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Kronos

On-line version ISSN 2309-9585
Print version ISSN 0259-0190

Kronos vol.42 n.1 Cape Town Nov. 2016

http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2309-9585/2016/v42a9 

ARTICLES

 

Hearing Red: Aurality and performance in a film by Simon Gush

 

 

Brett Pyper

Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand

 

 


ABSTRACT

Focusing on the film that accompanies Simon Gush's installation Red, this article positions itself within the 'ambient humanities' and explores sound as its primary mode of inquiry. I consider how sound constitutes not just the soundtrack but also, at particular moments, becomes the subject of the film itself. I believe these moments are worth attending to because, empirically speaking, they render audible some aspects of history that might otherwise literally be overlooked. Taking my cue from a striking aural performance recounted in the film, I consider possible archaeologies of insurrectionary noise in South Africa and beyond. Beyond the empirical, I am interested in theorising not only about but also with sound, and reflecting on how doing so with respect to history might be productive. I thus tease out thinking about sound in history, sound with history, sounding history and the like, in the process asking what aesthetics can do for the work of history. Drawing on ideas advanced recently by John Mowitt (2015), I consider how the notions of echo and resonance illustrate the kinds of alternative epistemological perspectives that attention to sound might enable for historiography. In the conclusion, I tie these back to the foregrounding of performance - particularly performance with a strong aural dimension - in the constitution of social and public memory.


 

 

The film that accompanies Simon Gush's installation Red1 begins, in the absence of a visual image for its first several seconds, with the sound of a voice. Intimately recorded close-up so that tone and register are foregrounded, it is a male voice remembering:

'I think on the 25th of May. Must have been a Wednesday.'

The act of remembering is conveyed (or is it constituted?) in the rising inflection of the speaker's voice as he reaches back into a past re-membered (reassembled), his pitch peaking as he recalls the specific day, the 'twenty-fifth', before settling back to its initial level, his certainty that it was 'May' underlined with emphatic staccato articulation.

For the duration of the long sequence with which the film opens, memory is constituted in a vocal register (the title shows after ten minutes, at which point the soundtrack switches to traffic noise and visuals of the entrance to the Mercedes-Benz plant in East London, South Africa, c. 2013). In the measured cadences of Xhosa-inflected English, we hear the deliberately paced recollections of Thembalethu Fikizolo, a shop steward at the time of the momentous transition from the overt hostility and labour anomie of the late 1980s to the iridescent moment that produced the Mercedes for Madiba. As the recounted narrative unfolds, this emerges as a pinnacle moment in a longer social drama where the forces of labour and capital engage in ongoing wars of position, sometimes within their respective constituencies, with the crisis-ridden if transitioning South African state ever in the background. The striking 'red' moment on which Gush dwells marks a break, however fleetingly amidst the noise of history, into song.

In terms of its content, the film Red largely comprises oral history testimony, inter- spersed with video images that approximate to still photography in dwelling visually on places at and around the factory in contemporary East London. The narrative is recounted to varying degrees by six workers who appear still to be in the employ of Mercedes at the time of filming.2 Three interlocutors present the perspectives of the then management, all of whom appear to have either retired or moved on to other assignments. Over the film's 82-minute duration, the recollections are intercut so as to provide complementary and in some instances competing accounts of what emerge as cardinal moments in the speakers' respective professional lives. The narrative begins with the virtual paralysis of the Mercedes plant in the late 1980s in the context of heightened struggle against apartheid. The moment of Nelson Mandela's release in 1990 sparks an initiative on the part of workers to build him a car. This amounts, in a moment of rare consensus, to a performance of the possible beyond alienated labour, which Fikizolo, invoking a sonic metaphor, refers to as being 'on the same wavelength, across the board'.3 The last half-hour of the film deals with the on-the-ground challenges, despite the 'Madiba moment',4 of establishing a new labour relations regime in the post-apartheid era, particularly a move towards collective bargaining and (in Fikizolo's account) countervailing ambitions among certain worker representatives. This led to a so-called 'wildcat' sleep-in strike that shut the plant down for nine weeks and ultimately led to the dismissal of over five hundred workers. Nonetheless, the closing slide of the film asserts the stability and international recognition that was afforded this once dysfunctional plant after 1994 until the strike of 2013, which seems emblematic of the receding of the Madiba moment in what turned out to be the year of Mandela's death.

This article takes its cue from recent writing referred to under the rubric of the 'ambient humanities'5 and explores sound as its primary mode of inquiry. I recognise - particularly in the context of studying a soundtrack designed to accompany as strongly visual a medium as a film - that this is a reading (or, better, a hearing) that presses against the material grain of its subject. But as I have begun to emphasise in my brief account of the film above, I am struck by how sound constitutes not just the soundtrack per se, but also, at particular moments, becomes the content or subject of the film itself.6 I believe these moments are worth attending to because, empirically speaking, they render audible some aspects of history that might otherwise literally be overlooked. Beyond the empirical, I am interested in thinking or theorising not only about but also with sound, and reflecting on how doing so with respect to history might be productive. Gush's film has thus prompted me to tease out thinking sound in history, sound with history, sounding history and the like, in the process asking what aesthetics can do for the work of history.7

In the pages that follow, taking my cue from a striking aural performance recounted in the film, I consider possible archaeologies of insurrectionary noise in South Africa and beyond. Following Mowitt,8 I go on to consider how the notions of echo and resonance illustrate the kinds of alternative epistemological perspectives that attention to sound might enable for historiography. In the conclusion, I tie these back to the foregrounding of performance - particularly performance with a strong aural dimension - in the constitution of social and public memory.

 

Towards an Archaeology of 'Shrill Whistling'

The soundtrack of Red is largely ambient, understated and, apart from the sounds of the narrators' voices, non-diegetic,9 underscoring the stillness of the visual material. Under the introductory narrative and later interviews, relatively placid sounds of the sea, of ship signals, of wind, rustling leaves or, more stridently, of traffic and trains envelop, underscore or punctuate the narrative. There is no attempt to illustrate the recounted events sonically; instead, the soundtrack contributes a contrapuntal sequence of contemplative impressions, inviting a reflection on, if not immersion in, the place of these events. Neither is there any concerted attempt to provide what Murray Schafer conceived as 'soundmarks': emblematic sounds that are distinctive of particular places.10 The ambient sounds are, rather, generic in character and appear to have been incidental to the process of visually documenting places around the Mercedes-Benz plant in East London at the time of filming. The soundtrack thus stands in an anachronistic relationship to what is told; both the visual and the sonic material presented in the film date from the time of the oral history being narrated, rather than attempting to quote or reconstruct an archive that is contemporaneous with the recounted events.11

Nonetheless, the narrative in the film is striking for the evidence it offers of the considerable extent to which, in the late 1980s at least, resistance to the intersecting forces of capital and apartheid was overtly performative. This goes well beyond generalised modes of demonstration that occurred across South Africa like the singing of struggle songs and public performances of a figurative war dance like the toyi-toyi,12 accompanied by black power salutes or even, in the case of the events recounted in the film, the ceremonious draping of Mandela's vehicle with the flag of the African National Congress (ANC).13 Workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant also appear to have elaborated a range of resistant, if not openly combative, performance modes with notable dramaturgic, choreographic and sonic dimensions.14 Given my interests in the latter, to my mind one the most striking impressions in the film is aural. It emerges not in the soundtrack but among the recollections of one of its participants. Charles Nupen, who mediated several disputes in the mid to late 1980s, describes a visit to the plant at the time:

I can recall going with a couple of members of my team to just get a sense of what it was like in that plant, to get a kind of feel of the relationships that existed at the time. And I can remember being taken in to the plant by the chief executive, Christoph Köpke, and there was, like, this shrill whistling that started that just pervaded the plant as we walked through, you know. And it was a, it was a kind of demonstration, of people's antagonism towards senior management. And that's they way they expressed. I mean, they didn't stop, put down tools, they didn't stop working, but they just demonstrated in that way their antagonism and their displeasure with his presence in the plant.

This anecdote is compelling not only for the evidence it offers of what may on the surface have been an idiosyncratic mode of sonic resistance (more about that later), but also because it contains evidence of how this performance was read/heard by participants positioned on the side of management. It is presented not as the shrill whistle of surprise or warning, but explicitly of antagonism and displeasure directed at a particular audience. It leaves one with the visceral impression of members of the management and their consultants running a sonic gauntlet as they enter into a workspace over which they have but nominal authority.

The efficacy of sound to constitute a collectivity, and for this to be experienced unambiguously at somatic and emotive levels, in this instance directs opprobrium at those who, regardless of their formal power, are excluded from the performance; in fact, they become its disempowered objects. To risk stating the obvious, this is pertinently not a utilitarian injunction to 'whistle while you work'.15 Aurally rendering the industrial plant ungovernable even as the routines of production are ostensibly maintained, one imagines the whistling creating a situation where instructions cannot be given or taken as a wall of sound isolates the team of officials and inspectors and renders them impotent, certainly for the duration of the performance.16

Parallels might be heard between the shrill whistling recounted in Gush's film and various vernacular archives, particularly those that relate to histories of public shaming and insurrectionary noise. These have been documented at least as far back as medieval Europe and are associated with various pan-European cultural practices glossed in English as 'rough music'. These were transported to North America, where they acquired their own forms and vocabularies alongside practices that signalled resistance and rebellion in the Afro-diasporic cultural circuits wrought by the transatlantic slave trade. Such performative archives and repertoires17 thus have local and global dimensions, each with their own elusive aural histories, which in the case of southern Africa have tended to be mute in the colonial record. Nonetheless, to those who lived through the transition from apartheid in South Africa, the indefinably distinctive whistling of demonstrators and marshals that accompanied public marches, rallies and funerals throughout the 1980s reverberates with a sound world that included the heaving pulse of the toyi-toyi and also a characteristically South African proclivity for demonstrating through song. Without necessarily citing them, local performances of the sort attributed to the workers in East London in the late 1980s echo or resonate with these longer sonic repertoires of resistance (I return to the work these sonic verbs do below), and Gush's film leads one to reflect on how one might unravel these layered, potentially intersecting, performative modes in historical terms.

The shrill whistling mentioned by Charles Nupen in Red thus recalls various customs, documented in rural regions but also in the metropoles of colonial powers from the earliest modern times, where rough music has been chronicled. The celebrated social historian E.P. Thompson offers a definitive account in an article first published in 1972, later expanded as a chapter in his study of the culture of working people in England in the eighteenth century, Customs in Common.18 In Thompson's definition:

'Rough music' is the term which has been generally used in England since the end of the seventeenth century to denote a rude cacophony, with or without more elaborate ritual, which usually directed mockery or hostility against individuals who offended against certain community norms. It appears to correspond, on the whole, to charivari in France, to the Italian scampanate, and to several German customs - haberfeld-treiben, thierjagen and katzenmusik. There is, indeed, a family of ritual forms here, which is European-wide, and of great antiquity, but the degree of kinship within this family is open to enquiry.19

By designating the relationship between this common feature of vernacular European culture and the shrill whistling at the Mercedes-Benz plant in East London, South Africa in the late twentieth century as a resonance, I am able to avoid speculation as to whether a causal relationship might exist between them. While such practices have an uncanny propensity for being distributed globally without any formal effort (much like children's games), my intention is not to discover the provenance of the acts of resistance that took place at the factory, which could have entailed any combination of repetition and improvisation. But the wide range of public performances referred to as rough music throws into relief aspects of the social dynamics at play in the events at the plant as recalled by Nupen that helps one to note both correspondences and divergences.

The parallels between rough music and the shrill whistling recounted in the film are strongest in their effect as rituals of public shaming. To the extent that the whistling communicated the hostility that Nupen reports feeling at the time, it perhaps more closely approximates to the closely related sibilant act of hissing (a nonverbal mode of communication traced to communicating aggression or defensiveness, even among several animal species), or its more mellifluent cousin hushing, than the modes of whistling that have tended to have cheerful connotations in Western popular culture.20 There appears to have been no ambiguity in the message received by management from the workers who whistled shrilly at them when they approached. But in the flagrant 'voicing' of animosity in the face of management while nominally doing their work, this kind of performance on the part of workers in East London seems to have taken on aspects of cultural struggle that challenged, rather than upheld, the social and political status quo, and to that extent it departs from its parallels with rough music.

For E.P. Thompson, rough music served as a mode of popular justice or community policing practised among the plebeian classes - most often serving to uphold patriarchal, heteronormative sexual mores - though it could also be invoked to counter domestic violence. And while it signalled 'the total publicity of disgrace',21 Thompson holds that '[e]ven when rough music was expressive of the most absolute community hostility, and its intention was to ostracise or drive out an offender, the ritual element may be seen as channelling and controlling this hostility.'22 In sum, rough music served a socialising and disciplinary function, not a revolutionary one.

John Mowitt (a cultural theorist who, happily for my purposes, also had a career as a professional musician) drew attention some time ago to the sense in which a 'strike' involves a sonic image, specifically a percussive one.23 The import of this insight goes beyond the literal sense of the strike serving as a collective mobilisation of the working classes to 'strike back' at the abuses of capital. Mowitt also invites reflection (to offer my own paraphrase that riffs a little on his exposition) on the extent to which striking entails the deliberate, tactical interruption of the routines and thus the rhythms of industrial labour. It is precisely this deliberate and tactical dimension of the strike that leads Mowitt to foreground why activists in the history of trade unionism have