Village Main (1888 – )
My history with the site of the former Village Main Mine, just visible alongside the M2 highway, as the Joe Slovo onramp merges with the motorway heading West, begins as a student at Wits University in the mid 1990’s. Passing the head-gear of the mine on a daily basis, I was always fascinated by this marker of the city’s mining history. Around 2010, the headgear suddenly disappeared.
Since 2008, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt and I had been working on our book, Not No Place – Johannesburg, Fragments of Spaces and Times (Jacana, 2013) and had been documenting sites along the mining belt, including the Top Star Drive-In, which was also in the process of being re-mined. Over the course of our 6 years of research on the city, we would visit the site of the Village Main on several occasions. After the completion of Not No Place, I would again return periodically to the site over the course of 2 years of fieldwork for the book project, Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in the Johannesburg. Here I worked with researchers, Melekias Zulu, Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, Peter Kankonde Bukasa and Lorena Núñez Carrasco and the project was based in the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits (ACMS). What is at question here is the temporality and history my relationship to this site produced by these two very different collaborations, where the role of writer, artist and researcher were in some ways interchangeable.
The title of Not No Place is strongly tied to this site, a photograph of which became the cover of the book. The site embodies the two images of the city at play in the book, both the non-place and the negation of the u-topia (no place in its direct translation). It is in some ways the perfect location for the distopic image of the Johannesburg: abandoned, graffitied, the territory of what is called “illegal” mining and other kinds of criminality. Most recently, Neill Blomkamp used it as a location for a violent scene in his film ‘Chappie.’ It is also for many people a non-place, a ruin of some structure seen in passing, easily forgotten. As such, it encapsulates something of the complexities around “place” specific to Johannesburg. Not a single image but many fragmentary images project themselves onto the city’s spaces, often incoherent, contested, competing. It is also the image of the uitvalgrond, a zone outside of the order of the built city, not quite landscape nor wilderness but still a manmade as opposed to natural environment, toxic and disturbed. In the background of the cover image that shows the entrance to the mine, now sealed with concrete and minus the headgear, the Carlton Centre is visible, a sort of monument to the city’s late 60’s Modernist building boom. These developments mark the moment of the shift from an economy based largely on gold mining to the investment of mining capital into more speculative commercial property and industrial developments. The failure of the ruin to symbolise this history is symptomatic of the city’s nostalgia for its own future. What is remembered here is remembered for the future, not the past. History is left unspoken: the ecological effects of the mines’ often rapid closures during the 70’s and 80’s, the housing of mining labour in inadequate hostels along the Rand, many still in existence as worker’s housing, a devastating hunger strike during the 1980’s, as well as the current ownership of the mine and its mineral-rich tailings dams. Here too, artisanal mining remains an invisible economy of the site, with evidence of small diggings everywhere.
For Not No Place our documentation of Village Main was from various points of view: driving shots taken from the M2 highway, or along the Wemmer Pan road which divides the original erf, and walking onto the site to photograph. We also staged a series of photographs working with other artists, including Donna Kukama and photographer Ashley Walters. The book included a science fiction narrative involving a time-traveller. I had based one of these fragments at the site. These two modes, the staged photograph and the fiction, both attempted to narrate the site in some way, or to stage it as a kind of fiction. This visualisation of space in multiple images is influenced by the idea of movement defining what we see – by car, on foot, but also the moving image: film.
After the publication of Not No Place, I revisited the site first with Melekias Zulu to talk to a group of Apostolics who we noticed met on the site every Friday. We had a conversation with two members of the group. Later, I returned to photograph the site on the opposite side of Wemmer Pan road and the space across the highway. As both co-author of a chapter and the book’s visual editor, I was part of the project as both an artist and writer, although I had little exposure to what those with an anthropological or social science background would call ‘fieldwork’. I see the work that has unfolded in relation to the space as structured by a series of encounters with the site, and those who inhabit it. These encounters happen at varying levels of distance: some from the vantage point of the highway, others close up, walking in the space, some from as far away as through the viewfinders at the top of the Carlton Centre, and others in historical archives or council records. There were many continuities between the fieldwork for Routes and Rites and the work done for Not No Place, especially visually. However, there is a difference in the way the material is presented and narrated, evident in the extracts associated with different areas on the site map.
The different points of view of the many photographs shot at Village Main stage these different modalities of encounter: close and far, intimate and distant, fixed and in passing, textual and fictionalised. Instead of an exhibition, I chose to produce a visual supplement to the Routes and Rites book project. I worked with several photographers and artists on this project, but most of the material generated for Village Main was shot by me. I avoided shooting any of the apostolic groups in the space from close up. The images shot from the highway attempt to capture the space seen while driving past so that in a sense those photographed become part of the space, telling the story of its transformation every Sunday into a sacred space. Even though the researchers and myself had spoken to and were familiar with some of the groups, shooting them close up felt too invasive. However, I was also aware that the distant point of view located me as outsider, as observer, as voyeur. The only portraits in the Routes and Rites visual supplement are self-portraits or personal images, where there is an intimate relationship between the author/photographer and the religious group. The point of view from the highway is counterposed by the photographs taken during a walk through the site, shot on a week day in the absence of worshippers. Here the physical traces of spiritual activity and ritual practices are the only visible signs: a red cloth used by Nyanga/Sangoma’s to mark a crossroads, a cross made of stones, markers of sacred spaces – reeds, painted rocks, seating, fire.
The final area of the Village Main property was encountered in an archive. Researching the city council ownership records, Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon and I had come across the original title deed for the mine, which revealed that part of the property had been sold to the Catholic church in the 1920’s. Somewhat puzzled by this proximity of sacred and profane, we’d initially dismissed the record as impossible until coming across a building on the other side of the Highway that cuts across the old mining ground. This building turned out to be the only remaining part of an original Catholic church, which included a school, destroyed in a fire in the 1950’s. In the title deed, there is the bizarre stipulation that while the church owns the surface area of this part of the erf, the mine retains the mineral rights below.
Village Main is a site of competing spatial, economic and religious orders, a union of sacred and toxic ground, the transcendental and the subterranean, the holy and unholy. On its surface illegal miners compete for this unstable, mineral rich and toxic surface with Christian Apostolics, traditional healers and diviners, as well as criminals and private security. I add myself to this field of competitors. All are in a sense vulnerable here, both to crime and to the toxicity of the environment; criminals are often armed with guns and violent robberies and rapes happen frequently. The soil is rich with deposits of heavy metals and chemicals that have produced what is called Acid Mine Drainage affecting the ground water used in baptism and cleaning rituals and in processes of extraction in illegal mining.
It remains for me a site of rupture, where visible and invisible orders, magic and reality coexist. It made sense to encounter it once again on a long distance flight in a scene from a science fiction film.
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The content here is not all my own, but is the result of several collaborations and conversations, each one unique and each one producing a different image of the Village Main site. Some of the text above is adapted from Not No Place: Johannesburg, Fragments of Spaces and Times, and some from the chapter ‘Valleys of Salt in the House of God’ by myself and Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon for the book Routes and Rites to the City, pending publication. The most important of these collaborations has been, and still is, the one with Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, which has defined so strongly how I see. Thanks also to Melekias Zulu and Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon.
Village Main by Dorothee Kreutzfeldt (Not No Place, 2013), Rain by Bettina Malcomess (Not No Place, 2013), Catholic Church by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon and Bettina Malcomess (Routes and Rites Visual Supplement, 2015), Village Main Erf 96/7 by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon and Bettina Malcomess (Routes and Rites), Wemmer Pan Road by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, Melekias Zulu Peter Kankonde Bukasa and Lorena Núñez Carrasco (Routes and Rites).
Map: Melekais Zulu (Routes and Rites Visual Supplement, 2015). Photographs of Village Main: Ashley Walters, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Bettina Malcomess (Not No Place and Routes and Rites). Film Screen Grabs: Chappie, Dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2015 (IMDB)
Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg: Visual Supplement. African Centre for Migration and Society, Johannesburg, 2015.
Bettina MalcomessBettina Malcomess is a writer and an artist, working in performance under the name Anne Historical. She is the co-author of ‘Not No Place: Johannesburg, Fragments of Spaces and Times’ (Jacana, 2013) with Dorothee Kreutzfeldt. She is currently the Visual Editor of ‘Routes and Rites to the City – Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg’ (2014 – ongoing ). She has produced several long-term collaborative projects working with performance and site-specific installation, including various iterations of the Millennium Bar (2010-2014). Her practice is interdisciplinary, collaborative and research-led, often shifting in response to the material and sites she works with. While manifesting in diverse forms, from performance lectures to books to installations, what is common across the work is an attempt to make visible the minor histories that constitute our present. A strong thread through all her work is an interest in spatial practice and urban and built forms. She has curated several group exhibitions, including ‘Us’ (Cape Town, JHB, 2009-2010) and ’23 Kilograms’ (den Haag, 2013). She was part of the exhibitions, ‘Johannesburg Pavilion’ (Venice, 2015), ‘My Joburg’ (Paris and Dresden, 2013) and ‘Afropolis’ (Cologne, 2010). She was one of the co-founders of the Keleketla! Library Project in Johannesburg. She teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Fine Arts and Architecture.
Bettina Malcomess: Village Main (1888 – )
An invitation to return a narrative
To be asked to do a peer review of the “Village Main (1888 – )” piece, has raised some rather interesting questions about the very nature of a review, let alone a peer review, which tends to raise the expectation of a very critical and objective interrogation of the piece under review.
Firstly, my impression of the piece is that it is a narrative. A personal one, which starts off by saying “my history” implying some sort of subjective personal story, and not necessarily some higher objective truth often expected of academic production. The thing about a narrative is that it does not necessarily invite a critique (at least to me – including the academic me). To me it seems to invite another narrative. This invitation by Malcomess’ piece to offer another narrative leads me to think about the role of narrative in the production of collaborative knowledge. This collaborative impulse is plentiful in Malcomess’ piece, stretching across interdisciplinary collaboration, amongst people of different backgrounds, as well as collaboration between two facets of the same person as in Malcomess’ case (artist-writer).
Collaboration has become a staple of the new researcher, mostly evident in the artist-researcher working in the archive with interdisciplinary sources obtained through practices such as fieldwork, which Malcomess utilizes. I was curious when I came across a sentence where Malcomess distinguishes between work-done and fieldwork, or when she dismisses her authority as a fieldworker by implying that fieldwork is the terrain of the social sciences and anthropology. Further inviting me to want to tell a story about how an everyday practice of being present (available to take in things happening around you) has been colonised and distinguished as a methodology separating people that actually make narratives, and people that order these narratives into texts, that are open to analysis within the process of making objective facts.
I was also excited by the way Malcomess’ text draws attention to the centrality of the image to our experience of time, and the various modes with which we make, consume and colonise it. Reading the text I found myself surprised at how I often take for granted how an image is, and can be experienced through one’s eyes (subjective experience); in one’s mind’s eye (imagination sparked by the absence of a physical object); and through the eyes of another (as audience experiencing an aspect of another person’s view), all of which can happen over one’s entire lifetime. Within the realm of her photographic strategies I find the idea of multiple portrayals of the same space through different views (photographic and narrative-documentary, staged, fiction etc.) interesting. This invokes in me an idea of being in that space, even though I cannot remember the photographs she describes. Photographs I had seen in the publications described a few months ago, which I later realized were available as interactive images in the website. It is in her description of both the photographs and the strategies that I come to suppress my actual visual memory of the physical images in the book and visual guide. I replace them, in my imagination, with a collage of images I have seen of similar sites in other photographs, as well as through my use of such sites (similar to village Main) as locations for numerous magazine swimsuit fashion shoots, where we used the toxic yellowish sand to give a feeling of a beach when there was no budget to fly down to a real beach.
Malcomess’ use of a time traveller as a vehicle for portraying the temporal dimension of the experience of the site, which is clearly marked by time through the various layers Malcomess excavates as she recounts her engagement with this site, takes me back to a time in the early 90s when Sunday was a day I looked forward to. Not for the religious activities, but for my weekly fix of the TV series Star Trek, where time traveling was a central theme in most of the stories explored by the franchise. Time travel is a fitting metaphor to describe the method Malcomess uses in her engagement with the site as she constantly shifts between the different stages of the two projects. Most importantly it is this constant shifting back and forth in time that makes the narrative compelling by suspending linear time and allowing an explorative interaction as opposed to an explanatory one.
I do however have one gripe, and do forgive me if it’s just a projection by myself of a pet hate of mine, but I find the insistence Malcomess makes about respecting (forgive me for assuming that this is the reason) the worshipers by not photographing them up close to be irritating. I find that in the description of their activities, and the admission of her reluctance to photographs them in this way, she is still constructing a closeup portrait of them through another medium, which is just as invasive, and perhaps more resistant to alternative readings as possible in a photograph. It is a bunching up of people, which lumps them into groups such as worshipers, criminals etc, instead of risking their individual portrayal as she does with herself. But then again this is her narrative.
If Malcomess was trying to recover a portrait of the non place–this Utopia for different individuals (including herself) willing to invest in a seemingly dead place– as a ruin symbolizing, or reflecting the maturity of the gold rush into an organized unethical white capitalist machine, then I am confused. She seems to have just gone on to do what the many people that remember it as a political marker of black marginalization have done. What she paints is a continuing concern about the marginalisation of the people on the margins of capitalism and not capitalism itself. To implicate it is not enough.
At the end, after worrying and drifting off as I pull at the bits of keywords that hold some meaning to me, I remember that a peer review is not a promise to criticality or a rigorous test of the veracity of the ideas presented, but it is simply a recounting by a person experiencing things at the same time as the person being reviewed. It is merely a marker of how the text under review engages with contemporary concerns. In this instance Malcomess’ text has certainly engaged the question central to a lot of people engaged with researching and representing things across time, not just engaged only in history (making documentary sources for future historical writings) but also engaged with the future and most importantly the present (a subjective experience).
Jean Christophe Lanquetin
Reading Malcomess’ text and going through the map, a series of questions arise: Why, you, me, are we so much interested, even attracted by such spaces? Why being so careful in the ways to describe it, as it is ‘en friche’, a ‘blank’ space, apparently residual. Why describe and narrate it so carefully and from various angles. Why is it important? What does it ‘say’ about our vision of the city. Of a contemporary city?
I’ve been wondering about my interest for such spaces, everywhere, like a grid of lecture of the city, for long. I trained as an architect, but decided to shift to theater and art practice. I remember myself walking along a canal, in the periphery of Mulhouse (east of France), one sunday in the early nineties. Next to the buildings, a mix of blocks and detached houses, there was an empty field with many traces of an industrial past, and I remember having the intuition that I was not going to destroy such spaces by building on them. For long I remembered this moment as a kind of romantic and nostalgic interest for such spaces, for a disappeared history and time, but today, still working on these spaces, the question remains as a lot of my research and experimentations in cities are linked to what they carry on, even in the ‘built’ and ruled city. I constantly look for these spaces, even microscopic, which by extension are linked to the fact that these spaces are designed by people. And when I don’t find them, I try to create them via my artistic practice.
One intuition could be, and I bring it as something we should discuss: wouldn’t it be because, beyond (or because of) its precariousness, that such a space works like a common space? Something is alive here, at work, linked to an idea of a city we would like to live in, which exists but is not considered seriously by people thinking, ruling and developing cities, as being part of the fundamental dynamics of a city. Beyond the “distopic image of Johannesburg” Malcomess speaks about, beyond the description she makes of a no-place, a ruin, a toxic space, something else is happening in this no-place, which is “still a man-made as opposed to natural environment” means we are not in the landscape, this is the city. Wouldn’t it be an “utopic” idea of the city, as a space designed by the practices of people (I refer here to the work of AbdouMaliq Simone), a space where “what is remembered here is remembered for the future, not the past,” means the history is alive, not eradicated, including the violent history, the toxic past. The way it “works”, the way people invest it, the things they do there, makes such an environment appear as a site of potentialities, as a commons (an under commons? – see Stefano Harney and Fred Motten), where “fragments of possibles” (I use a notion developed by Eyal Weizman) are underlying, precisely because this space is a “no place.” A “no place” where a lot happens: “Village Main is a site of competing spatial, economic and religious orders, a union of sacred and toxic ground, the transcendental and the subterranean, the holy and unholy.” A lot is possible beyond regulations, rules, frames, and all the stuff of the public space ideas of the ruled city, the capitalist dynamics of privatisation, control, and so on. Out of their eyes.
I currently work in link with the Play>Urban research program, on the Koppies as a radical concept for the city. The Koppies are for me a clear space and example of a “blank” space (non ruled by city or state regulations), in the middle of the city, a space designed by other dynamics, much closer to people. And one of my questions is to see how such spaces – and they exist everywhere – could be invested by artists practices in order to experiment their potentialities in terms of an “other” livable space and idea of the city. And it seems to me the fact Malcomess and the people she works with “enlarge the ways to narrate the site,” with a multi focal dimension and “different distances, points of view, intimacies” can be seen as a tactic to begin such a prospective process. Of course, such a process is possible everywhere in a city, as everywhere people’s practices, memory, etc. are at work. But maybe in the Koppies, in Village Main, this could be experimented more radically in a prospective way.
Agamben speaks about the profanation as the restitution of something which had been subtracted and transferred in a separate sphere, to the common use by human beings. And playing is a way to free and reroute humanity from this sacred sphere, without making it disappear, a way to create a new dimension of the function. (Note: I use the french edition of Agamben : Profanations, Rivages poche, Payot 2005). Wouldn’t such a concept be a key in order to unpack a city place, or a no-place? Consider it very carefully in all its dimensions (which Malcomess does), and start processing ideas, concepts, gestures, performances, installations, etc. Multiple ways to play with it, with in mind the idea to participate a process of giving it clearly back to people and questioning what could be a contemporary city.
We can trace Bettina Malcomess’ relationship with Johannesburg through her artistic and forensic engagement with the city, which tells of a sustained curiosity to excavate spectres of Johannesburg that lie just beyond the surface of Johannesburg (evidenced in the numerous projects noted in her text). Not alone, Malcomess and her cohorts have over the last decade or so worked collaboratively to document and excavate these sites to discern social and economic flows and ruptures within Johannesburg.
As presented here, Village Main is constructed through these texts, photographs (B/W and colour) and cartographic material both archival and contemporary. These fragments of information tell of both disillusionment and hope, or what I read as a collection of anecdotes or nodes through which these sites can be explored both conceptually and online via the Internet. The multiple vantage points that such a project offers contributes to the tracing of textual and photographic lineages of the place. Doreen Massey’s articulation of place could help us read Village Main and Johannesburg at large as a place of local coherencies marked out by a particular set of social and economic relations and transactions, and in the case of Village Main, relations and transactions enacted by worshippers, traditional healers, illegal miners and criminals who move ritually through the site.
Malcomess’ approach to the site performs or rather gestures towards Massey’s conception of place that which is not fixed, a place that cannot fully be characterised by the recourse to some essential, internalised moment. If we are to take Massey’s intimation that the identity of any place is “for ever open to contestation,” what kind of identity does Malcomess’ project infer through such graphic re-stagings?
The evidence procured and presented here in fact becomes indexical to ruin and dystopia; these are places barren and forgotten by those who no longer find them useful. Put differently, the land no longer serves the capital interests of mining magnates and are dispelled from the machine that is capitalism. This wasteland of sorts and its concomitant crumbling infrastructure stands testament to not only the failures of a South Africa that was promised, but also to the global malaise brought on by unequal flows of globalisation and global capitalism.
While another type of violence is evoked in the work of Jo Ratcliffe’s Vlakplaas (1999), the photographs of Village Main, much like those of Vlakplaas, offers haunting imagery of deserted scenes embrace an eerie mysticism (evidenced by the remaining stones of religious ephemera found at the site). Distance rather than intimacy is intimated in this collection of material, with figures only barely visible in the background, and if visible at all, their backs turned against the viewer. Questions surrounding the refusal to represent the bodies who occupy these spaces needs to be raised: What do these omissions of the figure suggest? What kind of historical archive does this omission produce? And surely such renditions slip too easily into the barren apocalyptic imagery of ‘Africa’, which seems to have consumed much of the global imagination recently. ( See Pumzi 2009; Crumbs 2015).
While I admire Malcomess’ dedication to the site as a point of enquiry and consideration, I am suspicious of the fascination that creative practitioners have with sites that bear the semblance of the dystopic, especially within the global South. Screenshots from science fiction films such as Chappie and District 9 are just two examples that further this sentiment. These narratives are comfortably wrapped in the enigma of the future that is predictably apocalyptic.
Village Main will continue to be a place for worship and wealth, material and spiritual. Religion and religious worship within this body of work suggest a counter to the profane and unholy that Village Main occupies and somewhat thrives in. Perhaps discarded within the collective memory of South Africa, Village Main continues to be a space of savior for whose lives lie within the social and economic fringe of Johannesburg. In closing, I would ask Malcomess to clarify and expand on her assertions made in the third paragraph, “What is remembered here is remembered for the future, not the past.” Should we not be careful of always looking to the future without fully grappling with the past and the ever near present? The default, it would seem, is to speculate on the future, routinely invoked to cover up the dismal present. Yet such future-oriented speculations can also blind the politically active to possibilities in the present.
Lastly, translating both projects – Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg and Not No Place – Johannesburg, Fragments of Spaces and Times – for a web-based platform could have provided Malcomess the opportunity to explore the site (Village Main) through audio and video to really push the multiple view points, or points of engagement that projects such a Not No Place set out to do.