Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Africa, Day 1

[Cape Town, Friday]

We got up early to meet Nick Shepherd [professor in Archaeology at the Center for African Studies] at the Olympia Café in Kalk Bay, the part-beach-town-part-Capetonian-suburb where we’re staying for the week.

We told Nick about the project we came here to investigate – a series of pod casts about sites in Cape Town that would be a sort of alternative audio tour guide to the city, intended for tourists coming to Cape Town for the World Cup.

Here is an excerpt from our initial project proposal:

Cape Town is in the midst of fundamental cultural transformation. As is the case in any city, new urban development projects both obscure and make visible remnants of the city’s heritage and history. In light of the upcoming 2010 World Soccer Championship, we would like to design a series of image-supported pod cast tours through Cape Town’s past and present, in an effort to expose this post-apartheid city’s complex past, and to re-present it for the new audience of tourists who will be traveling to the city to take part in the World Cup.

In August of 2005, the Gallery of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town hosted an exhibition titled The Model Man: The Hero of His Own Drama. This show consisted of a series of illustrations and texts by Johan Schönfeldt and Ivan Vladislavic, and presented a coherent story line to connect the iconographic images. By writing the narrative after the images were produced, Schönfeldt references African oral societies, whose history, he argues, is constructed from objects. He asks the audience, “in speech, when does a speaker revert to visuals?” Cape Town Pod Casts takes as its starting point a notion articulated in the exhibition brochure; namely, that objects are an “augmentation to speech.”

Since the end of apartheid, those involved in the design of South Africa’s built environment are faced with an impossible task. Under pressure to undo the injustices of the past, they must attempt to create new, more inclusive, urban spaces for housing and leisure, while in some way paying tribute to the traumatic memories that characterize the city’s heritage. Artists, architects, and designers of the built environment contribute to the narration of a city’s history through the production of monuments, city blocks, apartment buildings, heritage trails, and graveyards – objects that augment stories told about the city. It is our intention to begin to collect some of these narratives – stories of, for, and about Cape Town, several of which are being overwritten by recent urban development.

The Zoo
After an initial [encouraging] meeting with Nick, we joined him and two of his kids for a visit to [what used to be] the Cape Town Zoo, one of the sites we are interested in documenting. Nick led the four of us through the ruined, overgrown site, pointing out where the lions used to live and how the design of the park reinforced a colonialist narrative. The language of Nick’s story – a tale of cultural domination, garden design, and the organicist dimension of colonial history – had the familiar echo of one of Arindam Dutta’s seminars. At once, I missed being in school but was also glad that Nick’s two kids [ages 3 and 6] were in tow, as it necessitated an ongoing rephrasing of complex commentary in overly-simplistic terms.

It was funny to begin my trip to Africa at a place that is basically no more than a reminder of something that was once there. Not your typical tourist introduction, but then, I supposed that is kindof our point.

After the zoo we got a mini-tour of the Center for African Studies at Cape Town University before heading to Long Street, in downtown Cape Town.

Long Street is home to [among many other things] The Pan African Market and the offices of

Chimurenga, where we met with Ntone and Stacie for some more feedback on the idea of Cape Town Pod Casts. The ensuing conversation with Ntone inspired some serious reflection on the proposed project, the occasional moment of self-doubt, and a seemingly-irreconcilable debate about whether it was possible for us to present stories about a series of sites in Cape Town without giving our audience the impression that we claimed to have any sort of comprehensive or essentialist view of the city.

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