‘Slow Violence,’ an exhibition held at the GUS Stellenbosch University Art Gallery from 30 March – 23 May 2015, formed part of a three-day interdisciplinary workshop entitled ‘Disturbing the ‘normalised quiet of unseen power’: Alternative ways of representing violence.’
The workshop was based on Prof. Rob Nixon’s (USA) premise – outlined in his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011) – that we need to urgently rethink what he calls “slow violence”; a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. The exhibition, reviewed here by Natasha Norman and Annemi Conradie, takes as formal motif the image of the animal to explore Nixon’s notion of ‘slow violence.’
Elizabeth Gunter’s supine wild dog is magnificently rendered in the most delicate of dusty graphite. The fragility of its rendering suggests a species facing extinction, here transfigured in the fine art sublime. The historical veneer of the Gallery University Stellenbosch (GUS), a former church, is used to particular dramatic effect in Hentie van der Merwe’s curatorial investigation of author Rob Nixon’s notion of ‘slow violence’, which he considered in his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. The exhibition ran from 30 March to 23 May, and formed part of a three-day interdisciplinary workshop entitled “Disturbing the ‘normalized quiet of unseen power’: Alternative ways of representing violence”, was hosted by University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Faculty and saw Nixon as the keynote speaker.
Nixon’s book focuses attention on the overlooked, steadily and surreptitiously evolving forms of violence wrought on humans and the environment by such devastating events and processes as oil spills, deforestation, toxic drift, climate change and the environmental aftermath of wars. Slow violence is neither spectacular nor instantaneous. It occurs gradually and out of sight, dispersed across time and space and its effects – toxic water, toxic soil, erosion, poverty, discrimination, disease and depression – emerge over epochs and generations. In his review of the show, Melvin Minnaar (Netwerk24: 30/04/2015) translates ‘slow violence’ to “sluipende geweld” (sneaking violence), which is apt in its definition of this violence stealthily encroaching.
Nixon’s work is deeply concerned with the impact of climatic ‘slow violence’ on the world’s most vulnerable people, in particular the poor of the global south. It is after all here where the silent and lethal consequences of slavery and colonialism have continued to advance incrementally and are exacerbated by environmental, political and economic exploitation under the orthodoxy of neoliberalism. Nixon’s trans-disciplinary work examines not only the causes and symptoms of the ‘hushed havoc’ of slow violence, but also the movements and acts of resistance by environmental activists, artists and scholars. One of Nixon’s chief concerns is the quest to find forms – whether poetic, juridical, political or visual – to represent, speak about and call attention to the oblique and oft unseen violence in a world dominated by a culture of media sensationalism, spectacle and short attention spans.
Hentie van der Merwe’s curatorial project responds to the challenges of the representational by engaging with slow violence in a local South African context. He does this by taking the animal as formal motif. Works either representing or suggesting animal forms dominate the gallery spaces. Overall, the first and largest room reminds the viewer of a brightly lit sepulchre, an association engendered in some part by Ledelle Moe’s chrysalis/sarcophagus skilfully sculpted from cement. Raised upon the chancel of the old church, Fritha Langerman’s installation of laboratory paraphernalia, text-inscribed mirror surfaces and rats becomes a secular altarpiece of the intricate social and scientific history of humans’ relationship with this rodent. A woolly, glass-eyed sheep with a fish in its mouth by Gavin Younge and Wilma Cruise takes its title from the radioactive isotope Caesium-137, a by-product of nuclear fission processes in nuclear reactor operations, weapons testing and bombs. As such, the work addresses the moral challenges faced by the advantages and fallout of unbridled scientific progress, driven by health, food and energy needs that have turned into big, unscrupulous business, or war. Brett Murray’s two fat piggies screwing at the trough is sardonically placed before Carol-Anne Gainer’s wallpaper, patterned with emaciated dogs. The theme of domesticated animals is continued in a nearby bronze collar with leash, and a tapestry emblazoned with ‘Bad Dog’ give nods at the metaphor of the dog in bondage and SM, or Hip Hop. These subcultural genres all engage the notion of power and dominance by casting fellow humans as animals. All is sanctified in the crisp still light of the white gallery space that is disrupted by the plastic sounds of a 90s Nintendo track.
Francoise Knoetze’s video Cape Mongo (2011) is the cymbal clang in an otherwise harmonious meditation on the animal as metaphor for Nixon’s ideas. What his work does within this comfortably coherent curatorial exercise is expose the limits of van der Merwe’s selection of artworks – almost exclusively by artists employed at Universities – to address Nixon’s major issue which is the effect of environmental slow violence on the poor of the global South.
Knoetze’s film collages image and sound into a fast-paced, rhythmic beat of archival footage, TV shows and news clips, with scenes shot in and around Cape Town’s city centre, suburbs, rubbish dumps and townships. In these a creature – part human, part armadillo or cockroach with armour of tin – emerges from the city’s dumps and starts to roam the urban spaces of production and consumption that produced its very form. The steps of this hybrid animal through crowded streets, shopping malls, leafy suburbs, farmland and the dusty roads of Blikkiesdorp is spliced with the sights, sounds and humdrum of modern industry: oiled cogs turning, harvesters churning over wheat fields, WWF wrestlers, comic heroes threatening and growling, miners striking, rifle shots piercing a crowd. The rapid juxtaposition of snippets from popular culture, corporate and commercial, death and disaster – its rhythm picking up from the upbeat tune of the Nintendo game – highlights the contemporary desensitisation which occurs through hyperstimulation engendered by corporate capitalism,
Knoetze’s film exposes how human lives and bodies become soon-obsolete cogs within the beat of the capitalist machinery. Or as Debord identified in the 60s, how the human being is both spectator and participant in spectacular capitalism. To this the tin-clad hybrid bears witness. It is through Knoetze’s ingenious selection of footage and exact editing that the contemporary symptoms of slow violence remain concomitant to its historical contexts.
Knoetze’s video creates a unique anthropic gaze. In his work, empathy with the hybrid character allows the viewer to consider him/herself as animal. In contrast to encounters with other works in the exhibition where a human subject gazes upon the animal, in Knoetze’s video the human looks at human-as-animal. While the metaphor of the animal is pertinent to an interpretation of aspects of Nixon’s thesis, in his selection of works van der Merwe relies heavily on the viewer having sufficient empathy with the animal, such that one considers the impact of humankind on the environment. In a peculiar way, it is Liesel Brenzel’s 06.02.2011 (2014), waxy hipbone of a cow straddling a set of crutches, that comes closer than other works to transgressing the safe confines of the animal metaphor. By conflating the human with the animal biology, Brenzel forces the viewer to consider our interdependence as animals, and ourselves as animals.
Nixon’s warning is that if we do not recognise our interconnectedness with animals and the environment as animals ourselves, the potential for slow violence against the poor and economically disempowered will only escalate. Political theory and philosophy that emerged from the anti-colonial struggle underscores Nixon’s thesis, as does his call for a dedication to self-reflection, empathy and action as a result of that reflection. In this exhibition the metaphor of the animal does not go far enough to express the struggle of the poor against the effects of climatic slow violence.
Taking our cue from the curator’s aim for the exhibition to generate critical discussion, we felt it worth reflecting that the majority of artists in the exhibition is employed by tertiary institutions in the Western Cape. This may suggest a blind spot on the part of the curator to the ways that academe is complicit in slow violence.
With Nixon’s work in mind, it is important to consider the ways in which institutions of higher learning form part of a global knowledge economy with intimate relations to multinational business. Most, outside such institutions, may not be aware of the increasing commodification and quantification of tertiary education, of research and knowledge production, which has turned books, scholarly articles and artistic productions such as exhibitions into ‘research outputs’. These translate as units weighed and rewarded with financial and professional profit for institution and academic alike. Worldwide departments of engineering, biology and medicine receive financial support and incentive from giants in the business of oil, pharmaceuticals, mining and finance. In ways indirect and direct, the university as knowledge economy is thus part of bigger economies that generate and perpetrate slow violence. Furthermore, in South Africa today one cannot think of academe without acknowledging the very vocal criticism by students and staff of universities who endeavour to expose and change its legacy of exclusion and discrimination based on race and class. So in terms of exclusivity, where is the work engaging slow violence by artists working in other parts of the country, and those artists not affiliated with institutions of higher learning?
In the context of the curatorial statement, the works either side of Knoetze’s video become comfortable, complacent, beautiful and elegiac. Doubly sanctified by the gallery-cum-church, they speak according to the classical and institutionalised code of high art and begs the (old) question: can a language in power be used to speak to its own complicity in slow violence?