In past years, the scene of our intellectual labor has always been the room at Wits University. This year, we are on the road, 60 of us in a tour bus, checking in and out of hotels, sharing the communion of food and libations, and arriving at venues where we perform a series of acts that constitutes the academic subject—thinking and speaking and questioning.
Are we tourists?
Kelly Gillespie warned us to reject the naïve sentiment of the tourist. Yes we were assembled in a place called the Valley of Heaven, with mountain peaks adorning its horizon. The night before, we marveled at the cute African huts where we warmed our cold and tired limbs before a bonfire, in the midst of warthogs and starry skies. But the serenity, Gillespie warns, is at best dubious and at worst seduces us from the work at hand---giving account of a history of violence that is both elusive and painfully present.
Are we explorers?
This year’s workshop is a pursuit of “creative theoretical thought” by way of a movement through space. We are asking questions about race, history, and the future as we move from city to city. It is a project where the exploration of ideas coincides with the exploration of space.
In a colonial expedition headed by an explorer figure, the objective of mobility is the removal of obstacles or impediment—as in the freeing of the feet from fetters evident in the Latin roots of the word—expedire. The explorer is one for whom knowledge is tied to an overcoming of space.
The movement of the modern explorer is also destinational. Space is reducible to extension and movement is progressive. The explorer works within a dialectics of departure and arrival enabling him to observe, record, and map---to abstract space. This is because the aim of the explorer is to constitute space as something that can then be transformed into a home or a market.
If travel means, for the explorers, the clearing away of obstacles, and invariably the appropriation of space as something either known or owned, I want to imagine our journey ever since the bus left Johannesburg as something different, perhaps, as a “traveller’s tale…set in a surrealist painting.”
Our project consciously attempts to interrupt the touristic gaze that assumes effortless consumption as its right and the explorer’s feet that removes the impediments on which the creative and ethical imperative of our work depends. Instead, through a careful process of curation, our project constellates a series of spaces, peoples, movements, encounters, to allow a different mode of engagement that questions knowledge acquisition, production, and assumption.
Unlike the explorer, we are open to the possibility that certain encounters will prevent out capacity to move on. This is what the Swaziland experience has meant for many of us. Wopko Jensma’s work, coupled with the testimonies of those six individuals has stayed with us. Something happened in that space. Some of us are still not able to name it and, for that reason, we will never be able to move on from it. In a sense, we have never left Swaziland.
If we have still not left Swaziland, have we yet arrived anywhere else? Might it be that the beauty of our project derives from the impossibility of departure and arrival? Another way to put this is to ask whether we will ever be able to return to the Johannesburg that we left a few days ago? Will this repetition of failed departures and arrivals bring us to a different Johannesburg?
There is a dimension of our journey where mobility is neither progressive nor digressive. With Siba Grovogui's talk we found ourselves transported through time and space to the Straits of Malacca. After Swaziland, we have still not been able to move on. We have been held captive by a gut-wrenching scene of testimony. This oscillation between incalculable speed (the Straits of Malacca) and immobility (Swaziland) defines the alien form of mobility essential to our project.
We are moving in thought and thinking in movement. But it also seems as though we are doomed to a form of mobility consisting of repetitions of impasses and errancy.
Could this alien technique of intellectual labor called "the mobile workshop" be itself a manifestation of the non-racial?
Images by Naadira Patel.