Origination: University of Stellenbosch opening address

Katy & Rebecca Beinart | Origination opening address
US Gallery, opening March 11 at 18h30
First, thanks to Katy and Rebecca for inviting me to speak. Katy was in South
Africa almost a year ago to the month, and gave an artist’s talk in our
department as part of our weekly Visiting Artist Programme, during which
she discussed the early ideas around this project. It’s wonderful that it has
moved from imagined desire to reality so quickly, with so much happening in
between – a testament to commitment.
An exhibition like Origination operates on many levels: intellectual, historical,
visual, conceptual and imaginary. It is the kind of exhibition that is a bit like
watching the final frame of a film – you are presented with some powerful
visual and sensory information but with little idea of what has gone before. It
is an exhibition for which scholarly and creative research has been a
fundamental component. I’d like the use the opportunity I have here to
touch on a few aspects of the project that, to my mind, offer rich points of
entry and clues to its multifaceted history.
Origination emerged from the artists’ shared interest in genealogy, and
family stories of migration. What is it to have direct familial connections to
South Africa, but live in the UK, raised without a dominant spiritual belief
system or ritual practices, but be only one maternal grandmother removed
from your rich Jewish heritage?
In December 2009, Katy and Rebecca embarked on a journey by ship, which
retraced the migratory route of their ancestors from Eastern Europe to South
Africa. This journey was the beginning of a 3 month residency at Greatmore
Studios in Cape Town, which actually took place over at least four months,
and of course longer, if one takes into account the 26 days at sea, with a
group of Polish sailors, and which has included visits to the Migrant Labour
Museum in Lwandle, the Jewish cemetery and disused synagogue in
Malmesbury, and salt pans in Darling and the surrounds; and the research
that had gone before to prepare for the journey.
An origination is a beginning; a starting point; full of promise, anticipation,
even invention. The project began, in Katy’s mind at least, in her thinking
about emigration, particularly through the transference of plants; how plants
are transported either consciously or unconsciously, to other places, how
they take root, flourish or perish. This provides an evocative analogy for the
transposition of cultures from one context to another. Can people and
communities, like plants, successfully establish lives elsewhere? And if they
do, will they be allowed to flourish and individuate, or be subjected to the
politics of what is alien and what indigenous; what authentic and what an
imposter? Will they be forcibly removed if they don’t belong; if they are
thought to negatively affect local systems?
In many ways, their journey by ship recreated the discomfort and dislocation
that their ancestors must have experienced similarly in their journey to this
country. A failure of communication through uncommon language,
restriction of movement, time stretching out before you like the endless
stretch of ocean surrounding the vessel, and being compelled to eat what
you are given, familiar tastes or not.
Through research, a sea journey, ancestor rituals recreated from fact and
fiction, documenting a range of actions and field trips in textual and visual
form, Origination is a visualisation of personal legacies that reflect larger
social histories; the vagaries of memory and the possibilities of imagination.
Paraphrasing anthropologist Tim Ingold, ‘arrival’ at a place is a misnomer. As
we are constantly ‘participating from within’ in the world’s coming into
being, no place is fully formed and predetermined. In other words, we’re
perpetually creating the spaces we inhabit. With South Africa and Africa’s
As Katy commented to me, putting yourself physically in situations creates a
visceral understanding of difference and familiarity. This was certainly true of
the ship, which resulted in some playful absurdity to shift the tedium, and
some serious personal rituals to mark the crossing of thresholds on the way.
patterns of migration and settlement, the effects of this constant placemaking by a diverse range of people is hyper-visible and as with many places
elsewhere in the world, has produced some our most violent conflicts.
Julia Kristeva has written about Freud’s appeal to acknowledge the foreigner
within us all. Colin Richards has articulated the violence and imperfect fits of
cultural contact by abandoning the ‘naturalised’ rhetoric of ‘cultural osmosis’
or ‘cultural hybridity’ and evoking the more labour-inflected notion of the
‘graft’. From colonial contact to migrant labour to democratic transition,
issues of adaption, assimilation and conflict, whether political or emotional,
these patterns underscore our history and determine our contemporary
houding. [almost impossible to translate accurately, ‘houding’ refers to one’s
attitude; the way one carries and expresses oneself; a particular sensibility]
People travel for a variety of reasons. In the main, we think of tourism, or
those who travel for business. However, those for whom travel is
involuntary, not a choice but necessary for survival (the political exile or the
refugee) or the result of something far more sinister – slavery or human
trafficking – constitute a huge proportion of the movement of the world’s
people, yet the emotional experience of this displacement is marginalised, if
not invisible.
The globalised world which we inhabit has shrunk space and time. Travel and
connectivity is about speed and efficiency. Yet as much as crossing
international borders and time zones can be achieved in timeframes unheard
of 100 years ago, travel has become one of the most regulated and policed
‘modern’ activities. Concomitantly, the expectations around the speed of
one’s cultural transition, whether a tourist or refugee, is exaggerated. The
pace of ‘naturalization’ must be stepped up. Connected to the notion of
migration or ‘transplantation’ is bastardization; how transplanted cultures,
holding onto to what is perceived to be ‘authentic’ or an essence of their
point of origin, become entangled with a host culture to produce hybrid
forms; what are, essentially, new cultures. The work Starter Culture plays a
double word game. One on hand, it is literally a yeast culture the Beinarts
used to make bread. On the other, it talks to the presence of a settler or
migrant, who becomes the ‘starter culture’ for a new community. Attempts
to recreate ‘home’ become failed attempts; the climate may not be
appropriate for a particular diet or dress; in countries like South Africa, who
has played host to innumerable communities of immigrants for hundreds of
years, a book of ‘authentic’ South African cooking bears the traces of the
influence of a range of migrant cultures that undoes once and for all, any
sense of a singular, homogenous ‘authentic’ culture.
We connect with our sense of heritage and culture through ritual, secular or
religious. In Offere (to offer or ferry/carry across), Katy and Rebecca’s dinner
party for unseen guests, held on a salt pan, references traditional foods like
black bread and borscht (beetroot soup), candles and wine that suggest the
Sabbath meal, that they imagine were central to their ancestors’ domestic
and spiritual subsistence. The presence of salt with bread further speaks to
tradition: eating bread and salt when crossing a threshold is a blessing; Bread
sustains, salt preserves. And if you seal a promise with salt, it’s unbreakable.
The dinner party is a ghostly affair, as much about laying homage to one’s
ancestors and evoking their spirit for future guidance. It is interesting to note
that two attempts to capture this event on film failed; one last year and then
again with this performance. The documentation presented is in fact the
backup footage shot with a secondary digital video camera – a case of ghosts
in the machine? As much as ancestors speak to the past, they also speak to
the future. On the blog again, Katy remembers Hilary Mantel writing about
ghosts: “for some years I lived in Botswana and people there used to say that
to see ghosts, you need to look out of the corners of your eyes”. (Blog post #
36 [19 February 2010] Katy Beinart). A complexity theorist explained to me
recently that this is precisely where the future exists – in your peripheral
vision. If we could think and see laterally, not just straight ahead, it is
possible to see the future. This ‘future anterior’ space is a powerful one to
imagine new possibilities.
As a strategy and practice, collaboration can be as fraught as it can be
productive. It is complex, highlighting aspects of each individual’s character
and ‘operating system’ that they may otherwise take for granted. The
presence of so much salt cannot but evoke the Afrikaans phrase ‘sewe sakke
sout’ [seven sacks/bags of salt], an appropriate proverbial expression for
what this project represents in terms of endurance, relationships and
commitment. It also represents a productive marriage of two distinctive
creative practices.
Rebecca’s quasi-scientific methods like the salt wagon and experiments in Sal
Sapit Omnia introduces the idea of tools and their relationship to research.
How do we begin to investigate a question? And what form do these tools
take? Are they questions? Equipment? Ritual practices? Attitudes? Books?
Photographs? Journeys?
Katy’s interest in the archival and literary is echoed in a blog entry
where she reflects on the aesthetic properties of handwriting, and
how different these artefacts are to the nature of our contemporary,
electronic communication. She writes:
I think about Woolf's letters, and other family documents, postcards, recipes,
scribbled notes. The words are faded but intact. I wonder how we will pass
down our digitised, typed words, or if these will be lost and forgotten, a
whole wordless generation. Tim Ingold writes of the loss of understanding of
writing as a scribal practice; that we “fail to recognize the extent to which the
very art of writing, at least until it was ousted by typography, lay in the
drawing of lines”… I wonder if it is the action of writing by hand that carries
an intent, a strength of conviction that invests the words with meaning.
Perhaps this is why our ancestors collected postcards, letters and written
ephemera so preciously, not just for the words but for the action contained
within the words, the physical gesture of scripting. Katy Beinart# 38
[2 March 2010]
In both Rebecca and Katy’s individual work, there is a deep commitment to
two basic things: our relationships to spaces or locations, and interrogation
our understanding of these sites through engaging in a range of sociocultural processes and activities with various people. How they go about this
is very mindful; deeply sensitive to that which is familiar and that which is
strange; playing the tension between intimacy and alienation. Their
respective projects put forward a particular subject of inquiry – a river, a
canal, a particular city or site, a journey of emigration etc – but begs the
critical question of whether the project is about getting to know the subject,
or rather, the various people that they engage with around that particular
subject. They operate relationally, constantly in dialogue with their subject.
Origination is a project that resounds poignantly in a global and local context
in constant arbitration between cultural conflicts and conciliation. It also
introduces the critical importance of playfulness and the imaginary to give
form to those aspects of history and memory that fail us. The journey Katy
and Rebecca have undertaken is one I owe myself – many aspects of their
heritage and my own bear uncanny similarity – and I’m sure the same holds
for many us, regardless of race, religion or language. I trust you will give the
work the mindfulness and time it demands, and that it sparks both
conversation and action beyond the space of the gallery.
Kathryn Smith
Stellenbosch, 2010