Road to Aesthetics - Robert Sember
Duration: 00:36:43; Aspect Ratio: 1.366:1; Hue: 222.550; Saturation: 0.199; Lightness: 0.346; Volume: 0.180; Cuts per Minute: 0.572; Words per Minute: 117.509
Summary: Recently, I appear to be surrounded by various people: activists, lawyers, software programmers, architects, academics, filmmakers, organisers and producers who have had a recent and intense engagement with the practices and institutions of art. They now make shifting claims on this profession, more often than not hesitating to call themselves artists, often leaving the decision on frameworks for their participation to their promoters and curators. We are now familiar with some of the effects and forms of this ambivalence. But here we are interested in looking at specific personal trajectories, to make the question of aesthetics more felt, and less of a paradigm with "the political".
A discussion with and presentations by Robert Sember, (Ultra-red), Florian Schneider (Kein.org), Graham Harwood (MediaShed), Ashok Sukumaran (CAMP), organised by Shaina Anand.
The participants develop and present a chronology (their own timelines) and journey through their own work and pasts, to reveal an arc of their engagement with, and expectations from, certain forms of art. But also, to speak about a passion and ability for aesthetic engagement framed as a personal enterprise, curiosity, and encounter.
Robert Sember is a member of the sound-art collective, Ultra-red. He and other member of the collective are currently in residence at Raven Row. For ten years he was a researcher and teacher in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, New York, and has taught most recently at the School of the Arts and Architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. Robert has brought his background in performance studies to numerous AIDS / HIV community initiatives in New York, Brazil and South Africa. His international perspective on the pandemic informs his work in public policy as well as collaborations with artists and curators around the world.
SA: Shaina Anand, and I'm doing my last part of a very long and extended residency period here at Gasworks. I thank ... Amal and everybody here for supporting this extended residency, and for allowing us to organise this evening.
Recently, I appear to be surrounded by various people: activists, lawyers, software programmers, architects, academics, filmmakers, organisers and producers who have had a recent and intense engagement with the practices and institutions of art. They now make shifting claims on this profession, more often than not hesitating to call themselves artists, often leaving the decision on frameworks for their participation to their promoters and curators. We are now familiar with some of the effects and forms of this ambivalence. But here we are interested in looking at specific personal trajectories, to make the question of aesthetics more felt, and less of a paradigm with "the political".
SA: It's really important that one gets to organise a gathering amongst friends like this, especially since I'm really happy to bring together artists I deeply respect. None of us are on Facebook, so its important to meet and really engage in a meaningful discussion. I'm hoping we can do it today.
SA: I have to thank all four of them - Florian Schneider, Graham Harwood, Ashok Sukumaran and Robert Sember - for agreeing to make these presentations. If I did give them a brief, it was a very minor one. I said 'Go personal.'
SA: And I don't think it was a feminist intervention; its just an all boys' club, veritable important heads within what we call socially engaged arts practise. I'm hoping that in this exercise they will make their own timelines. Whether this is self-critical or self-analysing - I don't know, but I'm hoping that at the end of this discussion, we will be able to understand in one sense what art practice in this field of socially engaged arts practice - what its really about.
SA: And I really hope we'll be able to foreground this political aesthetics, and this sort of binaries and combinations that are being thrown up of recent. To be l be able to see what they do, and we'll be able to see a very personal engagement with the work is produced, which I would definitely see as contemporary art.
SA: There was a song that... its been in and out of my head all month, but we actually ended up playing it during the radio broadcast we did in Sharjah last year. Its a really lovely song, its by a 12th century poet called Kabir, a sufi bhakti poet from the Indian subcontinent.
SA: And this kahan se aa rahe ho? Kahan ja rahe ho? Khabar karo apne tan ki
- Very simply - 'where have you come from; where are you going? Get the news from the body.' Its simple, but its a very profound song and I hope we get some 'news' from our artists.
SA: I'd like to start by introducing Robert Sember, someone I met a little over a month ago, and I hope to begin a fruitful collaboration with. Robert is a member the sound art collective Ultra-red. He and other members of the collective are currently in residence at Raven Row, and also working very closely with Janna Graham and us at the Serpentine, trying to be their first artists in residence in a public programme that they're doing on Edgware Road.
SA: For 10 years Robert was a researcher and teacher at the Mailman School of Public Health at the Columbia University, New York; and has taught most recently at the School of the Arts and Architecture at UCLA. Robert has brought his background in performance studies to numerous AIDS and HIV community initiatives in New York, Brazil and South Africa.
SA: His international perspective on the pandemic informs his work in public policy, as well as collaborations with artists and curators around the world.
RS: Thanks Shaina. Good afternoon everyone. I'm going to actually take up very seriously, Shaina's directive to be quite personal. And also to work in terms of a timeline. So that is going to be what I will try and unfold over the next 15 - 20 minutes. Its going to be in 3 sections. 25 years in South Africa, 15 years in New York, and then 5 years associated very closely with Los Angeles.
RS: Those are just the basic organising structures for some of the reflections I wanted to share a response to the provocation that Shaina has provided us with.
RS: So, to begin with, the South Africa years. When thinking personally and biographically in this way, and also in a sense trying to actually articulate understanding in relation to experience as constructive in a somewhat linear as well as causal explanatory form, the temptation is always to try and identify a sort of originary moment, or something like the primary crisis. The primary moments of a kind of traumatic entry.
RS: For me the question is - what was in a certain sense the traumatic entry, the primary scene of the entry into the aesthetic and the political in some way. Certainly growing up in South Africa, it was actually not very hard to have those kinds of encounters with all sorts of scenes.
RS: A significant national date, as well as a significant personal date, is the 16th of June in 1976, which was the beginning - of what is now known as the beginning of the Soweto uprising, which marked the final phase of the anti-apartheid movement that resulted in the eventual collapse of the Apartheid National government and the transfer of power to the African National Congress, which is currently in power, and South Africa emerging from a police state into a liberal democracy, in some way.
RS: There's a very particular and very striking and central memory in awe of this moment, which is seeing for a fleeting second some of the footage from the first days of the Soweto uprising. Television, as was everything else in South Africa, was under the direct control of the South African government. So images were incredibly limited and were always positioned in a very particular way.
RS: Everything was very clearly propaganda. The choice I imagined to actually show some of the footage shot from these first days of the uprising - an uprising that was actually initiated by young school children in Soweto - I imagined that at that point it was actually intended to further justify the expansion of police powers, and essentially the final and complete militarising of the South African state.
RS: For me however, there was this extraordinary moment of... I don't know what you'd call it... perhaps a recognition, a very mundane, a school boy's recognition of a kind of frustration with school, the education system. And I'm going to pursue this a little bit, this issue of education because it is actually central to the work that I have done.
RS: The education system in South Africa was directed by what was known as Christian National Education. It was a national curriculum that was established by the South African state on national and christian principles. In other words, all instruction was in order to produce national citizens, who in fact would be christian.
RS: The language of this instruction and the language of the apartheid state was Afrikaans which is a derivative of Dutch. In fact that's often how its described. In fact Afrikaans is a Creole language. South Africa, in fact, had over the colonial period, even prior to the colonial period - and its always been a place of extraordinary confluences - what is sort of idtentified in effect as that 'originary peoples' are known as the San, Khoi, the bushmen.
RS: Then there was, beginning in the... around the thirteen hundreds, a migration from Central Africa of the Bantu, coming down the east coast of Africa, moving into southern Africa, and then moving west, into the territories that the San and the Khoi had traditionally inhabited upto that point.
RS: You then had the Dutch coming in on to the west coast in the cape, and you had the British eventually coming in on to the eastern coast. The Dutch were bringing in slaves from the colonies in the east - the spice colonies - and so you actually have a very substantial Malaysian population in South Africa that brings with Islam as well as those languages.
RS: Afrikaans is the language that is forged out of these encounters. So the Afrikaans language actually is, in a certain sense, a palimpsest of these layerings of encounters. It has words that actually are derived from the San and Khoi language. It has words that come from Zulu, from Xhosa. It has words that are of Malay origin. There are also quite a few words that actually come from French, because there was actually... part of the prosecution of protestants in Europe resulted in Huguenots leaving for the United kingdom, for parts of the Americas, and also ending up in the cape which is where the wisdom of the wine growing that the area is renowned for comes from.
RS: So you have this language which is this extraordinary language of domination, but also this extraordinary - one of the great - in a certain sense with the great Creole languages of the world. It becomes the master language for instruction and for political instruction. And it was in fact in resistance to instruction in this language that this uprising began; where there was in fact a refusal essentially on the part of young bright children in Soweto, to be taught in a language that is the language of oppression.
RS: Somewhat intuitively I registered that there was something very profound about language and consciousness. And that in fact the structure of consciousness was built on the structure of language in some way. And it was in a certain sense the first sort of encounter with the political and the aesthetic that I remember with any sort of sustained affection in a way, or bewilderment and passion, was this issue around the relationship between language and consciousness.
RS: Those images began to appear(?) into a meangingful form when I read this book. This is J. M. Coetzee's very first published work. It was published in 1974 in South Africa and it actually consists of 2 parts, often referred to as independant novellas. But its absolutely essential that they be read conjointly.
RS: Very briefly, part 1 is written from the point of view of the protagonist. His name is Eugene and he documents a series of conversations with his boss, his name is Coetzee. Eugene is responsible for writing a report on propaganda... the propaganda movement during the Vietnam war.
RS: And the book is - this particular part of the book is in fact a conversation between Eugene and this character Coetzee, about the specific language that was used to actually construct this report.
RS: Eugene retreats into the spaces of the library in which he was working and constantly talks about the intellectual sense of being surrounded by books. This is in fact the place of tranquility and solace for him.
RS: The second part is called The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee, and then the subtitles edited with an afterword by S. J. Coetzee, translated by J. M. Coetzee - John M. Coetzee, the novelist.
RS: It is the fictional account of a posse of early Cape settlers, moving into the cape in order to exterminate bushmen who were actually killing the cattle that the colonists had brought in. It is written in this exquisitely precise ethnographic style, in which the lifestyle of the bushmen is presented in absolute detail.
RS: The actual extermination, this incredible explosion of delightful violence that actually marks the chasing and the killing, and this sort of flailing, this ... excessive violence. This violence that actually is beyond the supposed instrumental intention of the outing(?) which was to actually kill, just to remove, to delete a group of people who were diminishing the wealth, the cattle wealth; becomes one of those brilliant creative moments in Coetzee where you begin to actually tread that extraordinarily fine line. And this, I think, you find this in other places, but I certainly believe that in South Afrrica there was a particular capacity for this sort of understanding, atleast in my generation, and the generations that came before me, of the kind of aesthetics of violence, of the incredible pleasurable organisation of violence.
RS: As a 15 year old reading this book, this was not only a sort of entry into a certain kind of contemplation, about the use of meticulous language in actually describing the things that are as horrific as the manipulations of the truths of the Vietnam war, or the description of these mundane projects of extermination are the subject of so many colonial histories in some way.
RS: It also was in a certain sense, an entry into a kind of meta analysis into what I would say was my introduction at 15 into post-modernism or post-structuralism. This kind of hyper-reflexivity.
RS: I don't mean that as a philosophical or intellectual project. I mean that in a certain sense as a phenomenological experience.
RS: The... the manner in which Coetzee was able, with this double novel, to present the intellectual as always already implicated in the political, in a painfully conflicted way, was something that actally stuck with me at that moment and remains with me to this day. There was a certain way in which the intellectual in Coetzee's sense, certainly Eugene in the first section of this book, is the quintessential intellectual - somebody who actually in a certain sense evacuates the content of the writing, of this creativity.
RS: Because - so that he can indulge in his pure love of the language, and inhabits the library, not as a repository of knowledge, but as a status of being, as a place of solace in some way.
RS: That... that sort of position, that romantic position of the intellectual that Coetzee sort of drops into the over-determined political context of South Africa at that moment, is a devasatating critique of the bourgeois ambitions of the educated class including the artist.
RS: At the same time, with that same gesture of course, with the same gesture that he himself is practising - the art of the intellectual - In the midst of these catastrophies of history, in the midst of the horrors of the national project of apartheid, the very fact that somebody would sit down and take the time to write a novel, is placed as a gesture of duplicity, of what Mark Sanders - in a really absolutely brilliant book that was published a couple of years ago on The Intellectual and Apartheid - he talks about the unavoidable complicity with the state, on the part of the intellectual.
RS: That in itself is also an act of critique and an act of resistance. So that split, that conflict, that inevitable engagement with the political, no matter where you were in a certain sense, and the fact that, that engagement could actually be two gestures at the same time, is a sort of fundamental memory to this.
RS: At the same time, I read this book. (The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson) I'm not going to say too much about this. I don't know if any of you know this book, Stefan Brecht in this book - its an extraordinary book, which I gather has been out of print, but there are copies of it available on various second hand websites for hundreds of pounds because its been out of print. But it appears that its actually just been (?). I really would advise you to actually get it. Not in fact as a document on Robert Wilson, but as a document on documentation.
RS: It was essentially in this tiny type, over hundreds of pages, he with a certain kind of ethnographic immediacy narrates everything that he has seen. It is - 'He goes to (?) the beach... He goes to (?)'... and so forth, and he literally writes in real time the action that he sees happening. And as an act, as a revulsion to the project of art, it is, I find, a remarkable illumination of the position of forgiveness.
RS: Now, what does Robert Wilson's esoteric experiments in lofts in New York have to do with what is in this sort of exploding state in South Africa?
RS: As a young queer kid, who was going through - that particular British legacy of trauma which was the public school; in South Africa - the South African version of that in the midst of all of this crises - in a certain sense, these were actually visions of the state. These were visions of other possibilities.
RS: One day, driving through the centre of Durban which was the city I grew up in, following the... government's instituting what is known as the First state of Emergency; the state emergency basically gave the government complete authority to arrest and detain for any length of time, anybody in the country, citizen or not.
RS: And it also outlawed any gathering, which was defined as two or more people. So essentially, if two people got together and had a critical conversation, that was against the law.
RS: It made it impossible for there to be any kind of meeting, any kind of demonstration of any form.
RS: Driving down one of the main routes into Durban, there were a group of women placed at about 25 metres apart, dressed entirely in black, holding blank black placards.
RS: These were the women of the Black Sash, which was a movement that had emerged after coalitions of women in South Africa to resist apartheid.
RS: It was for me - it was in silence, it was in stillness. It was uniform, it was repititive. It was aethetic, in a most extraordinary way. And it was a most brilliant performative resistance to the very constraints that the state had presented. It was in a certain sense, a very Busonian performance.
RS: And so the position of being a reader of this text, of these gestures of Wilson's, in the context of that country, suggested aesthetic resistances that were incredibly important. That foundation of things, I am now going to accelerate through the next few years.
RS: I prepared as a member of the End Conscription campaign in South Africa, which was a war-resistance movement, a series of these silent public performances. They were dreadfully pretentious. And I doubt of much effect whatsoever. But they were an aesthetic exploration attempting to use the vocabulary that I had derived from reading about Wilson and seeing that particular performance.
RS: New York. I never saw this particular piece, I arrived two years too late. This however is one of the most influential pieces of work that I know of. This is 'Let the Record Show...' which was created by a group that would later be known as Grand Fury. In the windows of the New Museum of Contemporary Art on Broadway.
RS: It was one of the first public displays of the SILENCE=DEATH slogan that infact galvanised the social movement of that time, everybody was doing it. And so began the next phase of my work which was an encounter with the AIDS crisis, and a very conscious move away from the work that I was doing as an Art student into a much more ethnographic and engaged process.
RS: And a series of books over 15 years that are based on this kind of ethnographic work which one would say is, in many senses, against the aesthetic.
RS: This publication which is an edited volume of case studies, looking at (human) rights policies in various parts of the world sort of marks the closure of those 15 years, and the attempt to mobilise a crtique that had formulated very strongly for me upto that point. So let me do this very quickly.
RS: The AIDS crisis as I experienced it had begun as a massive social movement in New York city, that had rapidly spread throughout the world. It had been a project that had been constructed in many ways after a very conscious understanding of (?). And the capacity to actually construct, create collectives around images and then to use images in order to actually achieve an analysis was a remarkable accomplishment of this movement in London. And I think we live with the echoes of, through this day, its influence on minimalism, conceptualism and its use of minimalism and conceptualism were astonishing. And in fact the capacity in those years to resist the academies of narrative of the new, which in a certain sense evacuated the political from the conceptual and from minimalism, as it had evacuated the political from modernism, was an absolutely thrilling experience.
RS: That waned very quickly. It waned for very complicated and also very mundane reasons. People died, people got exhausted. And the agendas sort of fragmented. Like many I went off to go and actually deal with very specific material concerns within the crisis. It was very clear that as the crisis sort of waned in the urban areas, it was standing in the - without any kind of awareness in rural areas or in the peripheries of cities.
RS: Work with injecting drug users, work with incarcerated polulations, with sex workers, with in fact the marginalised and the excluded. And (?) an aesthetic practice around this - the thought of that was just extraordinarily presumptious and utterly irrelevant at those particular points.
RS: Very quickly however, the epidemic became administered in much the same way I think has happened in the United Kingdom with most of the industrial world. Very quickly, as a crisis becomes sort of orderly and organised by the state, so it becomes an issue of management than a demonstration. And in the name of delivering services it further sort of disempowers or marginalises those who in fact are the very intense victims of the crisis.
RS: Add to this, through journeys to Brazil, a re-encounter with the work of (?). And particularly the movements of the poor that had in fact sustained a kind of left in Brazil through the early years of this military dictatorship which was very resonant with what had happened in South Africa. And just as the dictatorship eventually fell in South Africa state, it would eventually fall in...
RS: And there was a certain sense in which the movements of the poor, based very strongly on (?) principles, were responsible for this.
RS: And a growing understanding on the structural analysis of the epidemic, why is it that majority of people in the world who are HIV positive are also poor and women, and people of colour? The contours of the epidemology of the crisis actually followed deeply astounding structures.
RS: This book, arose out of the work out of one of these transnational elites, the sort of leftist trans-natioanl elites. We would fly from one city of the world to the other, meet in hotel rooms around tables that resembled (?), would discuss the problems and would prepare these extraordinary analyses. All on behalf of the oppressed.
RS: And it was in a kind of sense that there was a need to return to base organising that in fact the shift in the structure of the AIDS crisis was going to have to be a shift in the mobilisation of the base; that in a certain sense I kind of returned or gravitated back towards the aesthetic in some way.
RS: It begins with a class that I taught at UCLA on the art of AIDS, and an invitation to curate an exhibition at the museum in Los Angeles. While teaching this class I met (?). I had proposed instead of curating the class, an installation that would be a human rights tribunal in which the pope, the presidents of all of the major industrial countries - this one was the Ministers of Health - many other religious leaders who in fact we put on trial for crimes against humanity because of the ways in which they have contributed to the creation of this crisis.
RS: That was so swiftly rejected by the art institution, you cannot imagine. And they said we're hoping that you would select some pictures that would go on a wall and you would write some text. Ultra-Red invited me to do a version of that project, in a certain sense, to re-engage with the art-making or art-practise around the crisis.
RS: Very simply put, the conjunction of frarian processes, the fact that in fact one has to build collectively a kind of political - a common political understanding - a language, and I mean that in a very concrete sense, one must have a language. And in the process of the development and the construction of that language, the terms of one's experience you create a kind of consciousness.
RS: I don't only mean that in a political sense, of being consciotised, but you actually create a kind of collective consciousness that makes possible an engagement with experience that moves towards an analysis - an analysis that becomes the foundation for mobilising. This is one of the projects that we did in Los Angeles. I'm not going to talk very much about Ultra-Red's work at all. I want to just finish by actually pointing to a couple of observations that we have arrived at in this work.
RS: One is - actually we are a sound arts collective. We do not focus our work on the production of the object, on compoosition. But we focus on the understanding of the reception of the object, on the listening. The gesture of creativity moves away from the creation of the content, of the work to be shared. It moves into a deep analysis and in a certain sense a creativity around the construction and participation in the process of reflection and analysis.
RS: Put in another way, the art practice is organising. If organising has a form and a shape, one can say that it is in the founding of the aesthetic. What can you bring through the theorising of the aesthetic to a deeper understanding and construction of political organising?
RS: This is the move back into a kind of sense of the relevance of the art practice in relation to the kind of structural analyses that had emerged from the years of work that I had done in my...
RS: I think I'm going to stop now, with that thought. Thank you.