Performing Theory

Words: Kim Gurney

The arts and imagination were integral to this year’s Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism, which investigated how forms permeate contemporary life- worlds and practices 

So what are you up to then?” the taxi driver asks as we make our way to Wits University on a July winter’s morning. And I find myself babbling a vain attempt to explain the Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism (JWTC) to a bemused expression in the rear-view mirror. “Er, well, basically it’s all about the life of forms, and people with different expertise in all sorts of disciplines will be thinking about this together,” I sum up, wondering myself what that means. Anxiety about the days ahead sets in anew. Luckily for me, one of the subsequent sessions will be titled:

“Is Confusion A Form?” A quick study, he shoots back: “So people have come from all over the world for this?” I confess extreme nerves about the academic company and he dispenses advice with the distinct impression the back of his head has heard it all before. “The important thing with these things is to lose all your inhibitions,” he says. “Half of them don’t really even know what they are talking about! I’ll tell you what the secret is …” And with a pause, followed by a great flourish as the kerbside draws near, he animatedly flips the bird. “Take my card! Let me know how it goes!” I offer this oblique introduction to signal an impossible review. In part, it is a case of being struck dumb by the highly-strung conceptual weave of a ten-day theory workshop at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), convened with care and nuance by Julia Hornberger, Kelly Gillespie, Zen Marie, Achille Mbembe and Leigh- Ann Naidoo. Part of their statement for workshop, entitled The Life of Forms, reads: “More than perhaps at any other period of the late modern age, forms permeate contemporary life-worlds and practices, generating effects of various kinds and, in the process, redistributing the sensible. Expressed in physical, social, legal, aesthetic, economic, imaginary, virtual or immaterial terms, they have an effective presence in our culture and make the same claim to reality and immediacy as more tangible artefacts. They have acquired a social life of their own.” The sustained intensity of this intellectual jamboree—with presentations from researchers such as Mbembe, Arjun Appadurai, Ackbar Abbas, Teresa Caldeira, Jane Guyer, Ato Quayson, Eyal Weizman and Sue van Zyl—was a unique experience, the kind of thoughtful knitting one hopes the academy nurtures. But this order of grey-matter intervention is also difficult to summarise or recap. Another way of putting it is to recount that my audio recorder blinked back on the second last day a message never before seen: “Memory full”. As Quayson put it on the last day’s session, events in the world are moving rapidly, matched by an overproduction of theory at the same time. “The more theory, the more incommensurable theory becomes,” he said. “Now more than ever we need theory but in a different form: sensitive to shifts and incommensurabilities.”

The arts and imagination was deliberately cued as part of this year’s JWTC programming, with practitioners including William Kentridge, Neo Muyanga and James Webb. Indeed, Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall have previously written about how the creativity of practice is always ahead of the knowledge produced, contributing to a failure of contemporary scholarship to describe the novelty and originality of Africa in its complexity. Kentridge, who delivered five public JWTC lectures, touched on this when he described the studio as a space to let making jump ahead of thinking and “give yourself over to what the medium provokes”—mastering the provocation while constantly reviewing, a kind of leaning forward in reverse. This after drilling down in subject matter from Plato’s allegory of the cave to Africa to Johannesburg to the studio.

A recurring theme during JWTC was a search for new language and a desire for fresh ways of speaking

The JWTC probably has more in common with contemporary art’s current performative turn than it intends—“performing theory” as one participant put it. I will review then in the spirit of the project by borrowing somebody else’s form: an artistic reflection on the JWTC workshop itself that encapsulated and critiqued it simultaneously. It did so in a quiet, playful and elegant installation in the modus operandi of the trickster, infiltrating the very forum it reflected upon. It managed this by speaking back to the linguistic form of the JWTC itself. As Sarat Maharaj writes in a paper on visual art as knowledge production (2009), there is “thinking through the visual” and then there is what he calls the somewhat crimped mode of “visual thinking” based on a linguistic model. Talya Lubinksy, a JWTC workshop participant, managed the former with an installation created for the associated exhibition Form/ Formulations. Day by day, she sat in the workshop transcribing notes of participants’ contributions.

She typed excerpts out onto archival cards and made the resulting mass of quotations available to exhibition viewers at the Goethe Institute’s project space at Arts on Main. Viewers were invited to collate these musings into whatever groupings they chose, indicating this with coloured stickers, and hang them onto ordering pegs. They were also free to alter others’ selections and take cards home. Meanwhile, at the same sorting table, a collaborator sat picking up these archival cards and re-transcribing them at random. These sentences were communicated to a third person, seated in a public courtyard outside the gallery with a megaphone, broadcasting the sentences to reanimate them once more.

Picking up the cards at this exhibition was an unnerving experience: on the one hand it was a pithy summary of some key contributions; they also carried a different power devoid of both context and gesture, one might even say the posture of delivery. Related, the archival cards suggested a matter of record against notes, conversations, recollections and other feedback loops. This was particularly poignant on the exhibition’s opening night as Ntone Edjabe, editor of Chimurenga, had just been fabulously misquoted in a JWTC presentation, ironically in a session called “Cooking Data”—one of the first archive cards I chanced upon put the correct quote to rest. I filed it immediately on a group peg for mistranslations. Workshop participants who interacted with this artwork were in this way re-enacting their original spoken performances, selecting words (theirs or others) and giving them “a social life of their own”. These dissembled sentences also revealed something about their potential beauty. A recurring theme during JWTC was a search for new language and a desire for fresh ways of speaking that reflected differently joined conceptual dots, a new discourse, fresh thoughts, novel formats and ultimately imaginaries. Lubinsky’s work drew attention to both the richness of the words used in this endeavour, and the paucity of language at the same time.

This artwork repeated itself at a Cape Town exhibition a month later at the Michaelis Gallery. Viewing it this time in a new context, a different meaning offered itself: this constantly morphing archive not only plays with communication strategies but comments upon the shifting nature of knowledge production itself, and the interplay of power and chance in the record’s presence and absence. I played my part by picking a hole. I took a card as memento. It reads: “We are doing this because we are alive”

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