“The Tacet Mark as Blackness” presented by Collier


Session Title:

  • Latin American Forum #3

Presentation Title:

  • The Tacet Mark as Blackness




  • Panel: Latin American Forum #3

    Keywords: 4’33”, James Webb, John Cage, South Africa, African art, sound art, electronic art, Eskom

    James Webb’s 2012 performance “The World Will Listen” gestures towards a blackness of ‘zero of flow,’ updating the historical avant garde’s ‘zero of form,’ both in terms of the electronic media used and the history of communities that have been historically figured as unformed and unmediated.

    This paper examines several electronic artworks in Africa that reflect on the fits and starts of electricity, the absence of infrastructure as a signifier for ‘Africa.’ In the electricity-based artworks discussed, disconnection is a ‘blackness’ that is both textual and mechanical, and includes discourses of development and underdevelopment, and the mechanical connections and amputations of Africa from global technology. This essay places these artworks against a historical background of the so-called Dark Continent that has, in media history, been figured as the unmediated, ‘real’ and base material side of technological development. That blackness, like a tacet mark on music notation, has been the space in which artists and theorists develop counter-intentions, strategies variously termed pan-Africanism, Afrofuturism, and Afrocommunism—and now a global DIY movement that spreads open source knowledge and tools for ‘making.’ Along the lines of DIY practice, Jean Katambayi Mukendi’s Ecoson (2011) rewires faulty electricity circuits using organic matter (ecoconductors) and semiconductors (diodes) together to light up a world map. His work has been featured at Kër Thiossane in Dakar, a collective dedicated to art and technology under an open source platform. Against Mukendi’s DIY connections, I discuss disconnection as blackness in South African artist James Webb’s recent performance The World is Listening (2012) in Johannesburg. The performance sent a gallery opening of new media work into total darkness when Webb cut the power to the Bag Factory gallery for 4’33”, unannounced. We may thus see a recent desire to ‘re-materialize’ the object (apparatus, body, etc.) through theory and media practices that can be, on the one hand, considered a subversive practice, but should more accurately be understood as what was always a myth of dematerialisation in postwar global avant garde practice.

    Full text (PDF) p. 111-113

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