC in conversation

“Why epistemologies of the south?” Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s challenging lecture was charged with greater provocation in the context of the JWTC conversation on nature and environment. It was even more provocative since his argument seemed to unsettle the emergent view in the workshop that knowledges alternative to hegemonic knowledge are romanticized reinventions whose time has passed since the world in which their interventions may have been productive has already been fundamentally transformed. The lecture foregrounded the epistemologies of the metaphorical global south in the context of what the speaker observed as seven threats to social justice in the forms taken by contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Some of these threats, like continued colonialismfor example, are not new or different, just paradoxical in the ways that they continues to perpetuate racism while superficially rejecting the nineteenth century science of race. Other threats to social justice identified represent a widening out of the exclusions of earlier forms of capitalism: For example, as technological advances have allowed work to be brought home and as the nature of the workplace has changed in various sectors, incursions into leisure time have been pushed further. These forms of unpaid labour have thus expanded the sphere of the most significantly unrecognized and unrecompensed labour of traditional women’s work. Most of the threats outlined identify attacks on social justice which allow the continued encroachment of a fluid and engulfing capitalism.
 One of the threats singled out by the speaker, however, namely, the destruction of nature, is a threat of a different magnitude and order since it threatens both the dominant and the dominated. This reinforces the view of Immanuel Wallerstein, among others, who suggests that the finitude of the world conceptualized as resource makes the present crisis of capitalism a crisis which capitalism’s legendary protean powers of transformation will not succeed in transcending. In fact, the environmental threat is a planetary catastrophe which could destroy not only actors in capitalist relations of power, but also animal and vegetable life. (This question addresses a different tension which seems to have arisen in the JWTC conversation. On the one hand, some points of view have taken for granted environmental finitude and potential catastrophe. On the other, the discourse of disaster has been presented as part of the problematic which needs to be challenged.)
 The speaker asserts that containing and reversing global disaster in the cause of social justice cannot emerge from the systems of knowledge which have produced transformations of the natural world on a scale hitherto unknown and unthinkable. In the context of global warming, there quite literally is no part of the planet which lies outside of human influence – there is no wilderness. The speaker maintains that since the sum of knowledges of the world exceeds a western understanding of the world, the epistemologies of the global south suggest a trajectory out of the impasse. Responses to environmental finitude for the most part engage only the knowledge of the global north whose epistemology exists on one side of an “abyssal divide”, producing a radically truncated horizon of possibility. In this way cognitive injustice reinforces social injustice.
Some questions, however, remain troubling in this approach which clearly is inspired both by a pragmatic realism and social concern. In terms of the argument presented, those on the other side of the “abyssal divide” must engage indigenous epistemologies. There is an interesting slippage in the terms used to describe the knowledge which must be gleaned. The argument shuttles between the terms “epistemological” and “cognitive” justice and also “indigenous understandings”. One gets the impression, one that possibly may be misconceived, that the framework and the terms of thinking of indigenous knowledges may, in fact, produce an instrumentalisation of epistemologies of the south, just as epistemologies of the north defined, delimited and  instrumentalised nature. If epistemology of the south refers only to indigenous “know-how”, then it may disembed knowledge from a much more profound understanding of the world which connects human, non-human, plant and cosmos. These spiritually and philosophically integrated worlds are also worlds enabled by a mythology which may not be shared by other indigenous groups. The question then arises of how different indigenous ethical understandings might encounter and engage one another.
Constituting the epistemology of the south as an epistemology of “those who have suffered injustices” as the speaker does, also tends to elide the enabling mythology of indigenous groups in favour of a mythology of a constitutive moment forged out of the engagement with capitalist modernity. In other words, this paradigm would continue to cast into abyssal darkness the epistemology which exists in excess of the epistemology of injustice constituted at the moment of capitalist encounter.
The broader framework of the argument also implies that somehow the radical left summons itself into being outside of an enabling mythology, in other words, universally, and so may be tasked with the role of managing indigenous epistemologies.
Indigenous cosmological or cosmogonic mythologies also simultaneously constitute a set of social and human – nonhuman relations conceived as obligation, the ways one ought to act and engage other people and the natural world. The epistemology of the south is always inherently an ethical understanding, not just a “know-how”. Ethics is also a term which has repeatedly been introduced in the JWTC conversation, but one which has not gone on to produce a dialogue.
Fiona Moola
English Department, University of the Western Cape