Notes from the Center for the Less Good Idea

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Pélagie Gbaguidi and I walked out through the streets of Johannesburg together to a street where the sangoma oracles practice. We are in a desert I have flown over for six hours marveling at the inhospitable dryness and the lush geometries and oasis. From my window in the plane I am mesmerized by the thin lines of roads through the Sahara, then Kalahari, and finally into Johannesburg. All this way to sense the community of spirit that we have, and in performances like the one we create on stage the past week.
The days before consulting the Zulu medicine woman in Johannesburg I was making a performance about the reading of signs of the future. Too much has been said and too little has been done about cultures without a practice of writing. Cultures in which the lines drawn in flour are the material of most serious exegesis for the scholars.
Her materials were so beautiful, dominos whose face down meant I keep forgetting my dreams. Not sure how she saw my broken heart or the ocean that sings my ancestors’ songs, but somewhere between my name and this bag she did.
When our future is foretold we feel some apprehension, and the signs need interpretation.
We need a translator, she tells us in English, for the work is done in Zulu. A young girl is summoned to translate for us, and sits down on the threshold of a tiny space in which the Zulu doctor and I face each other on the ground. I am enchanted and unaware that she is about to do a kind of analogue X-ray of my entrails. All these things I can’t see and have forgotten, they are coming in these little voudon charms. The metallic monkey sits in curious openness. Soon my future is scattered faster than I can keep up with.

A Week in the Centre for the Less Good Idea

A place William Kentridge & Bronwyn Lace established to embrace the idea of failure as a possible departure point; apparently different from “This idea must die,” but then again related to the valorization of the failure, the blockage where John Brockman collects overlooked, lost, and underappreciated scientific ideas that should actually be followed. Epistemics are in thick contrast as we enter the Centre for the Less Good Idea’s theatre from many different sides, some coming clearly from within the Centre, where performances are intuitively developed through a repertoire of gestures and stage techniques that the hugely prolific artist Kentridge and his team have developed. Walking in from the wings are others, like myself, who have come from very far, epistemically, to collaborate. To some extent we have to irreverently destroy the archive of material we come with in order to make something new. But irreverence could also leave us swimming on the surface of things. So, for days Adewole Falade and I work on one scene in a way as part of Repatriates larger exploration of repatriation processes in different countries and Benin Republic in particular, looking at what happens when ancestral artifacts return to communities from which they were taken during colonization.
The scene of the Fa priest is one Ade has witnessed many times, but one I enter through witnessing the film, which has its own effect when cut over and over again, when treated as a medium. I guess our epistemics have to do with mediums. I think of the materials of films that I sit with. I even write a short script that goes something like this (or rather I write this and then Ade chooses the Fa):
Scene 2:
The screen on which the future is foretold by the Fa priest
Our screen on which we show you the past of the future. Pixels for grains of flour
Shake. Throw. Read. Mark the flour screen with the sign. Repeat
Shake. Throw. Read. Mark the flour screen with the sign. Repeat
Where the pixels flour on our screen, we take the film, watch it, stop it, rewind it, pause it, screenshot, project it, talk about it, and then we set out in earnest to cut it, to pick the best bits out of it, to arrange it, move it, watch it, structure it, shift this part of it, the front of it, to the middle of it, a story comes from it, and then we have some gaps in it, so we go back to film, film, film, locations, film hands, film performers, record sound, record interviews, catch that angle. Look at it again, and again, and again, till that little second could go here, and a bit more is cut there.

Finally on the last day, together three of us read and translate, but also abandon ourselves to certain words. We do not just read it, we also read each other and respond to these materials. We use small rocks, they invite certain gestures, small pieces that can be thrown and read as complex signs in relation to each other. A bag of signs, just like this page is a bunch of signs lined up, being read right now.
In this bag of things are also epistemologies. We wonder: are they in these objects or in the person who throws them? That is not entirely clear.
The chorus read and then stop reading to just speak together is wrapped up in a ritual of creation that Pelagie Gbaguidi draws another performer from the centre, Vuzi Mdoyi, in too. They improvise a bathing in flour and the moment of conception. Pepper’s ghost is a device in which the past and the future are divided by the screen of a kind of present projection. Therefore, behind the screen I could not see the front, only through voice and sound did we meet. In the intense repetition of “again” that became “gain” we “looked at it again and again.”
With Noah Cohen, who filmed the performance, I was speaking about the language of “shooting” and capturing on film that has such strong hunting etymology. Why do we not speak of mirroring or absorbing when we use the camera to document?
We go into a trance with words, we enter into a future that won’t let us go, we are held. Up and down go the rocks and Thabo’s voice, which Ade and I follow, in translation. I am reaching with the shadow to Thabo’s shadow. I can’t quite reach, but I am stroking the air. For an anthropologist in the audience the film cannot capture the voodoo ceremony, and this impossibility of translation is tragic. Afterwards others say it was traumatic and feel nauseated.
Pélagie is summoning the water. I am swimming in the rhythm of words.
I wonder about my practice of speaking, and what it means to be captured (on film) to be captivated (by a ritual) to be captured in life in a kind of drama and then within a theatre, within a dramatic ritual. Then to be stuck within language and unstuck from one’s dreams.

This is a excerpt of the chapter in the artist’s book by Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll in Micha Payer + Martin Gabriel, A ± Z, De Greuter, May 2023.

From 1 to 5 August, The Centre for the Less Good Idea welcomed a group of artists, academics and researchers into the workshop for Arts, Archives, Performances, an experimental, performative and playful space for exchange and dialogue between artists and thinkers whose practices are devoted to the material traces of colonial history. Participants came from Abomey, Benin; Paris, France; Johannesburg, South Africa; Bogotá, Columbia; Brussels, Belgium; and Vienna, Austria.

The workshop was a physical extension of a series of conferences, co-organised by Bronwyn Lace (SO Academy, Johannesburg, South Africa), Didier Houénoudé (University of Abomey Calavi, Benin) & Anna Seiderer (University of Paris 8, France) and developed within the framework of the research project Animated Images, Controversial Memories [CINEMAF]. The series of conferences, developed within the framework of the research project [CINEMAF], engages in an artistic reflection on the issues of remediation, analysis and reuse of filmic materials produced in controversial historical contexts. Conceived as a space for exchange between artists, curators and scholars, it explores the gestures and artistic forms through which the material traces of colonial history are sketched out and reformulated.

This year and next, the seminar shares monthly the artistic research experimented with autochromes and films shot by Father Francis Aupiais and Frédéric Gadmer in Dahomey in 1930. These still and moving images belong to the musée départemental Albert-Kahn in Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, France.

The sessions and the associated workshops are curated by Bronwyn Lace and Anna Seiderer and explore the threads woven around and from these ‘moving’ images to share their complex and paradoxical resonance.