[…] Special Issue: Johannesburg Lasts
Editorial: Last, Lasting, Lost
The specter stands for that which never simply is and thus escapes the totalizing logic of conventional cognitive and hermeneutic operations. It cannot be reduced to a straightforward genesis, chronology or finitude and insists on blurring multiple borders, between visibility and invisibility, past and present, materiality and immateriality, science and pseudo-science, religion and superstition, life and death, presence and absence, reality and imagination
(Esther Peeren, 10).
What are Johannesburg’s spectres and whom do they haunt? What spectres of late capitalism inhabit a city hastily erected on top of the rich seam of gold that lay beneath? How do legacies from Johannesburg’s past mingle with its future
Johannesburg Lasts is a research collection that seeks to uncover, unpack and deepen investigations into spectres of Johannesburg, it’s toxic legacies, its facades and the residues of its disturbed surfaces. Our initial impetus was sparked by the last remnants of an archive: The 1976 book Johannesburg Firsts by librarian Anna Smith. Johannesburg is a city young enough for Smith to keep a biased score of its firsts. She presents a vast amount of information, from the city’s large industrial debuts all the way down to the first chicken hatched in Johannesburg. This story not only loses key details and facts in Smith’s retelling, but is charged with the racist assumptions of that era in apartheid South Africa. It left us wondering about what it would mean to consider Johannesburg in terms of its lasts.
Through the framing of the last and the lost, we ask questions of how to imagine a city in terms of its ends, its spectres – those which are “both revenant, that which returns from the past, and arrivant, that which is to come…” and its continued and future hauntings (Peeren 2014: 14). Here we think of the remnants of apartheid spatial planning, the facades of Johannesburg’s suburbs and enclaves, and the “emergence of diverse urban worlds within the same territory—strange mappings and blank figures, discontinuous fixtures and flows, and odd juxtapositions” (Mbembe 2004: 375).
Johannesburg is an exquisite corpse, collaged from other times and other places, “characterized by an unmediated adjacency” a “hybrid composition” that “betrays an attempt at synthesis” (Comaroff and Ong 2013: 85). It is a city that operates through forms of mimicry and mimesis “evident in the city’s contemporary architectural forms […] in its mania for wealth, for the sensational and the ephemeral, for appearances” (Mbembe 2004: 376).
We ask questions of appearance, surfaces and residues, the visible and invisible, the sonic, tactile, emotional and radioactive. We ask questions of what lives above the surface, what legacies can be resurfaced and revisited, and what logics govern the cities operations – it’s roads, it’s policies, it’s building codes, it’s highways, and the rivers of mine dust floating off the top of dunes scattered around the edges of the city, settling in to the fine tissue of our lungs. What reenactments of dark colonial and patriarchal legacies continue to govern our present interactions with and future imaginings of this city?
In a city weighed down by extreme inequality and infrastructural breakdown (Myambo 2019: 2), during a time of cataclysmic global environmental and health crises, how do we catalogue, capture and research a city’s lasts?
Johannesburg’s construction and collapse occurs simultaneously alongside projects of regeneration and renewal. In many spaces, the remains of old buildings stand beside temporary structures, “this psychic life inseparable from the metropolitan form: its design, its architectural topographies, its public graphics and surfaces” (Mbembe 2004: 375). Johannesburg’s old and new CBDs (developed in the 1930s and 1970s, respectively) attest to a crass modernist urge to expand new ground rather than adjust to the shifting stakes of city space.
Land-locked and without obvious natural resources to draw people to it, Johannesburg has relied on extraction, artifice and novelty. From its very beginnings, “Johannesburg was fashioned as the ultimate city of the nouveau riche capital, luminous and exciting, yet superficial and unforgiving … with no historically consistent aesthetic sensibility or genuine commitment to the cultural heritage of the past (Murray 2011: 9). Johannesburg is now an amalgamation of densely layered and built upon historical space, loosely attached to swathes of urban sprawl. It could even be described as a city that has nostalgia for the future rather than the past (Malcomess and Kreutzfeldt 2013: 18).
A central question that haunts this landscape is one of boundaries. What are this city’s physical boundaries and where are its edges? Ever more ingenuous security fences, wires and walls clearly outline who feels they have something that needs protecting and who does not. What of the rewritten CBD, the emergence of satellite financial districts in the north, like Sandton, and the superficial smart enclaves like that of the unrealised Modderfontein fantasy? What of the hollow ground underneath and the dusty atmosphere of constant construction and ruination above? Perhaps the most pertinent question this special edition of Ellipses asks is: In an “elusive” city that refuses definition, what can be pinned down as being specifically of this place, belonging enough to last? (Nuttall and Mbembe 2004).
The specters of Johannesburg are territorial: sticky and stubborn. In this special edition and with contributions that blur the lines of disciplinary practice; realised through code, static and moving images, 3D models, digital maps and interactive interfaces. All made with the intention of being accessed through screens and through them, we hope to engage with the specters that continuously create new bridges between past, present and future.
Territorial edges, dusty surfaces and sticky histories:
This city, like so many others, is threaded with encounters of lasts and losts. It is scattered with attempts to ensure its history remains, spread out across blue plaques and monuments. In the following collection of projects we see the messiness of official and unofficial histories play out. As the different projects take us along streets, under the earth, into forgotten places and future musings, there is a restlessness across them all. An undertone that says perhaps something refuses to be settled. This speaks to the haphazard assemblage of moving parts that make up Johannesburg. The projects here all, in different ways, pay close attention to the movement of people, plants, dust, data and the very visible and invisible workforces that make the city work. Overall, there is a sense of agitation and unease throughout.
Projects like those of Counterspace, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt and Brett Pyper are tied to the legacies of specific sites in the old CBD. We are drawn into potential versions and visions of Kwa Mai Mai market, a burnt and later demolished demolished building, and an historic cultural Jazz landmark. Where Pyper’s former Bantu Men’s Social Club is now an echoing heritage site, Kreutzfeldt reflects on the end days of The Bank of Lisbon through an unsettling video and sound piece. In close proximity to these sites geographically, Counterspace delves into the psychic and radioactive vibrations of a possible future Kwa Mai Mai market, where the toxic legacies of the mining industry mingle with the business savvy of Johannesburg’s vibrant informal market. Each of these projects render the aesthetics of the surface as hypnotic, and reach into the underworld of voices and messages: from the past or the future we don’t fully know.
Nkgopoleng Moloi draws us away from such histories and futures, with multiple (often conflicting) narratives, to pull us into her own vulnerable personal position walking the Braamfontein streets as a black womxn. These social and political architectures are all evocatively conjured with sound and movement.
Throughout this special edition, the senses are important. Nina Barnett and Jeremy Bolen make us aware of our skin and the surfaces of our devices, through a meditation on the ubiquitous dust that is, perhaps, the one intimate element that all inhabitants of Johannesburg must live with. In opening up the world of stones beneath the built and building city, Brigitta Stone-Johnson expands on the make-up of not only dust, but the deep time of continental shifts beneath the Braamfontein Ridge.
Riley Grant and William Shoki take disembodied experience into the realm of Marx and Zoom, questioning the always-on workforces of late capitalism. They pull into focus the labour practices behind the shiny surfaces and projections of Sandton, its digital interfaces and its hypnotising blurring of life and work. Lastly, the interruptions of DigiCleanse’s advertisements highlight the ubiquitousness of capitalism operating through the wellness industry, preying on the citizens of polluted and toxic cities who seek refuge in new age cleansing tools, both for mind and body.
The events of the past year have shifted how we think about traces, effects, marks, and remains. On both a micro and macro scale, from the surface of our lungs and groceries to our travel routes and movements, Johannesburg life has changed. Through the sightings and soundings of aspects of the city presented here we hope to draw attention to the screens which display, frame, code, render and augment our interaction with the idea of the city and its people and their uncovering through this creative research.
Comaroff, J. and Ong, K-S, 2013. Horror in Architecture. California: Novato
Malcomess, B. and Kreutzveldt, D. 2013. Not No Place: Johannesburg. Fragments of Spaces and Times. Johannesburg: Fanele.
Mbembe, A. 2004. “Aesthetics of Superfluity” in Public Culture 16(3). Duke University Press, pp 373–405
Murray, M. 2011. City of Extremes: The Spatial Politics of Johannesburg, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Myambo, M. 2019. “Introduction: Jo’burg’s spatial dilemmas resonate globally” in Myambo, M. (ed), Reversing Urban Inequality in Johannesburg, London and New York: Routledge, pp 1-9.
Nuttall, S. and Mbembe. A. 2004. ‘Introduction: Afropolis’ in Nuttall, S. and Mbembe, A. (eds). Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. Durham and London: Duke University Press. pp 1-36.
Peeren, E. 2014. The Spectral Metaphor : Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Smith, A. 1976. Johannesburg Firsts / Johannesburgse Eerstes, Johannesburg: Africana Museum.
Sarah de Villiers
Andrei van Wyk
The Bantu Men’s Social Centre (BSMC): Towards a South African Jazz Hauntology
Reflecting on the extent to which the city’s jazz cultures have sonic afterlives
"The sounds of the author’s voice resonate in the space to which it refers, inscribing its contemporary sonic materiality."
From the mid 1920s, the Bantu Mens’ Social Centre (BMSC) served as a lively centre of cultural activity for black men – and some women – in Johannesburg, attracting and nurturing many outstanding intellectuals and artists. This piece revisits the site nearly a full century after its opening, foregrounding how practices of listening, aurality and their attendant ways of knowing have shaped public and private urban experiences. Though the BMSC was silenced as a site of musical sociability by apartheid, the piece reflects on the extent to which the city’s jazz cultures have sonic afterlives that extend across historical ruptures, even if they have travelled elsewhere. Presented here as a sound essay, the piece has been recorded being read aloud in the hall of the BMSC. The sounds of the author’s voice resonate in the space to which it refers, inscribing its contemporary sonic materiality in a reflection on what lasts of the BMSC, and also what has been lost. The spoken text (which can also be read in textual form) is accompanied by two other audio sources, each with their own spatiality and temporality: the ambient resonance of the hall, and a 1959 recording by local jazz icon Zakes Nkosi, named after the BMSC.
Readers/listeners can turn the concentric dials around the blue plaque on their screens to adjust the relationships between three audio sources, each with their own spatiality and temporality, thus choosing whether they’d like to treat the plaque as a monument or a dial, or a portal, as the handle of a scroll, as an archive, or perhaps in ways that they author and web developers haven’t anticipated.
[…] Ellipses Journal for Creative Research endeavours to make bare the process of research and development in creative and artistic research. This is for readers / viewers an opportunity and mechanism to see the types of academic critique engaged with creative research and to make visible the responses and development. The following peer review was produced blind and in process, the artist / author has subsequently been given the opportunity to respond and develop both the theoretical and interactive parts of the article before publication. What you see published has been edited post this review.
Peer Review 1: Bantu Men’s Social Club (2020)
Which aspects of the submission are of interest / relevance and why?
Working with silencing in interesting ways, this project treats the BMSC as a site of silencing by the powerful apartheid regime. The project works with the BMSC’s invisibility through a process of being present with its historical remains and in so doing traces the past through the present moment. This means that, as a researcher, the artist is able to have an authentic experience with the notion of hauntology and thus becomes a conduit for what still reverberates within the project’s site.
Of interest is the use of sonic investigation, which is carefully understood as a variable of acoustic awareness, and the ways that this method asks the audience not what is seen, but what is heard. In a labour of experimentation and meaning-making, the audience is invited into a world wherein three sonic pieces and a piece of writing are integrated into a central design which reads as a blue heritage plaque. As one attempts to make sense of the design you are confronted with, hidden parts of the research begin to emerge, such as a hollowing out of the sound under the symbol of a doorway, projecting a certain indoor quality. Despite where you might be viewing the digital artwork, the audience is drawn into an echo chamber which situates the building in question. The plaque becomes a sonic portal, charged with specific information and sounds -codes for the re assemblage on the ‘other side’. This portal is reminiscent of Chus Martinez’s groundless and resonating space that consists of all that resides in between, in this case the viewer, the research and the sounds itself.
While viewing the project, there is one jazz sound track that plays on loop, and if you keep the sound dial onhigh you will have heard it several times before coming to the end of the voice recording. This loop carries with it a sense of a stuckness that doesn’t sit still, but instead thickens the time you spend invested in the project; one feels a persisting energy that cannot be fully grasped, yet carries with it memories, narratives and movement. In this sense, the departure from ‘echo’ that the artist speaks of in their work to a different sort of sonic quality, ‘reverberation’, can be sensed. Reverberation emerges here as as one that is not infused with a response of sameness, as might be understood with the notion of the echo, but that instead exists as a presence thick with a ‘ghostly aura’ that continues to exist between things.
The audience is brought into this resonance in speculative ways, wherein they experiment with what rises from the parts presented in the artwork, creating meaning for themselves in similar ways to how the artist may have through being present at the historical building. That is to say, the artwork seems to set up an array of nodes which, together, design an experience for the visitor to generate their own experience in ways that mimic the authentic ones that the artist had by being present with the historical building, but that nonetheless equate to meaningful engagements with the knowledge being produced through the research at hand.
In many ways the silencing, or smothering as the artist puts it, of this site emerges through this work as not being snuffed out but instead as existing. And it is through aural listening capabilities that this site is accessed again.
I understand this work as drawing together socio-anthropological work on silenced histories and social narratives together with the potentials that sonic engagements have in both producing research as well as generating artworks that probe and ask questions about such sites. Overall, through a closer understanding of the BMSC, this work provides an understanding of Johannesburg that is thick with pasts and presents; it allows for a portal into erosion that understands both the host and the activity upon it. In convincing ways, sound is brought forward as the carrier between worlds (past/present) in ways that point toward the unending less of the past and the reverberations of it in the present. But more than that, it is the potential of the sonic portal that intrigues me most and which I find to be a powerful tool for accessing the in between.
How are the artistic and research outcomes represented?
Initially the questions of the work are not prevalent -one is faced with a dynamic object that needs figuring out. However,, due to the fact that everything is contained in a circular form, and the movable dials are designed to read like ones on a mixer, navigating becomes fairly obvious. The use of a sonic reading of the text was helpful, as the space for the text was quite small and could perhaps become claustrophobic when half way through the essay. Ifound it useful to listen to the voice while scrolling down the text, and when I had orientated myself within the written text enough I began to experiment with the reverberation dial, which lead to a feeling of placement within the context of the research itself -the BMSC.
The written description and its sonic component through different ways of engaging the site. Initially it felt as if I were reading a blue plaque, historical statements without much methodological engagement were being ‘told’ to me. But then it shifted toward a deeper analysis of the engagement that the artist had with the site. What was useful about this is that while I was ‘arriving’ in the digital sphere created, I could listen in in a less demanding way, which left room for other activities which tried to make sense of the design. Later on, however, when the text drew me in more through the artist’s methods of engagement, I felt like I understood the space enough to really play in deeper more exploratory ways.
How well does the design support the submission?
The works are presented together in a singular design with multiple functionalities. The design reads as one of the many historical blue plaques that scatter Johannesburg’s heritage sites. The usefulness of the digital plaque in this project, however, is that it enables the audience to engage it in ways where a deeper understanding of the history might be explored, thus they find their own the importance of coming to one’s own understanding is posed. The sonic dials embedded within the digital plaque allowfor a range of experimentation that stretch from silence to noise, the middle ground of which is makes audible all levels of the three tracks. I found it interesting to combine reading the text with listening to the audio version of the text, but to then allow the audio to distort into that roomy haunting space that was being raised in the text. This activity drew me in to the work at the very same time as I began to understand where it was that I was going. In a time where restrictions of movement are prevalent and fear of large crowds exists, the sonic capacity presented within the digital design of the work had transporting potential that I thought was evocative.
Are there any ethical or legal concerns?
Did the artist receive permission to make use of the Jazz track?
Conclusions and and pre publication revision:
This project demonstrates fine artistic research in its abilities to compose clues toward the larger mystery of the silenced histories of BMSC. It plays with the word silence by shifting it into sonic reverberation in interesting ways and poses the sonic as a refutable tool in its abilities to transport both researcher and audience into historical sites of importance.
I recommend that this work be accepted as is, no revisions necessary.
Second reviewer declined to publish their review.
Andrea Hayes, facilitated by Andrei van Wyk.