Inside the Outside. An artists view of Johannesburg.

by Stephen Hobbs

Text for 'Total Global' - South Africa, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Basel, Switzerland. Organised by Samuel Hertzog.

In cultural and artistic terms, inner city Johannesburg's uncertain and paradoxical status offers such fertile territory for exploring its many contradictory functions. With the advent of the new democratic government in 1994, the inner city changed overnight. It was only a matter of time before white owned businesses evacuated the inner city in droves (although this had already begun in the early Eighties). Part of the challenge with cultural initiatives, such as Biennales, Music and Dance Festivals and Urban Futures conferences today, is to remind oneself of one's audience. That is, for whom do such events carry meaning?

Without support from the public, sustainability, becomes the defining factor in the continuation and growth of such programmes. In so many instances projects fail, precisely because of a lack of acknowledgement of the multi-layered, fragmented society that constitutes Johannesburg. Given these conditions, attempting to define any notion of a cultural centre would be counter productive. Rather, this problem of audience is better addressed through the recognition of a path of networked connections - between practitioners, institutions, public facilities, the media and so on. In order to do this however, it is necessary to identify where various cultural communities and racial groups are located, as the order of separate development (defined under Apartheid) still appears to be prevalent.

Inner city Johannesburg, has in many parts, become an overnight transit lounge for many black African traders from the continent, and in other parts these migrancy patterns have resulted in illegal settlement. This territorialisation process has seen the values and general standards of these once glamorous cosmopolitan neighbourhoods, literally transform into hostile no go zones.

Yet, within these situations, there is a breed of proud inner city youth who want to complete their education and, by forging a better sense of community, begin to stabilise their neighborhoods. While this is taking place on the east side of the city, the west side is still suffering the effects of the Group Areas act, enforced under Apartheid. Indian and coloured communities remain, quite drastically, segregated. And even further west we find the black township of Soweto in area alone, one and a half time's bigger than the entire layout of Johannesburg, with a parallel population count. Large numbers of the white population are identifiable along the East and South Rand gold mining belts. However the most significant migration of whites from the city centre can be plotted from the Braamfontien ridge, through the leafy suburbs and shopping malls of Sandton and Hydepark, to the office parks of Midrand (some thirty kilometres away). Where the majestic horizon line of the city, is barely visible through the haze.

On 3 April 1904 the fire brigade set the original inner -city locations and Brickfields alight, destroying everything in the conflagration. The area was surveyed and replanned and with unseemly haste renamed Newtown by October 1904 - a commercial area near the goods - yards where vast fortunes in milling, produce, sugar, and food merchandising would one day be made. Thus began Johannesburg's long history of 'urban renewal', whereby black residents were progressively pushed further to the west onto acrid waste sites beyond the townlands, and newly concocted titles replaced old site names erased both from the map and from human consciousness. (Clive M.Chipkin, Johannesburg Style, Pg 198)

Today this area, still known as Newtown, is most famous for its cultural precinct. This small account in history serves as an indicator of an ingrained tendency within Johannesburg to keep reinventing itself. The Newtown Cultural Precinct, a much-debated initiative of the former Director of Culture, Christopher Till, began around 1994. The entire area is made of light industry buildings, cold storage facilities, granaries, an old turbine building and a gigantic electrical factory. Some of the above having been identified as part of yet another process of spatial reclamation. In this instance for the culture industry, with the view to locating and building South Africa's global identity in; jazz, theatre, dance, the fine arts and so on.

At the heart of this is the Market Theatre, a multi-disciplinary arts complex, famous for its resistance theatre in the late 70's and 80's. And long before the fall of apartheid, home and meeting point for multi cultural interaction and anti - apartheid expression. In many respects this complex, although regularly threatened and banned by the police, still managed to promote equality for all by redefining a sense of community, through protest actions.

At present, virtually all-cultural and artistic institutions, including the Market Theatre, are facing the pervasive threat of closure, or at best radical restructuring, in order to survive.

The Urban Futures Conference and Cultural Programme, initiated by the architecture department of the University of the Witwatersrand in July this year, could not have come at a more urgent time. The primary aim was to evaluate sustainable urban growth in the context of rapid globalisation.

In his foreword to the programme of the conference and its associated cultural events, the Mayor of Johannesburg describes contemporary cities as "the birthplace of a multifaceted citizenship", the "decisive locations" of economic, technical and social development. Of course, cities are also the sites of complex cultural codes, spaces which tend to distil the broader concerns of the national citizenry. Their success or failure in terms of the paradigmatic modern city is inextricable from the ways in which they signify within their immediate cultural contexts. (Brenda Atkinson: "Inner City, Outer City: South Africa's Urban Futures", Beaux Arts: Art du Monde catalogue essay)

Tour Guides of the Inner City was the Market Theatre Galleries' contribution to the Urban Futures cultural programme. As its starting point, the exhibition took into consideration the fact that the fragmented, disordered states of Johannesburg could be revisited through the visual interpretation of artists. More specifically though, the exhibition aimed to interrogate the spaces left behind after apartheid. How is the city used today? And what can be learned from it's evolving identity, from once-white-owned metropolis to present day African City.

The key purpose in designing this project was to make an argument for revisiting the inner city. In order to fully understand Johannesburg, one has to look at the nature of contact and interaction between people in the landscape. The form in which the contact takes place, where and with whom, is important if one is to understand the various codes that have been set by a collective social psyche of xenophobia, racism and fear.

Playfully, the curatorial concept for this exhibition was predicated on the marketability of urban safaris - in this case selling Johannesburg's inner city as an adventure experience. Metaphorically, modernist cities are almost always described as jungles - only this "tour" traversed an "urban jungle" built through the eyes of artists. Its fabric, in part reconstituted from memory and nostalgia, was a visualisation of the present and an engagement with the future.

In the imagination of the global consumer and traveller, Johannesburg features as a single sign - Danger - a place to be darted into from the airport while in transit, a place from which to escape with one's life and a few good buys. While visitors might enter its suburban agglomeration of First World shopping malls, few venture into the inner city itself. But it is here where things get interesting. (Brenda Atkinson: "Inner City, Outer City: South Africa's Urban Futures", Beaux Arts: Art du Monde catalogue essay)

Essentially, the exhibition staged a series of portraits of various inner city issues. And a range of exhibition contexts were required to support the diverse modes through which the artists' ideas functioned. The exchange between public realm, gallery space, World Wide Web and other satellite venues offered a way of demonstrating the various levels at which interaction and contact with ideas could find new meanings, both for the artist and for the viewer. And in a much broader way reveal conditions within the city.

The media release for Tour Guides announced a selection of the urban interventions that would comprise the public realm component:
Elements of the exhibition include mobile features such as Wayne Barker's mobile photographic studio which will shoot you in locations you would normally avoid and Alastair Mc Lachlan's video projection bus which will tour the city according to a route of video - interactive murals. Performance by "Melodi" free form tap ensemble which demonstrate the frenetic hustle -bustle of the pavements and streets of Jo'burg. See Robin Rhode break into a drawing of a car. Be bombarded by the postcard propaganda of Marlaine Tosoni. Discover transforming and otherwise neglected landscapes in the billboard works of Jo Ractliffe and Clive van den Berg or happen upon Rodney Place's images from the great flood of '94. And enjoy a range of public video projections by Usha Prajapaat, Mark Dunlop and Jose Ferreira to name a few.

Each one of these interventions was designed and positioned within the city in such a way as to capitalise on a transitory audience. The works themselves had to be seen by as many people as possible, but it in a surreptitious way, so as not to impose meaning. Quite naively though, this approach of action and reaction, could not have been better demonstrated, than in the outcome of Marlaine Tosoni's post card project.

At 4: 00 p.m. on Tuesday 11 July, during a tea break for the conference delegates at the Electric Workshop in Newtown, the "Tour Guides" team of assistants, film crew and various other conference organisers, awaited the Under Heaven (Alien / Native) project by Marlaine Tosoni. Unbeknown to the delegates, they would be bombed by 1500 postcards from a small airplane flying some 1000 feet above them.

The weather conditions on Tuesday 11 July were no different to that of the test run (the week before) and the pilot knew that the drop zone was located at the entrance to the Electric Workshop. At this point, delegates were making their way out of the building to take their break. The plane could be seen from the north and took about 10 minutes to circle the area so as to drop in altitude and find the correct position. Finally, as the plane approached it flanked the drop zone to the left, dropped the postcards and flew off. At exactly the same time a strong gust of wind blew the cards towards the business district surrounding Diagonal Street. We were completely stunned. What was perhaps the most poetic and spectacular event planned in the exhibition went by totally unseen.

However several minutes later, a group of street children descended on us from Diagonal Street, each of them displaying handfuls of the Alien / Native cards that they had picked up off the streets. They were selling them back to us for R5 each.

Due to the pilot's error in judgement, a project whose original meaning was about citizenship and xenophobia, became about an unearthing of very real social and economic needs identifiable at ground level.

In retrospect, Tour Guides of the Inner City could have concluded itself with this ironic twist of events. Effectively, the city had redefined the meaning that Tosoni had intended for her work. At the risk of sounding sentimental perhaps this was the lesson that we needed to learn. That the city is unpredictable by nature, given this account, is obvious. But using art to question such a context requires a sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms that underpin human endeavour, and of the broader socio - economic framework that determines such endeavour.

As mentioned earlier, this exhibition was built upon observations made by artists, in the acknowledgement that their methods of interpretation give insight into this place called Johannesburg.

In closing, I wish to end with an artist's anecdote exhibited as part of the Jo'burg Stories exhibition at the Market Theatre Galleries, which preempted Tour Guides of the Inner City.

The Great Flood of '94 by Rodney Place

Last year I was living with my girlfriend in Melville, on the near west side of Johannesburg, and travelling every day to my studio on the near east side. Once a day I went back and forth through the valley of the smart buildings next to the railway line where the city grid, with a sideways shudder, starts to climb the hill called brow, it's where the city looks like the bridge of a ship whose deck stretches south. I was coming home one evening, travelling as usual into the setting sun. A water main had burst along this built cliff edge of Hillbrow and water was streaming down the curb at the side of the street. There was a homeless guy - dressed in a dense kind of jacket, but shredded like the thick molting coats of American bison. He knelt, then lay on his stomach, his chin over the stream of water, his body spread flat across the pavement.

I hardly ever think of myself as transcendental - almost not at all - but there was something very like the collapse of time. The city collapsed into a simple and very old landscape. The man had destroyed Johannesburg in one long gulp.

I suppose I had wished that I had had a camera, but there really isn't a lens wide enough for this kind of catastrophe.

Stephen Hobbs October 2000


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