Cuss Group is a Johannesburg based art collective. Formed in 2011, the group uses video, installation and performance to explore the commercial, cultural and technological forces that shape the complex realities of post-apartheid, hyper-capitalist South Africa. As one of the first local art collectives to focus on digital technologies, they have wildly shown their work in Europe, offering hyper-real, politically charged visions of contemporary (un)reality.
The group recently unveiled their latest work, Kumnyama la/ It’s Dark Here, at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The installation is a provocative and powerful commentary on South Africa’s overlapping social crises, exploring inadequate public housing, dysfunctional energy systems and the state’s political repression of protest by the poor. This new installation is part of the exhibition “Mud Muses: A Rant About Technology”. In it, curator Lars Bang Larsen has brought together a remarkable collection of both new and archival work which deal with the complex strands that connect technological advances, artistic production and cultural beliefs. Spanning from the optimism of the 1960’s, to the anxious and overstimulated digital capitalism of today, the works combine to reveal the deep ambivalence encoded within the machines and devices that run our lives. They are both platforms for surveillance, control and exploitation and paradoxically, mechanisms of emancipation and creation.
The work by CUSS is a visceral depiction of technological breakdown and slow social collapse, focusing on dysfunctional urban housing in Johannesburg. By aggressively embracing a neoliberal development path, and continuing to relegate the poor to under-serviced, peripheral townships, the state has decisively failed to break with the spatial logic of apartheid. This is compounded by the electricity crisis, which often drives the poor to illicitly connect to the grid. These clandestine operations are performed by izinyoka, “snakes” in Zulu. The name itself references the clandestine electrical cables which wind like snakes through townships and informal settlements. This term has been made literal by the state, with anti-izinyoka public relations campaigns that depict reptilian-like men maliciously attacking infrastructure under the cover of the night.
As CUSS demonstrates, however, this official demonology obscures and fetishes the true monstrosity. The real terror here is a post-colonial, austerity racked socio-economic system which has conclusively failed to provide adequate infrastructure and democratic participation to the majority of South Africa. Informed by conceptual research and interviews with communities, the installation embodies the social contradictions embedded within struggles over electrical access. A house structure is the backdrop for video works which convey the frustration and anger of residents confined to substandard spaces. The sand around the structure is an eerie reminder of how Johannesburg’s Black population was segregated into land near toxic mine dumps. A stark tangle of cables and bleak trees highlights the pirate tech of the izinyoka, fusing the organic and the inorganic.
Despite its critical tone, the installation reserves a powerful glimmer of hope, offering counter-narratives of an alternate path of emancipation through the joining of technology with civic struggle. The work’s focus on breakdown and dysfunction connects it to a global technological, ecological and cultural malaise. As Lars Bang Larsen writes in his essay on the exhibition, the world “finds itself increasingly confronted with the limitations or even breakdowns of the certainties that brought us to the present. These include the notion of the pure functionality of our machines and our preconceptions about their place in the world.” Kumnyama la/It’s Dark Here, is a raw blast of reality, showing the very human pain, endurance and hope which underpins vastly inhuman systems of technological power.
Mud Muses runs until January 12, 2020
CUSS Group: Ravi Govender, Jamal Nxedlana, Lex Trickett, Zamani Xolo and Christopher McMichael.