Gregg Smith - Malleable tracks (from L'Avventura to Die Antwoord) (2013)
My involvement in the stock market was always a foolhardy one at best. Though it lasted the best part of two decades and saw various highs and lows, it was obvious from early on that I was not one of my broker’s strongest clients and consequently not the portfolio he was keeping the closest tabs on. If I was to continue relying on my own scant and inconsistent sources in these fragile economic times, it seemed more sensible to cash in the shares and use the money while it was there to buy some new equipment for the studio. This I did at the end of last year.
The first purchase was a flat screen television for the lounge. For years we had been watching films in bed on a laptop, which is not ideal if one considers that our professions are largely in filmmaking. So we began re-watching many films that we had previously watched in those poor conditions. I used to download a lot, these days we rely on the local libraries, which have good film collections. A plus about watching a DVD rather than a download is that the bonuses can also be quite interesting. Sometime in the autumn of last year we re-watched Antonioni’s film, L’Avventura in which, Ana, the main protagonist for half an hour into the film, goes missing during a boating trip. Her lover and her best friend (played respectively by Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti) spend the rest of the film trying to find her, knowing full well that they will have an awkward situation on their hands should they eventually succeed, as they have by stages gradually fallen in love with each other. In one of the bonuses, the French director Olivier Assayas talks about how the disappearance of the film’s central character signifies the ‘loss of meaning’ in contemporary 1960s society. Then at one point Assayas becomes cynical, saying that it’s no longer possible to make films like L’Avventura anymore, not in such good conditions at any rate. In today’s political climate the auteur is relentlessly hounded by script-doctors, film commissions, impositions on the part of producer or the television company - all making quite sure that any loose or radical ideas never see the light of day. In Assayas’s view, it is now politically too dangerous to lift the anesthetizing veil of popular culture and permit mainstream society to become conscious of the senselessness and fragility of modern life.
It’s true what Assayas is saying, I can relate to his sentiment. But at the same time, I wasn’t alive in the ‘60s and can’t claim to be nostalgic for the possibilities of that time. So much has changed since the time when L’Avventura was made. The media available for developing a politically challenging artistic form are no longer the same, and the relationship of the viewer to the moving image is also quite different. Antonioni’s films describe a crisis in human consciousness at a time when faith in continuity and tradition seem to be disintegrating, faced with the acceleration of consumerist rhythms and values. He attempts to communicate this crisis via the viewer’s established relationship with the narrative form. Fifty years on, the dream of liberation from consumerist values has faded a great deal, the individual is confronted with an increasingly fragmented sense of identity and an ever more destabilised personal trajectory. Globalisation is in an advanced stage and governments are eager to reduce their role as institutions which protect health and welfare. This precarity is masked to a certain extent in the developed world where, despite our times of perpetual economic crisis, we generally inhabit a smooth-coated realm of relative luxury, made possible by huge labour farms in Asia.
Here now in Lausanne in the serene Buffet de la Gare of the central station, the sun comes in at a low angle from the large, high-positioned windows. I had to move after lunch because the table where I was sat became too brightly lit, and the two young businessmen at the table next to me were too hard at it. I slept almost twelve hours last night, in a time warp of a hotel in Vevey, called the Hotel de Famille. My meeting in Sion was cancelled telephonically as my train approached the Swiss border, leaving me suddenly without motive to continue up the Valais. I met with E in Geneva, and then when we were done he helped me find a hotel on the Internet, not too expensive and not too far from my tutorial meetings with my students this morning. Thus it was that I spent the night in Vevey in a relic dating from ‘The Belle Époque,’ that has made no more than modest admissions to modernisation in the intervening time. The desk in my room was too low to work at and served more as a TV stand, so I returned to reception and asked to try some more expensive rooms to see what else was on offer. This small survey confirmed initial impressions. The lightweight partitioning of the rooms, the piped music and vinyl carpeting (making static electricity a constant hazard), offered one a pervading sense of dinginess in all calibre of room. Eventually the fatigue of my present state and the effort required to achieve adequate working conditions imposed their own logic and I went to bed without eating. I woke intermittently, having planned to have only a small nap, but finished by staying in bed till dawn. Breakfast in the cavernous dining hall, a pleasant walk along the lake in clear, icy sunshine and the train to Lausanne where I took coffee at 9 am, worked on a script and then attended my first tutorial at the end of a steep uphill bus ride.
Now I sit again at the same table where I drank coffee earlier this morning and try to gather my thoughts. This text needs to be bashed out. I would like to write about my perceptions of the moving image, and my experiences of being from a previously isolated and oppressed society, now living in this global media culture. What does it mean to be rootless, with few cultural landmarks, seeking one’s destiny in a world in which one is supposedly free to invent a virtual identity often with very little link to a concrete local reality. I spoke to R a few weeks ago about the feeling that young students today don’t seem to give a damn about their social context or about seriously questioning the reality of their world, in which education seems to be becoming part of a pervading fast-food culture and the only real social context is the one on Facebook. He said, yes, but that reality will also produce something interesting. We just can’t understand it yet, or know what it is.
It had been a few years that I’d only been vaguely aware of developments in Cape Town’s music scene. I used to follow the local rap scene quite closely when I lived there; now it appeared there was a new thing going on, a sort of white trash Afrikaner rap. Then it started happening regularly to me that I’d be talking to someone and out of the blue they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re South African, do you know Die Antwoord? They’re really good!’
Not wishing to appear ignorant of my origins, I went online to have a better look. There was a lot of stuff on YouTube. From their introductory clip it looked the group members had grown up in Kensington or Maitland, or somewhere out that side of Cape Town. Heavy Afrikaans accents, tattoos, mullet hair, fetishist references to Cape Flats gang culture; very fucked up, but very bright and funny. I’m not sure at what moment it happened, but surfing the YouTube clips, I started to feel like I knew this guy calling himself the Ninja from somewhere. At that point I did what one inevitably does when coming across something of interest; I right-clicked on it, Googled and arrived on a Wikipedia page. Within a few clicks the true identity of the Ninja was revealed as Wadkins Tudor Jones, not Cape Town white trash in fact, but from the erudite and arty milieu that I tend to frequent when I’m there. He had various bands over the past ten years, including Max Normal. I still have a copy of a Max Normal album on the CD rack behind the couch, which my brother sent me when I was living in Roubaix. The house I was staying in at the time had a lot of ‘temporary residents’ who generally robbed the kitchen and never tidied up, and I recall playing the track Space Invaders at full volume to one of these as they came out of the shower one morning.
Back in Cape Town around 2003, I remember going to a Max Normal concert in an old cinema venue I believe was called The Valve. The show reached a climax with a fantastic backwards stage dive by the lead singer. Cape Town is a small place. The following day I was in the Pick n Pay supermarket in Gardens Centre and bumped into the same bouncy Tudor Jones. My expression was enough to tell that I had been there the previous night, and the ungainly smile on his face seemed charmingly innocent. No wonder, years later, it took me a while to recognise the hardened and tattooed figure with the wrinkled brow. I remember telling M about the concert at The Valve and the stage dive. She said something like, ‘I’m sure it was minutely choreographed.’ ‘Really?’ I replied, ‘It looked quite spontaneous to me.’ ‘He’s a complete control freak,’ she said.
By the time that I truly discovered Die Antwoord, it had already become a global success. When H visited Paris in October last year, he told me with a degree of shock that he had even heard Return of the Ninja being played in the Printemps department store. By this point the band had big followings in the US, Japan, Norway, New Zealand… If one spends some time watching the YouTube videos, one becomes aware that many international fans also understand that the band is a persona, having probably followed the same series of clicks as me. I have a feeling that this unmasking process makes their brand more desirable to their audience at large. The fact that, through one’s own curiosity and intuition, one can penetrate the multiple personas of another, contains something which approaches intimacy.
Still surfing YouTube, it’s also interesting that the band only ‘exploded’ internationally after their website crashed a few years ago due to excessive traffic. Unlike elsewhere, bandwidth remains rather expensive in South Africa, so when their videos began to get popular, Die Antwoord were surprised by a huge monthly bill from their service provider, which resulted in the site being closed and all the material being transferred to YouTube. So now when we discover Die Antwoord, it is located it in a sea of other related clips and references, which are our own to navigate freely as we choose.
All this I recount because it seems a good example of the way in which we engage on a cultural dimension today. From our sealed off bubble, we seek out details which can embellish our identity and give it meaning. This is a kind of voyage of discovery which is rewarding not only in the value of what is discovered, but in the layers of networks and information which must be unravelled, sifted through, tested, turned over, followed from link to link, in order to establish authenticity and/or the level of sophistication of fabrication. It is in this process of searching that our desire is peaked. If desire can be understood to be the recognition in an object of that which is lacking in us, it is also the recognition that this object does not easily give itself away, we need to grapple with it and woo it in order to make it our own.
This crucially is the difference that I see between the viewer today and the viewer of Antonioni’s L’Avventura. The loss of meaning and the lack of permanence of our institutions as frames of reference according to which we construct our identities, are today accepted as a given, this is Bauman’s Liquid Modernity. It serves little purpose to have this crisis illustrated to us as a modern dilemma. Rather we need to have our swimming skills tested; our capacities to move fluidly between successive codes and frameworks, accepting that our own identities are temporary constructions knocked together on the hoof, in the face of our temporary circumstances.
One can see this situation as positive. One can also get worried. It seems that the individual is becoming increasingly isolated by new media forms of social interaction which can potentially manipulate one’s thought patterns, preventing deeper rhythms of thought, and frequently interrupting one’s experience of work or leisure. Nonetheless, I have a feeling that the media and the moving image have been part of western society for so long now that most people have come to possess a sophisticated understanding of the codes of different media forms, and are capable of intuitively assimilating an on-going flow of diverse media in real time - a soap opera, Facebook comments and events, a detective thriller, reality TV, a home-made Jackass episode, or a spam from someone in Nigeria asking to transfer 50 million dollars to one’s bank account. We are not so vulnerable as one might think. In this way, Tarantino’s films are interesting when he collides different genres so that they corrupt and curdle each other in wierd chemical reactions which create new hybridised meanings for the viewer. Tarantino has often talked about his interest in the French director Jean-Pierre Melville, and the way in which he appropriated the American film-noir gangster genre into his films, which take place in 1960s France. Melville is a curious character because his fetish for genre transgression seems to be more than a mere cinematic device. Colleagues of his from the time have spoken of his love for Stetson hats, large American cars and taking late-night drives on the recently completed Boulevard Périphérique which circles Paris, fantasising that he was driving on a multi-lane American highway.
Melville’s desire to project himself elsewhere is I think a perfectly human tendency which we all share in one way or another. But as the power of the media becomes increasingly pervasive, the gap between a mediated engagement with a ‘global’ culture, and the direct contact with the issues which are affecting one locally, seems to be widening. I was under the misguided impression that my friends in Cape Town would feel the same way I did about the Die Antwoord phenomenon; generally quite good, proud even. But the comments that I started to see on Facebook the past few weeks didn’t give this impression.
On a more global level, I can see what’s immediately appealing about Die Antwoord. There is Yo-Landi of course, the diminutive 14-going-on-34-year-old blonde sex bomb with a foul mouth, who is the band’s female vocalist. The videos directed by American photographer Roger Ballen are also very impressive, incorporating a sophisticated range of visual art languages from Keith Haring to Terry Richardson to Manga to the inbred freaks of his own earlier photography. But I have a feeling the appeal also has a lot to do with the white trash aspect; that these guys supposedly from the wrong side of the tracks have found a way to make it work for themselves, incorporating all of their wayward tastes, street-fighting logic and the schizophrenia of South African society to create a formula which wins. They have found a way to achieve what the Ninja calls his ‘full flex,’ and this is something I believe we all yearn for now and then; to be able to accelerate the synapses in our brains to a point where all our capacities, our drawbacks and obsessions can be expressed without constraint. We’re attracted to this because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to anchor ourselves in physical space, in our own history, or in a situation where our inner realms and local environment meet and bounce off each other.
My Cape Town network was alive a few weeks ago on Facebook with a very odd case. Die Antwoord had made a teaser for their new album, and put it on the web. The video made very close reference to the sculpture, The Butcher Boys, by Cape Town-based artist Jane Alexander. Wadkin Tudor Jones and Jane Alexander are friends it seems, but she allegedly didn’t agree with their use of her work and took legal action regarding breach of copyright. Referencing is commonplace these days; it’s a tough call. The Butcher Boys was made in the eighties and remains one of the strongest works of the apartheid era because it beautifully and sensually portrays three men on a bench growing horns and metamorphosing into beasts. They are at once vulnerable and fearsome and capture the wounded and dehumanised personalities which the apartheid system bred in all parts of South African society. The work continues to resonate strongly today, at a time when the residues of this era are still slowly seeping out of the culture. But for those who are too young to remember apartheid and, as quickly happened in Eastern Europe at the same time, have rapidly become subsumed by the consumerist values of the Post Cold War era, the possibility of not knowing where your society has been, is a dangerous one. If The Butcher Boys become integrated into a pop song which goes viral on a global scale, and this is the way we learn about them, what happens to the meaning and relevance of the work in it’s local context? What the exact consequences for The Butcher Boys would be, we will never know: Die Antwoord swiftly withdrew the video and all that remains on the web now are a few tiny jpegs. But the case raises interesting questions about the dislocation between meaning acquired through direct engagement with our local context and that obtained through media networks.
The other day, I was skyping with U and he was telling me that he’d closed his Facebook account. He was trying to spend less time in front of the computer and he felt very good about it. There were long periods in the past when U didn’t have a mobile phone either. It makes sense that he works strictly with drawing on paper with charcoal. There must be ways for the moving image to stop us in space and time the way a painting or a drawing can. To have our mundane daily perceptions deviated from their circumscribed routes by ambiguous encounters, which challenge our perceptions of who we are and the codes we use to navigate our world. To allow us to take pleasure in the malleable tracks which we have become accustomed to.
I was back in Cape Town again in March and April, after a four year absence. The city has changed a great deal, especially since the passage of the FIFA World Cup. New buildings have sprung up, the security in the city centre seems much tighter and new cafés and restaurants have opened up all over the place. One evening I drove my young family to see the house where my father grew up, in the suburb of Pinelands. I could find Union Avenue easily enough, but the house had been built onto and I no longer recognised it. S was growing restless in the back seat, so we went to the park to get some exercise. In the chilly fading light, I got into conversation with a man of Indian origin, whilst our children played with plastic swords. The man had driven across from the neighbouring ‘coloured’ suburb of Athlone, preferring the calm of this park and its surrounds. Having spent much of his adult life travelling around India and the Gulf states as an IT technician, he had come to live in Cape Town a few years previously in order to take up an opportunity presented by his wife’s family there: to start up a takeaway shop with the aim of profiting from the World Cup. It didn’t work out. Along with many other Athlone-based businesses, they experienced a huge drop in turnover during the championship. Whilst Athlone has long been home to a major football stadium, the venue remained unused due to security fears on the part of the football teams and spectators. During the tournament period, most of the business shifted to ‘safe zones’ around the city centre. Thus, the apparent new wealth of the city centre masks an impoverishment of the areas which had most hoped to gain. In the city centre and the suburbs which surround it, this gives the impression of a first world city, even if the service in a lot of the cafés quickly makes one realise that tending tables is work for the under-skilled.
Driving through the sedate tree-shaded streets of Tamboerskloof, one of the comfortable neighbourhoods squashed between the city and the mountains, one takes a left into Military Road and before long the scenery changes abruptly. The road gives way to a potholed track and one exits the quiet suburbs into what might be a Cuban village. There are weathered buildings, pigs, geese and other livestock, and a paddock for the city’s mounted police horses. Driving carefully now we arrive at N’s studio and the corrugated-iron building which he has converted into a small theatre. The city is not more than a stone’s throw away, but hidden from view in this sun-soaked landscape, it’s as if we have entered another time zone. The place is intriguing and we come back several times to make plans to do something in the theatre. On one occasion, sitting on the doorstep of N’s studio, a rundown building with red corrugated-iron roof, backing onto Signal Hill, I mention my interest in the Die Antwoord phenomenon. Looking up at a piece of faded graffiti sprayed on the outside wall of his studio, he asks me if I know the story about Die Antwoord. It is at this point that my text becomes so local that it becomes clouded by rumour and hearsay. As N later comments, ‘the version you get depends on who’s telling the story,’ indicating the degree to which the myth had entered a sort of folkloric status: It’s said that the group used to come to this very location a few years back and throw parties to befriend the foster youths who live on the farm, so as to learn the gangster dialect they had picked up during various stays in Pollsmoor Prison. Their foster parent found this out from one of the youngsters one morning as the reason why he was frequently unable to wake up in time for school. The graffiti, which resembles Casper the Friendly Ghost holding a huge erection, is allegedly a representation of ‘Evil Boy’ (otherwise known as Wanga), one of the youths, who wrote and performed the song of the same name for Die Antwoord.
Most people whom I talked to in Cape Town said that they were confused about Die Antwoord and unsure what to think about the group. On the one hand they were privileged whites who had exploited disadvantaged communities to achieve fame and international success by doing whatever it takes. On the other hand, they had come out of a common pool of awareness and influences and were very skilled at making something interesting from the murky pool that it is. But it seems that for the people who live on the Cape Flats, a large portion of which is under the influence of local gangs, there is no merit in Die Antwoord’s mimicking and glorification of gang culture.
Meanwhile in another part of the YouTube forest, I recently overheard Z watching John Berger’s ground-breaking 1972 television series, Ways of Seeing. In the introductory sequence of the first episode, Berger states his aim to question some of the assumptions made about traditional European painting, and the way these paintings were seen and experienced in the second half of the 20th century. Berger describes a condition where they are no longer encountered in their original state, in churches or museums, but through reproductions and television. The invention of photography and the moving image introduced a new era where Renaissance painting’s device of single point perspective no longer addresses itself to the unique physical viewpoint of the spectator. Suddenly images could be transmitted all over the world and be seen by many people in diverse places at the same time. Whereas paintings were originally designed as an integral part of a building and so located the viewer both physically and mentally in the specificities of the space and its history, we are now awash with images which have no physical location. We find them in our lounge or workplace or in transit, amongst the flotsam and jetsam which surrounds them.
Today I re-watched a few episodes of Ways of Seeing and then in YouTube’s side bar propositions, I clicked on an interview with Berger who is now in his eighties. Towards the end of the interview, he talks about how Karl Marx helped him to understand history and to consider the future in terms of human dignity and justice in a world where the main priority is one of increasing profit. For me, the question remains one of investment, but not in the stock market, that’s for sure. How can one invest one’s self in one’s time and place in a way that allows one remain alive to one’s opportunities and limitations, and able to participate in their ongoing reordering?
According to the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, the human brain is extremely sophisticated. It may be a fragmented and dysfunctional bundle of isolated systems but it is also highly resourceful at intuitively figuring things out with the limited means at its disposal. In a time when our trajectories seem increasingly narrow, jostled, fragmented and accelerated and the floor seems that it may give way at any moment, knowledge of this human capacity to anticipate and trouble-shoot might be reassuring.