By definition, port cities are located at the meeting point of the land and the sea, traversing the threshold between two fundamental physical states. There is no gradual shift from one state to another, unlike a beach, as a port must bring deep water into the heart of the city so as to effect an abrupt transition from ship to land. Thus, the maintenance of ‘difference’ is essential to what defines a port. Port cities have also come to symbolise a cultural threshold, where the foreign gets muddled up with the familiar and everyday norms are blurred by maritime exchange. At the quayside, land-based sovereignty is confronted by the unruly forces of the ocean, as well as the distinctive habits, peregrinations and insubordinate mentalities of those who work upon the water.
Traditionally port cities have been thought of as gateways to the wider world. As nodal points on the intersecting webs of trade, information and accumulation, they represent a point of contact and exchange with different countries and cultures, facilitating the movement of people and ideas, as well as goods and money. As such, port cities are symbolic sites of cultural exchange, and thus hybridity. They are the points of entry and departure, the mouth of an imagined body of the nation-state. At the other end of this maritime chain, during the so-called ‘age of discovery’, the colonial hydrarchy formed by expanding European interests was confronted by the anti-imperial resistance of slaves, sailors, pirates and indigenous peoples struggling in pursuit of freedom and autonomy. Those disparate groups were occasionally able to act in concert against the relentless machinery of an emergent capitalism. The struggle to abolish slavery, for example, shaped the field of political action and determined how modern movements around rights, citizenship and the franchise could begin to move.
Of course, the primary function of a port is commerce; buying and selling for profit; and the underlying economic interests at stake are fundamental to the human interactions that they reproduce. With the advent of globalisation, the interests of multinational corporations have become disassociated from those of traditional nation states. Where previously the port was literally a point of exchange between different ‘lands’, global capital has no particular terrestrial allegiances. Historically port cities grew up around the industry of the docks, but working ports today are increasingly separated off from the centres of cultural activity and from national life generally. Container terminals have been re-located to the periphery, becoming highly secure, sealed points of import and export. Since containerisation displaced cargo handling from the city centre, tourism has become the new trade. With the hustle and bustle of actual port operations hidden from view, the tales of smugglers, outlaws, buccaneers, pirates, pimps and prostitutes have been recast as the antecedents of a new generation of edgy, risk-taking, non-conformist ‘proto-creatives’ – bastard stowaways of the creative industries. Meanwhile, waterfront property developments seek to combine the brave and fearless spirit of maritime adventure with luxury living on the water’s edge.
It is in this context of social, cultural and economic regeneration that we might begin to consider the process of transformation currently under way in the port city of Cape Town. Located in the Silo district of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa occupies pride of place in the redevelopment of South Africa’s oldest working harbour, at the foot of Table Mountain, on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. Established through a partnership between the V&A Waterfront Ltd and former Puma CEO, Jochen Zeitz, Zeitz MOCAA hosts “the world’s largest collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora”, along with temporary exhibitions and international touring shows. Executive Director, Mark Coetzee, describes the museum’s purpose as being “to create an institution that says, this is who we are and this is what we want to contribute to the discussion of creativity, globally.” According to Ravi Naidoo, founder of Interactive Africa, in the 21st century it’s going to be “our culture and our creative produce going out to the world” rather than “the maize” which previously filled the vast concrete grain silos, out of which Thomas Heatherwick’s radical architectural designs have been excised.
The history of the harbour, and latterly the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, is closely entwined with that of South Africa. Cape Town was initially developed by the Dutch East India Company as a victualling station for its fleet of spice ships, trading tobacco, copper and iron with the local Khoikhoi people in exchange for fresh meat. The 1st Commander of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival on 6 April 1652 marked the establishment of the first permanent European settlement in South Africa. The colony grew slowly in the early years, however, due to a shortage of willing labour amongst the Khoikhoi (pejoratively called ‘Hottentots’ by the settlers), prompting the Dutch authorities to import slaves from Indonesia and Madagascar, as well as those captured from Portuguese slave ships, originating from Angola and Guinea. Within 50 years of the establishment of the Dutch settlement, the indigenous communities, despite heroic struggles on their part, had been dispossessed of their lands and their independent means of existence had come to an end.
The first harbour construction in Table Bay was a jetty built in 1654 by van Riebeeck. Ships anchored in the bay, and goods were transferred to and from the shore by smaller vessels. Under a succession of Dutch governors, a wide range of useful plants were introduced to the Cape this way, including grapes, maize, cereals, ground nuts, potatoes, apples and citrus. However, Table Bay is notorious for its violent winter storms, and the Dutch East India Company soon found that they were sustaining massive shipping losses, to the extent that the harbour had to be closed during the winter months. A vicious storm in 1858, in the period when the British had taken control of the newly formed Cape Colony, saw thirty ships blown ashore and wrecked, with huge loss of life. As a result, the British Colonial Government started the construction of a breakwater. This developed into the Alfred Basin, the first safe harbour in South Africa, named after Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, who visited Cape Town in 1860 as a sixteen-year-old Royal Navy Midshipman.
The discovery of diamonds and gold in the South African interior spurred further investment. As the the Western Cape’s economy boomed, construction of a second harbour was begun, named the Victoria Basin. A flood of immigrants to South Africa ensued, adding to the multiracial character of the Cape Colony. However, it was Port Elizabeth whose merchants were best placed to service the interior, with the consequence that Cape Town became increasingly dependent on overseas trade, finding a thriving market for its grain and wine exports. The Victoria and Alfred Basins were finally completed in 1920, and the iconic 57-metre high Grain Silo Building followed shortly afterwards, built in 1921.
Over the course of the 20th century, however, the economic and political influence of Cape Town gave way to the dominance of the land-locked capitals of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Under apartheid, the Cape was deemed a so-called “Coloured labour preference area”, to the exclusion of “Bantus”, i.e. Africans, and the city’s multi-racial suburbs, such as District Six, were either purged of so-called ‘unlawful residents’ or demolished. On Robben Island, the prison colony ten kilometres offshore in Table Bay, many leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were held in captivity for decades on end. It was Nelson Mandela’s historic speech, delivered from the balcony of Cape Town City Hall on 11 February 1990 only hours after his release from Robben Island, which heralded the beginning of a new era, with the first open democratic election held four years later, on 27 April 1994.
Today, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations, with 24 million visitors annually. Since redevelopment commenced in 1990, the historic docklands around the Victoria and Alfred Basins have rapidly transformed into a mixed-use area with a focus on retail, tourism and residential development, alongside the continued operation of a working harbour. At the heart of the Waterfront, Nobel Square features statues of South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize winners; Nkosi Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. A fifth sculpture acknowledges the contribution of women and children to the attainment of peace in South Africa.
Thus, the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA in September 2017 could be said to represent the latest manifestation of a radical process of social, cultural and economic regeneration. If the development of the port city of Cape Town is symbolic of South Africa’s journey of transition, from violent colonial imposition and racial segregation to open democratic elections and self-determination within the context of a rapidly-changing global world order, the question arises, what does the establishment of “Africa’s first major museum of contemporary art” signify as part of this process of transformation? Furthermore, what will be the future role of the artist within a newly-emerging global network society? Or, as philosopher Giorgio Agamben phrased the question, what is the contemporary?
With the acceleration of globalization, the rapid developments of information technology and the unopposed advance of neo-liberal capitalism over the last twenty-five years, many disparate worlds have become interconnected and contemporaneous with each other. This ‘multiplicity’ is characterized by massive demographic shifts, diaspora, labour migrations, rapid movements of global capital and speeded-up processes of cultural hybridization. Port cities have become the heavily policed crossing points on a global flow of humanity. Thus, one version of ‘the contemporary’ could be said to refer to a worldwide situation, the most definitive characteristic of which is the experience of being immersed in a deluge of information, marked by an unprecedented diversity and depth of difference, by the coexistence of incommensurable viewpoints and by the absence of an all-encompassing narrative (such as modernity) that will enlist the participation of all.
With the shift from ‘the modern’ to ‘the contemporary’, and the convergence of multiple worlds that constitute our present times, the conditions for experimental arts practice have radically changed too. Whereas modernism required an ‘avant-garde’ to constantly critique and refresh it, as a key part of its future-oriented progression, the future-less present of the contemporary can no longer support such a utopian rationale. The underlying structures of 20th century art and politics were beholden to the concept of the future, and to the promise of a continual transformation of society for the better. It was a great and empowering myth, but few believe in such a utopian vision any longer. Without such a trajectory, the question remains open as to how the artist can connect, beyond the realm of art alone, to the socio-political and to the world-historical, or, in other words, to a renewed idea of the future.
In The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells defined a new “space of flows” arising from the all-pervasive flood of global networked communications, in which the flow of time has accelerated to such an extent that we seem to be locked in a perpetual present. Out of this flux, a new invasive form of communicative or ‘cognitive’ capitalism is actively redefining subjectivity in relation to immaterial production. In his book, After the Future, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi describes this process as desingularization: “Desingularization of living thought and activity is mandatory for access to the network. In the global network, there are not working persons, but an infinite brain-sprawl, an ever-changing mosaic of fractal cells of available nervous energy.” Under these conditions, genuine subjective singularity (i.e. the artist) can only be a hindrance to the smooth operation of immaterial production (at least, until it has been recuperated back into the neo-liberal narratives of the so-called ‘creative industries’).
Berardi argues that we must combat the de-personalizing logic of the network society with a poetics of intimacy, introducing affection and “the body of the mother” back into cultural life, through the counter principle of sharing. Different from any form of economic or symbolic exchange, the principle of sharing eludes a simple reduction to equivalence, as it is based upon forms that yield no return because they remain outside the regime of exchange value. As well as being a political act, the act of sharing is an existential experience. We cannot share without communicating, and without putting our own selves, our own being, into play. In fact, no one can exist as a cultural being and not share. These anti-economic, political and existential meanings make up the core of sharing. They make it an activity in which we create ourselves as communities of beings before we do anything else. Thus, intimacy and the act of sharing can be understood as part of a process of conscious collective subjectivation (and therefore the basis for a renewed belief in social change).
If the purpose of an institution such as Zeitz MOCAA is to set the agenda for contemporary art in the 21st century, then it must actively seek to champion the uncompromising singularity of the artist, in opposition to the homogenizing culture of a global network society. Its mission must be to foster intimacy and sharing, as well as critical self-reflection, and thus to support the development of a conscious collective subjectivity in the pursuit of freedom and autonomy. Only then can it be said to be actively contributing to the radical process of social, cultural and economic transformation that the port city of Cape Town has come to represent.
== Text by Tom Trevor in Africa Modern, published on the occasion of the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town (September 2017) ==
Image: Ursula Biemann & Angela Sanders, Europlex (2003)