The immersive technology of virtual reality has world shaking implications. Something as small as a VR headset can destabilize the core categories of dream and flesh which make up consensual reality. With the new show Virtual Frontiers, artist Francois Knoetze is using VR to disrupt the historical categories which continue to infect contemporary South Africa with poverty and violence. Over six short films, his 360 camera maps the psychogeography of Grahamstown, and how the stark racial and social divisions in the town make it a microcosm of the country at large. The film’s wildly merge reenactments, archive footage and special effects to blur the past into the present. The follow up to his acclaimed Cape Mongo series, the new work will be premiered at this year’s National Arts festival.
Via email, Francois shared some of the themes which underpin his ambitious project
I’m fascinated by your psychogeography of Grahamstown, and the focus on the past bleeding into the present. Were there any specific historical events, or even things in your own experience, which inspired you to take this approach. And did Rhodes Must Fall also play a part for you?
Growing up during the Rainbow Era, I lapped up my fair share of the almost propaganda-like optimism that flavoured the public discourse of those years. I think my approach to making art is often informed by my distrust for neat, grand narratives. It forms part of a process of unlearning the inclination towards neat categories, binaries and conclusions.
It’s also an attempt at addressing the ahistorical nature of the Rainbow rhetoric, and how it managed to gloss over the burning question of reparations for 350 years of plundering. ‘94 was branded as an endpoint to colonialism and racism, and I think a lot of people just sort of bought it because it was convenient and colourful. The Marikana massacre showed that the government’s propensity towards militaristic death squad tactics against peacefully protesting black workers was not dissimilar to that of the Apartheid state. And movements such as Rhodes Must Fall opened my eyes to just how far South Africa still has to go in terms of restructuring institutions, syllabi, professions, and economics. We, the white minority, remain seemingly unperturbed or in denial about the dubious origins of our power and privilege, hiding behind security companies, high walls and #zumamustfalls, like the forts of yesteryear. Virtual Frontiers is in part an attempt to make sense of my position within this historical juncture by looking at the effects and systems which organise the way people experience the small, yet extremely fractured city of Grahamstown.
How do you feel the concept of the frontier impacts on post-colonial, contemporary South Africa?
I think post-coloniality is a term at odds with the lived experience of most South Africans, the structuring of its cities and its economy. Frontiers are barriers that separate, but like outer space they are also great unknown territories to be explored. I think post-coloniality is in many ways an unexplored frontier in South Africa. I think it is necessary to tear down the barriers that maintain the colonial ordering of people, commodities and spaces. I believe this would open up space for the emergence of a more inclusive society that embraces its Africanness, and doesn’t simply package a superficial version of it for tourist consumption.
What inspired the use of virtual reality, and do you feel that VR is something that is going to become more socially and politically significant in the near future?
I started experimenting with virtual reality whilst on residency in Dar es Salaam last year. For me, being able to place the viewer into immersive first-person scenarios raises fundamental questions around positionality and reconciling the giant rifts in the lived experiences of people in a place as divided as South Africa. It puts you, as the viewer, inside of the work, pushing beyond the screen so it has a raw, experiential power that pure film doesn’t. It’s the first medium that makes the leap from representation to experience. The social and political significance of an artistic medium that allows you to experience what you perceive as physical closeness is unprecedented.