1. Do you think art can be didactic in a good way?
I guess the kind of art I like, the books I like to read, the music I like to listen, feels like it has something at stake to it, that there’s some necessity to its having been written rather than it being a replication of patterns or traditions that have come before or brain fodder.
I think there’s a growing urgency for art and writing that shakes us out of our complacency, reminding us that we are alive, really alive and that things don’t have to be the way they are, reminding us that anything is possible, that everything is possible, despite the fact that we routinely convince ourselves that things are just as they are—the way we’ve inherited them.
So yes, I’m interested in art and music and fiction that works against society’s indifference. That challenges the world we live in, the world we have inherited. I love work that shakes up our stable view of the world, work that trips us up or surprises us, that forces us to see the world differently. I love work that grapples with the self as a transient gossamer thing, easily obliterated and readily rebuilt. I’m interested in sex, in desire and the body, an art that champions the vulnerable, the fractured, the disenfranchised, the fucked-up.
2. What is this “need to document”? Of what use is it?
Well I think there’s a real sense that our that language has failed us, is failing us – that we no longer have the tools or even the words, the sentence structures to give voice to our present realities, that all too often the language we use has been compromised by history or co-opted and emptied out of meaning by our late capitalist reality.
So it’s about how we document and how we speak about our reality that’s the pressing concern. How do we capture the complexity, the beauty, the horror, the inventiveness of life here and now now?
I have little interest in documenting unless that document subverts or challenges accepted views of reality or allows us to really see not simply to recognise. Recognition occurs when we look at things without seeing them—when racism in Cape Town has become so familiar, we tune it out. Seeing, in contrast, happens when something makes us to look again, and regard a thing as though we’re encountering it for the first time.
When it comes to the documentary impulse I gravitate towards work that defamiliarises reality. Work that plays with is disastrous commingling of fact and fiction, blur the borders between artists/ viewer, author/ character in order to disparage authenticity where self is put at risk by naming names, becoming naked, making the irreversible happen. The writer/artist becomes exposed and vulnerable: you risk being foolish, silly, pathetic, wrong. The writing comes too close to reality, to the body, to the bone. This challenges the safe distance between the text and the world, the writer and the reader.
3. Can art be a means of historical elucidation, an apparatus for constructing truth?
I’m always wary of grand ideals of truth. Maybe I’ve just been poisoned by the homoglossic realism I’m encountering in so much writing today – a mode that privileges the power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity and coherence of a self by which is built, rather than destroyed, by conflict. Much of this work assumes a position not too close, not too far away, a narrative structure which seems to me to covertly mirrors SA white suburbs where everything is contained and segregated, neatly walled off. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?
At the same time, yes, art can definitely operate as an apparatus for constructing personal truth. The best art is often its own adventure, a way characterized most definitely with error yet also with discovery and potential originality, which in time may well prove significant.
4. Is South Africa a productive field for art today? In what way? How would you describe the art scene here?
I’m kind of wary of categorisations like South African art or a South African art scene. Having grown up in South Africa under the Afrikaner Nationalist government and then lived through the rainbow national mythology of the present government, I’d rather not embrace any prescribed national identities. I have no interest in the South African art scene… I think part of the fuck up was how readily we adopted the existing prescribed models. This was a colossal fuck up in politics. It’s a colossal fuck up in art. So many fantastic brave subversive improvised models and strategies were developed during the apartheid years – both to resist the system of oppression and to challenge the horror of apartheid, but also to simply get by, to get work out there, to communicate. Artist, writers and musicians worked together; artists showed work on book covers and album covers; the pages of literary magazines became impromptu galleries; private book collections became public libraries; writing collectives were formed; improvised spaces became concert halls. Now it seems we’re all fighting to be part of or to be charge of the very same oppressive system that was resisted for so long. This is not a nostalgia for the apartheid era – god forbid! But more a call to recognise that the oppression hasn’t ended; a call to embrace and build on those strategies we have already developed and to develop new strategies that allow us to act and think, to be and yes, to breathe differently.
I’m humbled and grateful to be able to work with incredible, talented, smart, beautiful people right here in Cape Town who are doing that, who are creating a fantastically productive field to work in.
5. What is the role of music in film?
I think it’s a very powerful tool to perform precisely the kind of defamiliarisation I was talking about… so it can be used to provoke us to see differently, to see images differently and maybe even anew. Of course it might also allow us to dance or at least dance in our seats.
6. What can art tell us about Marikana? What can art do with Marikana? With “democracy” after Marikana?
I don’t really know if I can answer this.. I don’t really see Marikana as some kind of turning point, some kind of cataclysmic moment or disaster or event or “accident” to quote Paul Virilio. It seems to me that happened long before Marikana, that Marikana is but one of many terrible tragedies that happen in the aftermath.. or maybe its more that we’re at a tipping point, an event horizon, an ongoing accident?
I’ve just been reading Connie Willis’ fantastic science fiction short story, “Schwarzschild Radius.” I hope you will indulge me if I quote a long passage?
“When a star collapses, it sort of falls in on itself.” Travers curved his hand into a semicircle and then brought the fingers in. “And sometimes it reaches a kind of point of no return where the gravity pulling in on it is stronger than the nuclear and electric forces, and when it reaches that point, nothing can stop it from collapsing and it becomes a black hole.” He closed his hand into a fist. “And that critical diameter, that point where there’s no turning back, is called the Schwarzschild radius.”
Travers paused, waiting for me to say something.
He had come to see me every day for a week, sitting stiffly on one of my chairs in an
unaccustomed shirt and tie, and talked to me about black holes and relativity, even though I taught biology at the university before my retirement, not physics. Someone had told him I knew Schwarzschild, of course.
“The Schwarzschild radius?” I said in my quavery, old man’s voice, as if I could not remember ever hearing the phrase before, and Travers looked disgusted. He wanted me to say, “The Schwarzschild radius! Ah, yes, I served with Karl Schwarzschild on the Russian front in World War I!” and tell him all about how he had formulated his theory of black “holes while serving with the artillery, but I had not decided yet what to tell him.
“The event horizon,” I said.
“Yeah. It was named after Schwarzschild because he was the one who worked out the theory,” Travers said. He reminded me of Müller with his talk of theories. He was the same age as Müller, with the same shock of stiff yellow hair and the same insatiable curiosity, and perhaps that was why I let him come every day to talk to me, though it was dangerous to let him get so close.
“I have drawn up a theory of the stars,” Müller says while we warm our hands over the Primus stove so that they will get enough feeling in them to be able to hold the liquid barretter without dropping it. “They are not balls of fire, as the scientists say. They are frozen.”
“How can we see them if they are frozen?” I say. Müller is insulted if I do not argue with him. The arguing is part of the theory.
“Look at the wireless!” he says, pointing to it sitting disemboweled on the table. We have the back off the wireless again, and in the barretter’s glass tube is a red reflection of the stove’s flame.
“The light is a reflection off the ice of the star.”
“A reflection of what?”
“Of the shells, of course.”
I do not say that there were stars before there was this war, because Müller will not have an answer to this, and I have no desire to destroy his theory, and besides, I do not really believe there was a time when this war did not exist. The star shells have always exploded over the snow-covered craters of No Man’s Land, shattering in a spray of white and red, and perhaps Müller’s theory is true.
“At that point,” Travers said, “at the event horizon, no more information can be transmitted out of the black hole because gravity has become so strong, and so the collapse appears frozen at the Schwarzschild radius.”
“Frozen,” I said, thinking of Müller.
“Yeah. As a matter of fact, the Russians call black holes ‘frozen stars.’ You were at the Russian front, weren’t you?”
“In World War I.”
“But the star doesn’t really freeze,” I said. “It goes on collapsing.”
“Yeah, sure,” Travers said. “It keeps collapsing in on itself until even the atoms are stripped of their electrons and there’s nothing left except what they call a naked singularity, but we can’t see past the Schwarzschild radius, and nobody inside a black hole can tell us what it’s like in there because they can’t get messages out, so nobody can ever know what it’s like inside a black hole.”
“I know,” I said, but he didn’t hear me.