Tuesday, July 10, 2012


6 curatorial interventions into the slide show
Last Rites Niger Delta. The Drama of Oil Production in Contemporary Photographs
The series of photographs in the exhibition: Last Rites Niger Delta. The Drama of Oil Production in Contemporary Photographs shows a disturbing case study of environmental and humanitarian crisis in Africa. The original series of images made up a photographic exhibition commissioned by the Goethe Institut and the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde München.
While the exhibition is currently being staged in Munich, a slide show was made available for use by the JWTC. The slide show from this exhibition suggested an intriguing time based version of this body of work. The idea then arose to use video as a mode of intervention that would engage with the existence of the images as moving but more importantly to start to explore and critique the contentious nature of representations of Africa that focus on ‘crisis’.
With this framework in mind, 6 artist/curator/filmmakers were invited to re-edit the series of images in order to interrogate the issues that are raised by the original body of work. In all cases the interventions, or remixes, aimed to generate discussion on notions of the environment, exploitation of people and resources and representations of Africa.
The resulting works took up a range of issues from ethnography, mass media communication and entertainment, to fictional narratives. Some are serious, some irreverent others whimsical. Combined they ask for a re-reading of the original text and its attendant issues in a way that is never settled, reductive or easy to digest.
Zen Marie, School of Arts, Wits University

Interview with Juan Orrantia on Delta Remix
These are very emotive images. Yet they seem to be rather cold, if only in their apparent repetitiousness....
Emotive indeed.. I would say they are repetitive because of the saturation of this type of images today.  But we see them as repetitive because we are also now accustomed to reading them as images of suffering and by that dismissing them. This is something to think about. It was raised not so long ago by art critic David Levi-Straussin the following terms: “Too many of the persistent questions about our complex relation to public images were answered as if for good. The trenchant critiques of documentary photography… were necessary corrections to a great deal of muddled mystification about photographic representation and the real effects of public images. But over time, these critiques became enshrined as definitive, and writers and artists began to treat them as unassailable truths rather than as timely interventions. Students made operational assumptions ostensibly based on, but not always supported by, these texts, and the aestheticization-of-suffering critique entered a period of academic mannerism”
So, to follow, they are cold but they are also very hot images, images of futuristic aesthetic qualities that stick to you, of situations  almost unimaginable—like people drying fish and living amidst gas flames, where the colours create an almost alternate reality. It sort of makes you think of William Burroughs. Just think of his title, Cities of the Red Night, and then look back at the images by Kadir van Lohuizen…and then look again. So the point is what to do with them, where they can take you, and not (just) their intrinsic characteristic defined by a tragic situation.
How did you take ownership of the catalogue and the images?
Tied to the above I guess, my first reaction was to initially go for the critique of suffering, and say where is the business man, the guy in the suit, the lady in the long dress overlooking the harbour where tankers load?  But, through the capability of the not being there, through the sensual reaction to the aesthetic, something was possible beyond that frame of immediate reference. The images I saw in the catalogue referred me away from them to other images, to other poetic images I had seen and felt making reference to similar yet different issues. They made me think of places and situations as similar as these but in other times. That is when Rouch’s 1967 film, Jaguar, came to my mind, but so did the need to make sense of the many presents of Africa which I why I used the BLK JKS song, Bogobe, and of other moments of imagined dreams and possibilities such as the sequences in Jaguar of times of joy, when people were imagining, or better still, they were actually touching the imaginary possibility of freedom. So, I guess the answer is that I took ownership through a poetic reaction to a crude, reality that is almost beyond reality itself, depicted in highly aesthetic terms.
Is it possible to say something about a place without ever having been there?
Why not? Do we still believe in the first encounter narrative authority? Think of the work of a photographer like Dough Rickard, who has been documenting the people in poverty stricken American cities through Google Streetview. From his computer, and relying on the cameras of google street, he selects real life images and re photographs them of his computer screen.
Technologies of reproduction are now great and allow one to really question those assumptions about what is real. But there is something about making pictures that involves the interaction, mindset, imagination of the place and the photographer—again, not restricted to just capturing images, but making them. So the question is more about what you can say, not just by “being there”, but also why we assume that being there means to see. For example, photographs of the semi-visible, like those of things past or future, offer a lot, but they do so through the poetics of the medium, through the possibilities of the evocative and expressive, but still, grounded in a sense of the real. In this case then, the commentary is about the relationship of what is going in Nigeria with regards to a situation that extends its borders, and as I imagine it, extends them not only geographically but also through and across time. Thus, my strategy was to start from materials of those that had been there, and take a leap outside the frame, or at least try to traverse it. In doing so in the images from Nigeria I encountered ideas about the future, about the repetition of the past, about the possibilities of what can happen, imagination. So the frames took me to cross time beyond place, and my piece juxtaposes music from Johannesburg, images from Niger and the Wild coast, texts written from those thinking urban formations that can then be extrapolated to issues of self-representation and the possibilities of the future as lived in the present.
Ultimately, the presence of so many images of oil stained water in the Delta took me not to the idea of devastation in the Niger Delta per se, but to the images of what it would be like to see the ocean again for the first time, maybe in a future after the sea has been polluted and no one has been able to go into it. And so, the image of an African man with a big pit helmet that looks like out of this time seeing the ocean for the first time, spoke to me. That is why I see the space for images from 1967 sharing this space with the images taken by world class serious photojournalists, remixed, from Johannesburg.
Is there something in the nature of nature that intrinsically resists photography or, for that matter, representation?
I think you could ask that about everything, because the question is not about nature but about photography. Photography can speak about almost anything, but again, it is based on the conception of what an image is, and what one’s position to the idea of truth and representation in general mean.
This also makes me think about the critique that people like Susan Buck-Morss, or Nadia Seremetakis did in the 1990s about the role of the visual mode of knowing as a dominating force in the academy and in the west in general. Twenty years down the line we have a lot of different and very interesting approaches through the senses, not about them, where sound for example is a medium in and of itself to travel through spaces, things, situations, but also subjects, concepts and imaginaries. And so, to link it to back to your idea of nature, well, nature is a very sensual thing, so if it resists something it is the possibility of capture by the rational. That means it is open to interaction through the subjective, expressive real. 

Karoo Fracking Debate: A Pathway for Global South Dialogue on Dispossession

“What the Frack is Going On?” The landscape laid out for us last Wednesday described the Karoo as a vast area where land ownership resides with whites while local native communities are living in poverty.  The Karoo fracking debate joins a larger global one, albeit with a slightly different context. We were told that some of the local communities are in favor of fracking in the interest of job creation while whites, including wealthy whites like Johann Rupert are opposed to it in the name of environmental conservation. My suspicion is the companies aspiring to produce natural gas in the Karoo just have not yet figured out the right prices for landowners to acquiesce; however, I admittedly have little knowledge of the specifics of South African dynamics between oil companies, the government, regulators and landowners.
Gerrit van Tonder presents at the Fracking debate
What I wish to suggest here is that we must not look at Karoo Fracking – nor any fracking for that matter – as simply a gas extraction process that bears unique impacts on the environment. Rather, by drawing examples from and connecting with neighbors (to borrow from Achille Mbembe’s opening talk) who have faced similar scenarios, we must look at fracking within the larger process of continued indigenous land and resource dispossession.
While it is highly likely that Karoo fracking like any local industry may have short term benefits for the local population, one simply has to look at the wake of past oil booms in south Texas, Iraq, the Niger Delta, and the Gulf of Mexico (especially post BP spill) to see the beneficiaries are least of all of the poor, the jobless, and the landless. The profits have always lined the pockets of the so-called “1%” and their local enablers while native communities are left to contend with the environmental devastation that lends itself to further social devastation.
Fracking is not a new practice; it has simply been enhanced to enable extraction from deeper and denser geological formations. The fracking debate seems to me a bit of a distraction from larger pervasive issues; after all, any subterranean resource extraction wreaks havoc on the environment, no matter how ancient or advanced the technology employed. (My personal position is rather than getting mired in the fracking debate, we should also pool our energy towards addressing consumption and reducing the demand that drives oil and gas extraction into more and more sensitive environments.)
Dispossession Processes: The bigger picture is one of continued indigenous dispossession from the land and her resources. This also comes with fractured knowledge of our global south neighbors and our own subterranean resources, especially groundwater (i.e. very little was clarified during the presentation about the local ramifications for Karoo groundwater if fracking is to move forward. How does groundwater function in the Karoo now? Where will fracking water come from? What is the regulatory environment? Many essential questions were left unanswered).
Like the Karoo, South Texas is characterized by large expanses of land - private ranches - owned mostly by wealthy white landowners, many of which are absentee.  The local population is of Mexican decent and is in poverty despite the wealth that has been and continues to be extracted from the land. In fact, Mexicans are seen as intruders on their own land, suspects of illegally crossing the border, despite the fact that, as they put it, “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
Landowners benefit from oil production in the form of royalties, a percentage payment for the oil extracted, and various other. As oil fields decline in production, wealthy landowners are finding a new revenue stream through environmental lawsuits, often agreeing to either turn large parcels of contaminated land into conservation districts or to institutional controls restricting groundwater use on the properties. Both of these options leaving the contamination in place and removing the land from productive life-sustaining use, further dispossessing the already-dispossessed from the land. Also as oil revenues decline, so too do the local tax benefits, and hence less investment in schools, roads, etc. The physical and social health of the native population is at stake.
Gaza Sea 1999
In particular, the role of conservation districts / parks / forests is a troubling one that has played a role in dispossession, not only in South Texas and here in South Africa as we learned during the JWTC, but also in the example of Palestine. Large national forests are a site of investment for Israelis and supporters of Israel to plant trees, surrounding the ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages, which are treated as historical sites for tourists as if the refugees didn’t live just a few miles away in camps, prevented from returning. In each of these cases, the dispossession is couched in some sort of environmental preservation or improvement. Israel claims to have made “the desert bloom” despite the reality on the ground of desertification (diverted the river Jordan which is barely more than a trickle and the dying Dead Sea). Even there is a dispossession from subterranean resources – Gazan fishermen are barred from the sea, where natural gas extraction is solely for Israel’s benefit, and more and more West Bank land is being stolen to supply Israel’s thirst for more and more water.
In reality, these ‘conservation’ efforts are yet another method of further dispossessing the natives from the land and her subterranean resources while continuing to wreak havoc on the environment and its inhabitants. While site-specific details may differ, the process is more or less the same. Via a simplistic engineering flowchart of sorts, the process of dispossession:
·         Settlers take land from natives / natives become demonized intruders
·         Settlers benefit from resource extraction; profits invested elsewhere
·         Environmental damage comes to the fore as a possible liability
·         Settlers become environmental saviors and manage to turn environmental liabilities into a revenue stream (watch the Karoo closely for this step)
·         Conservation the cure-all post resource extraction; landowners get paid for ‘lost value’ and oil companies off the hook for clean-up; land is given another off-limits layer preventing native use or habitation
Suturing the Fractures – Where Do We Go From Here? It seems an unfair burden for the global south, the ‘natives,’ and the dispossessed to ‘save the planet’ whose destruction they did not cause nor benefit from. Nonetheless, it cannot be ignored and hence the following questions with which I am grappling:
How can we have a meaningful global south dialogue composed of the landless, the dispossessed, the refugees – who very clearly see these realities we are theorizing here? Imagine a meeting attended by those affected in Iraq, Palestine, the Niger Delta, south Texas, and a sharing of their experiences with locals in the Karoo. Is there a way to transcend the disconnect between them and academic thought and knowledge production?
As a relative newcomer to the humanities, I find it quite frustrating that these initiatives are still undergirded by the same European philosophy that got us into this mess in the first place. Obviously from previous blog posts and discussions, this is a stumbling block for all of us trying to envision a new world free from this colonial legacy. How can we set into motion alternative philosophies of the global south – the few tid-bits we got from JWTC such as Achille’s discussion on central African relationship with nature or the lion hunting strategy shared by Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga of ‘”see but don’t be seen?” Could these and other non-western worldviews open new pathways for counteracting colonial/neoliberal devastation? Could it be that there needs to be at least a momentary silencing of Western thought so we can meditate and think clearly in these registers?
Taking it one step further, is there a benefit to conducting global south conversations with the exclusion of whites/Europeans so as to at least initially prevent the intrusion of well-meaning liberals and the white savior complex that Teju Cole so eloquently writes about, albeit in a different context? (Is this an offensive proposal, and if so, why?)
Hadeel Assali
With special thanks to Katya for her thoughts and feedback