Conversation at fem of colour
Wednesday 19 September 2018, 16h00
Zen Marie (ZM) and
– conversation begins –
Zen Marie: Okay, welcome everyone. So, we’ve arranged two of these conversations and invited, um, people to lead them. Today we’ve got Charne Lavery, who’s at the Oceanic Humanities, which is connected to WiSER and the Literature Department at Wits. So, welcome Charne.
Charne Lavery: Thank you. We’re going to do a conversation which is mostly improvised. So, the Oceanic Humanities for the Global South is the name of the project I’m connected to, um, which is based at WiSER, and as an intellectual project it tries to connect material scienc-ey understandings of the ocean with a visual, artistic, literary representations, but I do come from a literature background, so, when I was watching the installation on Monday, here in this space, I was very much thinking about something which started of the Watershed week, um, that I was involved in, which is a set of readings and lecture by a poet, Yvette Christiaansë…
So I’m also going to, it’s going to be me in conversation with Zen, he’s allowed to interject whenever he wants, but I also have questions for him, but also I want to throw out some poetry that speaks to or sits in conjunction with, um, this film, which is also itself, has some poetry in it.
The things I’ve been thinking about in relation to the work, are very, I guess in line with my interests, very in that poetic direction and in the material direction, which is also the rest of the Watershed events have been involving engineers and water scientists and policy makers, so maybe that speaks to that direction as well.
But it is interesting how an installation like this, and maybe this is a really good image to start with [referring to image projected on the screen] is um, I think, elusive, so evokes a set of illusions, and that’s what will be the basis of our conversation today, so there’s no single direction but a series of ideas that are associated with it. Can I start by reading a poem?
ZM: sure, oh and then we’re going to keep some time for questions, or do you want people to interject as well?
CL: People may interject as they wish, could lead to chaos…
ZM: But there’ll definitely be time for questions
CL: Actually maybe I won’t read a poem
ZM: Aahh read a poem
CL: Shall I read a poem?
ZM: You wanted us to beg (laughs)
CL: Okay it’s a short one so it’s a compromise
In this place
this skin does not flay easily
I will dance as a silhouette in their dreams
and in their waking I will steal across their paths
and the bows of the trees will groan
the leaves will each sharpen their teeth
I’m on the other side of this wind that bears the scent of you
Find me grain
find me a fine cloth to cover my face
tonight I will dance beneath these trees
and sing of hell
That was the leaves sharpening their teeth (referring to the image on the screen)
So, my thoughts are in two directions, one is the sense of the human and the body, and the figures of the human that the work…raises for me and those are the figure of the pirate very much at the beginning and then again at the end… “one day I will be a pirate” …but also, that is like kind of a dream, a fantasy, also the idea of someone marooned on a desert island, and that phrase, “marooned on a desert island” is just, each of the parts of that phrase are resonant in different ways…but also taking the maroon category as also slaves who escape and start their own communities.
And that idea of the maroon is such a wonderful notion of resistance, and I mean it has it’s own history…so that, and also the escapee, the castaway, and all of those are ideas that are evoked, I think in the film…But people can interject and raise any objections…
ZM: Can I… It’s interesting that you mention that, because the film’s shot on three islands, and they’re radically different islands. The one is Ile de Gorée…there’s a memorial to slavery there, and it’s where ships used to leave from to cross the Atlantic, and they would stop at Ile de Gorée to fuel up on water, and there’d be a market garden there, and they also has slave markets on Ile de Gorée, so that’s the one Island.
The other island is sort of a holiday island, it’s sort of like the Clifton of the Dakar Peninsula, and there’s beach houses there and bars with full club service as well. The third island is the island that the film is named after, and that’s Ile aux Serpants, and there there’s an interesting link to…the story of how it got its name was after a French soldier, who would be… and this is how its recounted. A French soldier used to misbehave and was taken by his Garrison commander and stranded on the island. And then when he was half an inch to his death he would be picked up a couple of days later and “I hope you’ve learnt your lesson serpant.”
So, there was this idea of this island where nothing was on, which has this history and this anecdote of this French soldier who was marooned there as punishment…which is in deep contrast to the holiday house island…which is in deep contrast to Ile de Gorée…
So there’s these three islands, I mean, there are many more islands, around the peninsula of Dakar, but it’s these three islands that I sort of used to throw a lot of ideas on, both in terms of the photography and in terms of the narrative of writing it. So the idea of the maroon is something quite interesting.
CL: Also Reunion Island, right? That comes up maybe because that’s where the residency was, but what is the relationship between Reunion and the other three islands?
ZM: So, Reunion is where this project started and the drawings come from Reunion. I made these ones here, but the series of drawings and the ideas for the drawings started there. Look, I mean the palm tree, there’s a whole range of references, from contemporary art, through Marcel Broodthaers and Bas Jan Ader, and a couple of other…I’m forgetting a very important one…
Unidentified audience member: Steve McQueen?
ZM: Steve McQueen, yes, the procession film. But, Reunion is really interesting in terms of palms, because Reunion doesn’t have any palms indigenous to it, and I think it was the French, might have been the Portuguese, you’d probably know better, decided that Reunion didn’t look like an island in how they thought islands should look so they started to import and plant palm trees.
So the idea of the palm tree as this invasive alien species, and they’re literally thousands of palm trees on Reunion, there’s a botanical garden full of palm trees, and it becomes this iconic idea of paradise, but the idea of this dystopian fabricated paradise. Reunion is strange for a number of deeply historical, political reasons… I mean how sugar…
CL: current, not so much historical reasons…
ZM: well, yeah, the history informs a current…
I mean, it is French sovereign territory, you spend euros, the license plates have the European community circle of stars, and I was only there because there’s a Cité des Arts, which is funded by French tax reserves. It’s a kind of very interesting place…
CL: I’m skipping ahead to one of the material things, which is palm trees. We had a conference here recently [Literary Ecologies of the Indian Ocean World: Mauritian and South African Intersections], which Yvette also attended, so that’s kind of a link, about Mauritius, and in Mauritius, palm trees are pretty much just absent. Beaches are not characterized by palm trees, they’re characterized by another invasive species, a Casuarina tree, looks a bit like a Pine tree…in my mind…and so it’s very strange to me to see this Casuarina tree on all these beaches. But, [one of the speakers, Farhad Khoyratty] Farhad’s anecdote was that if you ask any Mauritian schoolchild to draw Mauritius, they all draw a palm tree, and most of them, like, there’s almost no palm trees around…Some of the hotels have planted them, but it’s not, like, their (the kids) experience of the beach is all of Casuarina trees. They’re much harder to draw, of course.
So, that’s kind of like a weirdism that palm trees have this…that someone has to import them to make reunion look like what an island should look like. And one of the weird things is that it’s very much not tropical island, its very much desert island…so that like idea of desert and desertedness…
So can I…no…okay…Okay, now we’re just riffing…
The idea of desert and desertedness I found fascinating, not so much in these images (referring to screen) but you’ll have seen the light in the film, I was like #nofilter, Zen, coz it’s all of these crazy pink sunsets, you’ll see them come up now…
ZM: #notgraded Charne (laughs) No I mean, literally not graded, so I didn’t mess with the light…
CL: I know…but when I first saw it, I was like… you could have made those sunsets a bit more realistic, Zen, because I don’t know anything about art (laughs), but Zen told me that the sunsets are these kind of crazy pink colours because there was a dust storm, so you might have to reprise the story for me…so dust coming off of the Sahara.
ZM: So, the peculiarity of the Dakar Peninsula, well any place by the ocean, the light is diffused with water, so there’s a humidity content, um, and that would vary from different places. But, in Dakar it’s not just the humidity, there’s the humidity in the air, is not as terribly humid as other places south of it, so other places along Nigeria, Ghana, would be much more humid and have a much more dense quantity of water in the atmosphere.
With Dakar, there’s this wind that blows from the Sahara, it blows…I think the season is called the Harmattan, and it blows I think around December to March/April. I mean, with climate change the seasons are also not as precise as they used to be but this wind blows annually from the Sahara and this really fine cloud of particles from the Sahara – it’s not even sand anymore – it’s particles, it just literally covers the city, and it becomes difficult to breathe. The first time I saw it I thought, “oh wow, it’s going to rain,” it literally looked like a rain cloud, but it is just sand from the Sahara.
CL: Which is what kind of struck me about the film, is that it ummmm….it’s so vivid and immersive, so you really feel like particularly in this space, when the lights are off, the waves and the reflection of the waves kind of you know hit your feet and it’s a very immersive experience.
But there is the sense of impenetrable surfaces, both of rock and of like the reflective surfaces of the sea, but that light, which is filtered through the dust from the Sahara and the Harmattan, reminded me… I’ve been researching representations of the deep sea and the sea floor, and one of the things that I remembered from that the sea floor as kind of a rocky surface just like the land, is covered by a series of sediments and out of the global sediments of what is on the sea floor, a lot of it comes from rivers, you know like kind of sand and soil from rivers and it ends up all along the whole coastal shelf of the continent. So nearby continents you have all of this kind of soil/sand sediment.
But far out to sea, which also always means deeper…what you get is much lighter particles, which are the things like the Sahara sand, which get blown out to sea, and then deposited right out in the middle of the oceans. So, the seabed out in the middle of the oceans is covered not by that continental sand but by what they call abyssal clay, as in the abyss of the sea, the deepest parts. And it’s this very very fine, red sand, very fine red dust, from, and one of the major points, that everyone talks about in oceanography, is this Harmattan and the Sahara, which is one of the only areas where this red clay forms a really high percentage of what’s on the bottom of the seafloor.
So it just feels like that’s just one of the avenues that takes us beneath the surface and also connects I think this coastline…
[looking at the screen: this is one of my favorite parts, when the tanker comes by, its one of the few moments of the human]
But, I’ve been thinking about dust, I guess because of other things that have been happening recently are silicosis cases, and uh, just go outside at the moment with the dust in the air and the uh red sun, so actually there was a hugely red sunset on the night of the opening where I went there an I was like, WOW, Apocalypse dust…
And, I dunno there’s something about that submarine connection that I like…
I wonder if we should move then to the like creatures…palm trees. Okay let me read another poem
Oh, the one thing that I wanted to say was interestingly this book, talking about both Dakar, and Reunion on the two sides, I think one of the reasons I thought of this collection of poetry was that that its divided into two sections, Atlantic and Indian.
And, then further the Atlantic section is divided into three parts, called scraps, winds and rust, all of which are very suggestive. That first bit of poem that I read talked about the wind, and then the other thing, I mean there are like the palm trees and that materiality, there’s the ocean floor [inaudible] there’s the rocky island, and one of the things about islands… I wanted to bring Dan Sleigh’s book, which brings it back to our South African context, which is Eilande first in Afrikaans and translated into Islands, this massive historical novel about the ways in which islands determine or are crucial to the history of colonialism and crucial to the history of South Africa, not least Robben island, but also the connections between Robben island and Mauritius and Reunion. Um, so that’s one kind of connection to the islands.
The one thing in the scholarship on the islands is the thing about islands is it’s very obvious when you see the ones here, because they have visually defined borders. Islands look like property in a way that land generally doesn’t. They look like a bounded thing…like I, that’s mine…it has a natural border…
And there’s a lot else, like I love this information about the three islands because islands look like paradise, they look like containment, so like slave containment, and they look like, what’s the third island?
CL: Ja, punishment, and um, they look like a stepping point in trade, but they also look like punishment…
ZM: I mean there’s also another thing which the fishing communities around the peninsula of Dakar use the islands for different kinds of ritual practice. So I mean okay there’s fishing expeditions that would use the islands as points to stop or to fish off, um, but there are also, there are deep mythologies and rites of passage that are associated with different islands. I didn’t visit any of those islands, I mean there are really lots of them. Even around South Africa there are a lot more islands than I actually knew about… I only know the sort of famous ones, but there’s lots more islands around Dakar that are still used as points of ritual practice, which is possibly a fourth kind of use of an island.
CL: That’s interesting. And also, if you’re thinking ecologically, islands are, I dunno there’s some weird islands that you’ve never heard of off South Africa which have been routinely plundered and quite profitable for like penguin egg hunting.
CL: …for hundreds of years, yes guano harvesting…
Okay, so to think about the human a little bit I’m going to read one more poem. There’s other stuff in the volume if anyone is interested, there’s a lot of stuff about birds, really, and crickets, and I don’t know of these are interesting facts about … or like kind of resonant points [looking at the screen] look at this dusty sky!
The islands are so marked, to pacific navigators, which is now becoming like a mini science of its own is understanding how pacific islanders navigate in this vast oceanic space and a lot of it has to do with birds because birds can fly certain distances from oceans, so the condition and kind of bird tells you how far land is even if its hundreds of miles away. So I feel that birds have a huge role to play in this volume but also in this film.
Okay, but back to humans, um… here’s a slightly longer poem, which talks a little bit… so the volume is actually not about the characters that I’ve invoked that are invoked by the film, which is like slaves, maroons, pirates, escapees, fantasists. This is about a specific category of slaves which are those who’ve been freed, liberated, in the 100 years after the abolition of slavery by the British and the Brazilians, um, then no one knows what to do with the slaves that have been, so you know, the abolitionists go and capture a slaving vessel, and then what happens?
So it’s about all the liberated Africans or freed slaves as they were called, who were just kind of taken to other weird islands, they often enter into forms of apprenticeship or indenture. So this is a poem about that, about that like space of being in between about longing for escape and the thing I want to highlight is the thing of the horizon. Recently, Sarah Nuttall also suggested that maybe we need to think a little bit more theoretically with the notion of the horizon. So the poem is called Caught…
Each day, the newly arrived
in their cries we hear our own bodies
our bodies obedient cannot resist that we pray against the dawn
those who hold their noses say be grateful
give up rage, give thanks
our thanks come hard
bone that flakes cannot flute with joy
sores are not roses
those who arrive and die chant not joy but our strongest refusal
those who live days, then die
refuse even rage against the horizon
the horizon insists our bodies obey
we who live
we eat, sleep, wake
we wake because the horizon insists
the horizon brackets days
between dawn and the horizon our days, our beginning and endings named east and west
we fall into such names
we fall, learn this worlds lessons
in such a world, the newly arrived are measured by their cries
[sound of page turning]
CL: Much heavier than I remembered…
One of the things Yvette pointed out was that the aesthetic of the horizon, or even the experience of the horizon is not an urban experience, its not an experience you get often in Johannesburg – its completely interrupted…but it is very much an oceanic experience and its experience when being on an island is when you can actually see it, or being on a boat. And there are other places, deserts, notably. But it brought me back to the circularity that Yvette invokes here that brought me back to the beginning and end of the film and I just want to speak to that a little bit…
…That the words have this like incantatory resemblance from at the beginning and end and it really brought me back to the fact that the perspective of the film is often quite inhuman, quite god-like – it’s higher than what you’d normally have: it’s the top of the palm trees, it’s the island from above or from far…um…so there’s perspective which shapes the horizon which also maybe speaks to the arrangement of the film in its kind of circularity.
Say something, Zen…
ZM: Yeah, with the text, look I mean I don’t normally write in this kind of way, um, so I would normally write in more analytic sort of registers. And for me it was important the time in which it was written, so, it was at a place called the Raw Material Company, they’re an independent artists center that started something called the RAW Academy, and Chimurenga magazine was directing that academy, and, if you know Chimurenga’s work it’s deeply invested in thinking about issues on the continent and really engaging with some pretty dark stuff, from genocide to slavery to the violence of maps to you know I mean a whole range of things including thinking about how, how to escape these sort of uh, very heavy predicaments that the continent finds itself in. And it mobilises these very dark issues with some speculative play that comes through music, that comes through approaching things obliquely, so… approaching things from sides that you would least expect it. So they’re very good in making you rethink about certain things.
What was going on in the Academy, and I was there as an observer, um, to write a text about it, but I was engaged with listening and talking about some pretty triggering stuff. So the text was written in this sort of maelstrom of this kind of environment. And it was a hot, sticky, Dakar night, where you know mosquitos were buzzing outside of my mosquito net and I couldn’t sleep and I started putting together a lot of these ideas about the history of the place about the issues that were discussed, um, and I sort of like channeled it through a central character, a fictitious character that I created and threw that narrative onto the landscape of Dakar.
Um… so the text was written in that moment, in a fairly organic way in the sense that it was like one…one writing session…um, I mean I’ve gone back and tried to tweak it and edit it, and edit it in relationship to the kinds of footage that I got, because after I wrote the text it was probably, it was a year long process of editing and going back to Dakar a year later and filming again. And I kept on trying to kind if refine it, make it better, but I kept on failing and going back to the same or to the initial first write.
So that, I mean, there was something interesting for me, I mean I’m not sure I could say anything more about how … so for me it’s a very simple kind of thing, you just start where it ends, right? And it’s sort of that symmetry allowed me a kind of handle of it…so it returns to this refrain of this childlike aspiration for you know “one day when I grow up I want to become…” and then you know, an astronaut, you know, Indiana Jones…
CL: Who doesn’t want to be a pirate?
ZM: A pirate, yeah you know…and then that childlike speculation gets into some stuff that’s, yeah, about an ambivalence of desire, I think in many ways.
CL: well, yeah, and the speaker can be like, you can think he’s the colonized and you can think he’s the colonizer, uh, at different points.
CL: That was my experience, which is about that ambivalence of desire maybe…
ZM: The speaker was never meant to be a “he,” the first version she was a she…
CL: That was my next question…
ZM: So this is the second version of the film, the first version it was a spoken word poet T.J Dema from Botswana who did the voice over and it has a very different…
CL: But who was the character in your mind…mmm…the fictitious character
ZM: I mean I would like to say the character was genderless…
Atul Bhala: That’s never possible, that’s never possible. That’s something we put on, it always has a gender.
ZM: Atul are you going to get into refutation of non-binary right now?
ZM: Look I mean, to be quite, quite honest about it, you know it’s projected through me so I mean in that sense the initial protagonist was male. Because in writing it I had to channel my responses to all of these things and that was the way that I could get to the register that I got to…so yeah it was… it was me.
CL: Can we open it up at this point? Because we don’t want to keep you forever. Um, so 15 minutes I think for like short, sharp discussion? Ja, But I mean, okay, if you want to go with the question of gender you welcome. No, different question.
Ruarc Peffers: Yeah, well I actually was… is that uncool?
Like, would it not be a bit, ah I don’t know what the word is like, cheeky or presumptuous, or whatever for you being that you are very obviously a male to kind of you know like write the voice of a female because what do you really know, you know?
ZM: Look I mean that question rages and there are different positions in it, in who can tell what story, right? So, there’s a filmmaker, Sara Blecher, who’s just made a film on Mayfair, and I’m like, shocked and horrified, you know I’ve lived in Mayfair since ’86, and here’s this white woman who’s made a film on Mayfair, what can she possible know about…
RP: Yeah, I made a film about the struggle…
ZM: Look so I mean you know there’s … some people, there’s one side, there are two poles one side says no, actually to be authentic you cannot tell a story that’s not yours, but, you know I mean, I think…good literature or good cinema or good work has to be deeply empathetic even if it’s about yourself. Right? So there are levels of estrangement that need to happen even if you’re talking about yourself… um.
CL: The most classic technique of writing great female voices in film is writing them for men and then making a female actress play them, and in some ways that’s kind of what I feel like Zen is doing with getting TJ to do it, so writing it as a man, and then it just gets this whole bunch of really off balance resonances if you have a woman speaker. At the same time, there’s something off-balancing as it is about having the speaker be French, or speaking in French and with subtitles so there’s like a translation off-balanced-ness and then there’s um…just the sheer like weird exhaustion slash arrogance slash what is it that is in that quite iconic place…
ZM: Look I mean…
CL: Um, lets
ZM: Just to finish on the…
CL: The public are going to speak…
ZM: Wait just to finish on Ruarc’s question the, the female voice didn’t work for a number of reasons mainly pragmatic, and then Youssoupha Sarr is the one who did the final voice over.
Unidentified audience member #1: Couple of things just responding to that um…number one, you use a very important word as a storyteller or as an artist, you’re channeling something, so I feel like whenever I write, no not whenever, but when I write the best…I’m more channeling certain things, and I don’t know where they come from but I have access to voices that are not mine, so as a part of being an artist I always have to give myself permission for that or otherwise I’m just going to be extremely tight, restricted and not part of a sense of humanity… so I’m just going to put that out there … and also when we say a woman or a man, I mean there are some women that I do not ever want to have speak for me , there’s some men that are going to understand me better …so I feel that that dichotomy…
…And I mean I’m a woman of a certain age, I feel I have access to these really different voices that are not mine by birthright but they are mine by…air-right?… that sort of thing I’ve been saying, so you know, when I am out of my identity and therefore I can fly and make contact with other identities then of course I’m…[inaudible] I know all the criticisms, I teach and I respect them. I just feel like it really you know it limits the access. So to me the word channeling, and if you think in many different traditions, not just you know white traditions, you know it’s the idea of channeling is an idea of access, so…
CL: It’s also nicely oceanic
Unidentified audience member #1: You know and it’s interesting I guess I just had a question for you. First of all I’m very interested in, I make films so you know I’m interested in how you shot it and how did you do it, but you know we can do that later but, whether you felt in extracting these different excerpts, and all the experience that you’re having at this place so you feel that in trying to do good service to those voices, that you also find your own voice, right? I’m thinking… in terms of connecting with your own voice, or do you feel that you were more serving an idea. This is always another incredible tension I’m sure you have to deal with … Does that make sense?
ZM: Yeah…and I mean it’s a difficult question to answer. I mean, I think the easy answer is yes, but it’s a complexity that’s about, well for me was what enabled me to write in this way was the creation of this character, so then I could deal with some of the stuff that was going on historically, politically, contextually, geographically, and then channel that through a whole range of personal experiences. But was able to do that in a way that I felt safe to do that because, because, it was, there was some kind of narrative distance.
Unidentified audience member #1: It was mediated
ZM: yeah, um and it was, so the words were pretty easy to find but it was because I managed to find the sort of framework or the structure to do that. And part of that was thinking about these islands. Ile aux Serpants was just this barren piece of rock that you drive past and I would always ask the taxi driver or someone that I was in the car with, “what is that Island,” and they’d say “oh no it’s nothing, it doesn’t really have a name,” or it’s “oh I can’t remember,” so nobody really knew whereas as soon as you arrive from, or arrive to, Dakar International Airport, you know, Gorée Island is pretty much your first stop where you visit and you know, Obama goes there, Mandela goes there, and they shed a tear at the Door of No Return, and you know Macron went there and opened up a square which was hotly contested. So it’s a highly symbolic space that is being mobilized for different narratives, and different political agendas, whereas this place was like “nah, nah it’s nothing don’t worry about it,” which for me was incredibly intriguing so I think the channeling was throwing all of these personal and political and historical ideas onto the landscape. Um, I don’t know if that really answers.
Unidentified audience member #1: Yeah you know it’s just interesting throwing it onto a landscape, or receiving out from a landscape, you know to me these are really different ways of working of they’re just different axis and they can mean the same thing. But the only other thing I wanted to say…I’ve just a read book, I don’t know if you all know it, called Go, Went, Gone, it’s written by a German woman… but it’s about African refugees in Germany and she’s writing in the voice of a retired Classics East German Professor, you know it’s just mind-boggling how strong this novel is in terms of really giving a sense of this experience. She’s a woman writing in the voice of an East German – I mean she’s German – but…
RP: That seems more acceptable than say she was writing in the voice of one of the refugees…
Unidentified audience member #1: No she did write in the voice …but I mean when we say ‘in the voice of’… she did write in the voice of a whole series of different refugees, and when I saw the film, that’s how I was thinking of your film, in terms of the dilemma of refugees.
ZM: Look I mean gender was not something I thought about and in that sense it resorts to a default which would be masculine but narratively gender was not its not something so it worked in a feminine but it works in the masculine voice and there’s something about how that voice, how that voice… organizes the space, and it organizes the space very differently so that’s not so much narrative thing because narratively it could be either, there’s nothing in it that pins to one gender or the other. What happens is how the space becomes commanded through that.
But gender wasn’t the thing that I was thinking about, the thing that I was thinking about was something that Charne was mentioning or alluded to which was am I writing as, and so that polarity, or the polarization was not about masculine or feminine, but it was colonized or colonizer. And I deliberately wanted to be ambivalent in terms of it being perhaps one of the other or both, so that was the binary that I was trying to negate …
CL: What’s interesting is that the speaker, the voice, wants a piece of land and its not quite good enough and that’s the fantasy of the both the colonized and the colonizer… that the kind of idea of the possess-able land which maybe is a troubling idea…
…Um, are there other questions?
Unidentified audience member #2: I really enjoyed the film, I found it just captivating… I could only get up when I realized I had looped around. And I’m wondering, why here? I’m guessing that you shot this in colour and de-saturated it? A little bit?
Unidentified audience member #2: So the black and white is in fact just really black and white like…
Jacqui Carney: What about when the ocean, it’s shot in the daytime and then it all of a sudden looks like its shot at nighttime.
RP: But this is what he said it’s all totally original footage, I mean like…
ZM: So I haven’t graded, I haven’t gone into a grading process to adjust it, it’s all exactly as it is shot…um, the day for night thing, was something deliberate, it’s an old film noir technique. So I went back in January to film night time scenes and I thought I was very smart I thought I got a full frame sensor camera and I thought ‘oh I can shoot at night now’ but I wasn’t able to… But I then sort of I figured well you know this could be an interesting way to create those night scenes … so you really reduce and expose for the extreme highlights, so your blacks are just totally not registering and that’s how that effect is created. I mean it’s obviously not, that’s not how the scene looked, it’s just, so the grade was done in camera, if you want to say it like that.
RP: Did you write the text for the footage or cut the footage for the text ?
ZM: I wrote the text first. Well I mean the thing is I take a lot of photographs in my mind. I don’t have a camera with me all the time except for my phone but I’m constantly making images in my head so I’d shot all of these islands already in my imagination, and that enabled me to write the text. But then, my imagination is much better than my ability as a camera person, so I then had to go negotiate these sort of like technical optical challenges that took me quite a while to work out.
RP: Like what is, how long is that text?
ZM: How long is the text?
RP: How long is it, yeah. It’s because you kind of like lose yourself in the film, you like you know reading a page or it this like … 300 words? 1000?
ZM: [Turning to Charne] How many words, do you know?
CL: It’s like two pages, right?
ZM: But two pages written like…. yeah you know
James McDonald: So for me maybe going away from this idea of trying to pin the character or identify things, rather thinking about the affective operation of this work which is one that draws one in, like to even think what is the narrative doing instead of who is it, what is it drawing one in…I know we’ve spoken about this work of lulling…you get lost in the narrative, you lose it and then you pick it up. You’re taken into a certain space that’s indistinct but perhaps, Zen, if you could speak about how you’ve, what you’ve…that idea of how we’ve been channeled into a certain space through that narrative and how do you embed in that space certain threats and ambivalence and violence but that comes through…this kind of lulling and drawing in and … and like Naadira said how she sleeps through it at times and it takes over you and takes you to a certain place … and how does that become productive
Naadira Patel: I think just to add to what you’re saying and I’ve told this, because I’ve fallen asleep three times watching this…
ZM: I’ve seen it, or I was there twice…
NP: I’ve fallen asleep three times now, but um, but there’s something about the voice that is extremely melancholic and lulling, and it sort of it puts you at ease but the actual – but that’s because also I don’t speak French, so there’s a tone, there’s a weightiness in the characters voice that sort of eases you and calms you –but the things that the character is saying are actually fairly threatening, fairly kind of terrifying. But so those two kind of things don’t, I don’t know, they don’t match up in a way but because I don’t speak French I’m not translating in my mind as I watch it… I did fall asleep. And that’s not a bad thing!
ZM: It’s a legitimate response
NP: It’s a legitimate response to the work
[laughter in the audience]
CL: I’m just going to jump in coz now it’s a free for all
AB: I just want to know the connection, you know of there is a connect to the works outside [referring to the rest of the installation]. How do you read this work and the works that are outside…not the drawings, but the monitors, how do you…
ZM: look I mean so the idea of what the space does and Atul it’s an important question… I mean for me the idea of at the core of the film its about the ambivalence of desire and how desire can be both incredibly destructive or something incredibly beautiful so if that’s what I’m working with, the idea of the film being in a similar way seductive but, dis– not disarming, seductive but aggressive, I don’t know, maybe it’s not aggressive actually, but there’s something dangerous, something seductive and threatening, you know for me is something that I think it part of the thinking around the film.
The French is, look, I shot in Dakar, and I showed it…so the first showing of this film was earlier this year in Dakar and there I translated it into French in order to do that, in order to show it there. But what I started to realize from my experience of the text is that it started to function in a way that I was much more excited about in French.
And there it’s something about the non-immediacy of the meaning of the words. AndI did get Youssoupha Sarr the voice over artist to do an English version, so I have an English version and I’ve been playing around with putting the English version on, how does that work, and then taking it off, having the English subtitles, with the French. And there’s something about the subtitles which are a little bit delayed in terms or, well contrast with the immediacy of understanding the language.
So, English spoken has an immediate impact next to the image and it’s… you read it simultaneously, Whereas with the text there’s something that, and even if it’s a split second, or a nanosecond of having to read and decode it in your brain and then pin it onto the image it was just enough to allow that ambivalence between seduction and threat to emerge.
CL: I’m going to pick up on the previous two questions as well in response to that and then we can have…one more question…
ZM: Well then I’ll answer Atul’s question after
CL: Um… the thing about French in English speaking contexts, and this might be like an English speaking colonial context, is that a language like Arabic…has certain connotations and a language like French has certain connotations. And French has very romantic connotations and a lot of the films images have romantic connotations there are vividly pink sunsets, there are remotes islands, palm trees and I guess that’s what maybe you could summarise as the aggression of…that goes with the lulling.
So there’s a lulling and I’m not sure the danger is as apparent as the lulling effect, like you were saying the danger is partly in the text but there’s also there is a very classic romanticisation of islands…um…which French feeds into, which the generic, if you didn’t know that this film was shot in Dakar, there’s no sign that it is. Could be shot in Clifton, could be shot anywhere… there’s no Dakar-ness, there’s no…it could be shot in the Caribbean, the Malay islands, it could be shot anywhere.
And that was a useful colonial technique: making place anonymous, or like indistinct. So that like romanticisation and anonymisation of place together with a romanticisation of French and the uh romanticisation of gender or the anonymisation of gender…so that if you’re neutral gender it’s male…um…so those would be like I guess the violences, or the aggressions which the film is performing potentially and also maybe subject to.
Unidentified audience member #3: I’m glad you mentioned Arabic because when you were talking earlier I was thinking around yes, but what if the film was in Arabic, um, and in fact the comments you’ve just made Charne, and some of the other comments, I mean I think we are putting a very particular reading on it. And yes you wrote the text so maybe that’s not the wrong thing to do. But what would happen if it were written in Wolof or Mandinka or something else…um…and you know why is it that we’re saying, well, French is more romantic than English, and this is about colonialism… rather than a child simply sitting on the shore looking out to an island and imagining what it might be like?
And so there is something really important about language and it would be really interesting to play with multiple languages in the way that people respond to the image. Because the image is being mediated to some extent by the text, and so the question is around a relation…I mean how one chooses what one chooses.
Um, and in fact your choice of having subtitles rather than having music or something else I think is interesting, or just the sound of waves washing, so that there are multiple choices that go to turn some visual images and some text into a film…and how you do that…
The other thing I wanted to comment…is if you want to read it or turned it into a text about colonialism and colonization in part and the role of the island there…then what was, which I was thinking about when I was watching it, was not around a romanticisation of the island but the strategic failure of the island, so I didn’t know where it was. So I was interested when you said it was off Dakar, because the whole point about colonialism and neo-colonialism now is that islands – like the one you show that has no natural source of water and nothing to eat on it, is barren – are strategically changed through intervention to convert them.
So it’s not an island actually… the legal definition of an island is that it has to have potable water and so the way in which contemporary neo-colonising powers like China in the South China Sea deal around that is to deliver water on a regular basis, so you shove your flag on the rock, and you keep hurling water in and so as long as there’s potable water it’s an island.
Now, an island is not just an island, and island is also the 200 km around the island that have been claimed so that’s what then makes Reunion and places like these islands particularly interesting because France doesn’t just claim the island, it claims the sea bed and it claims the water and airspace and everything else around it as its own, which it doesn’t give up. And it doesn’t have to support life, provided you can maintain the illusion.
CL: Okay, we’re going to take one more comment, if there’s any more, and then Zen get’s to respond if he wishes to none or all, and then we will hopefully not send you off too late.
Bobby Marie: What sort of came to me was this whole idea or experience of, Zen you know about the, Khala Pani, the dark water. And, in our discussion we go through the male and the female, the history the geography, we even had an explanation of emotions of desires of fears, all those things are very familiar grapplings in the day to day. You know, colonial history all this on this level, but perhaps the dark waters is that unfamiliar territory that even the words listening, reading the words, how they play, how images emerge, its almost beyond you, in spite of you. And that no mater how controlled you are, and another way in which we relate, emerges in our words. So in a sense yes they can’t, you know…on one level there is the male and female but on the other level there is not…depends on whether you restrict yourself to the familiar. And a lot that comes through to me here is the unfamiliar, it’s not even, it’s even beyond the desire…
It’s probably in [inaudible] from where all these things emerge, the history, geography, where gender emerges, where desire, emotions, emerges and…if I had to read that in that way then I take something that’s got nothing to do with the artist. Once it’s gone out we all start sort of playing around with that.
CL: I am one hundred percent in agreement. We have no need to hear from you [Zen] we’re hearing from the audience. Are there any more comments?
ZM: Well, just to quickly respond to Atul. Um, I mean for me the drawings and the video piece with their palm trees were engaging with, so when we’re talking about the central protagonist, that’s the central protagonist of the film. The palm trees are both malevolent spirits as well as the sort of like…your community in this space.
Um, and the idea there which started on Reunion Island was to think about, and I think photographically, so the drawings were through a photographic process where I put the projector through a palm tree and I could have equally done it with a photo-litho process, but there was something important about using charcoal, which is burnt…wood.
That piece [referring to 6 monitor piece] there was a kind of curatorial, it emerged out of a curatorial pragmatism where there was supposed to be a drawing there where I was going to invert the drawings on the other wall. But putting a light there meant that too much light came into this space so then I thought well, what would be another way to do this. So that’s the video of – so those are drawing of the videos and that’s a video of the drawings. And the idea behind the curation here was to create access points or ways to enter this work, and ways to kind of think about, and maybe it is about defamiliarising the familiar so these palm trees start to take on other kinds of evocation or allusions.
There’s a collaborative piece with Danai Mupotsa, where I used a poem of hers on the stack of papers, which you can all please help yourselves to, um and that was important in creating an access point that wasn’t about explaining the work because I agree with you, Bobby it’s not about what my intentions are its about what are the terms and conditions for a person, a body, a spirit, a mind entering the space and making their own series of connections. So I thought working with Danai’s words was a way to open up this narrative, this idea, this sense of feelings in a different way.
The monitor piece on the floor is a manifesto I wrote for a collective I’m part of. The collective is called Sugar-Free. And Sugar-Free looks at looking at tracking colonial roots and traveling’s of objects and people but through this thing…the partner who I’m working with is a Surinamese-Dutch person, and we’ve been working with this idea of genoudsmiddele, which literally translates as excitable substances, but I mean the proper translation would be stimulants, right?
There’s something about excitable substances, which I mean is really generative. And you know, thinking about colonialism as a search for excitable substances, whether they’re spices or sugar or cocaine or heroine, or tea. There’s a desire for these, highly potent and mind altering, body altering things, that we’ve been playing with in the kind of way that the manifesto allows the basis for…um…so for the work outside, instead of trying to explain the work and I tried to push the little explanation that I have as far into the wall as possible …Ruarc was there with his cellphone torch trying to read it, um but for me they’re ways to access the work, they are works in themselves…
ZM: Thank you Charne and thank you all for coming.
– end of conversation –
Conversation at fem of colour
Saturday 22 September 2018, 12h00
Zen Marie (ZM) and Danai Mupotsa (DM),
Intro by Gabrielle Goliath (GG) with audience responses
– conversation begins –
Gabrielle Goliath: Um…so hi everyone, my name’s Gabrielle and Zen’s just asked me to say a few words of welcome. So, welcome…and it’s so wonderful to see so many people present here today. I’m so sorry to have missed Wednesday, but I’m so glad to be here today. Uhm, just a few words on this space, uhm, and then a few words on Zen and his exhibition. So, this space is called fem of colour, and really it’s meant to be a…it’s derived from f-e-m, from feminine but a form and a notion and concept of the feminine that extends beyond a definition of the feminine that doesn’t just rely on the gendered body, uhm, and so its quite a political and social concept of the feminine. So fem of colour, a space that seeks to host and facilitate very particular events.
And, why? Well… I started this space initially, I was always very anti the concept of having a studio of my own, which I think was perhaps quite arrogant at first, but then decided that okay I need a studio, I need a space, I don’t want people in my home anymore, and uhm, but then I thought okay so how do I consciously counter this notion of “Studio Goliath,” so I thought well, get a space, have a space, but then host events, host gatherings, host exhibitions, host like-minded happenings, and events and people. And so that’s how this space came about. And so it’s meant to really be that kind of space, it’s meant to be a safe space. I feel also that there is a dearth of such spaces that are able to facilitate such gatherings.
And then how Zen’s show came to be…the first exhibition to happen here, was, as he reminded me over a magnificent dinner at he and Naadi’s home – they are both, as I’m sure many of you here know, excellent cooks, and it was delicious – and, we were talking and he was telling us about this work of his and uhm, the whole point of going to the dinner was to have a meal together and then to have a screening after, which we did, and he spoke about this desire to show this work. And I said to him, and I mean at this point I hadn’t even moved into the space yet, and I said to him, well, I’m going to have a space and…if you’re keen, would be wonderful to host it here. And so I’m very, very honoured to have this exhibition here. I hold Zen as a person in high regards, and his work. I think this is a very, very beautiful exhibition to encounter, in this space, and the poetic register within which it operates is so beautiful, the way in which it allows us to approach difficult and fraught subjects, but obliquely and by way of this poetic register, is quite interesting and quite provocative and quite thoughtful.
But, I’m going to leave all of that to Danai and Zen to talk about. So, I’m so happy to have them both here, to have this conversation today…thank you
Zen Marie: Thank you so much Gabrielle…and really thank you for the opportunity to squat your space for a bit. The generosity with which you’ve welcomed me is amazing, and thank you also James, Naadi, Zak and a bunch of other friends who’ve also just helped me to make this happen.
Um…I’m going to hand over to Danai, who is also a friend, who I encountered in a conference room in Sao Paulo a long time ago, and I was like “who the hell is this person” and we’ve done a lot of things together over the years, some of which we’ll speak about, some of which we can’t …
And really there’s…my invitation to Danai to facilitate this conversation, is part of a bigger kind of thinking through her work, both the academic work but in a very important way how her work as a poet and a person intersects and expands on and engages with that academic project. And the collaboration with her in the stack of litho prints, which you’re welcome to take, is a reproduction of a poem of hers from a recent, or recently published…is it ontology, or collection of poems called Feeling and Ugly. And the reason for that is that I really kind of I always struggle with poetry and I’ve struggled with the times when Danai and other comrades have done poetry recitals and I, I really struggled…But there’s something in making this body of work that allowed me to engage with that and I returned to her work in putting this exhibition together and found that some of her work was useful in allowing me to think through what this starts to mean, if one can talk about meaning at all.
So, Danai, Welcome and then you for doing this…
Danai Mupotsa: Thank you. So first of all, when Zen mentioned this collaboration and I said, you choose whichever one, and then the one’s he chose are all the one’s I find like deeply painful…or difficult, or a lot of my poems are really short, so like then the really long ones I don’t know what to do with them. So I was just like meep [laughs nervously]. But thank you, um, it’s helping me work through that. So, I have some questions that I wrote down, on two sides of a paper
ZM: They’re terrifying questions by the way.
DM: So it’s to start large in terms of your work and then get into some specifics. So the question, the first question I had was for you to talk about your intellectual work, your intellectual project around site specific work and what that actually means … um, I mean to you, because that’s part of what you’re trying to define in this, in the work, as you’re producing it.
ZM: I mean it’s an interesting way to start, and it’s a very triggering way to start if you want to say that because it’s also the subject of the PhD that I’m not writing at the moment, because I was doing this work. But the idea of site… site specificity, very quickly, has become a terrible term in contemporary visual art, which is made into a genre and a way of thinking about anything that exists outside of the gallery, and it’s public art performance that normally comes under this umbrella of site specificity which comes with a range of other terms and related practices, but I feel, gets confused in that it doesn’t do what it sets out to do in the first instance.
It emerges out of this radical moment in the 60s when there was a lot of optimism and hope for, well there was an international left, of some sorts, and there was a whole lot of hope and optimism, and the idea was that each space or site has a set of politics, ideologies. A set of relationships are governed by a particular space. And that that is important to understand, to work with and to use as a very important, more than a framework, more than a set of filters, it becomes the fabric of what the work would be. And then I think would be any kind of work, whether visual or intellectual in other ways, or activist, I mean, a protest is deeply site-specific. It understands what it means to march to a specific place – what is that place, what does that place mean, what does it stand for? So when people march to Luthuli house, that’s a site specific performance, and it’s different from marching to Luthuli house to marching to Pretoria.
So the idea of site is something that’s important but for me its important to think, and I think this relates to this work, to think about site more than just as a set of material conditions, which is I think some of the comments that came up in my proposal presentation, was particularly on this. There’s the danger of rendering site just as the sort of bricks and mortar, the physical dimensions of it, when actually there’s a lot of ephemera, there are psychic dimensions of site, there are emotional dimensions of site, and all of these have terribly important consequences, in terms of who is allowed to operate in certain spaces and how.
So for me the work is an intense engagement with particular site, Reunion and Dakar, and then this site. I mean, I spent a lot of time thinking about not just the physical dimensions of the space, but really the conversation between Gabrielle and the conversation between James and who they are, the tone and tenor of their engagement shapes how…shapes what is possible in this space. And for me that was also important to think about in terms of this. So I guess from the point of view, I mean this show wouldn’t be able to take place in this form in other places, it would be modulated.
DM: Mm, okay. And Why Reunion, why Dakar?
ZM: Well, Reunion, I mean both of these spaces are informed by friendships and people, right, so in Reunion there’s an artist, Yohann Quëland de Saint-Pern who I’ve worked with for a long time and he invited me to collaborate on a project with him there, where I was…he was doing a vinyl and the vinyl was inviting friends to sing a song for him. So, I chose, obviously, Madonna’s Lucky Star Bonita [La Isla Bonita]… I call it Lucky Star…
So, I sang that song for him and we recorded it with a sort of Calypso band [audience laughter] it’s released, it’s out there, but it’s a limited edition print of vinyl. But while I was there I started thinking about Reunion, there was a volcano going off, a physical one on the island, there was another volcano going off, it was 2016 and Fees Must Fall was happening at Wits, so I was watching on social media and the news, people I know getting shot and gassed, like on the university…in front of the Great Hall. So it was a pretty hectic time of things going on. Reunion is intense. It’s French sovereign soil, not just soil, France owns the fishing rights around it and the airspace above it, um, and you spend euro, and I mean it’s bizarre. It’s on the Indian Ocean. Dakar is the product of a long standing relationship with the RAW Material Company, Koyo Kouoh, Marie Hélène Pereira and a couple of other people. I’ve been going back to Dakar continuously since 2010. But last year I was there at a project directed by Chimurenga magazine, or journal, what are they? You guys all know Chimurenga. And so it was a two-month period of the Chimurenga-directed RAW Academy and a lot of the writing, well not a lot, ALL of the writing that went into this text here, was done in the middle of this academy where Chimurenga, as Chimurenga does, was talking about difficult things like, not just colonialism…colonialism is easy. They were talking about genocide, they were talking about the violence of cartography, they’re talking about how music is a way to engage with these kinds of things. So the Chimurenga project was for me the important site-specific context from which this text emerges, and the film is shot in Dakar on three islands around the peninsula.
The drawings were done in Reunion, well, the first drawings. These ones were done in this space, but the idea for these shadow drawings was from then…there are other reasons as to why they’re important spaces but those are the…
DM: Okay, so in terms of the relationship between the mainland and the island, so the island is this, islands generally have a kind of… mainland has a kind of closer kinship to sort of progressive time, national time, hetero-normative time, whereas perhaps islands have a different kind of temporality, or different forms of combinations in relation to that kind of frame of time. So I’m wondering if you can say something about your choice of the island…islands…the island, figuratively, islands in real life also.
ZM: Yeah, you see that was one of the terrifying questions… Look I mean the islands are strange things there are some islands which you could be on the island and it doesn’t feel like an island because you don’t have the, they used to call it the gods-eye view, but now it’s the Google-eye view, or the drone-eye view of the compactness of it. So some of the islands here in the archipelago that is, it’s a fragmented archipelago, or a semi-archipelago, that is Iles aux Madeleine, you can see that you’re on an island and you can feel that you’re on an island. And there, the kinds of dynamics of islands being um, about, leaving and arriving. There’s a kind of like constant movement. Um, I mean some tourist islands in the Caribbean or even around Dakar, you know the population quadruples as soon as one of those huge tourist boats, those floating hotel cruise ships arrive and people come and do their thing.
So I mean I think there is something to be said about how time functions there. You don’t have the kind of regularised time of capitalism, right, which is about commuting to work, commuting home, maybe stopping at the shopping mall on the way. But some islands you do that, right, so Reunion Island, at times doesn’t feel like you’re in an island, it feels like somebody took Stanger from KZN and dropped it into the Indian Ocean…and it’s terrible, and it has shopping malls and it has everything else. But there are other times where you feel like you are actually on an island.
So I think the kind of disruption of time, I think there’s something to, there’s something seductive in thinking that islands disrupt time. Um, but I would question that, and I would question that in terms of well, not all islands do that, but also not all main lands are continuous with time. I mean there are spaces inside of large continental bodies that also disrupt time. Um, so you have islands within main lands. So you could talk about islanding as a sort of conceptual process rather than as a geographic one. To what extent does blocking out the light in this space create timelessness, that this becomes separated from a bigger flow of things, people, and time?
The link to nationalism I don’t know…
DM: Well, national time…
ZM: National time… I was going to quote Homi Bhabha there but I won’t…
DM: Um, okay so I was talking to a colleague, who’s a philosopher…and I was talking about someone who was talking about metaphysics, a student and he’s like “everybody say’s metaphysics these days they don’t even know what it means” so he was like…shading us.
So you’ve got…you’re working with the idea of the metaphysics of place in some sense, um, so I’m wondering, in this corner over there [gestures], if you could say something about that…
ZM: So the piece Danai’s referring to is a manifesto I wrote for a collective I’m a part of, the collective is called Sugar-Free, um, and it deals with, it’s centered around thinking around this idea of genoudsmiddele… the collaborator I’m working with is Dutch-Suriname, so it’s a Dutch word that means literally excitable substances. Our approximate word would be stimulants, but excitable substances is much more viscous-y a word or a phrasing…it’s become quite clear that colonialism was nothing else other than a search for excitable substances, whether it’s caffeine in your tea or coffee, spices to make things exciting in your food, and to stimulate endorphins at times, I’m sure most people here are addicted to chilies in some way or other.
And then to the other more excitable exciting substances like cocaine and heroine and sugar and a bunch of other really desirable things but are incredibly complicated in our relationship to that desire. I mean, on the one hand it’s filled with you know… I mean coffee, you know we talk about diamonds but ‘fair-trade’ coffee has a lot of blood on it still. So we desire these things at great cost, and then there’s the personal cost that especially with hard drugs like heroine and cocaine you know you try doing that for a decade or two and it’s obvious what the health benefits are…
[Audience laughs nervously]
And sugar, I mean sugar is like the, so you know the whole thing around the sugar tax. So the idea of Sugar-Free was to think about, well we desire these things but we want to take out…we want the pleasure, but we want to take out the fundamental thing that’s going to harm us. So, we vape and we drink coke-light, or coke-zero or coke green, nobody knows what that green can is. So there’s there strategies that we’ve developed to do that.
So the text there was written about how our desires are informed by a range of things that are very, very difficult and complicated, and there’s an ambivalence there, we understand that there is a risk to the desire. Where that goes to in the thinking in that piece, is how we always have this desire or these layers between us and um these things and anything in the word, so this is where it goes into this idea of representation. And I guess my engagement with metaphysics is purely around that representational moment of the thing or the object never just being an object or a thing, in fact any kind of philosophy or theory or art, there’s an aesthetic process which comes to mediate between, um, a viewer, a reader, a listener and something else, something else that happens somewhere else, at a time before or at a place removed, right?
And photography is exactly that. Only sure thing you can say about photography is that, as some theorists say, is that the thing being photographed is not here. Right, it’s sort of like an obvious thing, a picture of a person who was there doing that at that time. So the idea of that distancing from between people looking, reading, listening and the things that they’re looking, reading, listening about, I mean that’s where the metaphysics of this comes into it, around a representational set of ideas.
I mean, it’s not answering the question of what is metaphysics…
DM: I mean, I wouldn’t have also answered it, but…
ZM: I would probably go back to the discussion on site specificity where site specificity normally is predicated on a set of physical properties or physical material relationships and I think it’s incredibly important to think about the psychic, emotional, ephemeral nature of matter, of space, and of physics.
DM: Yeah. So in Sugar-Free I kind of see a physics around…the manifesto responds to capitalism as this kind of structuring force around…that you’re describing as metaphysics. And then we have um, here, right here, we have water, which implies a different kind of, maybe not different, maybe there’s a continuous not just in opposition to this, I mean continuous not just between here and here, but a different kind of way to frame the very relation you’re describing. Um, water implying, for instance, cleansing perhaps, in many frames of thinking and knowing the world, which may not be the same as what is implied in the piece I’m saying is continuous.
[Long pause…audience laughs]
Can you, can you comment on that?
ZM: I can. Um, look the water, I mean last night, which is a plugin for the next event that’s going to happen, I was talking with the musicians that I’m working with for a live event next week Wednesday. So It’s going to be me, Tumi Mogorosi, Mpumi Mcata and Rob Machiri who are, well they’re going to be playing, making a sonic intervention in that space, we’re going to move the screen into that space and I’m going to live mix the video to their engagement.
But they were asking, they were looking for, well Tumi especially, because this is how Tumi Mogorosi things, he’s like “well we need some motifs to lay down, because we’re gonna totally improvise, what are the motifs?” And then Rob comes in with a hook on the piano, and I’m like well on my timeline I’ve got you know, it’s cheesey, but I’ve got four elements…water, wind, air and fire [audience laughs] and that’s well you know when you edit you have to structure your shit somehow, and that was how I did it. But for me that was an important way to think through the images that I have and to then think about how to put them next to each other. Um, but those are important motifs, so the fieriness of the sun, the wateriness of the water, the earthiness of the earth…the windiness of the wind…
I mean, editors are like drummers, you don’t really want to ask them to speak too often [laughs]…but this was a conversation between an editor and a drummer so what do you do? There are a whole lot of editor and drummer jokes which, if I was a stand-up comic I would entertain you with, but…
So the idea of the water, for me is multiple, because there’s the literal ocean, but Dakar being at sea level, we’re 1700m above sea level here [in Johannesburg], at the moment there’s absolutely no moisture in the air now and there hasn’t been much moisture in the air for a while and the light does different things, so from a cinematographic point of view the atmosphere in Dakar is terribly important as its infused with this water. So that’s… you’re looking at water there even though that would be in a different bin on my timeline [laughs]…
But the idea of water as, as some kind of a medium, and perhaps there’s a riff to go back to the idea of mediation and how different forms of substances or representational strategies come to stand between you and the thing you desire. So the search for ecstasy, you always need something to get there, right. The ocean as a medium as a material is incredibly important, of course that was the basis for a colonial sea exploration – the ocean took you from place to place. So when you think about the transatlantic slave trade, and you think about circumnavigating the Cape of Good Hope and going and finding the sea route to the east, um, I mean the ocean becomes important to all of those.
The cleansing, and the other psychic forms of thinking about the ocean, I mean look I spent a lot of time just standing in front of the ocean, a lot of this is time-lapse photography and for most of the three months that I shot this I was literally just standing in front of a landscape and thinking about the light and the water.
It’s…Naadi falls asleep in front of this work, and that’s an incredibly important point of engagement, [audience laughs] like there’s something lulling and calming about what the ocean does and it’s not just the visual, the sight of the ocean, it’s also the sound of it. I mean I think there’s something incredibly deep there that I haven’t explored and won’t be able to talk to, but, the ocean is an amazing thing. I mean for me, I was born in Durban, and the ocean and humidity in the air and the lush vegetation of KZN is something I still miss in Johannesburg. The kind of barren, burnt out landscape of the Highveld is something that, it’s taken me about 20 years to understand it’s logic and to appreciate it’s beauty. But that’s just a riff, I guess.
DM: I remember, as a child, Durban was like you go into the water, and the with a plastic bottle carrying salt water, so that’s the kind of… that you can take it with you…I guess implying some of the things you’re saying.
People are excited about you drawing, I’ve heard them talking about it. Um, the palm…for me the palm [makes rustling leaf noise to mimic the sped up part of the palm tree blowing in the wind]…since we’re talking about your timeline and the air and the wind…but in terms of place, what does the palm do? Because the palm also has a place but also not a place, it’s placeless, it can be placeless in some ways but you repeat the motif.
ZM: The palm is a fascinating thing that I’ve worked with in different ways, I’ve gone back to and revisited for the longest time. I mean it takes on different resonances in different places where I work with it. The palm, at this point in the film especially, become like my main protagonist and antagonists in the film, so they’re the malevolent spirits, the friends you want to console you, right? So, I’m really kind of playing with them narratively or trying to play with them narratively like that…this is malevolence, right here [referring to image on screen].
And, in Reunion for instance, well…palms have this relation to like tropical paradise…there’s a kind of like idea of how the palm signifies the beach island resort type thing, which is kind of weird and ludicrous, because a lot of the palms that we associate with that image, are actually desert palms, which, you know the date bearing palms which come from the Arab peninsula, which is nothing kind of tropical or subtropical or beach-y or holiday-y about it.
Reunion Island doesn’t have palms, or didn’t have palms. Palms are not indigenous to Reunion but I think it was the Portuguese or the French who came here and they said “nice Island but where are the palms?” and proceeded to plant so many palms that now they’ve got over ten thousand varieties of palm, and it looks more like an island. Whereas the indigenous flora are totally different.
The palm drawings came from Reunion, thinking about these invasive aliens who are these signifiers of tropical paradise, and I guess the riff of the palm comes into it in that…
DM: Um… okay, so the snakes. So for me, personally, in terms of thinking about, ways of thinking about the world, cosmology, that’s not monotheistic, so often in monotheism water can be, water is morally good, this kind of binary good and bad and water can be good and …snakes become equivalent to what it means to know, but to know is bad…apparently…
Whereas in non-monotheistic ways of thinking snakes and water are continuous and continuous in their relationship in what it means to know the world, um, the capacity to know the world, and there is no binary moral frame of good and bad, so… can you run us through your moral frame in terms of playing with water and snakes in this way…if you’re playing with them…
ZM: Yeah, I really like that, um, and look I mean… first because we’re also bludgeoned by Christianity was thinking through the biblical association with snakes, but I really like what you’re saying there, and in fact yes for me the film especially is about – if anything is ever about something – an ambivalence of desire, right, so it’s kind of like this deeply ambivalent sense of like wanting something but knowing that to indulge your desire for it is, well will lead to your obliteration in the most extreme sense. So that the snakes become this also ambivalent thing of what it does… joined with the water I think is really interesting.
The morality of it, uh, I’m not even sure what you mean by that, “what is my moral framework to engage with…”
DM: Well as in, monotheistically, there’s only good and bad, whereas otherwise there’s no…it doesn’t have to be either/or so this question of evil you repeat…so snakes aren’t bad, snakes can be…some people think snakes are bad some people don’t [laughs] but it’s not that they’re not good or bad it’s just that its not a frame to see the world…
ZM: Yeah, listen I agree with that now, but I think in the way that the script, or the voice over is written, the snakes narratively are used in a much more reductive sense. And I think that’s a fair point. I don’t know… what more do you want to say?
DM: [chuckles] I’m like, okay…No that’s fine…
Okay I’m getting to the end of my, in fact I have one last question in terms of continuing the relation to snakes and water, because for me they also become conduits and for many…frames of knowing the world, conduits for thinking about dreams as a particular way to know the world, so we have a way of thinking about our senses and you’ve talked about the visual, the aural, the felt, the psychic the ephemeral but also the self that comes in the stomach [laughs] the intuitive, um…but also other forms of knowing that we often un-privilege, for example the dream. And often water and snakes are in many ways of thinking about the world, one point of accessing or entering the dreamland and beginning to know the world in a particular kind of way that may not always correspond with the time of the present or the material, the way we think of the material or present. And so it’s all over the work and so I’m wondering about your dreams… um …or a sense of what it means to be conscious or to become awake across the work…
ZM: Ja, I mean, my dreams, literally, I don’t remember most of my dreams, unfortunately. I used to at a point but not anymore. But I don’t think that’s what you’re asking. I think it goes back to this thing about some kind of metaphysical concern, whatever that is, there’s something in excess of a rational analytical approach to the geography, the climate, the history and the politics at work. So the Sugar-Free work deliberately provokes in a sort of teasing way, a spitting way, some of these ideas. And this provokes or teases out the kind of potencies within the landscape in a way, which, I mean if you want to use it as an adjective, is “dreamlike.” So it courts a certain kind of…of, yeah something that exists outside of rationality. And I think that’s deliberate.
I’m looking for a way to engage with some of these very heavy political, historical and materialist concepts, but in a way that does something else, and I think for me what’s important there is finding a point of empathy with all of these grand narratives or intense debates. And that’s about locating myself within the landscape. Because I mean, literally I was standing where Nik is for all of these things [gestures distance between him and Nik in the crowd] so I’m there, each time, even though I’m using a tripod. But then to think about in writing a text how do I locate myself within the text, what is it, what are the personal resonances that can drive this narrative, and then to see how it works if I throw them onto the landscape, and throw them into this text.
DM: I’m done, I don’t know if anyone is itching to like ask a question or say a comment, I didn’t ask if that was the thing to do, but…
ZM: Yeah, yeah no for sure… Um, just a quick, the text was written in English, a friend of mine Gilles Furtwängler translated it, and um, an MC in Dakar, Youssoupha Sarr did the voice over.
Katelyn Chetty: Why was it important for you to change the text from English to Afri…sorry no from English to French?
ZM: Freudian slip want’s an Afrikaans version [laughter]
KC: So, why was that…I mean we spoke about it briefly, but for you, you said it was easier for you to edit, why was that?
ZM: Yeah, I mean that was the result of that. Look all of the questions you can ask about any work, there’s a fundamentally boring, pragmatic answer, right. Which is I was showing it in Dakar and people wouldn’t have understood the English so I say okay well, I could put subtitles, but I thought “oh wait I’m here for a while, lets see what a translation would feel like, that’s more exciting”… But then when I did the translation there was something about how, so… Youssoupha Sarr did an English voice over as well, and I’ve got that file, and I’ve tried to edit that, in fact for this showing, I was like “oh, obviously now I must show people the English version…” But, I struggled to edit with the English and it was something about the immediacy of the meaning of each word, while I’m editing…it was tripping me up.
Whereas with the French, because I’m estranged from French, I mean I can understand some French but I have to think very hard, I have to work. So I was confronted with the, or I had to engage with the rhythm, the tone, the texture of the phrasing of the words, rather than the meaning of it. So I could speculate much more in a dreamlike way that was textural rather than having to think about “what scene is going to best illustrate or demonstrate this part of ‘I will defend’ [referring to scene]” and obviously it’s not that kind of film so it allowed me that kind of space to move…
We spoke about a lot more, but I can’t remember.
KC: The other one was about… why you’ve used that camera that you’ve used and if you would potentially revert back to analog photography with some of the palm trees?
ZM: Okay, well, I’m not going to answer that one… [laughs]… Nare?
Nare Mokgotho: Okay, I’m a little interested in your sort of visual language and your lensing. And, the kind of tension that exists between the conversation that you guys are having around a site specificity, and then a kind of distancing that happens with like, your long lenses. Uh, you kind of speak about locating yourself in the landscape, and then I see like these extreme wide’s, which kind of give you, that off-ness. And, I suppose it’s also kind of that tension that exists with being an outsider to that space. So I’m just wondering if you could speak to that dynamic…
ZM: I’m not sure I understand the question…
NM: Um…so when I look at the film, right, there’s a lot of sort of, it feels like those images are taken from quite a…very far back right, um…and I suppose like a site-specificity speaks to being implicated in the land which you’re in, kind of intimacy, and in some way’s I just don’t feel that in the images…
ZM: Look I mean the idea of being not familiar with the place is important, there’s definitely a… dynamic of me being a foreigner in Dakar, not speaking the language, etc etc. I mean it’s not all long lenses. The birds, for example, I managed to get the birds because there was…I saw them diving for a pile of small fish that came of a fisherman’s net. So I literally lay down next to the pile of fish so they were just above me. But in terms of what site specificity does, I mean I think its interesting that you ask for or propose a level of intimacy with site specificity, because that’s not conventionally kind of part of it but I think it’s an important thing to demand, in fact. And then we’d have to think about well what is it to be intimate with a site.
So for me the idea of a descriptiveness, of describing Dakar, I mean there’s this horrible film by Rem Koolhaas on Lagos, which is also shot from a helicopter, so there’s a kind of non-engagement from a drone-eye view of what the city is, that lacks intimacy and then how does that articulate space? For me the cinematography doesn’t tie this to Dakar in particular, There is something about the light, the content of the humidity in the air, there’s also the Harmattan which is this wind that blows from the Sahara, there’s a lot of sand in the air, which you…visually does something, similar to our mine dumps, it creates those kind of intense colours especially at sunrise or sunset.
So for me that’s the engagement with site and the engagement there is site as something psychic, something that’s emotive, something that’s built on a range of other things rather than a description of a particular place such that you can produce knowledge about it, which is what Rem Koolhaas’s flying in the helicopter above Lagos is: now we know this thing, because we’ve mapped it. Whereas this is an emotional space, so the site here is less than Dakar than it is the psychic site, or an emotive site. Um…which is what I’ve tried to do with the dislocating strategy within the cinematography.
And I think there’s a bigger discussion there but, I hope that goes somewhere…
GG: I was just wondering what kind of dialogue did it generate in Dakar, when you showed it there? What was the response in that space?
ZM: there were people, a few people who slept…
…which was the first time that I kind of got used to that as a legitimate response, um, there was a long discussion on…so I showed it at the RAW Material Company and it was, the audience there are young artists, university students and sort of the people in the Dakar art world. It’s an incredibly politicized audience, generally. I mean I think the idea of art in Dakar has a long history through Dak’Art, and a couple of other things that are state supported, in part. So the engagement was, was you know…there was a long passage of discussion on how this responds to colonialism…because, look Gorée Island is a difficult thing, it’s a difficult space it’s a difficult narrative. Um, you know I mean there are people in Dakar who are saying well, you know we focus on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the Muslims came and enslaved us long before the Europeans did. And saying this in an Islamic country is like heavy shit. So to talk about how there’s a complexity of what kinds of colonial thought you’re thinking about. Dakar is a deeply Islamic country, but to think about Islam as a form of colonial technology, what does that do?
So there was some of that that came out… I don’t know I mean I think there was an engagement with some of the footholds in the work for an analytical rational discussion. Some of the darker, deeper, more metaphysical dream-like space I think they’re difficult things to talk about in a forum like this and I think the best form of engaging this work is sort of like by yourself getting lost in the sounds and the sights of it. And then probably not having too much conversation afterwards…[laughter], which is a bit late to say that now.
Chanelle Adams: I have a question about your subjects. In the discussion it appears that the palm trees are charismatic and I also see the birds as sort of personage in the visuals, and so I’m wondering what it is you find charismatic about palms…and perhaps why we’re not seeing any fish or serpents or people, and that…who are the main sort of players in this…
ZM: I like that… the palm trees are charismatic. That’s your word, I didn’t say charismatic.
CA: Yeah, yeah, I said that…
ZM: Can I throw it back to you, how do you find them charismatic?
CA: Well you were talking about when there were two facing each other and they kind of looked like they were arguing, and you were like…”that’s malevolence”…in my mind that registered as if they’re in conversation or dialogue, or fighting…
ZM: Yeah, look I mean, the birds are something…Dakar has no pigeons, at all, because you have thousands and thousands of those birds of prey, I can’t remember what they’re called, does anybody know, they’re not Kestrils, but… they just chowed all the pigeons. So they’re a feature of Dakar and in fact that sound is a sound that you wake up and go to sleep to in Dakar. The sound of these…what is it, it’s like a whistling of these birds.
GG: They’re kites, black-billed kites.
ZM: Black-billed kites, hmm. So I mean they’re was something kind of important about them that I saw there. Why are there no fish or serpents, I mean for pragmatic reasons, but there could have been. The idea of how these things becomes characters, look I’ve not been wanting to code that or work with that too literally, so I’m being very loose here in terms of how I talk about them as protagonists and antagonists. And it’s not that explicitly or concretely written.
The idea of the absence of people, well people come in the form of three ships, right. There’s the container ship, there’s the tugboat, it’s not a tugboat it’s a small trawler, um, and then the pirogue which is a small dugout. For me the idea of this, the conceit of the film was this deserted island, so it was this space where sometime in the past some kind of transgression or trauma occurs, and the central character through the voice over tries to think about their desire to return to that moment but then the devastating impossibility of that…or if that return had to happen what would be the implications of that, you know, they would be totally obliterated.
So the desire is them wanting to but knowing that they can’t. I guess just in terms of that narrative it didn’t suggest a people-d landscape so I purposefully shot, because I mean some of these islands, only the one island is deserted, Gorée Island has a huge memory industry where even Emanuel Macron goes and opens a square there and tries to stand at the Door of No Return, to emulate Obama who tried to emulate Mandela by crying in front of it. So the choice of evacuating the landscape was deliberate…
DM: Can I ask you why that poem? [Referring to the poem, The Subject of “I”]
ZM: Of yours?
ZM: Well again there’s pragmatic reasons…
DM: like so many choose water and salt as a motif, and then you chose that one…
ZM: Do you want the cheeky pragmatic response?
ZM: It worked so nicely on the page.
It was a poem…I mean listen when you said, when you told me afterwards the poems I chose were poems that you found very difficult, I mean I wasn’t surprised, I sort of like I could feel it in the texture of the words, but for me the…
DM: I don’t even like them…
ZM: You don’t even like them… it said something about or it provided me a way to think about this project in a way that I found really interesting so I resonated with what you’re saying, and I thought ‘wow, well how does that work in terms of what I’m trying to think about,’ and for me there was a link there which, I mean… the way that I made that choice, I mean I read your book the first time and then I sat looking at it again when I wanted to choose something for this, I sort of knew which one it was that didn’t…
DM: It didn’t fit the page? [laughs]
ZM: It didn’t fit the page [laughs] … and I don’t know, it made…sense
DM: It makes sense to me, I was just curious
ZM: It’s an incredibly beautiful, evocative set of speculations that then gets rooted into a very precise, political landscape, and I think to do that is something that I was aspiring to do as well. But your poem does it so much better… so thank you for letting me use it.
DM: Are we all done? Oh no wait there’s one…
Ayesha Krige: So, I’m interested because, um…I feel like the palm is very hot right now, like we’re seeing lots of textiles with palms on them, if you go to H&M you can find like, I don’t know, couple of dresses with palms, did you think about that, about the…about how the image of palms are being sold, or not…
ZM: Look, my name is Zen, I’ve got spas, beauty treatments, exfoliating, incense. So the idea of how these things get like kind of consumed into a mass marketing culture is really interesting, but, no I mean, if anything that thinking about that was like more of a… I had to continue with this work despite that, not because of that. In a similar way I’m not changing my name because there’s a spa opening, I mean if you Google, and obviously I Google myself all the time…
…there’s a massage therapist called Zen, who I battle for Google space with [laughter continues]… Zen Marie-Holmes or something…
Look I mean the root of this is in its ambivalence between…so the palm at Sun City, the palm as Sandals, the palm at all of these resorts, that’s where it comes from, right? But then also looking at the palm in the backyard of my Grandmother’s house in Merebank, I mean these are very different palms, right? So I think there’s something about the extreme consumerist desire-filled promise of something…the promise of pleasure that the palm proposes.
Chris Soal: I think we’ve spoken a lot about content but I think the first things that struck me when watching the film was like the physical effect of it, or I think, so my question would maybe be if you could comment on the form or the presentation of it and the affect behind that, but then also how you perhaps thought about the way you positioned us as viewers to receive it.
ZM: I mean, in terms of how this space is curated or…?
CS: Sure, even I guess in the way it’s been edited with the sound, in some ways it’s immersive and also seductive, and distancing
ZM: I mean, I think that’s you’ve hit it there, the strategy is to make it immersive, so which is why sleep is a legitimate response, it should draw you in to captivate you. Which is why the length of the cuts are as they are, and in fact, you know when you edit you edit on a small screen and then I put it up here, and then the first thing I did after watching it a couple of times was to make things longer because the timing works differently…
Casey Golomski: So I saw the connection with the drawings, the large drawings out there with the palms, there like the negative space was really kind of selling to me this image of like… an urban monolith… like these just giant buildings that you cannot fathom, that are absorbing you so I was wondering how like that kind of gargantuan urban form relates to the desolation that’s kind of inherent throughout the other pieces…
ZM: So, it was difficult to make those links or to talk about them too much for me, but what happened in that work was finding something within a form that’s surprising, right…so…the first time I did the shadow drawing, it was like “oh wow this looks like a some kind of medieval street plan,” or some kind of cobbled together streets, I mean its definitely not your modernist grid city that Johannesburg has inspired or has taken inspiration from. I mean, how would I relate them back to this? Look I think there’s an engagement with a lot of speculative processes here so those drawings are, they’re relatively new, as a way of working and as a way of thinking, so there is some space of being speculative in how the drawings work.
So besides the obvious like there are palms, and here are palms, and there are more palms, I’m looking for something inside of these solid forms that starts to evoke something else. And I was like, wow… this looks like um, reminded me of Paris…
CG: And are these bird sounds, is that outside or are they a part of…?
ZM: No that’s outside
Okay, Thank you, Danai…
DM: Thank you, Zen.
ZM: Thank you all for coming
– end of conversation –