Wednesday, July 27, 2011

LECTURE NOTES: Achille Mbembe / Keynote Address / Figures & Fictions Conference / Victoria and Albert Museum / June 24, 2011

Achille Mbembe. (Photo via TGBP - Talented Gifted Black People)
On June 24, 2011, philosopher Achille Mbembe presented the keynote address at a conference titled Figures & Fictions: The Ethics and Poetics of Photographic Depictions of People. The two-day forum was held in conjunction with the exhibit Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography (April 12 - July 17, 2011) at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London who states: 
This exhibition presented the vibrant and sophisticated photographic culture that has emerged in post-apartheid South Africa. It featured works by some of the most exciting and inventive photographers living and working in South Africa today. The photographs on display responded to the country's powerful rethinking of issues of identity across race, gender, class and politics.
The following bullet points of Mbembe's speech were submitted to BlackArtistNews by conference attendee Shoshone Odess Johnson. The photographs used in this post were taken by individuals included in the exhibit and  may or may not have been actually featured in the show.
  • A critical reassessment of South African photographic culture is long overdue. We must open the discourse on photography to discourses on other art forms. This opening must take into account processes changing the photograph, such as the ethics of mass reproduction. 
  • It must attend to the paradox that our world is ever more globalized, and, at the same time, ever more Balkanized. 
  • Not so long ago, people like Simmel read the world as a huge mathematical problem—in terms of calculation, reification, and abstraction. This would have been a world governed by “electronic reason”—the conversion of the human body into data, as with neural imaging and DNA analysis. 
  • Such conversion changes not only processes of subjectivation, but the meaning of matter and the human. 
  • One issue in the practice of photography is inquiring as to the criteria which constitute the human. Digital technology accelerates this inquiry. 
  • Through the 20th century we witnessed the emergence of image capitalism. In image capitalism the image does not simply replace the number but becomes a technical issue in itself. This problem is mentioned in the work of Benjamin, Kracauer, and others. 

    Pieter Hugo, Dayaba Usman with the monkey Clear, Abuja, Nigeria, 2005
  • The calculative, affective, and the sensorial collapse into the image form. 
  • A circuit which runs from emotions to passions to convictions is newly reconnected to the image. These are the new pathways of capital itself. 
  • Images have become a constitutive dimension of the capitalist forces reshaping our affective world. They are, therefore, no longer merely an automatic, replicative reflection of the real world. 
  • Faith, sincerity, and conviction become increasingly important in image practices. 
  • Photography is fraught with problems today because of the nature of colonial rule. 
  • Colonial regimes had to produce a colonial ontology which purported to create unchanging social essences, fixed in time. 
  • Photography became a crucial dispositive in the production of these rules, in order to convince people that all was in order. 
  • The production of taxonomies, however, was a very unruly venture. The knowledge upon which they were founded was always uncertain. 
  • The photographic act and the act of ruling are both based on an epistemic uncertainty. 
  • Colonial governments sought to provide a cast of people’s intimate emotional ecology.

    David Goldblatt, Couple in their House, Soweto, South Africa, 1972
  • Photography was produced as a complement to writings on the colony. Early photographs are a tapestry of forms, an interlocking topography of figures, sounds, and senses. 
  • These processes coincided with the political and rhetorical separation of South Africa from the rest of the continent, as if the nation were a European nation transplanted to the tip of Africa. The most important fictional aspect was that whites needed form genuine ties with Africans. 
  • The early 20th century was a culture of expeditions and adventures of three kinds: military, trade, and missionary. 
  • Photography was informed by the belief that the “pure races” of Africa were dying. It became absorbed in profile portraiture—the arrangement of forces, the comportment of native bodies, surfaces and cleavages, bodies deprived of any interiority whatsoever, a pure portrayal of abjection. 
  • Then came the restlessness of travel photography–repetition and compilation function like hunting—to photograph is like throwing a die. 
  • Much photography theory in the West has been about photography’s troubling psychic presence to the Real—its doubling and anarchic unruliness, its power to excise time—a deep anxiety as to the constitutive elements of the Real. Such an anxiety is not found in Western or Central African anthropologies of the Real. Baudelaire, Barthes and others were preoccupied with the question of stabilizing, restoring, and recentering the Real. 

    Graeme Williams, Springfontein, South Africa, from the Edge of Town series, 2006
  • The photograph, in essence, was a fixed image created by light. The process by which a substance is mediated by light. 
  • This was the case until digital photography. 
  • Western theory reads photography as the substitution of a living image by a physical object. This substitution has brought back some old animistic beliefs, setting in motion a dialectics of animism, mechanism, and reproduction. 
  • The animistic sign of the primitive, then, is summoned in the very act of precise documentation that supposedly inaugurates rationality. The anxiety that the Real will be eaten up by the spectre of the primitive returns in the image. 
  • Photography keeps the human person in circulation, in a kind of Promethean act. It traces the shadow of the subject by permanently capturing something fleeting. Death alone can no longer remove the human from circulation. The image, not the body, marks duration in the moment of photography. Photography liberates the human from the slavery of the body with its power of luminous ephemerality. The subject now has access to a purely spectral future.

    Nontsikelelo Veleko, Kepi, 2006
  • The commonality of contemporary South African Black photographers is that they aim at retrieving the human from a history of waste. Peter Magubane, [Santu] Mofokeng, and many others. 
  • Black photography shares a certain understanding of risk. To photograph meant to take personal risks, to end up in exile...Magubane went to prison many times. 
  • I don’t want to make it appear that there was a time when photography was powerful, and a time when it was no longer. That is not what I would like to convey. 
  • However, there was a time when, in photographs, life was not only narrated, but photos were, in and of themselves, events of life. These were powerful images, because in those photographs (Magubane, Mofokeng, etc.), the Real was in search of its concept, and the image provided that concept. This had nothing to do with high theorizing. Such photographs simply became the places for an encounter with the present. 

    David Goldblatt, Mofolo South, Soweto 1972
  • The question one should ask is therefore whether we can discern similar tensions which mark contemporary South African art and photography. Contemporary South African art seems content to use the techniques of quoting, re-appropriation, and recombination.  
  • After apartheid, we have not witnessed the explosion of aesthetic boundaries one would expect. 
  • We have to wonder whether art in general, and photography in particular, has lost its historical power to give form to life, and has, instead, become subservient to repetition. 
  • This malaise tends from the fact that, as a country, South Africa itself is a museum without walls. A total museum. This museum is installed everywhere and nowhere in particular. It seems unable to create an archive. 
  • There seems to be no nexus, no grid to locate or organize what has been dispersed and fractured. History has been replaced by an endless procession of bodies, a permanent compiling of weak images and objects devoid of any concept. That’s what I believe. 
  • This inability to create an archive is probably the most potent dilemma affecting cultural life in South Africa today. 
  • Because of this inability to create an archive, we no longer know how to distinguish between objects and images. We are unable to give distinct meanings to distinct things. This gives us the overwhelming feeling of a radical fragmentation and dispersion of the Real. Yet there is still life and movement, life that comes and goes with ebbs and flows. But there has been a delay with absorbing the new Real in art, a duplication of delays, including the suspension of the revolution by the settlement called democracy. For the real purpose of democracy is to put off the revolution. 
  • The main tension within South African culture and society today is the realization that there is something unresolved in the settlement that brought an end to apartheid. There has neither been a big defeat, nor a big victory, so there is a stalemate, including in the field of culture.

    Kudzanai Chiurai, The Minister of Education,  2009
  • Meanwhile, new inspirations are underway. New inspirations of how people desire things and desire each other produce images of their own creation. This question of self-creation and self-ownership will become the post-apartheid question par excellence. 
  • New photography depicts subjects who are struggling to construct themselves fully and consciously in terms of desire, fantasy, and memory. It refers to forms of life that are inseparable from new bodily forms, it renders visible new hetero and homoeroticisms. 
  • It is in search of a way to love after racism has inflicted so much damage to the psyche, and in the midst of so much continuing suffering. 
  • The photographer is a witness to life, life understood as a regenerative force. 
  • I would like to end with a reference to Rotimi Fani-Kayode, a Black British artist. I would like to end with his gesture to the mask, in a piece called “Traces of Ecstasy.” I end with his work and thought in order to gesture toward what we may call the masks of the Real and the limits of photography. Kayode did not develop a full-blown theory of the African mask. But he was onto a very significant path when he argued that, in pre-colonial Africa, the Real always appears under the sign of the mask, or is usually read through the lens of the mask. A mask is both a sign of human presence and of his or her absence. It is made of images suggested by human or animal forms. It is fundamentally an imaginative interpretation of life. Its function is to produce ambiguity so that interpretation becomes possible, because without ambiguity there is no possibility of interpretation. In order to interpret, we need to undermine conventional perceptions by bringing incoherence to the surface of life. Otherwise, the mask is equivocal as the Real itself. Photography excludes as much as it contains. It can only transcribe human experience in terms which preclude the fragmented and ambivalent equivocal nature of life and history as symbolized by the mask. The incoherence of human experience can never be reconstituted within the limits of the photographic frame, so maybe it’s time we stop asking photography to do what it cannot do.

    Installation view of Figures & Fictions at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2011
  • I’m not South African, so I feel somewhat irresponsible commenting on it at such length, even though I’ve lived there for several years. Nobody has called me to account for my irresponsibility, which should tell you something about the place. I come from West Africa, and a few things come to me when one thinks of South Africa as an idea, not just as a geographical location. And I think that’s the task of art: to think of a place, a region, as an idea or a concept. 
  • The end of apartheid is one of the defining events of the 20th century. It is the first time in recent history that a racial state has been dismantled. That has not happened elsewhere. But the event has not happened in the way we’d hoped it would happen. It has happened in a totally different manner, in an unexpected way. So from a cultural point of view, what South Africa is facing is the difficulty of dealing with the unexpected, which takes the form of the unresolved, and the whole new set of dilemmas for which there doesn’t seem to be a name.

    Tamar Garb, curator of Figures and Fictions reflects on her Cape Town upbringing and the exhibit.

    Figures &Fictions monograph on

    Shoshone Odess Johnson is associated with the Aural and Visual Cultures Programme at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is originally from Oakland, CA, is interested in the aesthetics and politics of the chromatic, and people say he's "very intense." This is his first contribution to BlackArtistNews.

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