CONABOR

A caution, dear reader, a warning from the outset that this post is a return to the characteristics of my earlier writings on this site; scenic route verbal meanderings. However, do not despair though, as I do, as always, eventually get to the point. You see, I agree with Mary Oliver’s observation that “attention without feeling is only a report.” You see, there must be an “openness”, an empathy, for me the attention must matter.

Impartiality is something I have struggled with in the academic world. Impartiality is just not me because I am certainly no removed observer. The reality is though, that none of us are. We colour everything we see and experience with…well, ourselves… and who we were and who we are and who we are to become. There must be an openness about how we affect what we report, and I’m not even talking about empathy here. Our points of view are unique and there is no impartiality. We need to admit that.

My art practice is definitely evidence of this, with my body and lived experience always being at the centre of it. Therefore my attention to even an academic field of study is coloured with feeling, not merely a point of view but my feeling! This translates into my writing, which although academia has often frowned upon it, I have pushed the limits of by embracing the personal. My Master’s dissertation is an example of this.

You see, if personal writing is telling one’s story, then academic writing analyses and evaluates that story and comments on it. “I” is at the centre of storytelling while in academic writing, the “I” is observer and commentator. I never could understand why the 2 could not live in harmony in academia. Certainly personal writing contains the writer’s experiences and personal views and feelings. But I believe academics were fooling themselves when they believed in an objective observer and writer. Hell, artists having been saying for years that art is subjective, and feminists supported this, claiming that the actual body is political.

Fortunately, academia is changing and becoming more inclusive and accepting. You see, there is very little point in writing something if nobody is going to read it. Imagine reams and reams of postgrad dissertations yellowing, gathering dust and fishmoths in every academic institution’s archives across the world, most only being read whilst being assessed and then never again.  So there is a movement now to make academic writing more readable and more relatable. So less jargon and less dense convoluted thinking and sentence structures, and more involvement, and, you guessed it…emotion! More relatable! This does not mean that as academics we cease to gather information from other sources in order to support and provide evidence of our personal points of view. We do, but now we are acknowledging the personal.

“Learn a little about the man and I guarantee you will look at his art differently,” I said that, and that is the value of writing critically about art, especially one’s own art. To quote one of my favourite authors on what he has to say about personal writing, Neil Gaiman:

Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything.

Having a place the story starts and a place it’s going: that’s important.

Telling your story, as honestly as you can, and leaving out the things you don’t need, that’s vital…Because we all have stories. Or perhaps, because we are, as humans, already an assemblage of stories. And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.

I always hope that my writing is evidence of how to write reflexively and with emotion. Certainly my battles with my academic lecturers/mentors/assessors have left me with the self-belief that, for better or worse, I do write mostly with a pen that has been dipped into my innards. This is not to say that I do not adhere to the rigours of academia. I most certainly do, and thrill at the challenge. To be honest, the identifying of a problem and constructing a way to possibly solve it, and then arguing the hypothesis, is something I have become addicted to. In fact, having just completed my Master’s I am already contemplating my doctorate.

In the past, the study of Latin was considered the best suitable foundation and preparation for a life in academia. In fact Latin was once the universal academic language in Europe, and was even taught in middle and upper class schools to those who aimed for the highest level of education. Even today this so-called dead language continues to haunt Western academic traditions like some musty old ghostly schoolmaster. Many of our schools are emblazoned with Latin credos (even out here in Africa). Think of that movie with Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society, and the Latin phrase, carpe diem. Even the working class high school I attended, Queensburgh Boys’ High, incorporated a Latin word, conabor, in its badge. A verb, first-person singular, future active: I shall try; I shall attempt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite it being described as a dead language, Latin didn’t actually die. It changed, evolved, as languages do, in this case into the so-called Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. So why was it still taught at schools? Well, largely to instil academic rigour. Firstly, learning another language teaches one to understand one’s own language “better”. Having studied Spanish I can certainly attest to this. So learning Latin was important because it taught one to read, write and speak English “better”. Studying Latin forced one to focus on grammar, syntax and parts of speech. These are things we do without any reflection because we have learned to speak English from birth by imitating. Latin, however, is an exercise in concentrated thought. It has a rigid sentence structure and rules which must be applied: nouns are declined, verbs are conjugated, and adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in gender, number and case.  Therefore for every sentence we must consider whether a word is a subject, a predicate, a direct object, an indirect object or part of a prepositional phrase. In short, we have to learn sentence structure and parts of speech, and have to therefore use the language reflectively, with consideration and forethought, rather than intuitively. Awareness of language and how we construct and express our realities through its structures is at the centre of most modern/postmodern thinking.

Many of Western civilisation’s schools of thought originated in the cultures who spoke Latin. Philosophy, medicine, science and art as we understand them today all sprang from Latin’s users and were expressed through its structures. In this soundbite, screenshot, image-grab, social media-obsessed, contemporary society we live in, many people confuse information with knowledge. In an era where we have such easy access to vast amounts of information our attention spans have drastically shrunk, and therefore our ability to focus for any extended period of time. Knowledge is the casualty. As a lecturer I have been witness to this through my students. Believe me when I say that I do not mean to imply that they are stupid, no! But intelligence is no guarantee of wisdom, or knowledge. I hear of these matriculating high school kids receiving multiple distinctions at year-end and I am very sceptical. I believe that they are learning to regurgitate information rather than gaining any real knowledge, or in fact, instruction on how to think, to analyse, to critique. I have had to deal with what I call the cut&paste generation in my tutorial groups. Both visually (in their making) and in their writing (essays) this lack comes across, and as a result I often I struggle to see the person, the artist. It is all very superficial, surface level stuff. My immediate admonishment is always, “make it personal”! I want to see the artist/author in the making and in the writing. Reflexive, self-aware, authentic creating is what I want to see, and I don’t just talk the talk, I walk the walk because I hold myself up to that standard as well.

And here is my point, dear reader, Latin was exercise for the brain, in the same way that working out with weights exercises your muscles. Similarly I like my art to be rigorous and to provide me with a workout. If it’s not doing that, if it’s not challenging me, if it’s not taking me out of my comfort zone and transforming me as well as others, then it’s likely to be decorative and mundane, and that’s not the type of art I want to be making. Hell, I will be the first to admit that I’m not always successful, that sometimes I crash and burn! But I always try, yes, conabor (I will try), and I make wonderful mistakes, glorious in fact, because I don’t hold back! To quote that most celebrated of Latin aphorisms: Carpe Diem! Seize the freaking day indeed!

This echoes my celebrated buddy, Neil Gaiman’s exhortations:

I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful…And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

You see, making any good art, or any real art, is about a conscious ignorance. It’s about knowing that you do not know and the wonderful irony/incongruity of that. And then going out there and, more than just learning from, but growing from, glorious and fantastic mistakes!

BLOU STEEN/BLUE STONE (2018): REFLECTIONS

It’s just over a week since I dismantled my performance installation in Pretoria , and 4 weeks on from the actual performance of the work informed by my Master’s dissertation. Both were immense tasks of endurance, physically and mentally. The rising of the frosty new stubble on my head marks the passing of this time, these 4 weeks. The entire process, commencing with my insular waxing performance on January 1st, , and including a 10 month, 286 day fast, and culminating in the huge physical task of dismantling my installation on November 2nd, laid waste to me. In part this explains why I have not written about my experiences as yet. I find myself still trying to get to know the creation I have become. The best example, or metaphor?, I can offer to give you an insight into my lived experience is this: in 2012 I performed a shaving ritual (Gaze) removing the hair from my head and body, since then I have grown my hair, rarely even trimming it so that it became this thick, heavy, protective and insulating mass on my head. During the Blou Steen/Blue Stone performance I again shaved my head, planning it, much like the military barbers did, as if it were a piece of wood. In an early evening thunder storm (the High Veld in South Africa is known for these) that followed my performance, the shock of feeling rain on my bare, nude, sensitive head was both truly unsettling and otherworldly. The sensitivity, vulnerability and dislocation I was feeling internally after the performance was exemplified by this physical moment of experiencing the weather in direct contact with the flesh of my newly-exposed scalp.

In performance art the blood is real. My scalp bleeds minutes after the performance.

On the 7 hour drive back to Durban the next morning, I had plenty of time to reflect on the performance experience, and the past months leading up to it. And yet I have still not put it into actual words what it was all actually like. The fact is life and people do not give a damn (about art and sacrifies) and remain demanding. And bills have to be paid, so that Monday I was back in the factory working. As the King (Elvis) said, I was TCB-ing, taking care of business. And before I knew it, 3 weeks had passed and I had to return to Pretoria and the gallery to dismantle my performance installation. This was an endurance performance all on its own. I began at 9 in the morning and only finished at 3:30 in the afternoon. It involved shovelling up 1.3 tons of sea salt, putting it in bags, carrying them some 50 metres and then loading them into a van. After that I still had to load my metal structure and all my relics. When I climbed into that behemoth of a van which I had hired to carry my work back down to Durban my right knee and my back were aching like rotten teeth. A further 7 hours later, after driving through the night, (and being pulled over in a massive police roadblock, a story for another time) I arrived back in Durban, and 4 hours later I was back in the factory working. TCB!

TCB indeed, because as I write this on this Sunday morning I am in the factory, working. TCfreakingB! It’s a little less hectic today being a Sunday so I am taking the opportunity to reflect while it’s still relatively fresh in my memory. I remember that the actual installation process went quite smoothly and within 3 days (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) my performance space was ready. By Friday, the day before the opening of the exhibition, even the dying of my hair to the correct colour I wanted (electric blue; after many attempts and using a number of different products) had successfully been concluded. But of course, then along came gallery politics and academic constraints/dictates. Firstly, I was informed that my performance (at an estimated 40 minutes) was way too long. This was a valid point though, people having miniscule attention spans these days as a result of social media and the internet. I was told that I would need to keep it under 20 minutes. This is all very fine and well, but this is like 2 days before a performance I have been planning and working up to for over 3 years. But!  I didn’t panic because I allowed for these worst-case-scenario events, and so I spent the entire Friday coming up with a new soundtrack for my performance and was still ready by Saturday. Or so I believed!

What do they say about the best-laid plans? Or about learning that God has a sense of humour by proclaiming your plans out loud?  For a performance I do my best to control everything I can, and for me, key is being in my space long before the performance so that I can mentally prepare. Some 600+ kilometres from home and being locked out of the gallery until minutes before my performance is not ideal, to say the least! Nor is having to rush in, check the sound, lights and video, and then don my uniform, only to find out that the order of events of the programme have been changed. Spending 30 minutes behind a screen and having to urinate into a box is definitely not conducive to getting one’s mind centred and prepared. But performance art is kind of like jumping from a plane, once you are out there, there is no turning back, and what will happen, will happen; you have very little control or choice. This is the adrenaline-pumping rush and beauty of performance art. The combination of chance and the interaction of artist and audience/viewer result in a totally unique, temporal, ephemeral artwork.

My performance, I felt was almost-frantic, with me, at one stage, hacking at my bleeding head with the razor. As always, I felt exposed and vulnerable, and yet barely aware of the audience (some 40 people).  I was aware of really only my soundtrack and its cadence, dictating when my various rituals should take place and their rhythm. I was also acutely aware of the sea salt crunching firstly beneath my army boots and then later under my bare feet. Its aroma permeated the entire gallery space, enveloping my senses, rising from the luminescent white mounds on the floor. Afterwards, although there was a sense of cathartic resolution, I was, as always, shy, withdrawn and reflective, perhaps even shameful. But, as always, I am forced out, because people want to speak to me, whether it is for me to acknowledge their presence or for them to acknowledge mine I’m never certain. This is a good thing. Men wanted to talk to me about their military experience, one even burst into emotional tears. This is very good and something I strove for! Activism: art as a tool for change!

Blou Steen performance: I’m wearing my Mask of Masculinities headpiece.

So what happened then? Well, after arriving home and TCB-ing I sorted out the documentation of my performance. I am pleased to say that despite all the problems on the day I got some really amazing video and photographs. These I sent to the postgraduate examinations department thereby meeting all my requirements for my Master’s degree. Now it’s all about the work and dissertation being assessed by the university, and me waiting to hear my grade. In the meantime I will be working on editing the video for an exhibition at the Durban Art Gallery. This will include my installation and a new performance informed by the old. The work does not stay static or final, it grows, transforms, spreads… This is good. This is very good!

Let Slip The Dogs Of War (Part 6: Before I Was A Soldier)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memories are like those eccentric relatives everybody has in their family. You know the one. Like the uncle who asks children to pull his finger and promptly farts loudly enough to chase the dog into the yard and set teacups and windows rattling. Or the granny who has the disconcerting habit of leaving her dentures in the strangest places. Like in the loo or next to the mashed potatoes on the dinner table. You’re fond of them and they’re family, so you tend to overlook the embarrassment of their eccentricities. Nevertheless, you still only introduce them to your closest friends or loved ones. Memories have the distinction of having the ability to make us both happy and sad at the same time. Melancholy. Just like a family member. By their nature they are very personal, and have feelings and bonds attached that are almost impossible to convey or share with another. They say that the older you get the more you remember of your more distant past. It is normally implied that this is a bad thing. I say that it is like the cream rising to the top. All the best coming to the surface. Although. I have never really had a problem recalling anything, anything after my father’s death, that is. Also excluding those howling-at-the-moon, drinking-dancing-fighting-singing-rutting kind of evenings of total abuse, that, thank God, end with blackouts. As I was saying though, because of the observer in my nature, that part of me that stands back and chronicles details of events, I am able to recall things with remarkable clarity. I like to say that I have a resonance with the past. An ability to slip back at will and with relative ease. This one of my memories:

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“Andy? “

I heard my mother calling for me as I closed the front gate. I reached down to touch my toes, sweat dripping from my fringe onto the baking garden path. I had just been for a long run, as was my habit when I was bored or had things on my mind. I did some of my best thinking on the road. It cleared my head.

“Andrew Peter Swanepoel! Is that you?” she shouted, irritation creeping into her voice. My mother calling me by my full names was a sure sign that she was displeased with me.

“Yes, Mother?” I shouted, wishing I had stayed out on the road longer.

“Telephone for you!” she called as she stuck her head out of the lounge window.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know! I think its Andre. Are you coming?”

“Yes! Tell him to hold on!”

My mother and I had not been getting on well lately. The only getting we had been doing was getting on each other’s nerves, irritating each other. It had been a long, hot, excellent summer, but now it was drawing to an end. Add to that the fact that in a week I would be leaving for the Army to start my National Service, and it was understandable. We were both very sensitive at the moment. Unsure of what to say or do, terribly aware of the impending separation looming ahead, as well as the reality of my going off to war. The acts of terrorism such as car bombs and ambushes in our streets suddenly became a far more personal thing than they had been before. It also seemed as if everybody had some story, or every article or news broadcast was about Border clashes, training incidents or the merciless, ferocious stupidity of the enemy. It, they, were everywhere.  SWAPO, ANC, the garden boy raking the yard next door. I, we, were sick of hearing about it!

And so I ran. And swam. And pushed weights. But eventually the fear always returned, the debilitating knowledge that I was going. Our embryonic, insulated little world was coming to an end. The wolf was at the door and his knock could no longer be ignored. “Let me in! Or I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow the house down!”

What aggravated matters was the fact that although my mother and I had great love for each other, we could not and did not talk about sensitive and personal, potentially upsetting,matters. This was true of our family: we were each afraid that the other would breakdown, and that we would be helpless to make things better, to protect. The early death of my father had entrenched behaviour patterns in us that would never be altered.

And so we tiptoed around each other; an emotionally constipated, yet loving family.

“Andrew Peter!”

“I said that I’m coming, Mother!” I yelled, sliding my wet teeshirt off. Purdy, our totally devoted as well as totally insane German Shepherd, barked a welcome as I headed around to the back door, which was actually our front door. Nobody used the front door except my brother David and his buds. “Hello, Purdy! How are you, girl?” I ran my hands through the gloriously thick mane around her neck. She whined her approval. “Where’s Gambit and Steed?” Gambit was a cat and Steed a Border Collie, and yes, we were huge fans of the television series, The New Avengers. In fact, it was a trend in our neighbourhood. Family pets could be dated by their names, much the same way that trees were by the number of circles in their wood. There was a Boxer named Manilito from Bonanza, a Poodle named Falconetti from Rich Man, Poor Man, and a Pom named Bobby from Dallas, and so on.

I jogged up the stairs, Purdy bounding alongside me, doing her best to trip me. At the door I held her back with my legs as she tried to squirm past me into the kitchen. She grunted, looked at me with disappointment and curled up on the top step. I closed and latched the bottom half of the back door, all the while apologising to Purdy.

“Hello?” I said, answering the phone in the lounge.

“Hello yourself! Do you always take so long to answer the phone, pal?”

“Howzit, man?” it was Andre.

“What are you doing tonight?”

“Dunno, haven’t got anything planned. You?”

“Let’s go for a wave and then we can go to the LA. Ladies Night! Should be a jol! We can change and eat at my place. Whaddaya say?”

“Yeah, that sounds cool,” I said, trying to think of how I was going to tell my mother that on one of the last nights left before the Army, I was going partying with my buds. “I’ll pick you up in fifteen minutes. Wait outside with your board, okay? Oh, have you got some Dr. Zogs? You know, Sex Wax? My board’s like a bar of soap at the moment. I need to wax up.”

“Ja, sure. See you in a few, bud.”

“Wait outside!”

I put down the phone, braced myself and turned to face the accusing eyes of my mother.

“And so, where are you gallivanting off to now?” I knew what was coming next. “My boy, in a few days time you’re going to the Army and you’re not going to see us for a long time. The least you can do is spend some time with your family.”

“Aw, Ma. Don’t start with me. You think I don’t know that I’m going to the Army? Give me a break! I’ve just finished Matric and now I’m off to the Army for two years! I’d like to be able to have some fun with my friends before I go! Is that alright?” I regretted my tone and choice of words immediately but I just couldn’t help myself. I hated feeling guilty and she was so good at making me feel exactly that. My voice softened with genuine regret as I saw the gleam of tears in her eyes. “C’mon, Mom. We’ll do something tomorrow, promise. Let’s go to the Wimpy for dinner tomorrow night, okay?”

I gave her a big hug as she nodded, a weary smile lighting her strained face. “Yes, okay. But this is a definite, Andy. Don’t let me down!” A pause, and then she said, “Behave yourself tonight and tell Andre he owes me one. Oh, and no drinking and driving!”

“You know me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[17 year old me: a couple of months later I was in a uniform with a rifle being taught how to kill]

 

An hour later Andre and I were out shredding the surf at Cave Rock, our favourite break. Cave Rock was situated south of Durban, on the Bluff. It is famous for it’s huge thick tubes, generated from the same swells that exist at Jeffrey’s Bay. However, it is notorious for the shallow reef that keeps those who surf there honest. There was not one of us, the locals, who did not carry at least one scar as a reminder of its caress. When we got out beyond the break there was a horde of locals there already. The break was going off, so everybody was in a good mood and we were greeted cheerily and with much gusto. Howard Bisset alias Howie Biscuit, Brad Jones alias Jonesy, Terry Smith alias Lobster and Manuel Chaves alias Gummy were all there. Incidentally, I was known as Swany and Andre as Jap. The morphed surnames were Biscuit, Jonesy and Swany. Lobster because Terry was perpetually red and peeling never tanned. Gummy because Manuel had had his front teeth knocked out playing the surf local rules ticket with some Boksberg bikers down at Brighton Beach. Jap because of the Oriental cast to Andre’s eyes.

We were soon shredding and ripping with the rest of them, whooping it up. We were amped, totally stoked! Biscuit scoops the first wave and proceeds to take it apart: two hooks, hits the lip, floats, drops and then down the face of the wave with speed to burn. That set the afternoon afire. We were amped, feeding off each other’s energy. Two hours and many waves later found the six of us sitting out beyond the backline, mellowing out. The slapping of the water on our boards, the odd seagull call and the voices and music from the beach were the soundtrack to our moment. While we enjoyed the companionship of our group we watched the sun paint the ocean with its fiery brush as it blazed defiance at the approaching night. The topic of discussion, naturally, was that five of us were off to the Army on Sunday afternoon. Andre had decided to go to Varsity first so he was silent, feeling slightly isolated from the posse.

Biscuit was saying, “Fuck, man, if I were in the States I’d be heading for Mexico, bro! I swear! Permanent Force don’t’ surf, bro. PF don’t surf!”

“You know BC, old Brain Cell? Well, he’s ducked to Johannesburg. He says as long as he keeps moving they can’t send him his call-up papers,” Gummy interjected.

“What’s he doing up there?” I asked, slipping off my board to cool off.

“Dig this! He’s acting in porno movies!”

“No ways!”

“Na ha!”

“You swear?”

“Swear to God!”

“I always said that wiener of his needed its own set of lungs and heart. Good grief, when he got in the shower everybody else had to leave.”

“Ja true, bru. There was no space left except for BC and his prick.”

“Ja, he registered it at the police station as a lethal weapon.”

We all laughed, and as I looked from face to face I was suddenly acutely aware of the beauty of our youth … and its fleetingness and vulnerability. For a moment I could barely breathe as the premonition passed through me. I pounded a beat on my board in an attempt to shake the feeling of dread.

“Bloody gut-sliders and grommets!” Body surfers and pre-teen surfers. “Look at them!” I cursed. “Ja well, what can you do? Anyway, I’m kicking. Let’s duck, Andre. So we’ll see you guys at the LA tonight for a couple of frosties?”

“Spot ya later, Swany. You too, Jap.” “Bye girls.” “Ya faders.” “Try and kill a couple of groms on the way in.”

To much heckling, Andre and I paddled forward and then caught our last waves of the day, riding the foamy right to the beach. We jogged up the sand to the showers to rinse the sand and salt from our bodies and boards, sniffing together the entire time. Seawater is the laxative of the nasal cavity. Our noses would be dripping water and mucous for hours now. We duly tried to get rid of most of it while showering, much to the disgust of an enormous, fat woman in a flowery pink costume. She blanched and stormed off muttering. Andre and I laughed like hyenas, of course, and continued trying to empty the entire contents of our heads through our noses. With renewed vigour, now that we had an audience.

“Swany, have you ever thought of just ducking out of the country or becoming a Conscientious Objector?” Andre asked me when we were in the car on the way to his place.

“Ag, look, I don’t want to spend five years in a military jail. Plus my family and friends are here. The surf. Rugby. I’d miss everything. It won’t be that bad though. I’m going to SA Intelligence Corp in Kimberley. Who knows? I could become double-“O” Swany, secret agent for the Volk. Anyway Biscuit will be with me and Gummy will be just up the road in the Maintenance unit. They say its what you make of it.”

“Ja, I suppose so.”

“Anyway, why are you worried? You’re going to Varsity to take drugs, molest women and become a Communist!”

“Hey, fuck joo, Carlos, and the horse you rode in on!” and with that the angst of the moment passed. We cranked up the music and prepared to party.