Citydeep dialects // noticing as discourse and an embodied political act

Abstract

The piece that is to follow forms part of the work produced for our distributed residency with A4 Arts Foundation, an unfolding conversation with the assemblages of Johannesburg’s city space. A first for both entities; working together from a place of distance. City Deep A Virtual Affect Practice, is the working title for the residency, which takes place over two months and uses commercial signage in the local, urban CBD to imagine alternate perspectives of the city. The project reads and reuses street imagery to explore the desires and possibilities contained within the cityscape, advancing the notion of daily life as an artistic experience. Where City Deep interacts with virtual art spaces and galleries, these are imagined as places for the experiences of collective leisure and joy. 

If a world can be what we learn not to notice, noticing becomes a form of political labor. What do we learn not to notice? We learn not to notice some suffering, such that if the suffering of those deemed strangers appears, then it does so only dimly, at the edges of our consciousness. In fact this is another way we learn about the figure of the stranger: strangers are not simply those we do not recognize but those we recognize as strangers, not only those you do not know but those you should not know. As a child you might have been taught to turn away from homeless people on the street, to screen out not only their suffering but their very existence. They are not anything to do with you. Hurry on, move on. We are learning not only whose suffering should affect us, or how we should be affected by whose suffering; we are busy exercising the very distinction between friends and strangers, creating that distinction, between those who matter and those who do not. It is a distinction predicated on violence. It is a distinction enforced through violence. We are learning to screen out what gets in the way of our occupation of space. Once you have learned this something, you don’t notice this someone.

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life

There is a sphere of human subjectivity and of our ontological enfleshment that moves and finds form in the space of known unnamed things — Histories, codes, structures and the discursive hieroglyphics of civilisation tracing affective outlines around our experiences of and the experiences that move us through the world, and the nature of our bodily contact with the world at large. What we notice, comprehend and cognate come to form invisible webs of a phenomenological instructive language. Antagonistic difference was traced on the outlines of my body before ideologies of difference found root and stem on my tongue and mind, before I came to understand why certain eyes turned to me with a look that sounded a particular kind of seething hiss or came baring a painted on anxious smile; a gut has its own intelligence. If we have been taught to turn away, we have to learn to turn toward. Audre Lorde taught me how turning toward what is difficult, which can be a what with a who, is politically necessary, even if this turning can at times feel like we are making life more difficult for ourselves… In Sister Outsider, [she] describes the words racism and sexism as ‘grown up words’. We encounter racism and sexism before we have the words that allow us to make sense of what we encounter. Words can then allow us to get closer to our experiences; words allow us to comprehend what we experience after the event. We become retrospective witnesses of our becoming, Ahmed.  I think about the act of noticing and locate it within my own embodied experience and its relationship with the tapestry and psychosphere of Johannesburg CBD, especially from my position as a coded subject who engages with the citysphere predominantly on foot; no metal casing offering protective and distancing armour.

These affective scripts, these assemblages of knowing are weaved into our discourses and ideologies — immaterial and viscerally circulating building blocks and archaeological sites/sights that can be mined to exhume those oft hidden and invisibilised worlds, and the desires of the subjectivities who inhabit them. City’s can often be overwhelming and viscerally assaulting places, a sort of mixed media collage assemblage of sounds, smells, movement, congestion, bodies and signage. The “official” signage of cityspheres, therefore the signage of administration and bureaucracy is by far and large homogenous and thin. Thus it is devoid of any local, geo-political or cultural specificity that speaks to or is rooted in the histories and desires of the subjectivities who have made and who have imagined communities within their modern ecology. It is when we look beyond the official language of cityscapes and rather turn to look towards — to notice the signage, language and thus discourse that gives each citysphere the specificity of its skyline, that we can begin to excavate those marginalised desires to be recuperated in the re-imagining of a creatively insurgent city that finds rooting in the thick places improvised by these imagined communities and those other strangers who feel their way in and out of it.

I think of my grandmother who owned her own spaza shop trading out of her home in Sebokeng zone 7 but would come into Joburg CBD to buy from wholesale factories on Commissioner and President street; a form of feminist killjoy work, creating informal economies of trade rooted in domestic spaces. I think of these thin spaces of trade and they become thick, as I fill them with the speculative and imagined narratives of those womxn who like my grandmother, one would probably turn away from. What is unearthed when we look to, when we notice what moves in the space between the signage, space and activity that happens in places like wholesale factories in the CBD? Narratives of genealogies of insurgent womxn from shebeen queens in Jeppestown to those who provide spaces of gathering and sociality in the distant streets of eSoweto — Santu Mafokeng once tried to tell us something of these womxn in his photograph titled Shebeen White City Soweto, from 1986; he tried to tell us of the spaces of joy and affirming life making they fabulate from those products extracted from wholesale factories located within a city built unnaturally around extractive methods and economies; mining and migrant labour being two of those. I invited a long time companion in thinking, feeling and imaging my way through this world, Mmakhotso Lamola a spatial practitioner and artist to join me in a conversation of unfolding which follows below.

Lindi: We met at university and at that point you were studying architecture so that was where your practice was rooted, and your space of imaging found its articulation from that space or disciplinary topography, if you will. Since then how do you position yourself as a creator and the nature of your practice now?

Khotso: You know- when I started this journey so when I met you, I was already questioning outside of the scope of the curriculum and that’s probably why I was really angry at the whole “architectural” thing by the time I graduated. But, I look back at the work that I was doing now — and I’m going to say it again even though we we we spoke about this in our podcast — when you arrive at the centre of something and you look at the periphery, you realise you had been questioning things for longer than you may have been consciously cognitive of. So when I was in undergrad practicing and training to become an architect and at that time, I felt really proud that I was being trained to be an architect in such a world renowned and revered school as UCT, however, I quickly started struggling with this ideology and concept of space creation that didn’t reflect anything, like any art, any writing, anything and being trained in creating space that didn’t reflect my subjectivity; where I wasn’t a substance of my own as this concept was built on the knowledge and structures of colonial and neo-colonial thought and those particular gazes. A very practical example would be like if we were to go to site, this is when we would go to various locations, which I found deeply problematic and you were asked to do a site analysis. The nature of a site analysis is basically that you analyse the topography of the site, the physical aspects of the site, you analyse people moving in and out etc. So there’s a lot of technical aspects to it but you are also analysing people moving in the space; it’s like an anthropological observation. Umm, and I really found that quite difficult in my positionality to do, sometimes I couldn’t even move in the space alone being a womxn, and often we would go alone and it would be quite difficult to do that work. I also realised that I was reading the city differently — again this is my own mirror, which is my identity — that I was reading the city how I had been nurtured to and because I was reading it differently the work I was producing, or rather the work I was producing during site analysis always gave “othered” stories and “othered” stats than what my good friend Jono would get (Jono is not a real person but you know what I mean, like say a white man who was there on site with me).

So already then I realised there was a huge chasm or huge crevice in the understanding(s) of space creation because we are all working from different vantage points. So how are we as architects supposed to work with people to create spaces for them if we don’t even understand the ways in which they read the city, we’re asked to represent the people who move through the city but a lot of the time architects come from spaces of privilege and I realised this quite early on especially during my honours year. You know in architecture when you look at something it’s framed as “a problem”, “you’re solving a problem” and how can you find an answer when you don’t even know what the question really is? So, I think that this time really taught me to unpack questions. Like what questions are you asking about space? Who’s asking those questions, where are they rooted and who are those questions being asked to? So that’s where my practice and I now exist, in this space of questioning and of unfolding. You know I call myself an architect but I also call myself an artist and somewhere in-between that I am a spatial practitioner, space is such a fickle thing. It could be time, it could be history, alternative realties or paradigm shifts so that’s where my questioning has led me to.

Lindi: Yoh, you’ve raised so many interesting things and thoughts to think through, but also questions. You know when you talk about architecture being framed as a discipline of “solving problems” just that phrase leaves a bad taste in my mouth especially when you consider how irremovable people and human experience is from the discipline. That bad taste is heightened when I think about the phrase in relation to a cityscape like Johannesburg that is this overwhelming collage of sound, smell and movement, made up of particular subjectivities who move at the margin and that “problem solving” dispositional framing already creates a violent point of entry and I think that’s where working from the margin becomes a radical tool in how we can reimagine ways of creating more creatively insurgent and just cities.

Khotso: I think it’s very rare people sit and listen and these individuals who we create places for, know more about the space than we do and in that way I think every single person has the ability to be a spatial practitioner and that’s why I’m so interested in people’s personal narratives and mapping those as a form of alternative spatial theory because how you perceive space around your own world is a wealth of untapped knowledge that just keeps giving and giving. You know, you can’t take everything into account but there must be something there that we’ve skipped over.

Lindi: You speaking right now about mining alternate spaces like personal stories for knowledge and narratives reminds me of the term “psychosphere”, you ushered into my life. Encountering it all those years ago through you, shifted the ways in which I thought about space and the very nature of my relationship with it after that; it gave it this character of animatedness and I think that is also informed by our own experiential and embodied enfleshment in that space and what we leave behind. So when you’re looking at a cityscape perhaps fabulating the city itself as a living organism, could help in the creation of more democratic cities or that something new.

Khotso: What I really love about that thing, it’s not new it’s something I knew as phenomenology but ultimately it is your life world — the tangible things that make up a place become a spirit of a place — and that’s kind of imprinted with your own memory and your own substance; that space becomes your place, but sometimes things are picked up. Remember when we took that trip to Makhanda for National Arts Festival? Remember when we were driving back and as we approached Cape Town we got quieter and quieter and a little more exhausted and anxiety filled? I realised then that the city is a place for your things just like in phenomenology, you put your things there, you pick up things, things feel familiar to you but the thing with things — both tangible and intangible — is that when you put them down, you’re leaving them there and people will pick them up.

Lindi: Kind of like fingerprint traces both visible and invisible; our cities are imprinted with affect, experience and memory. Remember when you introduced me to that theory of the eROTic and I think it had something to do with human touch and decay found in cities. Thinking of both Cape Town and Joburg in all of their respective assemblages through signage both text and by virtue of imagery, including their assemblage of sound, movement, bodies, smells etc do you think these could form a kind of poetic of the eROTic of cityscape assemblages?

Khotso: So, you know what I love about the word erotic/eROTic is that it’s twofold; there is erotic which is an invocation of the sensual so we’re talking about the physical feel of a place and then there’s eROTic — the ROT of a city — and rot is usually seen as something bad especially in “clean colonial modern architecture” which is like white cubes, very minimalist but there’s something quite beautiful when a building starts to rot. I’m talking about that human touch and debris which is also quite sensual. I find joburg really beautiful precisely because its eROTic is so visible, the fact that it has been touched so much by people and by histories. There’s something quite overwhelming and wasabi-esque about it. It’s an affront to the senses but somewhere in there it transgresses the negative connotations of rot to beauty almost. The turning point is the eROTic, it recuperates it from a space of ugliness and makes something beautiful and full of touch of it whereas Cape Town is very sanitised. 

Lindi: Mmm I’ve always found the sterility of Cape Town’s cityscape unnerving and while sterile works for some people, I appreciate the chaos that is Joburg CBD. There’s an uninhabited poetry to it but obviously let’s not romanticise what it can feel like to navigate Joburg CBD, it also comes with its own incredibly triggering affects but there is also this improvised beauty to it that happens in that untouched space between reading a sign for say Sipho’s carwash that’s really funny, hearing the cue Marshall at Bree Taxi Rank say something but then also engaging with something else that’s happening in that space; it’s an instant but it’s so powerful. This brimming with possibilities of improvisation and what it does when it is in contact and in conversation with your body can be incredibly interesting, funny or beautiful but it can also trigger feelings you want to turn away from

Khotso: But you know what when it comes to Cape Town, the reasons I stayed here firstly because Izwe Lethu and I really just feel like there was something here that was aching to be unearthed and that’s where Limbic Resonance comes in. It deals with this atmosphere, this psychosphere we feel here that’s filled with anxiety. It’s a research project and ongoing dreamscape in collaboration with Kopano Maroga and it was born out of a moment where both Kopano and I were at one of their first exhibitions. I think it was hosted at AVA and we walked in and I entered a pocket in the psychosphere I did not knows was there, and that pocket was generative and beautiful and proud. I’ve only ever known Cape Town as triggering before then and that is the map. Those pockets that exist at the margins and they exist because we exist. Our stories and our narratives are always adding to that psychosphere. So, what happens when we acknowledge that, what happens when we map out and can enact on that? You know, it becomes a sort of spiritual exploration.

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