Business Day

business-dayThe politics of meaning and voice
This article by Chris Thurman appeared in both the online and print editions of Business Day, South Africa

ART IN MOTION: Stuttering by Nathaniel Stern, part of the Meaning Motion installation at the Wits Art Museum.

TWO weeks ago, I referred to the TV show, The West Wing, that popular bastion of liberal US politics created by Aaron Sorkin. So it is with some reluctance that, at the risk of sounding like a Sorkin acolyte, I mention his latest undertaking, The Newsroom. Its second season hit South African TV screens this week, and I can’t get it off my mind.

In the US, the season premiere was watched by about 2.2-million people — good news for the number crunchers at HBO. The critical reception suggests that many viewers who had disliked the show for its preachiness are relieved that “the second season is just going to show how the news is made”. Others, however, can’t bear the prospect of yet more “wit and dazzle” from the “insufferably high-minded characters” who populate the show.

This is an objection that could be applied to many of Sorkin’s scripts, including those for the short-lived series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (another exercise in meta-TV, a putative behind-the-scenes look at satirical sketch shows such as Saturday Night Live) and for acclaimed film The Social Network. Nobody is consistently as eloquent as Sorkin’s characters, as mentally sharp, as cool under pressure, as impressive in their general knowledge.

Sorkin admits this. The Newsroom hinges on actual events of recent years so, he observes, “the audience knows more than the characters do” — but it also gives him the chance to make those characters “smarter than we were”. Like The West Wing, the show was conceived as an “idealistic, romantic, swashbuckling, sometimes comedic but very optimistic” depiction of two professions about which we are (often justifiably) cynical: journalists and politicians.

ART IN MOTION: Stuttering by Nathaniel Stern, part of the Meaning Motion installation at the Wits Art Museum. But the fact remains that, while we may be enthralled by Sorkin’s verbal fireworks, we don’t find the repartee realistic. Our daily conversations are, by contrast, fragmented, repetitive, disjointed, interrupted, fraught with miscommunication and not very gratifying — unless we give them our considered attention. This is the kind of dialogue represented in Nathaniel Stern and Tegan Bristow’s Meaning Motion, installed at the Wits Art Museum (1 Jan Smuts Avenue, Braamfontein) until August 18.

The exhibition is dominated by six blank walls — blank, that is, until visitors approach them. As a series of motion sensors are triggered, so the walls come alive with colourful projections, tracking the movements of the viewers. Letters and words appear, briefly cohere and then dissolve, accompanied by sound bites echoing or extrapolating from the written text.

The possibility of “meaning” is thus simultaneously offered and withdrawn by every “motion”. Yet the works also show us that, if we move very patiently and deliberately, studying the effect of our actions closely, the words are less chaotic. Bristow and Stern want to “find alternative routes of making meaning through and with embodiment”, asking: “Can we use our bodies to listen and communicate with more care?”

Stern’s “Stuttering” is the most direct manifestation of this aim. The faster you move, the more the work itself will “stutter in a barrage of audiovisual verbiage” — instructions, descriptions and assertions crowd the screen and shout from the speakers. Cautious movements invite measured responses. In “Scripted”, visitors attempt accuracy in plotting out lines and curves to “write” letters on the screen.

“Enter” has participants reaching for phrases that seem to float in the air; once they are touched, the words come alive in a spoken utterance.

Bristow’s work also encourages this physical and linguistic playfulness, but there is a dark political undercurrent in her piece, “Unsaid”. Here, we are invited to approach an open microphone. As we do so, we see ourselves projected in black-and-white video footage, but our faces are blacked out or replaced by those of Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema. The words we speak into the microphone are repeated, but fade as they merge with other voices — questioning, Bristow notes, “the effectiveness of the voice of the individual in the larger world of politics and power struggles”.

See this article on the Business Day web site or in print.