by John Peffer
Essay: Mistaken Media
Minnette Vári biography
Over the last decade a number of South African artists, living in Africa and abroad, have been exploring the technologies of journalism and mass-media in efforts to reframe the contents or subvert those media. The following pages offer a schematic outline of a project which is interested in the general problem of representation in art and political life, especially as it has a bearing on the pivotal position of mechanically or digitally reproduced and mass disseminated journalistic media images in the contemporary African and diasporan world. By way of introduction to the video art of Minnette Vári, and through her work on exhibition, we might begin to question the relation of international news media to becoming South African today.
The work of Vári and her contemporaries, who grew up in South Africa under Apartheid and lived through the transition to democracy, attempts to come to terms with the problems of representation knotted up in a continuous stream of mediated images. From the vantage point of the South African context, itself caught up in the present state of the globalized world economic and cultural system, what are the relations between international and corporate manufacture of media streams, censorship, and creative expression? What is the bearing of these relations upon the ideas of self and nation which are in the making among South Africans today?
These concerns are not new, nor are they merely local. A multileveled engagement with both the look and content of the news has been a recurrent motif for modernist artists since at least the turn of the last century. For an example, we might consider Picasso's Man With a Hat, a portrait in cubist collage from 1912, constructed of charcoal, ink and pasted bits of newspaper.1 Here the modern look is literally constructed of mixed media. In mostly formal terms, too, the idea that the hat makes the man can be retranslated as the newspaper makes the man. In this example, the grid-like arrangement of found bits of information on the page of the newspaper is analogous to the novel construction of the human form in cubist art, and the shape of modern man is here conceptualized as made-up of the image in the media, as much as by the arrangement of space on the front of the daily paper.
The other side of this modernist coin might be exemplified by John Heartfield's photomontage from 1930, titled People who read bourgeois papers will turn blind and deaf.2 The image is a photomontage of a man wearing a leather restraint across his chest and whose head and face are wrapped in leaves of newspaper pages like a cruciferous vegetable. It contains the following caption:
“I am a cabbage head. Do you know my credentials? I have so many anxieties, I don't know what is going to happen. If I stop and wait for a savior, I will be a black, red and gold cabbage head. I don't want to see or hear anything.“
Artists like Heartfield - who produced images of this sort in Germany during the Weimar period, were well aware that the look of the media - here the newspaper - had a bearing on issues of popular representation. Heartfield was also concerned that the corporate-controlled media's selective and interested coverage of issues might in some cases cover over the trenchant social issues of the day - in this case the coming to political prominence of Nazism and the threat to civil liberties (and human safety) that would entail.
Between Picasso and Heartfield, very generally, modernist artists and especially the those of the avant gardes can be understood to have regularly moved back and forth between these two poles: of investigations into representation as aesthetic, and representation as political.
Today, more than in 1930, we are living in an age of information mediated by the news and entertainment media. According to Peter Weibel, "All over the globe... media have formed and taken over the traditional functions and operations involved in the construction of reality... society is increasingly becoming a media society. This is why media observation is increasingly taking the place of world observation in art",3 in this increasingly globalized "post-industrial" age. The sense here is that the work of the look has come increasingly to replace the work of the hand, when it comes to composing the world and making sense of the world. Considered thus, information media is a technology. Following Manuel Castells one might argue, "Technology is not just science and machines, it is social and organizational technology as well. Technological change implies the simultaneous change of productive forces and social relationships".4 It is important to consider, as Heartfield indicates in his photomontage, and as theorized by Foucault - that "control over knowledge and information decides who holds power in society".5 The question of the structure of technology in a media-saturated society is also a question of political representation.
South Africa is an excellent place to look if one desires to unravel the relation of art to the news media. Take for example the name of the Afrikaans language centrist daily in Johannesburg Die Beeld. Beeld translates as image, likeness, picture, or statue. Beeldspraak is figurative or metaphorical language. Can we conclude from this that the news media intend to create an image (like artists create) of "objective" reportage? Or that the news media, in selectively (or "objectively") representing the events of the day, also represent the people who in actuality are their readers?
South African Newspapers were routinely censored by the government during the states of emergency after 1976. After the tenth anniversary of the Soweto uprising, the Weekly Mail in Johannesburg actually printed the censor's bars instead of deleting passages deemed offensive to the state. The contents of that particular issue, reporting on protest marches and police crackdowns across the country, were almost completely banned. The resulting paper was like a dada art project - with page after page simply blanked out or marked by the censor's stamp. Art too was censored, but not to the same degree during the 1980s. Interestingly, the South African art world became one of the few conduits for free expression during the last decades of Apartheid.6
What is fascinating is that because of this particular history of media censorship, South African artists who were adults before the early 1990s are potentially quite sophisticated when it comes to seeing through the screen of international media conglomerates packaging of Africa for domestic and global consumption. Today a different kind of censorship is in place - where before lack of access to information was used as a means of control, now a flood of images via internet and television perform another kind of blanking out of the image, like the daily paper that covers the face of the man in Heartfield's anti-Nazi photomontage.
Pierre Bourdieu has examined, in the European context, the ways in which inane information, the fast-food of predigested thought, media self-referentiality, and spectacular stereotyped images tend to censor out what might otherwise be considered important news, thus reducing the true content of the communications media to communication itself.7 When it is a question of what, for example, Americans get to see on T.V. about the conditions in which people live overseas, the local problems of stereotyping and censoring are multiplied. And what of the content of "local" news abroad, repackaged and sent back as it is today so often by multinational American or European-based media conglomerates like CNN, Reuters, or Time Warner?
One might argue that electronic media (as photography and film before it) both bring the images of others near, and set them apart. Television, especially the news, is a voyeuristic technology, one that allows scrutiny at a safe distance. When the subject of the media is also the one watching, the result goes beyond classic Marxist alienation. A perception of the self becomes somehow uncannily other, unfamiliar, but also infinitely reproduced and no longer just individual - as if the self were transformed into something bigger than one-self, something multiple, and cinematic.
The problem is complicated further when we speak of the representation of non-western people through these media. The standardization and cultural stereotyping of the Orient (and the African) has only intensified with the electronic information revolution. The media bring non-local events into the living room, but keep them in the box, at a safer distance than ever before.8 How have South African artists come to terms with the compression, and mindless repetition, of televisual content about home, but from abroad?
For Minnette Vári and a number of her South African contemporaries the print and televisual media technologies are not merely neutral ideological instruments to be wielded differently depending on who is in power and who is struggling to have their voice heard despite the structure of power. For these artists these images mediated by technologies of mechanical (and now digital) reproduction are perhaps the only way they can come to form an idea for themselves of who they are.
Siemon Allen, who has lived the US since 1996, has been mining the international news media for images of the South African experience. In his recent audio art, Allen, who now lives in Washington, has located the "South African" voice in NPR broadcasts during the botched Florida presidential vote-count. The result is Marais/Brand, a mixture of white noise from Lyndon Johnson's phone conversation tapes, musical samplings from South African exiled pianist Dollar Brand, and court testimony by a man named Marais - the republican party's statistics expert during the Bush/Gore fiasco - all these things were heard by the artist while working in his studio. The American context is abstracted, or silenced for a moment, in each case: Dollar Brand is "here" but playing "African Piano" - the Johnson Tapes are just used for their static - and we only hear the answers, not the questions posed to Marais - a man whose accent, and Afrikaner name, ought to make one wonder how a white South African, from a country where statistics were used for racialist ends for 50 years, could possibly be an expert on a Florida ballot, itself divided along racial lines.
This audio work is Allen's effort to find himself, or traces of a conflicted South African experience familiar to him, in the overwhelming flood of petty information coming over the radio during the long presidential election. Somehow, amidst the barrage of information, we can hear a struggle for the soul of South Africa, in the head of a countryman abroad. At moments it seems as if Dollar Brand's frenetic playing is desperate to shout down the monotonous drone of the statistics expert's voice.
In a related fashion, but from the other side of the Atlantic (and the Equator), Minnette Vári's video work Alien bit-maps her body onto television scenes of South Africa broadcast around the time of the first free elections in 1994. Some of these are images which she photographed from the TV set she watched when snowed-in in a hotel room in Detroit, when visiting the United States. Though they were scenes from her native country, their packaging seemed foreign to her experience of life in South Africa at the time. Back home in South Africa, she re-animated these photographs and others from the television, and awkwardly inserted her own body and the sound of her own heartbeat into each frame. In the video the contours of her stripped-down and shaved body, a body whose cultural trappings have been mostly removed, are jammed into different forms: a praise singer at Mandela's inauguration, neo-traditional dancers at a corporate expo, right-wing Afrikaner separatists riding to a rally in the back of a VW van, a photographer escorted away from a riot by a policeman, and the Truth and Reconciliation hearings among other things.
These are the spectacular scenes of her country's history, but Vári's body does not fit properly in them, not without an almost comical distortion of the figure. Through this work Vári asks,
“How can one not be tempted to divine one's own destiny from the televisual tarot of global media? There were times when, told in the language of international news, the histories of my country would unfold in unrecognizable ways, and my place within these stories would become disjointed and unbearable. I wanted to speak of the discomfort of a thousand ill-fitting interpretations. . . . We need all the individual fragments we can find in order to anticipate the places our histories could take us.” 9
Alien is a serious work of art, with a radical agenda, and so it makes fun of the international media packaging of South Africa - makes it look somewhat stupid, like Heartfield's blind and deaf newspaper reader. But Vári slits open this hegemonic image, revealing the ways that the world desires to see Africa as always alien and other - and the same mirror of otherness that those in Africa also end up, reductively, self-identifying with. This is how she gets herself on T.V.. The result looks extremely odd, a bit ridiculous. Because it is just not possible? The way the artist attempts to splice herself back into these scenes means to de-alienate them, but fails to do so. The result instead is a radical revelation of the process of construction of the televisual image, not a successful reinsertion of the familiar self into that spectacularized vision of the self. Vári's intent is to "tear at the fabric of different realities, severing images from their origin and cleaving apart the logic of their familiarity." And ironically she looks to these fragments of mediated history as the means to anticipate and construct a coherent image of her historical and worldly place in the present.10 Writing oneself into history like this is painful, it cuts deeply. Is it possible that some of the images now on T.V. are also things the artist herself would rather not see, reminders of her own blindness to events in her country's recent history?11 It is the difficulty in looking such historical blindness in the face that Alien attempts to initiate.
Where Alien replaces the artist's body in the televisual terrain, Oracle attempts a different kind of South African portrait: one where the subject rabidly ingests the media image, unable to be sated. It is less an interrogation of the media itself than of the way the individual ingests the media image, mirrors it, and thus defines their own shape. A piece of meat, made up of T.V. pictures, is chewed and swallowed and choked upon and spat out over and over again. The devoured imagery is representative of local concerns such as the status of women, rights to agricultural land, and AIDS pestilence and death. These correspond roughly, in Vári's view, to the children of Chronos, or Saturn - and the look of the video is that of Goya's horrific Saturn Devouring His Children. But this is clearly a woman's body devouring - so much more horrific then, this image of a mother swallowing, and coughing up, her children. It remains ambiguous whether she is being force-fed or whether she is hungrily devouring whatever the televisual serves up (even if it is her own children). The figure is disgusting to watch. For Vári, though, this tortured scene is a portrait, "that becomes the setting for a more personal interrogation of the history that has shaped who I am".12
Is it safe to say that Vári and Allen, and their artist colleagues, are dreaming up what a global view of post-apartheid, beyond the electoral sense, might look like - despite the international media vacuum about that country (and its continent) on any issue not related to civil war, dictatorship, or the AIDS epidemic? These are artists who in the modernist tradition of self-conscious commentary on materials, work not just with the media as their media, as their found objects, but who question the very structure of those media. All of this, I think, has a bearing on the politics (and the technology) of identity construction in Africa today.
1 One could consider any number of similar collage works from the same period, by Picasso or his colleagues in cubism. This image is reproduced in Garry Apgar et al. The Newspaper in Art Spokane: New Media Ventures, 1996. p. 143.
2 Reproduced in Apgar, p. 189.
3 Net Condition, Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 2001. p.8-9.
4 Ibid. p. 32.
5 Ibid. p. 33.
6 I discuss this at greater length in my doctoral dissertation, The Struggle for Art at the End of Apartheid Columbia University, Department of Art History and Archeology, 2002.
7 See Pierre Bourdieu On Television (trans. P. Ferguson) New York: The New Press, 1998.
8 See David Morley and Kevin Robins Spaces of Identity New York: Routledge, 1995. p.133 et passim.
9 Minnette Vári Artist's statement, 1998.
11 From personal communication, January 2003: "…I grew up under a blanket of enforced amnesia, erasure, misinformation, silence and lies - and this must have caused a most peculiar, not to mention cozy, blindness - but also a gnawing, nauseating and ubiquitous un-ease…"
12 Minnette Vári Eating History. Devoured by time. (A statement about Oracle) 1999.
John Peffer is Visiting Assistant Professor of African Art History at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. He is currently teaching an African art survey, visual culture methodology course, and seminars on traditional and modernist art in Africa and the Diaspora.
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Essay: Mistaken Media
Minnette Vári biography