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Joburg Dredd

Ok so I want to show you two clips. Two texts that engage with and represent Johannesburg in two very different ways. The first is a work that I made about a double-decker highway in Johannesburg. The second clip uses Johannesburg as a prop, a dislocated mise en scene in order to produce a dystopic fantasy city: Mega City 1.

I will show both clips together, one after the other and then go on to attempt to provoke questions about the city, its image, its imagination.

First a little background. I moved to Johannesburg as a young boy, from Durban – a city on the coast. By contrast Johannesburg was bleak, cold, desolate, dry and inhospitable – not marked by any redeeming feature.  By contrast, Durban was vibrant, hot, humid, and marked by the ebb and flow of the Indian ocean.  Please forgive these idealized, romantic and perhaps reactionary images – they where the impressions of a 6 year old. Much has changed since then.

What really bothered me about Johannesburg was the dislocation I felt. I never felt like I truly belonged, I never felt properly orientated, I never felt like I truly knew it.

What I have come to understand in my years living in Johannesburg since, is that I was not alone. Johannesburg was and still is a gold rush city. Born in the late 1800’s, everyone who lives in Johannesburg has come from somewhere else. No one truly or totally knows the city, and this non-knowledge is important. It is an important mode of navigating the city. It is an important method of living in the city.

Knowing is more than understanding – empirically, existentially or otherwise. It is not about recognition or identification, it is about being. Claiming knowledge of a space is to at once locate oneself in that space and to lay claim to a kind of ownership. With this ownership comes a sense of self in relation to space. Johannesburg denies this in a broad sense. It is a fragmented perhaps even schizophrenic city. There are the obvious historical features of apartheid and current social and economic factors that we can cite here.

But as a person who claims Johannesburg, despite my cynicism – or perhaps because of my cynicism, I want more.

I want to convert this non-knowledge into a productive force. Again, while I am not 6, there is still an element of idealism at work, but I don’t apologize for this now.

Because I don’t know the city, because I cant claim some kind of proprietary identification with the city, this means that the city is denied the same of me. If I don’t know Johannesburg, it can’t know me. In this lies a space, a gap – albeit a very small one.

This space is one where I am not interpolated in the same way as I am in Durban. I am due to misrecognition rendered somehow anonymous. But does this mean that I can do as like? That I can imagine myself as I wish? Perhaps not.

I am not saying that Johannesburg is a space democratic and equal for everyone to imagine freely. No. Johannesburg is rife with class, race and gendered divisions that privilege and deny such fanciful imaginations of being and not being.

What I am saying is that to exist in Johannesburg is to embrace the very features of it that foreclose any equality and access. This is not utopian, but a very cynical acceptance of dystopia that every citizen of Johannesburg performs in some way. The scars that the city marks on its inhabitants are worn with a jaded sense of pride. We selectively brag and share our trauma in ways that are disquieting and disturbing.

In this sense Johannesburg becomes the stage for a perverse kind of performance. It is the ground, which was once desolate, then filled with gold, then rich with the fantasies desires, neurosis and paranoia of its people, itinerant, aggressive and fundamentally human. It was, is and always will be a gold rush town.

This idea of Johannesburg as a device for imagining does not stop here. The city has long played host to projects and projections from the outside. Speculators, financiers, multinationals, prostitutes, bootleggers and artists have all thrived in Johannesburg. Moving in, moving out, prospering and imagining from inside and outside. Judge Dredd’s Mega City 1 is an example of such an imagining from outside. In fact Johannesburg is flexible enough to cinematically stand in for a future American dystopia, present day Los Angeles or a New York of the past. But yet, it is still Johannesburg and as Johannesburg has been the locus for a generation of actions and imaginings in the performing and visual arts.

Johannesburg has in the years since electoral democracy especially been a location for site specific artist production. Foreign cultural institutions, German, French, British, Swiss, Dutch and others have reveled in an orgy of commissioning energy. Independent artists, collectives and even large scale public art works have used Johannesburg as stage to develop methods and aesthetics of how to work in, through or alongside the urban. And here the gritty non-knowledge of Johannesburg proves to be the most excellent of hosts. It was at once dispositif, device and mise-en-scene. Johannesburg: the fantasy of African depravity, but with European convenience.

If we look at the clip from Judge Dredd we see this clearly albeit hyperbolically. Johannesburg exists as a prop, a base ground on which to build the fictitious Mega City 1.  This use of a city to build fantasy, fiction or science fiction is not new. Think of the relation between bat man’s Gotham city or Super Man’s metropolis and New york. What is different with Johannesburg in Dredd is that you loose Johannesburg in the fabrication of Mega City 1.

The specter of New york is never lost in Gotham city or Metropolis. New york is iconic, and more so, it is hyperbolically iconic: recognizable without having to be shown. It never totally disappears as a referent, however dark and abstract directors of Batman push the scenography of the film. It could possibly be argued that Johannesburg, not knowing itself with any certainty, suffers from a kind of  misplaced New York identification.

In Dredd there is a direct use of filmed footage of Johannesburg, but in a way that relies on the principal of mis-recognition. While people in Johannesburg may recognize certain features, it is assumed that majority of the audiences will not. This strategy of mis-recognition, aids the principal of suspension of disbelief that is more similar to how Sydney Australia is the mise-en-scene for the first Matrix film.

In Dredd, Johannesburg becomes the ground to imagine a dystopic future America: New York to Washington. Mega city 1 draws on images of protest from unidentifiable Arab spring protest and more substantially appropriates images of Johannesburg. While many scenes are untreated, the more spectacular ones graft impressive and extraordinarily monumental CGI structures onto footage of Johannesburg. In this filmic strategy there is an implicit disdain for South African audiences who would recognize and locate the fantasy created, thereby breaking the suspension of disbelief.

At the moment there is an advertising campaign by the tourist authority called I’m a Geepee, which means I am from Gauteng province – the Provence where Johannesburg lies.

The campaign is an effort to build an identity of belonging. It tries to say that we are one, we are together, it attempts to assert a kind of ownership of the city by a hip urban type of Joburger. Besides being myopic in its exclusion of many other demographics (besides the hipster) this campaign does not realize that the spirit of jhb, is one of mis-identification. This fiction would be cute if it were not so perversely off the mark and flagrantly spitting in the face of the lived fucked-up-ness of Johannesburg. It is clear that Johannesburg consists of  series of disjunctures, a series of non-connections that are unavoidable. It is the space of a non-recognition that is as vital and dynamic as it is oppressive and cynical. It is a city where not-knowing is at once a navigational tool, a method and a madness. It is a way of not being that is something.

In this Johannesburg is not alone.  To imagine a city, to imagine an urban environment, is implicitly to engage with a politics of not-knowing. Of not being.





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