WITH AN ESSAY BY SEAN Oâ€˜TOOLE
Diagnosing hope in a ruined paradise By Sean O’Toole
In 2014, five years after his first visit to Cape Town, Hennric Jokeit photographed a small boatyard in Table Bay, a broad inlet on South Africa’s southern Atlantic coastline that in the seventeenth century served as a beachhead for white settlement of the region. The photograph appears roughly a third of the way into his book-length essay Goodhope, which is largely composed of photographs made over a three-year period in Cape Town and its southern peninsula. Taken at street level, the untitled photo – all the photos in Goodhope are untitled – depicts the prow of a large boat looming over a brick wall, a hangar visible behind it, and further still, at left, a mountain. It is Devil’s Peak. This sandstone spire, which abuts the flat mesa of Table Mountain, helps locate Jokeit’s scene. It is a photograph of Cape Town. Intention, happenstance and an idiosyncratic process all cohere in Jokeit’s striking image. The boundary wall in particular fascinates. It appears to have replaced an older fence structure topped with barbed wire. All across urban South Africa, in its suburbs and industrial peripheries, one can observe evidence of this accretive securitisation of private space. The perimeter wall is a striking material fact of the post-apartheid city, a facet of life recorded in many of Jokeit’s austere and often mysterious photographs of Arcadian splendour, human settlement, industrial purpose, urban creep, social alienation and homelessness. But this is provisional insight: the anonymous boatyard has been demolished and replaced by a larger factory. Absence animates the way we read a photograph. Atget’s Paris cannot be reclaimed; all we have are his images. But Jokeit’s photo of a boatyard in the industrial suburb of Paarden Island encompasses another type of absence. His technique of converting a digital image into a negative photo using studio software has transformed the shadow of a large date palm outside the frame of the photograph into a glowing light source. It illuminates a part of the grass and darkened wall in the foreground; it is a visible aura of something that doesn’t truly belong. As its name implies, the Canary Island date palm is a guest from far away. Its presence in a region celebrated for its unique floral abundance owes to the exigencies of colonial town planning. This flowering palm is very hardy and easy to grow, making it ideal for the southern Cape’s windswept and drought-prone ecology. Date palms are a prominent feature of many parts of Cape Town, including the avenue leading up to the Mount Nelson Hotel, a relic of English imperial manners in a city slowly negotiating change – too slowly, youth activists have vigorously argued since 2015. They also line the main boulevard in Camps Bay, an upmarket Atlantic suburb whose coastline appears in a photograph by Jokeit depicting three date palms. The photograph appears early in Goodhope, with a selection of photos devoted to deep time and the southern Cape’s abundant wilderness landscapes. The Cape’s natural magnificence, while amply foregrounded in the sequencing of Jokeit’s photos, is nonetheless rendered mute in negative black and white. With colour held in abeyance, Jokeit’s landscapes are all structure and graphic presence. I do not
mean to imply that the photographer’s essay lacks photographic detail and richness – Goodhope offers an abundance of insights into the character of life in Africa’s southernmost city. But Jokeit did not expressly set out to produce a documentary essay about the abrupt manifestations of poverty and squalor in Cape Town. Jokeit views my hometown as a metonym for the neo-liberal city, and also regards it as a negative of the European city, where deindustrialisation and the financialisation of city space are commonplace. This tension – between what is particular and distinctive about Cape Town, and what links it to urban centres elsewhere – is central to an appreciation of Goodhope. In this essay I explore aspects of Cape Town’s particularity, those details of place that once prompted local poet Stephen Watson to describe the city as a “ruined paradise”. I am particularly interested in tracking Cape Town’s transformation from agrarian outpost of empire into an industrial hub founded on a ruthless capitalist ethos. This essay also looks at the imaging technologies that inform Jokeit’s distinctive aesthetic, which he has pithily characterised as “negative vision”. Differently stated, I am interested in how his analytical and diagnostic mode of looking invokes a medico-artistic tradition of photography (one that has very few precedents in South Africa). This essay includes a consideration of medical imaging as a photographic form, and discusses how this arcane if utilitarian technology clarifies some of Jokeit’s intentions as a photographer, in particular his interest in exploring the ontology of seeing. *** Dutch colonial traders established Cape Town in 1652 as a victualing station. The sprawling and fragmented city that subsequently grew up on the shores of Table Bay is currently home to some four million inhabitants. Cape Town has a youthful population, with residents aged between 25 and 34 constituting the largest demographic. Unemployment is rife, as is urban poverty and a high incidence of crime. At the same time, research has shown that Cape Town ranks alongside Sydney, St Tropez, the Hamptons, Miami and Palm Beach as a second-home hotspot for multimillionaires. Jokeit’s earliest photographs of Cape Town included architectural studies of the city’s upmarket neighbourhoods, but in Goodhope he largely focuses on its older, lowerincome neighbourhoods and industrial estates. Cape Town is a complicated city. The complications are cumulative, and in the immediate present include access to housing and basic services, spatial justice, poverty, safety and ecological sustainability. Goodhope evidences Jokeit’s interest in these complications, even though he does not immediately declare this. Goodhope opens with a photograph of the night sky. It was taken in Plettenberg Bay, an exclusive coastal town not dissimilar Sylt or the Hamptons, and portrays a conceptual wilderness whose only proof of existence is light. It is an outlier image, both geographically and visually. From this place of deep time and sublime projection Jokeit’s essay takes the viewer on a journey through various natural landscapes, eventually arriving at Cape Town. It ends with a series of portraits of the city’s destitute inhabitants. The arc of this journey unavoidably involves a comedown from heaven. Jokeit’s first photograph of mammalian life is a seal. It was taken in Hout Bay, a southern peninsula bay that includes a small harbour and segregated fishing village, Hangberg, also pictured in this book. The harbour has tourist charters to nearby Duiker Island, which is home to a colony of Cape fur seals. Earlier human cultures rightly marvelled at this semiaquatic animal, recognising in its terrestrial abilities mythical qualities. Eschewing myth, Aristotle performed scientific investigations of this “deformed, four-footed animal” without external ears. This early human wonder later
yielded to brutal enterprise, the seal’s meat, blubber and fur sponsoring various industries across the planet. A sequence of photographs depicting sunken and ruined boats gestures to earlier maritime industries, this in the age of super trawlers, and prefaces Jokeit’s striking photograph of the lapsed Paarden Island boatyard. Much of Goodhope is devoted to generic manmade things, mostly factory landscapes, residential neighbourhoods and other indeterminate urban spaces increasingly occupied by the city’s indigent. Despite Cape Town’s image as a garden city and leisure utopia, manufacturing is among the city’s largest industries. Notwithstanding consistent contractions, especially in the garment sector, manufacturers still employ over 10% of the workforce. More than half of Cape Town’s industrial workers are classified as semi-skilled. Contrast this with early Cape Town, which was principally a market town enjoying a tighter kinship with the outlying wine, fruit, grain and animal farming communities that still surround it. The earliest industrial activity was small scale and directed towards the needs of an agrarian community. Cape Town’s original industrialists were blacksmiths, wheelwrights, locksmiths, coppersmiths, tinkers, carpenters, joiners, turners, glaziers and gunstock makers. British colonial rule, first in 1795 and then again from 1806, prompted greater white settlement of the region, and with it a diversification of the region’s industries. In 1840, when Cape Town’s urban population numbered some 20,000 inhabitants, the city’s industrial class included brewers, tinsmiths, coopers, tanners, bakers, joiners and soap manufacturers. The discovery of minerals in the interior – initially diamonds, in the late 1860s, and later gold, in 1886 – significantly reconfigured Cape Town’s urban purpose. Industrial historian David Worth has written how the town rapidly transformed from being primarily focused on servicing the agricultural sector into a city “based on industrial capitalism”. Woodstock, a working-class neighbourhood that features strongly in Jokeit’s later photographs, was developed between 1880 and 1920, with an emphasis on the speculative building of row housing and semi-detached houses by absentee landlords during the 1890s, notes Worth. Neighbouring Salt River became home to the largest railway workshops on the African continent and was one of Cape Town’s largest employers. More so than agriculture, which relied on slave and later indentured forms of labour, industrial capitalism was the fulcrum for South Africa’s toxic racial politics. The primitive capitalism practiced in South Africa, notably on the mines, demanded cheap, unskilled labour. “Before the 1880s it was not a fait accompli that unskilled labour would be black,” writes historian Vivian Bickford-Smith in his 1995 study, Ethnic Pride and Racial Prejudice in Victorian Cape Town. For example, the construction of Table Bay harbour, which started around 1860, saw Irish labourers imported in 1880. White labourers, though, were often expensive, unruly and prone to desertion, prompting captains of industry to use only black labour for menial jobs. Housing was rudimentary, in military- or prison-like compounds. The nomenclature for these labour barracks has changed, but it is a remarkable indictment of our age that these compounds still endure in South Africa. The South African War (1899-1902) also played a role in reshaping the urban form of Cape Town. Tens of thousands of refugees converged on the city, which was already swollen by the presence of British troops. The overcrowding resulted in a plague epidemic. Similar to Johannesburg, which also experienced epidemics due to slum conditions, Cape Town’s governors established racially segregated residential areas. Black residents were forced to move from District Six, a mixed-race neighbourhood adjacent Woodstock, to a remote settlement at Uitvlugt. It was the first of many such
organised removals. Over time, the city’s black and mixed-race inhabitants were also segregated and pushed further from Table Bay, onto the boggy and windswept plains described as Cape Town’s second city. The atomised and segregated form of contemporary Cape Town is largely a product of high apartheid (1948-90). Before this defining event in the modern history of South Africa, the country’s cities were a hodgepodge of intermixing and informal prejudice. Writing in The Notorious Syndicalist (2004), a study of early labour agitation in Johannesburg, social historian Jonathan Hyslop notes that racial boundaries were scarcely policed and very porous in that city. “For all the racism of early Johannesburg, it is important not to read the highly formalised segregation of mid-twentieth century South Africa back in time,” states Hyslop. The same is true of Cape Town, where forced removals only began in earnest in the late 1950s. “Before the implementation of the Group Areas Act, Cape Town was arguably the most racially integrated city in South Africa,” argues historian Henry Trotter in a 2009 essay. Integrated, albeit with a race hierarchy firmly predicated on white supremacy. Jokeit first visited Cape Town in 2011. A year earlier the city was a host venue for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The memory of this hyper-capitalist sporting event lingers in the physical form of a football stadium. In his 2008 book, World City Syndrome, development studies scholar David A. McDonald observes how Cape Town has devoted itself to the “single-minded pursuit of neo-liberalism”. The moribund football stadium in Green Point is a striking example of the city’s neo-liberal policies, as is a recent collaboration agreement signed by the city government with hospitality platform Airbnb. “Under the agreement, Airbnb and the city will work together to promote the benefits of people-to-people tourism for Cape Town residents and their communities, and promote Cape Town across the world as a unique travel destination,” read an October 2017 news report. Unstated was Airbnb’s role in inflating residential property prices. The city’s critical housing shortage was also overlooked, and there was no mention of the recent occupation of vacant city buildings by Reclaim the City, a group of affordable housing activists. This history is not without import to reading Goodhope, a project that, to draw on something Jokeit said in 2016, demands active vision not passive seeing. All counted, Jokeit has made six trips to Cape Town. He purposefully avoided photographing the city’s far-flung, crowded and often violent “township” settlements. The township has been a popular trope of post-apartheid documentary photography, to the point that photographs of township life, far from achieving the indictment one still senses viewing the work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, reinforce stereotypes of overcrowding, poverty and resilience in the face of hopelessness. This is, of course, a crude generalisation. The absence of Cape Town’s peripheral dormitory suburbs – or second city – is important to note. Jokeit’s wandering essay, which was informed by a personal dialectic of search and discovery, offers a partial account of Cape Town. It largely formulates its arguments through portrayals of the old city, presenting photographic evidence of the stark binaries that animate life in the neo-liberal centre of the city. *** Jokeit’s method of inverting his photographs in post-production to creative a negative image is integral to his photographic process. It begs a simple question: Why? In a 2016 interview Jokeit spoke of how the “inflationary use” of photography, particularly through online photo sharing platforms, is robbing photography of its productive meaning. “Photography photographs itself to death,” Jokeit said. He offered
the Eiffel Tower as an example of a subject exhausted by photography. Table Mountain is another. “I want to strip the images of that which is familiar, that which is ordinary, and slow down the perception,” added Jokeit. He further stated: “Since negatives are more difficult to perceive, they alter awareness, which in turn allows the images to be more deeply anchored in memory.” To simplify, the interference posed by the process of inverting a “normal” image supports committed looking. “It allows us to focus more clearly on issues such as composition and formal arrangement,” noted art historian Philip Ursprung in Jokeit’s previous book, Negative Vision (2016). I don’t intend to challenge any of the preceding statements. Rather, I am interested in exploring how Jokeit’s training in psychology and vocation as neuropsychologist enriches the meaning of the foregoing statements. Born in East Germany, Jokeit studied psychology at Humboldt University during the final decade of Berlin’s separation. He began his professional engagement with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in 2000, a year before his move to Zurich, where he is currently a professor in neuropsychology at the University of Zurich. His familiarity with MRI images, which two decades ago used film material that resembled traditional X-rays, predates his beginnings as a photographer in 2004. “My world of images started with MRI,” says Jokeit. Technically, MRI images are not photographs. Introduced to medical clinical practice in the 1980s, MRI images derive from the use a powerful magnetic field, radio waves and a computer to produce detailed representations of the body. Modern digital cameras are closer to MRI technology than the X-ray images of German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, even though MRI images duplicated the negative aesthetic of the older technology. In her 1981 essay, ‘The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism’, art historian Rosalind Krauss defines the photograph as an index: The photograph is generically distinct from painting and sculpture or drawing. On the family tree of images it is closer to palm prints, death masks, the Shroud of Turin, or the tracks of gulls on beaches. MRI images are different in that they map a previously framed area of the body and apply mathematical functions. As such their meaning is unstable, or rather multivalent. Silvia Casini, a researcher interested in the intersection of medical imaging and art, has elegantly parsed the meaning of MRI images. Casini has shown that they function as both index and icon, even as symbol. MRI images are capable of indicating actual pathologies, through shadows for instance, but embody iconicity through their use of pictorial conventions and quantitative strategies. Two details from this somewhat technical discussion are germane to thinking about Jokeit’s work. The first pivots around the word technology, and the second relates to the application of medical imaging technology. Photography is a remarkably plural technology, a fact often overlooked in South Africa where commentary is largely restricted to its pictorial and documentary traditions. Early into his argumentative 1997 book, The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography, philosopher Patrick Maynard writes that photography is “a branching family of technologies, with different uses, whose common stem is simply the physical marking of surfaces through the agency of light and similar radiations”. Much later into his book he adds: Whatever the other uses of photography, there can be no question that from their inception photo-technologies have been used to produce depictions by means of which we detect and even see things and events – that is, as amplifications of our powers of visual perception.
This a particularly fecund statement, one that dialogues well with Jokeit’s own statement around of defamiliarising the commonplace in order to revivify perception. Rather than obscuring reality, Jokeit’s process of inverting his images amplifies the fundamental conditions they portray, be it the archaeology of that perimeter wall or the bare and exclusionist landscapes where Cape Town’s destitute live. This neatly steers the conversation to the purpose of medical imaging technology. The penetrative gaze and graphic quality MRI imaging fundamentally improves visualization and contributes towards generating a correct diagnosis. The key word is diagnosis. Its origins are Greek, from diagignoskein (distinguish, discern), itself a - gignoskein (recognize, know). This compound word made up from dia (apart) and simple etymological explanation unwittingly also speaks to South African history, in particular the state-sponsored project of apartheid, which diagnosed difference and ruthlessly set out to keep people apart. One of the ironies of the fragile and increasingly intemperate post-apartheid years is the endurance of racial identity as a facet of everyday life and discourse. There are various structural reasons that underpin its endurance, but what interests me here is how Jokeit negotiated the issue of race through his medico-artistic photographic process. As recently as 2016 Jokeit admitted that he had little interest in depicting human subjects. “On the one hand, the traces left by humanity interest me more than the portrayal of the person itself,” he said. The negative process also tended to reduce human subjects to “caricature,” he added. In Cape Town Jokeit recognized the possibility of dialectically mediating a situation in which simple colour binaries, black and white, denote a history of subjugation. Roaming across the old city, sometimes by bicycle, Jokeit photographed men and women bereft of shelter and basic utilities such as water. Some lay sleeping, others were aware of his presence; the encounters were brief, Jokeit’s portraits devoid of contextualising biography. Each of the ten faces is a unique and evenly toned topography whose individual landmarks negate quick physiognomic readings. A man with stubble beard and beanie has tattooed tears. The portrait series is introduced by a profile photograph of a Mozambican woman, hands on hips. She has lived in South Africa for two decades. As in the portraits that follow, the city has slipped from view. Seen as such, she is an undeniable presence. In a country still negotiating the meaning of home and hospitality, this is arguably Jokeit’s most incisive diagnosis. Notwithstanding everything, life is still ambiguously hopeful in Cape Town.
Hennric Jokeit was born in Stralsund (D) in 1963 and lives and works in Zurich (Switzerland). He studied Psychology at the Humboldt University in Berlin and moved to Zurich in 2001 to take up a professorship in neuropsychology at the Swiss Epilepsy Centre and University of Zurich. Hennric Jokeit presents his photographs exclusively in the form of negative images. As a neuroscientist he is aware of the irritation the negative image brings to visual perception. His works were shown by Galleries in Switzerland, Germany, Lithuania, and South Africa. He published his much acclaimed book Negative Vision at Peperoni Books in 2016. Sean Oâ€™Toole was born in Pretoria (SA) in 1968 and lives and works in Cape Town. His essays, cultural journalism and art criticism have appeared in numerous books, newspapers and magazines in Germany, South Africa, UK and USA. He has published one book of fiction, The Marquis of Mooikloof and Other Stories (2006), and edited two volumes of essays, Ăźber(W)unden: Art in Troubled Times (2012) and African Futures (2016), both with Lien Heidenreich-Seleme. He is an editor of CityScapes, a bi-annual magazine project of the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town.
I am deeply grateful to all those who have supported me in recent years during the creation of this book. In particular, I would like to thank Hannes Wanderer for his belief in my work, his creativity, and excellence as a publisher. Sean O’Toole for his very fruitful questions and inspiring collaboration; Roger Ballen, Julia Hasting, Kobi Benezri, Fritze Margull, Witold Kanicki, Danny Shorkend, Ewa Hess, Giorgio von Arb, and Marion Wild for their valuable suggestions and encouragement; Heidi Erdmann, Erdmann Contemporary, and Arthur Bisig of the The Fritz Hotel, for their warm friendship, support, and for providing a second home in Cape Town. I would also like to express my gratitude to the people I photographed for their trust: Ira, Robinho, Daphny, William, Singah, Ricas, Eiris, Luvuya, Dubrai and three people who regrettably remained anonymous. A very special thank you to my wife, Susanne-Marie Wrage for her continuing love, support and encouragement. And last but not least I would like to thank Cape Town, the city which was subject as well as catalyst.
Hennric Jokeit Goodhope First edition 2018 Copyright © 2018 Peperoni Books Copyright © Photographs: Hennric Jokeit Copyright © Text: Sean O’Toole Design: Hennric Jokeit, Hannes Wanderer Printed in Germany by Wanderer ISBN-13: 978-3-941825-23-3 www.peperoni-books.de
by Hennric Jokeit essay by Sean O'Toole Peperoni Books, 2018