On Jo Ractliffe and Johannesburg Innercity Works

A continuous flow of conversations weaves through the days and the town, thoughts move between classes and continue in bars, a talk in the day might get a reply in form of a belly-dance at night, narrations from hometowns blend in, and stories from Johannesburg, Bombay, Minsk or Havanna echo in the alleys and backyards of the town at the foot of the mountain. Experiences from Moscow, London, Hamburg resonate in drawings, paintings, sculptures or photos, made by people who came from Beirut, New York, Urfa or Rio. One of the great adavantages of this year’s first term of summeracademy is the somewhat unplanned coming together of many likeminded spirits in the city of Hallein.

It’s this layering of times and places, of cities, their people and their stories, that I would only days later understand as an underlying theme of Jo Ractliffs series Johannesburg Inner City Works. Overlapping fotos, images taken on walks through the rapidly changing city centre of postapartheid Joburg, but – I will come back to that series later.

Let me first mention Jo’s voice. A voice I can’t forget since she sang me a Patty Smith song in a nightly car ride with Hildegund and Katya last year. And how could I write about her talk, without taking into account her love for a dark breed of country and the sinister resistance of Johnny Cash. She played those from her laptop over double Ballantine’s on ice in the “Parachute Bar”, from playlists labelled “Killer Country 01” to “Killer Country 14” and they again alter my imagination about South Africa, where her play lists are legendary and where they are distributed through radiostations, circulated on pirated CDs and later marketed as legal ones. Imagining South African travellers driving through the wide country to Jo’s sinister tunes, sets a much darker atmospheric backdrop, than the happy multicultural image, that South Africa likes to project into the world.

The dark warmth of Jo’s voice provides a gentle but slightly uncanny undertone for a talk about a multitude of works related to the City of Johannesburg, and it is impossible for me, to write about this fine talk without taking our continuous flow of conversations into account: Jo’s talk was a response to discussions I started a year before, on cities and the politics of space – and the thesis of the spatialisation of social movements. The talk placed itself in response to this year’s summeracademy-theme of the studio and the direction this discourse got from other participating artists who shifted their work from the studio into the city. 

And it kicked off with a piece of video from the internet,from a real studio:the clip, even if some years old, still makes the air freeze: right wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) secretary general André Visagie, depicting himself as a victim, can’t cope with the fact, that he is being interrupted by a black woman, and leaves the show uttering icy threats at the courageous lady. When the talk show host tells him off, he starts grabbing him, getting the repeated answer: don’t touch me on my studio. The somewhat weird sentence quite clearly speaks about a politics of body and space in todays South Africa:

And Jo continues with a graffiti, that turned up in post-Apartheid Johannesburg: the mysterious pissing man, who startet to mark spaces in downtown Johannesburg.

“This is the real thing” said co-professor Milena Dragicevic afterwards, relating to Jo’s work connected to a park in downtown Joburg, as the place is called by it’s inhabitants. Whites and corporations had fled the city centre after the end of Apartheid, and now the area was populated by increasing numbers by migrants from former “homelands” and neighbouring countries – the poor who want to make their luck in the exploding Megacity. Now, former hotels and office-buildings are crammed with hundreds of people and highrises are controlled by slumlords. It sounded like the idea of public space as a common shared space, has vanished, a space that could offer at least a minimum of relief – if it ever existed here. 

South Africa has been admired for the peaceful negotiation process after the abolition of Apartheid. Rightly so, but the suppression of violence comes at a price. The suspended collective rage of justice against the former oppressors never happened, white people still own nearly the same proportions of land and wealth as during the regime. Maybe there is a connection between these processes and the outbreak of individual violence after the racists were forced to step back.

Jo and friends teamed together and developed collaborative practices with and in inner city communities, taking the park as the vantage point of creative, documentary, playful or artistic projects, that step by step transformed the park, again, into a public ressource.

During these days, Ractliffe started a new series of urban photographs, shot with small instant cameras. She started to use these, after her professional equipment had been stolen once again. Urban crime and dystopia are thus inscribed into these images from the start. 

The shots overlap and blend into each other, and Jo never cuts out a single one – much rather they are always presented in long strips. A format that relates to the panorama format of the 19th century. 

A little detour here (unavoidable when you write / think “city”): before photography pioneer Daguerre took off in the new field, he built and designed “Panoramas”. His giant 3D-surround displays worked with space and artificial light changes, were attractions and forerunners of today’s 3D-surround cinemas, often located in the centre of the spreading Paris’ arcades. The panorama format developed earlier and is, till today employed for depictions of battlescenes, romantic landscapes and centrefolds of erotic-magazines. Idealized landscapes, the male gaze on female bodies and the warlord’s perspective on the battlefield may well have more to share than just the format. The view of the General or King leading his troops from a secure hill, or that of the aristocrat shaping the landscape, is inscribed into these formats, and all these symbolic meanings and powerstructures inscribed into these views/perspectives, are, what the splintered and fragmented panoramas of Jo Ractliffe work against: her view is from within, it is involved, it has even been hurt and attacked by “the subject”. The view of a woman in Johannesburg is not the same view as the view of the male Flaneur in 19th century Paris.


And yet, these late urban romantics or early situationists, these day-thieves and bohemians, these urban researchers on dope – are closer to the way that Jo Ractliffe moves through the city, than to the uninspired NeutralPointOfView, the “New Topographics” so pretentiously strive for. Even though there is an undeclared war going on in today’s Johannesburg, Ractliffe finds poetry in its streets, layers of history and meaning, crimes in the form of mountains that form inner-city high-plateaus shaped by exploited goldminers, Joburg’s original sin and primary accumulation, as well as, maybe, not far away, in the wall of the city, a secret door, or the north-west-passage into imagination.