Mémoire, Lightning Strikes and The Real People
Process-based Spatial Explorations
When we initially planned the FUTURE MEMORIES conference, our first working idea was that participants from widely varying contexts and backgrounds would be able to congregate; from as far afield as Addis Ababa, Cape Town and Soweto, Dakar Lubumbashi, Nairobi, Stuttgart and other metropoles; from highly contrasting professional backgrounds and with extremely different experiences and methods of addressing art and public space.
We vaguely realised that this constellation would not be exclusively limited to the totality of approaches involved, and even less so that it would––or could for that matter––result in a generally valid result. If anything, I imagined the contrary; were we to assign the appropriate place to the singular, this would equally lead to the understanding that that which we know and do solely represents, as W.J.T. Mitchell describes as “partial knowledge”1, and hence would also convey partial knowledge from very specific positions materialising from artistic work. To a certain extent the contributions at the conference assembled on this platform illustrate this partial and conditional production of knowledge. The potential and the urgency of the issue, if viewed through the perspective of the arts, invariably remain structurally singular.
The film programme I conceived for the opening night of the conference hints at two levels of the singular. On one hand, I regard the singular of the film as a time-based moving image with other capabilities of visualisation, articulation and impact possess, as for example writing, sculpture, painting, architecture, a unique expressiveness and sensuality. Films and videos by artists––like other art forms also operate from and within their own reflexive reference systems––correspond abrasively with other media forms and the requirements of the chosen medium (of cinema and/or art and their narrative standards and genres) in the creation of images. And yet, what I have in mind is the singular of the research capacity related to film, that is to say in the convergence of regards (that which Georges Didi-Huberman referred to as “what we see looks at us”)2 that brings our regard to external reality in conjunction with a meta-level of vision.
The film programme was designed of as an interlude and in-between pause; between the opening section featuring various official speeches, and the ensuing lecture-performance by Stacy Hardy. To insert films, visually intense as they can be, between two intensive speech related components, struck me not only as commensurate as a form of spiritual refreshment for the designated sensory shift of perception but also a manner in which to accommodate the attention span of all those present.
Two guiding principles were to play a pivotal role in designing the short film programme. The first refers to the notion that films are a kind of container, in which images of places, bodies, feelings and memories, are recorded, stored and subsequently transported from the past into the future. There is only a brief moment in which the present exists, namely, that when the film is projected on screen. Naturally, all genres of transportative-entrepreneurial professions are involved in the making of the image: directors, camera crew, lighting specialists, actors, distributors, archivists et al. The issue of who-owns-what in this deeply complex process is not always clear and unequivocal.
I borrowed the second guiding principle from a notion, which Pierre Nora developed in the late 1970s, the concept of lieu de mémoire,3 namely that collective memory is wed to specific locations. Nora argues that places of remembrance can vary considerably in nature: anything from a simple tangible thing, from geographically localised physical objects to highly abstract and conceptually constructed things. A monument, a historical or local personage, a museum, archives, symbols, currencies, an event or institution can all constitute places of memory, while not overlooking weapons, magazines4, song lyrics, a specific beat, smell or sound, even a particular scene from a given film.
We can also discover the levels herein described in the programmed films of Sammy Baloji, Theo Eshetu and Nástio Mosquito. At first glance, all three directors show precise and identifiable places and objects. Baloji’s film Mémoire (2007) deals with a factory site adjacent to a de-commissioned copper mine in Lubumbashi; in Lightning Strikes (2009) Eshetu touched upon the repatriation of the Obelisk of Axum; and Nástio Mosquito’s camera follows the trajectories of a woman in downtown Cape Town in The Real People (2009). These specific geographical locations are captured on film (“what we see”). Yet the documentary gesture is linked to two other narrative levels; to a superordinate one––to the locations’ synchronous and inherent meta-level––which the films do not directly name, but which nonetheless permeates every shot (“looks at us”), and on a performative level that which the actors with their physical presence bring into play in the filmed environment.
In Mémoire, memories of the place and the work once undertaken on the site is a central motif––the work in the copper mines, their inception during the Belgian colonial period and the continual capitalisation of raw materials over the course of the history of Katanga. The performance by Faustin Linyekula5 in the industrial wasteland surrounding the Gécamines, once the largest mining company in Lubumbashi, comes across as somewhat contrived in this real-life setting. Now and then we catch glimpses of rushing and trickling water channels. Subsequently, all sorts of people who are still working on the site make an appearance. Perhaps a section of the factory remains in use, or the work currently being accomplished there already represents an informal use of the site. The image shifts gradually, the dancer’s physical exertions are real, whilst the inoperative industrial plant transforms into a backdrop that scrutinises Faustin Linyekula with his performance like an illuminated stage. Apparently, he holds an unspecified wooden frame in his hand and the head of a doll, as though a frame within a frame thus accentuating the image (it might also be a kind of sieve reminiscent of those used in digging in the mines). All this unfolds while the soundtrack reveals distorted sounds and fragments of public speeches given by Presidents Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent-Désiré Kabila, in which they present the prospect of fair remuneration for workers, and the corresponding political stages in the history of the Congo following its independence in 1960, and in which they extol the achievements by its citizens. It does not appear, however, as though the desired goal has been accomplished. Yet these public proclamations by the various presidents assist in raising the film to an abstract level of comparison. The act of remembering indicates that the film is a cognitive process, which compares the ambitious goals in the past with today’s meagre achievements, thereby forging an awareness that there exists a historical narrative or story line which leads to the present-day circumstances.
Intensive research is the hallmark of Sammy Baloji’s creative output. For more than ten years he has been immersed in Katanga’s industrial landscape and history, in the process scouring local and international archives,6 relaying information, collating audio and visual material, in order to ultimately merge them with his own photographic works. In 2006, the year before Mémoire was created, Baloji for the first time exhibited the photographic series “Mémoires” in which he assembled portraits of forced labourers during the colonial era into photographs of today’s seemingly apocalyptic mining areas. The theme of the collective experience underpinning the old portraits juts into the present landscape, in which the labourers and all those present in the images hover about like specters. In his video he continually focuses on the friction between past and present, between image and sound track, between place and dance. As can be witnessed in Baloji’s photo series, the urge to consolidate the narrative’s contradictory components in the video is tangible, and to forge out of their confrontation not merely a language of critical derision, but one that is constantly involved in analysing the present.
In Lightning Strikes (2009) Theo Eshetu responds to the repatriation of the Obelisk to Axum in 2005. In 2009, Eshetu also directed a more elaborate video installation “The Return of the Axum Obelisk”, using 15 monitors which likewise thematically deal with the return of the illustrious column. Notwithstanding, the single-channel video shown at the conference in Addis Ababa loses none of its complexity when it is presented as a by-product of the more elaborate work. A series of rigorous shots taken by night of the scaffolded column illuminated with gigantic headlights alternate with close-ups of dying insects attracted to the light and the light reflections in the scaffolding. Vertical and diagonal stripes form patterns. One is not only awestruck at the sight of this astonishing object and event, but also intensely intrigued at the technical feat inevitably involved in erecting the 24-meter tall and 160-ton granite column. A second pillar in close proximity to the site is secured with a belt. The night sky, into which the column with its pyramidal pinnacle luminously rises, constitutes the backdrop sequence for five inter-titles inscribed like news-tickers into the image. The equally rigorous and structured text element relates to the intercultural aspect of the column’s history: The Obelisk was carried off to Rome in 1935 as a war booty, and subsequently became the subject of endless negotiations. After being struck by lightning and deemed in need of repair, it was eventually repatriated.7
The Obelisk of Axum is a highly charged object that directly challenges investigative research and leads us into the very core of restitution debate. Eshetu shows us this object as a “monument-construction site”, as an object of negotiation and public interest (a photographer takes it upon himself to photograph the column), as both a national and international symbol (the close-ups of the Ethiopian flag and the UNESCO logo; a young man wearing an “Italia” baseball cap). Fireworks explode in celebration following the fifth inter-title, which announces the decision that the Obelisk be returned to Axum. A crowd gathers in the square in front of construction site, sharing candles and dancing. While the Obelisk itself is certainly a cause for exuberant celebration, perhaps even more so is the success of its return. Here, all formal rigour is dropped; the crowd filmed through a rain-drenched lens dominates the image. Thanks to the film, we––as spectators––can participate in this event and be animated by the celebration. In a certain way, the incident was indeed provoked by the Obelisk in Axum, the image of the site and the crowds gathered there––by token of theirs and Eshetu’s coincidence and co-existence––are now transforming into a place of remembrance. With this video piece Eshetu makes a decisive shift, namely, away from an interest in the restitution of this monument coupled with all the inherent vertical, high- and trans-cultural and cultural implications––towards a no less political horizontal order, which addresses the perception and the patterns of political symbols. It is symptomatic that the archaeological significance of the obelisk––with its art historical and iconographic context––remain entrapped in the object; here, the celebrations, which represents a kind of ritual physical retrieval, have the last word.
A series of keywords already come into play in relation to the two video works described above, which depict the outline of the conceptual horizon of the film programme. In particular, the character of the films, which from the outset don’t merely seek out and document lieu de mémoire in reality, but to place significant emphasis––as witnessed in these images (and in the sound-tracks). Films, videos, as a time-based form, are potentially very close the processes of seeing, dancing, walking, filming, remembering and so forth; they can search for spaces related to historic or current events, negotiating and gesturally recharging in the process and hence in this way (de)regulate distance and proximity.
Right at the beginning of The Real People (2009), the shortest and final movie in the programme, Nástio Mosquito renders inoperative the site’s seductiveness. The camera starts to trail a young woman with two braids in her black hair, umbrella and trench coat. As she puts on huge headphones, both the woman and we can hear the same catchy soundtrack. Beginning her performance through Cape Town’s downtown, she walks light-footed, as though dancing, inward-looking, imitating passers-by along the way, sometimes walking straight across the highway; sometimes exploring the furniture at the outdoor cafés, the traffic lights, the curb stones, a corner house. Though this young woman’s walk/dance performance passes by tourist attractions, the camera-lens has only eyes for her, not for the sculpture of Jan Christiaan Smuts left hand, nor for St Georges Cathedral a little further up on Wale Street. When she then turns into Long Street, with its numerous small shops and fancy restaurants facing the sea, we find ourselves in one of the most famous places on the planet, a bit of a party zone for backpackers and nightlife area for hipsters and fashionistas set against the backdrop of renovated Victorian houses, Table Mountain and Surfers’ Paradise. The “other” city and its history of which the District 6 Museum, the Pan African Market and the editorial offices of Chimurenga located just around the corner could tell us a thing or two about, or the docks area or Robben Island upstream and the Cape Flats seem non-existent.
Not alone is Mosquito the video artist who made The Real People but he also composed and performed the soundtrack. And he asks himself, where then are all the real people. What does “real” mean in the first place? Whom does one want to gladly emulate and to whom does one belong? Is it to Europe, to which you want to belong? You need to decide, you have to be someone, to be in a particular place, to beat someone if you want to be somewhere. (You have to be someone, somewhere, beat someone, somewhere). Mosquito’s soundtrack plays with the practice of a global home in so-called non-places, which are perceived as bereft of history and without links, or whose history is so easily consumed and just as easily forgotten. He plays on the rivalry between protagonists in the global (art) market, who relate to one another in terms of style, music, fashion, behaviour and yet who need to set themselves apart from another. With indifference, Mosquito draws our attention to this immensely special space, which in historical terms is as infused as the white dominated downtown of Cape Town, with its tourist spots, privileges and freedoms that are possible here and yet are permeated with a sense of historical amnesia and emptiness at the very same spot. As with Cape Town, it relates with each genealogy of an artist of African descent. He or she must ask themselves what it means to be steeped in local history and in the present; what thereof is perceptible and how these indicators should be measured out so that the overall impression will be sufficiently “European”.
Mosquito’s video performs a movement which in turn cuts a path across the discursive terms anchored in the text. Moreover, the performance, the dancer’s physical work which through her skewed and exaggerated movements comments on the compulsion towards a stylistic formal adherence and appearance, thereby dropping out of the cool etiquette canon. The moment of artistic action is also the moment in which the normative forces of global western paradigm are addressed and prised open.
This text is based on the short introduction to the film programme presented at the opening of the conference FUTURE MEMORIES in Addis Ababa, on 16 September 2015.
2 Cf. Geroges-Did Hubermann: Was wir sehen blickt uns an. Zur Metapsychologie des Bildes. [ What we see looks at us. On the Metapsychology of the Image.] Paderborn 1999.
3 Cf. Pierre Nora: Les lieux de mémoire: Tome 1, la République. Paris 1984. (Rethinking France, Volume 1, Les lieux de mémoire: The State, 1999) // Ibid.: Les lieux de mémoire: Tome 2, La Gloire, les mots. Paris 1986. (Rethinking France, Volume 2, Les lieux de mémoire: Space, 2006) // Ibid.: Les lieux de mémoire, Tome 3, Les Frances – de l’archive à l’emblème. Paris 1993. (Rethinking France, Volume 3, Les lieux de memoire: Legacies, 2009).
4 I’m thinking of, for instance, the magazine Transition, or Chimurenga, which represented a kind of reference point for other memories, or also the numerous comics, one of which Les aventures de Kouakou I loved to read as a child.
5 Faustin Linyekula also participated in the camera work and the sound design.
6 Sammy Baloji and Patrick Mudekereza [link for Patrick’s contribution on the online publication] have on occasion worked together at the Lubumbashi Biennale in 2010, whose thematic positioning focused on the city’s architectural legacy––a city established as a mining town in 1906. The city’s construction with its separate zones for the so-called colonials, the hired-workers and the local population did not seem co-incidental like the South African practice of “group areas” with its hired South African administrators and skilled professionals. Moreover, Balodji and Mudekereza worked together at the collection of the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren and jointly published their research and rereading of history of the Congo and its art in relation to colonial history and the history of the ethnology. Cf. Sammy Baloji and Patrick Mudekereza: Congo Far West. In residence at the Royal Museum of Central Africa. Art, sciences and collections. Milan 2011.
7 The Obelisk of Axum was removed from Ethiopia by Mussolini’s army during the Italian occupation in 1935 and brought to Rome as a war trophy. Following the signing of the peace treaty between both nations it became the object of numerous diplomatic wrangles as to whether it should be returned to Axum or not. Over time its cause generated increasing support from historians and politicians but neither the political or historical debate nor the legal battle for its restitution succeeded in ensuring that the Italian government fulfill its contractual obligation to return the Obelisk. Research into its structural condition and its capacity to withstand the complex process of dismantling resulted in a declaration that it would be too fragile to be relocated and that the entire operation would simply be too risky. It was only after the Obelisk was stuck by lightning and was in need of restoration that the decision was taken to return it to its original site in Axum.
DIDI-HUBERMAN, Georges: Was wir sehen blickt uns an. Zur Metapsychologie des Bildes. Paderborn 1999.
MITCHELL, W.J.T.: „Migrating Images, Totemism,Fetishism, Idolatry?“ In: Petra Stegmann / Peter C. Seel (Hg.): Migrating Images. producing, reading, transporting, translating. Berlin 2004, 14-24.
NORA, Pierre: Les lieux de mémoire: Tome 1, la République. Paris 1984. (Rethinking France, Volume 1, Les lieux de mémoire: The State, 1999) // Ders.: Les lieux de mémoire: Tome 2, La Gloire, les mots. Paris 1986. (Rethinking France, Volume 2, Les lieux de mémoire: Space, 2006) // Ders.: Les lieux de mémoire, Tome 3, Les Frances – de l’archive à l’emblème. Paris 1993. (Rethinking France, Volume 3, Les lieux de memoire: Legacies, 2009).