Revoking the Ethnographic Mode

Call it anything you want, says Rory Bester, but the fact is South Africa desperately needs a large-scale exhibition

By the afternoon of day three of Sessions eKapa, the sheer weight of perspectives on the future of large-scale exhibitions in South Africa had become overbearing. Tabled in public by speakers and a vocal audience, and whispered (and still being whispered) in private, these perspectives cluttered everywhere one turned. It was time to do some sorting. But the designated sorters — myself included — weren’t in the best position to account for a forum that needed momentum in the direction of its next phase.

Somebody else needed to speak for the process. It was time for the organizers to properly acknowledge and respond to what had emerged over the three days. I started some corridor lobbying to this effect on the last morning: the newly appointed artistic director and members of the management team should constitute the panel that closes the conference, rather than the individual chairs who’d presided over the various sessions. My lobbying continued over lunch, mixed and messed up with trying to secure my honorarium, which is probably why I didn’t get very far (trust me, it’s difficult trying to simultaneously get payment for work done and re-negotiate the terms of this work).

Up on the stage, I urged the organizers to revoke the ‘ethnographic’ mode — observing and note-taking outsiders, uninvolved in what they were witnessing, all too ready to slip out a side door — and speak for the product of their labour. We were at a critical juncture. I searched the audience for Gavin Jantjes, but he’d left the country (a circumstance very badly PR’d by the organizers). The audience rose to the opportunity, driven by a combination of factors: the generally unsatisfactory feeling left by Jantjes’ sermon on day one — he’s been away for too long and it showed. The much publicized and rehashed “art and activism” panel that generated little more than anger didn’t help. And all this in the context of the organizers uncertainty about being a biennale or not: “a biennale … that is not another biennale”, to quote the conference programme.

What are they afraid of? The association of biennale with Johannesburg? Or maybe performance anxiety, worrying in particular that they won’t be able to fulfill basic biennale criteria: recurrence? Who knows? And then there was Mokena Makeka’s repeated rushes to the podium to deliver a series of easy and glib summaries that didn’t help make meaning of this juncture. Eventually Julian Jonker plucked up the courage to dismiss this panel of chairs — small victory at last! — and invited the organizers to the stage. But by this time the stage had been constituted as a space for defense. And the debate had slipped from an account of the preceding three days to a set of inappropriate demands for Jantjes’ vision. Susan

Glanville-Zini sat there bravely. Anyone who has the desire to see a biennale return to South Africa can call themselves anything they want. South Africa desperately needs a biennale. This type of large-scale exhibition does such important work. And since the demise of the Africus Institute for Contemporary Art, no city or provincial governments — which are conventionally involved in the developments of the infrastructure that supports biennales — has initiated an entity that can oversee biennale-type projects.

But the organizers shied away from the opportunity to stake their claim. Much to my disappointment, Christopher Till, sitting in the front row, remained in ethnographic mode. Here was the one person who rightly carries the biennale baton in South Africa, who had the vision to drive the biennale concept through the City of Johannesburg’s dumb bureaucracy in the early 1990s, and who, more than anyone else, must be acutely aware of the pitfalls of its perpetuating promise. But then again, this isn’t a biennale, so what does it matter what he has to say anyway. Rory Bester is a doctoral fellow in the Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Research Project at Wits University, Johannesburg. He chaired the session “A Conversation About Globalism, Locality and New Topographies of Large-Scale Curation” at eKapa