Chapter 2: ‘This existentialist feeling of disconnection’

Continuation of the edited transcriptions of discussions and conversations which took place during the Very Real Time 3 residency (Cape Town, March-April 2012). For chapter 1, see last weeks post.

Milena Bonilla
For me its been quite strange to be here because I experienced again the paranoia of walking down the street, and having the feeling that I need to have eyes in the back of my head…which is why I left Bogota. You might have this idea that if I am coming from a country that is in so much conflict, or has seen so much conflict, there are certain things I can understand. Certainly there are a lot of things I can get, maybe my interpretation of things here are different from somebody from France, or from Scandinavia. Maybe these people would be really shocked to see the townships. For me, its completely normal, it’s like, okay, we have that too. Actually ours are better built than here.

But, the fear is related to one’s personality. I mean, my work was very much about the city at one stage, I was really taking a lot of risks when I was younger. When I was doing this project with the buses (Transitory Map); I was always with somebody but we were taking these risks and we were going everywhere on the buses, from the bottom of the city to the top, from North to South and we always ended up in the weirdest places, which I had never been to before, and for some reason it was very enjoyable. I really liked it; I did it for two years… But something changed during this time. I think as you grow, there are things that you have to face more directly and in the places I was living, I realized that I was being very courageous for some reason but also that gradually I was starting to become calmer. I was taking less drugs, I was partying less, I was having less adventures with my friends or driving with somebody completely wasted at two in the morning to the Bronx – that’s an area that is also called the Bronx because its the area with all the homeless people squatting places and its regulated by crime. You can trade there: drugs, weapons, organs, everything – and that was my life, you know, I was really embracing as much as I could some very hectic, sordid stuff. But, I moved away from it, and when that happened, I came down to Earth.

Gregg Smith
How old were you?

Milena Bonilla
I was in my 20’s. This intensive life was my whole period at university, in fact it was really nourishing my work there, my work was about power relationships in the city. I start to make some fictions and I was drawing comics about this relationship between urban culture and nature, because I had been very interested in nature somehow.

But at the end of my living in Bogota, the work with the urban space reached a point in which I couldn’t enjoy it anymore. And then I had to move to Holland. For four years, I was really wanting to leave. Not because I was necessarily sick of the art scene there but I was sick of the country, I was sick of the government, I was sick of the city. I really didn’t enjoy anymore having to smell and breathe a lot of bullshit from the busses. It was very sad because I was in love with Bogota for fifteen years, more or less, but then it just dropped in a very bad way.

So, its weird because I found that when I go to another place, even if its safe – I mean I could be in Helsinki, you know; people kill themselves because they are bored – I behave very much like a cat. I hide for a while and then I start to deal with my own fears, of people, of the environment or whatever. So I knew that somehow that would happen here, but then I realized that what made it more wierd was the fact that I went to Johannesburg a few weeks before coming to Cape Town.   I really wanted to see the city centre of Johannesburg, we were in a suburb, nearby old Mandela’s house, and Kentridge’s house and I was feeling like, I would like to be in a place in which I can at least see people walking in the street! Now I’m in this kind of bunker, completely safe, being driven here and there, and we jump from the restaurant to the theatre and from the theatre to the hotel and from the hotel to Kentridge’s house… So it was a completely fictional encounter with Johannesburg. There was something beautiful about the city because it’s the biggest manmade forest, in the human history and we went to the top of a hill with Kentridge and I saw the whole city and I was amazed by it because its completely built but at the same time it feels kind of, tropical and nice. So those things, they were little pieces of the window opening but then you couldn’t see anything else because the Rolex people were completely freaked out about us taking risks.

Ray du Toit
This may be a surprising thing but I feel that as well. I feel in a strange way disconnected from here like I don’t quite belong here, even though I’ve lived here my whole life.

Gregg Smith
I think what Ray’s talking about is to a certain extent generation specific, it would be interesting to hear Kira’s point of view for example.

Kira Kemper
I feel very angry that you say that. I started school just after Apartheid ended (in 1995 I was in Grade 1) so my experience of education and growing up was a mixed one, blacks and whites and all children went to schools together so there was no segregation at that point. So in that way I feel just as much an African as anyone else and I think from that perspective I feel quite protective over my country and I feel like I belong here. I think it’s not helpful to feel like you don’t belong here.

Gregg Smith
But Ray’s feeling of being disconnected is also to do with the time he grew up in.

Kira Kemper
Ja, ja. It was a very different time, I can imagine.

Ray du Toit
Let me explain…I grew up during the Cultural boycott, and as a wayward kind of kid, I was interested in alternative music for example, but at that time you just couldn’t get any of that here. You had the public broadcaster that played very boring pop music and that was it.

Julia Rosa Clark
I’m sure that in Russia it was the same, or in Colombia.

Ray du Toit
Maybe, but I think we are very isolated here. It also has to do with fact that the price of Internet here is one of the highest in the world and its also one of the slowest. If you’re someone who’s interested in discovering things on Youtube, you’re starting with a disadvantage.

But it’s not just that. It interested me, the way Milena was talking about Jo’burg, everything she said, I was thinking, ‘Ja, I feel like that, I feel like that’ and really what I meant was, you could be talking about me, as a South African. I was like, ‘Wow! We are all foreigners’. And I was thinking about their trip to Sutherland as well, you know, I really love traveling to the Karoo and I’ve been doing road trips around South Africa my whole life. My family and I are big road trippers, but honestly, I feel more of a foreigner sometimes in my country than I do in most of Europe. Europe I find so easy. Even if there’s a language barrier, it’s so easily overcome. Maybe its because it’s also that it is so cosmopolitan that you just fit into the larger demographic of being the other, whereas in South Africa we are all South Africans but, are we, you know?

Gregg Smith
I’ve also sensed that… coming back here and traveling, being confronted with these beautiful landscapes and feeling like a loneliness in front of you. What’s strange is that you’re not even in a social context anymore, it becomes kind of metaphysical…

Ray du Toit
Absolutely. You know, the beauty of traveling, for me… A lot of my trips around South Africa happen because I’m a surfer, so I travel for a purpose, to get from point A to point B – a surfing spot, which is often in the most bizarre parts. You don’t go there because of the area. Like we’ve been exploring the far West coast in the diamond reserves. And these are some of the most apocalyptic places in the world, really, its very interesting. De Beers have destroyed this landscape, thousands of kilometres of it, all the way up into Namibia. So there’s these landscapes that are, they’re unbelievable, and again, photographically just so interesting. Goldblatt had actually been in there before… Pieter, Pieter Hugo and I went in there together and some other friends. My point is, its incredibly lonely and desolate out there, and in the context of your residency, I was just very pleased when I heard that they were going to Sutherland. It was strange because I suggested it to Leonid on the first night, something in me just said ‘you guys should go there’. Unfortunately I didn’t think of the full moon thing…

You know, I think it’s important for me to say that I have resolved these issues, internally. I’ve come to terms with it. I don’t suffer from white guilt or any of the easy traps to fall in as post-Apartheid South Africans. When I became adult, let’s say, the very first time I was able to vote was the first democratic elections, so the timing was spot on. It’s not like I was ever had to vote for an Apartheid government…

John Nankin
I think I can compare what you’re saying about this feeling of being an outsider, to living in the 1980’s in Johannesburg. The people I knew, the house I lived in… one of them was doing a Masters, the rest were post-students, and I suppose they were all quite nihilist – there wasn’t a sense of any solution to the South African problem during time. Although a lot of our friends were supporters of what later became the UDF, and some of them were even involved at that stage with the ANC, it wasn’t something one talked about but one sort of knew. But to us that was like a forced optimism. It didn’t seem possible given what we’d seen of the determination and the viciousness of the regime… it didn’t seem possible. So it seemed there was no outcome here and I relate that to stuff that I’d somehow come across in West Berlin during the same period, this sort of frontline city in the Cold War. A lot of artists and musicians were based there for some peculiar reason. I think because it was sponsored as a sort of shop window of the West to the East by the Americans, there were opportunities at one stage for art organisations to base themselves there and that probably created this spectrum of other artists who were just hanging on there. This kind of pointless endgame, which we lived with here as well. Which was somehow difficult to integrate into the consumer optimism of the last, how many years? Since 1990 there was a sort of mainstream optimism in the world which was pervasive, it seemed very churlish to adopt a contrary position to that. It was this new one world market and a time of boom and everybody was just consuming and buying and ‘no’ became a very unfashionable word.

There wasn’t a lot of criticism of capitalist ideology, there was a sense that Communism had failed, that we were all idiots if we had seen it as an alternative, and that we’d been ill-informed, and we’d romantically attached something to it that wasn’t even there, just because of our disgust at what we saw happening in the Western capitalist world. And there wasn’t really a people-centered alternative, you know?

Gregg Smith
Culturally there was also the period of suddenly including the margins after the end of the Cold War. The inclusion of all the peripheries in this strange post-colonial openness and curiosity which obliged artists from the peripheries to be critiqued strictly in terms of their origins.

John Nankin
Yeah, exactly.  And that was a huge shift for people like me because part of your understanding of your identity and your associate’s identities, the people you cleave to, was the sense of trying to imagine an alternative. Obviously on a basic level this was very compensatory for our positions as, our histories as white South Africans, and as much as we would have despised talk of guilt, white guilt, because we (… when I say ‘we’ I speak for me and for people that were like me, even though we’re not all the same obviously, so its not really a generalization, I’m just using ‘we’ ‘cause it sounds silly to just keep saying ‘I’, but of course I’m talking about myself…) we tried to escape that feeling of guilt.

There was a sort of oedipal dimension where one had to turn against one’s parents, one’s father particularly, but one’s parents. You get to a certain age where you start construction your own identity and you see how much your parents were part of the privileges and the belief systems of white South Africa… Even if they weren’t extreme racists or vehement Nationalists, but just by being white South Africans they were contaminated by it. And then one sort of turned, went against that culture and a part of turning against that culture was obviously to mix wherever possible with black people. So we knew black artists and actors and drunkards and rookers (dope-smokers), people you could interact with, and spend time in the townships when you could. These things, if you analyze them, they’re quite artificial actually, synthetic, they’re not a real experience of the mass life, you know, because often we were their kind of mascots in the white world and you only realize afterwards that these visits to shebeens and things were only set up by them and they weren’t real shebeens, they were like a relative’s house and it was like a shebeen, they brought the bottles in and people came to drink with us because we were these white people who’d come in, we were their white friends, you know.

But we also turned away from the labour practices. So for instance, I used to do all my own carrying and when I worked in the theatres, there was no labour, we did everything ourselves. But that was also part of a world-wide ethos that you would have found in London or theatre groups in America even, France… it was part of a sort of progressive socialism coming out of the late 60s. This current had always been there in the West but it came to a head I suppose in the late 60s in Paris, and those ideas spread, even if one was unaware, unconscious, of the roots and the transmission, they affected all of us. So that was one way we escaped, by feeling solidarity perhaps. So we were very poor, we didn’t accumulate money, we worked on these kinds of projects that weren’t profitable, and we sneered at and were in opposition to everything that was successful in the white world, including the art projects and a lot of art and theatre etcetera, that was complicit with that regime. Even if only complicit in the sense of being a whore, being a bedfellow, for survivalist reasons, rather than altogether propagating ideals of Christian’s nationalism. So it was quite a shock, not a shock, but very quick transformation when this barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and between commercialism and alternative or counter-culture attitudes, quickly fell.

Now one had to address a whole lot of other things like, why was it an issue for an artist to earn a living from their work, why that seemed a problem, or was it the artist’s problem that artworks became substitute signifiers of wealth. That’s how the art world works, it’s got nothing to do with the artworks really. So, on our level, why was it an issue? Why did it become an issue? And why were we so scared of success, or did we even have something different to say and was it important and it probably wasn’t, you know? It was a strange time.

But, what is memorable about that time is the derangement of it, the fact that we were, so many of us, suffering from degrees of what I suppose you could call post-traumatic stress. In what I’ve read about post-traumatic stress, you either get the single event, a woman or a child is raped, or a person is in a huge car crash and all their friends die and they were the driver, or they were in a war and they lost. There’s like this single event… And then you get the other kind of post-traumatic trauma when you get a series of traumatic events and that also can produce post-traumatic shock.

Gregg Smith
You mean a series of lesser traumatic events?

John Nankin
A series of small, low-level… you know now we were constantly living with stress; if you went out – that you were going to get a brick thrown at the vehicle you were in, so you would experience yourself, as a white person as a target. There was a stress that the police used to just barge into the house we lived in and break things and kick things about because we were outsiders in the way we looked, in the way we dressed. We dressed like trash because we didn’t aspire to be like everybody else.

Gregg Smith
So the police were just suspicious of you because of the way you dressed, or that you had a history of organizing…

John Nankin
I think the police were suspicious of everybody in Yeoville, they thought they were left-wing Communists and drug users, and English, and they sort of lumped that all together as the sort of ‘other’. I had some really bad experiences.

So anyway, when the South African currency collapsed in 1984 when the world banks pulled in the loans and said, ‘okay, the revolving credit, now you gotta pay or we’re upping the interest rates’ and the Rand went from, I think it was two or three to the dollar to about seven or something, very quickly. Up until that time, in terms of investment in South Africa, there was this obsession with wealthy South Africans about sending their money overseas, in case the worst happened. And one of the legal ways they could do it was by owning artworks. So the artworks they bought at the time were rarely South African artworks, because there wasn’t a huge market overseas for South African art, especially not contemporary art. It had to be international. I think art lovers, cultured wealthy people, supported and bought South African art because they liked it. Linda Goodman’s gallery was going and there were one or to galleries that sold that stuff. But it was only after 1984 when the currency collapsed and suddenly it was really too expensive to buy foreign art that people started to deal in South African art.

But before that, there seemed to be a complete break between the art world and this world that the friends of mine lived in which was this sort of post-student world where you sort of exhibited your work and sometimes a friend would buy it for like, 50 bucks or something. But there was not a chance of earning a living from art. I wasn’t part of the art world anyway, I dropped out of Michaelis in 1967 and then I wasn’t part of the art world after that at all, I worked in theatres and performed…

Milena Bonilla
This existentialist feeling which John describes, it really strikes me. There was a moment in which he was talking, I just started to feel this emotional void, thinking ‘Shit. I don’t understand that shit.’ You know, I cannot enter into this space, even emotionally, and that made me very sad just to see somebody describing his own conflict and his own existential problems with this situation. When somebody is speaking in that deeper honest way, its always very emotionally charged, so I was feeling very moved by what he said.

Leonid Tsvetkov
People are talking about not having a sense of belonging, but that exists everywhere. I spent half my life in one country and the half in another country and I am going back and forth between these places and I don’t really like I belong in either one of them. I am a foreigner everywhere, at least to the people that know me in Russia I’m a foreigner – I have been gone away for almost twenty years and then to the people in the States, I’m always the Russian guy with an accent, and now in Amsterdam, I am just wherever…  But this sense of not belonging it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Gregg Smith
How old were you when you went to the States?

Leonid Tsvetkov
14.

Gregg Smith
And how old were you when the Cold War ended in ‘89?

Leonid Tsvetkov
The Soviet Union fell apart in ’91, ’89 I was 9 years old. Born in 1980.

Gregg Smith
It was kind of the beginning of your adolescence…

Leonid Tsvetkov
Yes.  In ’91 I was in the States for 6 months and I actually remember the moment when Soviet Union split shortly after I went back and then I came back again to the States couple years later.

Gregg Smith
Do you think it was easier for you, being slightly younger at that time than somebody who was, for example, 18 or 25, coming from Russia and trying to live somewhere else?

Leonid Tsvetkov
Yes, I think… If you went through the education system in Russia, if you went through high school and wanted to go to college – it is a very rigid program. You go for five years and you determine right away what you want to do.  It is very predetermined and after you get a job because that is also set up for you.  You have to have a certain frame of mind.  In the States I had a much more open education and I could do things that I could change and choose and work independently.

I studied in different countries: Russia, the States and also Holland.  On top of that most were alternative institutions.  Also very different ones, some established like Yale University and some very experimental like my high school – School WIthout Walls.  There was no way for this kind of school to exist in Russia at the time of the Wall breaking down.  But people here in South Africa also had a similar experience. I’m sure my generation of people from South Africa went through this change in the nineties… They had a similar experience of a shift in culture and society – my generation is also in this transitional state. It is like people who were not able to have a decent education in South Africa and now they are but it is just the first generation and it will create quite a change in the next ten, twenty years. In Russia it happened, this kind of change in education because when the Soviet system collapsed many different schools opened up and it was different outlook. It was not anymore a predetermined, direct path.  It was something you had to create yourself.

I guess for me, my education started with drawing, with drawing people actually.  It opened up a new way of seeing things and this changed everything.   Because of this new outlook I became interested in everything else.  It really opened up my life.  It was this program in School Without Walls that allowed me this. It allowed me to pursue an independent project for a year or longer.  Because of that experience I opened up my interest to everything and actually all the things that I would learned before and didn’t care about, I wanted to relearn again.  I was talking to Carin about Senga, because she is at that age.  It is about how you figure out what to do and I was saying it is the most important thing you have to do because it leads to everything else.  If you have somebody who provides you the opportunity to dive deeper into what you want to do it opens up all sorts of channels for a higher education.  Education should really start with that, that should be the beginning point – realizing what the child is fascinated by. All you can do is to provide a space for this connection to happen.

Gregg Smith
I find it very complicated, there are so many complicated things going on in someone’s development. I know people that have been intensively, studying piano for an amount of time and suddenly it’s too much, and they go into medicine or law…Even when initially if piano was a choice which came from the child, or the young person, it depends on the relationship with the teacher and the training process.

Leonid Tsvetkov
A good mentor can definitely help, but it doesn’t have to be like that; if you can find one you’re lucky, someone you can connect with. But the really important thing is to be able to see the depth by yourself.  In the end all education is self-education and that is where it should start.

Roger Van Wyk
Gregg, I’m curious to know more about your concept of time, what you think this all says about the way we experience time today.

Gregg Smith
Well in terms of time as we experience it today, it seems like the capitalist model is imposing this increasingly accelerated and fragmented experience of time. Even if in our daily lives most of us in the Western world are not confronted with major upheavals and wars and other dramatic phenomena, we are living on very unstable terrain these days, and it is an ongoing effort just trying to stay on one’s path. I think this starts to affect one’s experience of time and to a certain extent I feel like this sort of ambience has been very present in the VRT residency this time round, compared to previous residencies. For both the visitors and the locals, I have the feeling that one is constantly asking one’s self, ‘Is this superfluous, or is it valuable to my own personal trajectory?’ In this way our paths are becoming increasingly narrow and channeled. The aim of Very Real Time is to try analyse the conditions imposed on our experience of time, and to try to find alternatives to the fast track, by placing value on the personal exchanges to allow our paths to maintain a sinuosity and the possibility to profit from our experiences in the present moment. I guess the Internet also plays a strong role in that, its arrival coincides with a trend towards acceleration over the past 15 or 20 years, but it seems like the financial crisis in 2008, really added to this momentum in a radical way.

to be continued…

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