the storytellers: works from the non-aggressive narrative is a solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery that uses new and traditional media to explore questions of identity, multiplicity and performance in the new South Africa and at large. The works range from large-scale interactive and video installations, to digital video poetry series as non-linear narratives, experimental pinhole photography, generative / topological imagery, and ASCII prints.
What I affectionately call the non-aggressive narrative (NAN) is, more precisely, a mode of Benjaminian storytelling. It proposes the “continuation of a story which is just unfolding.”1 I use digital and traditional media to create encounters between an ambiguous ‘I’ and potential ‘You.’ By embracing the questionable, fragmented memory of a singular past through multiple characters, the ambiguous ‘I’ of the NAN implies an origin story that may or may not have occurred. As the potential ‘You’ is invited to co-invent this unfolding ‘past,’ its openness suggests possibility and multiplicity. Alongside the NAN, the self (‘You’ and ‘I’) is unfolding and in process. This is not to deny the past or responsibility for it; it is, rather, a refusal of transcendence or masterful coherence.
The NAN does have a concrete and traumatic origin story (i.e. referent), but the memory of this story, rather than the events that occurred — its fabula or information — is key. I approach memory as a “collage in motion.”2 Rather than telos — one possible end — and a temporal cause and effect plot, trauma is embedded in, and placed alongside the present. The NAN is always in medias res — in the middle — calling the past and the process of re-membering into question. Floating memories, re-presented as art pieces, congeal in different patterns; from the “ruins of memory,”3 viewers re-invent the past and its meaning. hektor.net and the odys series, for example, are a navigable website and DVD installation / box set, respectively; each is of one character’s photography, spoken word and video poetry. By surfing the site, or engaging through the installation, listeners construct his person. As hektor or odys attempt to re-member, bringing the story back to their bodies and calling it their own, listeners attempt to piece together the story for themselves. However, similar to Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, where readers can tackle any chapter, in any order, to assemble a whole story, this narrative is built by the listener, according to which pieces they have seen, in what context, and in which order. Viewers continually bring new insights to possibility by juxtaposing visited and revisited pieces and ideas several times over.
The varying media in the viewers’ shifting collage are based on the kinds of memory being presented. The NAN explores repressed memory, unspoken memory, revised memory, inherited memory, humiliating memory, and the impossibility of memory, to name a few. In each of these, the memory, or its impossibility, is re-cognized as a strong force with a life of its own. This approach to memory has led me to work with performance poetry and spoken word, full-length performance, live and digital video (both web/streaming and installation), sound, text, html, photography, sculpture, found and interactive objects, networked media, architectural spaces, and self-produced software allowing for full body immersive interactive and reactive environments. I use a combination of traditional and new media to produce spaces where interactions “between all our sensory modalities and those of technology”4 break down the “sacred boundary line between art and audience.”2 In a 1965 interview with Michael Kirby, John Cage said that theatre is not done to its viewers; they do it to themselves.5 The NAN depends on that. As viewers re-member along with the narrative, they complete / become the work of art.6 The NAN thus blurs the lines between its story (‘I’) and the personal experience of the viewer (‘You’).
This blurring of the lines between ‘You’ and ‘I’ in the NAN is not intended to invoke mourning for a lost self or yearning for a complete self. My intent is to raise questions about the assumption that there is ‘a self’ to find or complete. These questions are directly addressed to the viewer, and embodied in the multiplicity of characters – our interactions with them, relationships to their stories, and shared experiences in their spaces-to-be. hektor, odys, Jason Chrine, David Senator, & Nathaniel each re-member the same past differently. For example, hektor, with his mastery of language, refuses to speak the traumatic memory, while odys stutters, trying to explain it, but the fruits of his labor only lead to seemingly nonsensical phrases like “circumvention of the tangible.” Between silent lucidity and stuttering incoherence the origin and the self disappear. Our actions, inaction, learned gestures and accidental e/motions tell us about ourselves and our own stories, both implicitly and explicitly. We are left with many traces of possibility in our origins, and multiplicity in the now. By using memory to open up the past and the self in the present, the non-aggressive narrative asks ‘Us’ (‘You’ and ‘I’) to take responsibility for the future.
A list of works from the Non-Aggressive Narrative (NAN): odys for your iPod (iPod video art, 2005), step inside (interactive environment, 2004), odys, Nathaniel, hektor, X (video installation, 2001 – 2004), the odys series (video poetry series and installation, 2001 – 2004), abstract machines of faciality (series of 33 photographic, digital and generative prints, 1999 – 2004), stuttering (interactive installation, 2003-2013), elicit (interactive installation and physical theatre performance, 2001-2013), enter (interactive installation, 2000-2013), hektor.net (net.art and video poetry, 2000)
1 Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller, from Illuminations
2 Elizabeth Ermarth, Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time
3 Lawrence L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory
4 Woody Vasulka. The New Epistemic Space from Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer
5 Michael Kirby & Richard Schechner, An Interview with John Cage, from Happenings and Other Acts, edited by Mariellen R. Sandford
6 Michael Rush, New Media in Late 20th Century Art