The Machine In My Head: Byron Eksteen

Cape Town can be an alienating place. A friend once described it as a theme park: those with money are inside, enjoying the rides, while everyone else watches from the fence. I imagine that’s an accurate analogy for most South African cities, where the distance between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ (both physical and psychological) grows with each passing year. Citizenship “is a template and a score, much more than it is an actual human condition,” wrote Raqs Media Collective. “One’s performance is either applauded or it fails to live up to the demands, requirements and standards that accrue to it. To live with these conditions is to be always on trial, to know that in the eyes of the examining authority one is always, and necessarily, an impostor, unless proved otherwise.”

Enlightenment of chaos, 2017. Mixed-media on card, 64 x 83cm. Courtesy of the artist.Byron Eksteen, Enlightenment of chaos, 2017. Mixed-media on card, 64 x 83cm. Courtesy of the artist.

When I first began speaking to Byron Eksteen about his art, he worked under the alias of BodAlive. This was around 2010, in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown). We were both students, trying to live up to the demands of academia. Perhaps, as a result, Byron spent most of his time painting outdoors: on the side of a shopfront, a bar, beneath a bridge. The alias brought with it a sense of freedom – the anonymity meant being able to shape-shift between ‘Byron the student’ and ‘Byron the person who just wants to make stuff’. Of course, the work he was making ‘out there’ often informed what he did in studio, and it would be misleading to think that such work is altogether judgement free. If there is a ‘template’ or ‘score’ here, however, it’s less determined by academic criteria/market forces than by other artists who occupy a similar liminal zone.

“I put them up on walls to let them breathe,” he explained, arms wrapped around his waist, shoulders hunched forward. It was a warm evening. Sitting on either end of the table, he spoke to me about the first time he began painting along Cape Town’s southern line, which stretches from the city’s CBD through to the Southern Suburbs and out to Simon’s Town:

It was 2006. I was living in Rondebosch. I’d just had a manic episode and needed to get out of the house. It was the middle of the day. I walked down the line towards Woodstock, painting this two-headed character all the way. Some people were pointing and shouting at me, but I didn’t care.

What is it about the spaces of vanguard capitalism that produces the peculiar anxiety of the contamination of its sanity, or its sanitariness…

Two things struck me about this story, which is not mutually exclusive. The first was the feeling that his paintings needed to breathe – that they might feel less claustrophobic in the no-man’s land between point A and point B than on a canvas, tucked away on the wall of a gallery or someone’s home. The second was the witch-hunt-like image of people ‘pointing and shouting’, and the lack of concern for what others thought at that particularly unguarded moment. What was it about seeing Byron painting that upset them? Why were people so alarmed? Is it because they feel themselves to be the “sole subjects of history” – that any deviation from the norm should be banished from view? Why are some forms (such as advertising) permissible, while others are not? In the words of Raqs Media Collective:

What is it about the spaces of vanguard capitalism that produces the peculiar anxiety of the contamination of its sanity, or its sanitariness, by the uncomfortable proximity of that which lies outside it or perforates it with an insisting presence? Why is that which itself is so invasive so afraid of contagion?

Another brother lost to the timetable, 2018. Mixed-media on canvas, 250 x 160cm.Another brother lost to the timetable, 2018. Mixed-media on canvas, 250 x 160cm.

I am reminded here of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe,” nor “one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms”; but “invisible… simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.” To render oneself visible, then, is to expose the fallacy that the world is made in one’s own image. This is, no doubt, uncomfortable news for those who believe otherwise. It stands in direct opposition to the mass of advertisements designed to make you feel like you’re the (albeit lacking) centre of the universe. In such moments, Byron not only becomes visible, but shatters the mirror of ‘hard distorting glass’, pinning its shards to the wall before disappearing back into the folds of the city.

Although subversive (if only by way of their insistent, public presence), Byron views his art as a “self-defence mechanism.” Similar to Ellison’s invisible man, his “only effective passport… into the world enclosed by the modern citadel” is to blend in. Placing his work on the walls of the city thus becomes a way of resisting absolute assimilation. “The Impostor is an exemplar for a kind of performative agency that renders a person capable of expressing more than one kind of truth of the self to the scrutiny of power,” writes Raqs. “The figure of the impostor offers a method of survival that meets the growing intensification of scrutiny with a strategy based on the multiplication of guises and the amplification of guile.”

Although Byron seems to have done away with the alias, he continues to perform and occupy different roles. Professionally, he has worked on-and-off in the film industry: as a runner, making props, or painting murals on set. He has sold and installed water tanks; designed t-shirts; worked at a bar; then in a gallery, all the while touting his own art. In each instant, he has had to shape-shift to meet the demands of his environment. This experience is not unique to Byron. It is a product of our time. After Our Literal Speed, we live in an age where “your professional activity turns you into a cast of characters… extravagant avatars.” To be an artist today, “you need to float in the flow of events, be ready to become anonymous, and then abandon that anonymity at the right time.”

This is perhaps what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman alludes to when discussing one of the biggest contradictions of our time – namely, that “in a society of individuals everyone must be individual.” In such a context, “the voyage of self-discovery peters out in a global fair in which recipes for individuality are peddled wholesale… and where all the self-assembly kits exhibited in the showcases are factory-made,” to the extent that “the least common – truly individual – features of your self can only have their value recognised after they have been converted into the currency that is currently most common.”

Placing his work on the walls of the city thus becomes a way of resisting absolute assimilation.

This is, for me, a central undercurrent of Byron’s art, where the struggle for self – in all its multiplicity – collides with that washed-out sense of individuality that actually restricts self-realisation. His paintings punctuate the flow of the city, standing in contrast to those “contemporary methods of spatial intervention [which] necessitate the hollowing out of ways of life” in favour of “a one-size-fits-all imagination.”

Another brother lost to the timetable, 2018. Mixed-media on canvas, 250 x 160cm.Another brother lost to the timetable, 2018. Mixed-media on canvas, 250 x 160cm.

On the streets of the city, Byron’s art is unbounded. Like a virus, it sprawls. In contrast, the figures depicted in his canvas works are almost always bound by the frame. They detach from it, compressing into a central, pressurised bubble. If we are to think of Byron’s work as organic, then his work on canvas might be similar to a tree that, when grown in a pot-plant, adjusts to its surroundings – like a boabab turned bonsai. Often set against a dark, black backdrop, his canvas works begin to resemble something of a petri-dish under microscope, or a fishing net that has been dropped into the depths of the subconscious, bringing to surface a sea of suppressed faces, eyes, and teeth. Here is the emergency, the surge, the fight for air. But always as if some kind of veil has been lifted.

In this sense, it is possible to think of Byron’s art as occupying an “animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known, sometimes very directly, sometimes more obliquely.” To this, Avery Gordon provides the term ‘haunted’, referring specifically to “those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view.” If such moments are seen to provide some form of ventilation, then, it is because they unmask the reality of an ailment long-buried.

Speaking to a group of (predominantly white) graduates at the University of Cape Town in 1992, Njabulo Ndebele provided something of a diagnosis for this ailment, calling on the white community to ditch the National Party, to do away with their anxieties around change, and to rediscover “a real and compassionate sense of justice, the capability to be angered, outraged, and genuinely embarrassed once more by engineered and habitual misdemeanours perpetrated in [their] name.” To this end, he describes a “terrible spectre,” one which “entrapped us all”:

I have a feeling that the white community is aware that something is wrong. But why does it seem so powerless?… Is it that history has inured this community from all shock?… Is it that this community has learned to note these things and that, in spite of them, it chose simply to get on with life?… We are used to discussing the horrible effects of apartheid by focusing on the easily observable plight of its victims, and how these victims may now be helped. This is as it should be. But is the helper in a position to help?

The Machine in My Head, 2020 Installation in Media Room at AVA Gallery Dimensions VariableThe Machine in My Head, 2020 Installation in Media Room at AVA Gallery Dimensions Variable.

Byron’s art seems to suggest otherwise. The sickness that attends white South Africa, both then and now, is akin to someone who, out of pride or fear of embarrassment, refuses to go to the doctor. Left unattended, our ailment continues to fester. We are our own prisoners, caught in a state of self-induced sleep paralysis. This is perhaps why Byron describes his latest manifestation at AVA Gallery, Cape Town – The Machine in my Head (2020) – as having “no beginning or end in sight … no way up or down, left or right.” It is as if, after Bessie Head’s protagonist, Elizabeth (A Question of Power), we have “been shaken up into accepting an entirely unnatural situation and adapting it to the flow of [life].”

We are used to discussing the horrible effects of apartheid by focusing on the easily observable plight of its victims, and how these victims may now be helped. This is as it should be. But is the helper in a position to help?

For the purposes of this paper, it is worth elaborating on the context of Elizabeth’s realisation, which is not unlike that of Byron’s. It occurs at a moment when her life, having just moved to the small town of Motabeng, “began to pitch over from an even keel.” Initially, the dark nights of the town make her afraid, but with time, she starts to enjoy “being swallowed up” by them. On one such occasion, she is visited by a spectral figure. At first, it is only a presence: “the full impact of [which seems] to come from the roof… a swift flow of air through the room.” This experience recurs, until eventually, staring at the dark, “it seemed as though her head simply filled out into a large horizon,” bringing with it the “strange feeling of things being there right inside her and yet projected at the same time at a distance away from her. She was not sure if she were awake or asleep, and often after that the dividing line between dream perceptions and waking reality was to become confused.”

The parallels between this story and my experience of Byron’s installation at AVA are uncanny. Set behind a closed door in the confines of a small, window-less gallery (in turn located in the transitory space between two floors, halfway up a staircase), The Machine in my Head is intentionally distanced from the outside world. Once inside, one is surrounded, floor to ceiling, by Byron’s frenetic painting, which comes to resemble something of a junkyard for all things unresolved. It is not the ‘main event’, but something you happen upon. Its ‘full impact’ is heightened by the confines of the space – what it means to be surrounded, to experience a formidable ‘presence’, to be ‘swallowed up’. Stepping into the installation is like stepping out of one universe and landing in another – that ‘large horizon’ or projected threshold, the feeling of being both inside and out.

Time, insomnia, and wakefulness are also central themes in Byron’s work. Their tick-tock is hardwired into the installation, having only had access to the space for four days prior to the exhibition. Their substance is much like those strange, dreamlike states that are neither here nor there, but recur. This feeling is amplified by the inclusion of a looped audio component, with the sounds of other gallery-goers replaced by the drone of Byron’s voice, and the erratic ups-and-downs of a piano (performed and recorded by Jan Gouws). “Think three times in my mind I’m insane then I’m fine,” says Byron, the word ‘insane’ sounding a lot like ‘the same’.

Detail of installation The Machine in My Head, 2020.Detail of installation The Machine in My Head, 2020.

“It is not that difficult for one to settle back into a position one tries to escape or reject.” – Gabi Ngcobo

Having spent a number of hours following his trail of thought – down the hallways of text that rush out to meet you, the dead-ends – I am drawn to a phrase, “Wishes turn to wishes”, that is scrawled loosely beneath something that resembles a birdcage. There are musical notes around the cage, but no bird. What does he mean, “wishes turn to wishes”? Is he saying that everything has stayed the same, that there has been change, without change? Or that even when your desires change, the longing itself remains? Is it a resignation, similar to that of Elizabeth’s – the acceptance of “an entirely unnatural situation,” adapted to the flow of life so that the wheels may keep on turning? And where is the bird that sings?

To return to Bessie Head’s story – to Elizabeth, her spectre, and the increasingly blurred boundaries between what is real (out there) and what is not (in here): “There was only one way to explain it”:

The principal of a school had a teacher on his staff who was fond of brandy. He took a bottle of brandy into the toilet, intending to have a few sips and peeping around the door to spy out the whereabouts of the principal. Soon he became quite drunk and reversed the activity. He’d open the door, take a few sips, close the door and look for the principal in the toilet. Much the same applied to her.

For Gabi Ngcobo, the lesson here is that “it is not that difficult for one to settle back into a position one tries to escape or reject.” Some may have the authority to instil fear, but the real battle is within. Perhaps this is why Byron’s art feels a bit like a trap – the loud and otherwise speechless conversation with self – as well as a portal: the necessary confrontation of selves that might enable one to heal. Perhaps the only way out is through.

Sven Christian is an independent writer, editor, and curator.