thinking in relation

Vlakplaas 2

Jo Ractliffe, Vlakplaas: 2 June 1999 (Drive-by Shooting), 2 minutes, 30 seconds, 1999/2000, sound, black and white, Still Image. Copy of the video courtesy the artist and Stevenson Gallery (Johannesburg and Cape Town).

Positioning Paper presented at a launch of a special edition of the journal Critical Arts: South-North Media Studies, edited by Leora Farber and titled ‘Archival Address: Photographies, Practices and Positionalities’, University of Leeds on the 9 November 2015. The Symposium focused on developing connections between VIAD at the University of Johannesburg directed by Leora Farber (Associate Professor) and the White Spaces Network led by Dr Shona Hunter from the University of Leeds, and involving members of the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies (CERS) also at Leeds.

This ten minute paper sought to think through some of the concerns underpinning my PhD dissertation (see here), and the article published in Critical Arts, and titled ‘Empathic unsettlement’ in the field of vision: Jo Ractliffe’s Vlakplaas in photographs and video (see here). If readers would like a copy of this article contact me directly.

Positioning Proximity

My contribution to Critical Arts is derived from my recently completed PhD dissertation, which explored how four South African women artists deployed the medium of video to enter into a dialogue with historical events that relate to the apartheid/post-apartheid binary, which I sought to destabilise through an emphasis on trauma, its opaqueness, and its relationship to time. Apartheid, its conditions, its experiences, and the de-humanisation and objectification it systematically and insidiously inflicted upon those it deemed non-citizens must never be unseen. In the dissertation, I was attentive, not only to the artworks themselves, their internal worlds, but also to the particularities of the histories they engaged, and my narration of these histories, was based on archival research, and on my reading of historical texts drawn from South African scholarship. Each chapter explored a theoretical concept, which emerged through the process of wrestling with the internal world of the video, and the historical events it explored. At the beginning of my PhD research, I thought of the works as living, moving spaces, affective spaces, perhaps archives that I would excavate. Excavate through the articulation of strategies, which I now understand to relate to performativity, my own subjectivity, and my own situated relationship to South Africa. Although I didn’t develop or theorise that preliminary thinking, in relation to the archive, it is now something I am considering developing.


Jo Ractliffe, Vlakplaas: 2 June 1999 (Drive-by Shooting), 2 minutes, 30 seconds, 1999/2000, sound, black and white, Still Image. Copy of the video courtesy the artist and Stevenson Gallery (Johannesburg and Cape Town).

Each of the videos, including the work by Jo Ractliffe, engaged in the Critical Arts article, counter a documentary stance that presumes a transparent, objective truth or a singular, didactic representation of what an event is. Each presented me with theoretical and methodological challenges; the visual and sonic languages they deployed produced extreme difficulty, the videos seemed murky and ambiguous. They are characterised by a certain impenetrability, a refusal to tell me what it is they are about in any didactic and definitive sense. They counter the ‘big spectacle of apartheid’, and invite an affective and subjective dialogue with the idea of history in South Africa.

Throughout the writing of the dissertation, and the working up of the article for Critical Arts, I thought a lot about what it means for me, critically and ethically, to work on historical events embedded in extreme experiences of racial violence, in a context in which I was classified white. I was also conscious that three of the artists whose works I selected – Jo Ractliffe, Penny Siopis and Minnette Vári – were classified white. Berni Searle was classified coloured. To deploy the racial categories manufactured by white supremacy is to reinscribe their violence but, at the same time, to not speak them, is to negate the presence of racism, historical and contemporaneous, which is so visible to me, whether I am inhabiting South Africa, or the UK. Nomusa Makhubu, for example, engages distinctions made between black and white artists who embody different relationships to apartheid and its memory. She notes: ‘The term ‘Black’ carries historical political weight (one does not speak of White art for instance, as it is presumed to be mainstream cultural production)’. [1]. Questions of visibility/invisibility, of erasure and negation, of who speaks for whom, and how, the ethics and politics present in image-making, and the ethics and politics present in how histories are constituted in the first place is a major preoccupation for me. I am situated, or am situated, in South Africa in particular ways, and do I then declare how, and in what ways? Do I have a grasp of what it means to say that I am situated in specific ways, and what are the implications of this acknowledgement, and what does it mean to my work, my methods, my practices of citation, and my choices?

Vlakplaas 3

Jo Ractliffe, Vlakplaas: 2 June 1999 (Drive-by Shooting), 2 minutes, 30 seconds, 1999/2000, sound, black and white, Still Image. Copy of the video courtesy the artist and Stevenson Gallery (Johannesburg and Cape Town).

My lived experience crosses the Indian Ocean, South Africa, and, for the past 8 years, the United Kingdom. Through the process of living across these geographies, I came to see, through my own immediate lived experience, that there are gradations and hierarchies within whiteness itself, and this emerged as an important thread in my dissertation. There is violence that is overt, and then there is violence that is opaque, and there are experiences for which there may not be a language, immediately accessible or visible, at least. There are affects that find their way into my work because I am not detached, and impartial. I feel an intense proximity to images I write about, that relate to South Africa in particular. There are particular stakes at play in the writing of history, and how do I write histories in a way that resists the repetition and insidious reinscription of authoritarianism, violence, racism, and prejudice broadly defined?

Empathic Unsettlement

Dominick LaCapra’s book Writing History, Writing Trauma (2001) is a key text for me, and brings a critical perspective to historiographical concerns embedded in the constitution of traumatic/post-traumatic historical conditions and experiences. [2]. He engages the very problem of history conceived via ‘positivism’ or as ‘imaginary construct’, and suggests an approach self-reflexively invested in the articulation of problems and questions inherent to historical production. [3]. In my work I pay close attention to how knowledge about the past is constituted through the production of narratives, which are shaped by; the selective processes at play in how evidence is mobilised; historical power relations; inherited forms of epistemic violence existing in relation to colonial and apartheid pasts; and affective, subjective and performative processes. [4]. I am engaged by the idea of art objects as sites for the experience and articulation of affects, which prompt critical thought and historical inquiry.

The Critical Arts piece brought together what I called Jill Bennett’s ethics of empathy, and LaCapra’s concept of ‘empathic unsettlement’. [5]. In her book, Empathic vision: affect, trauma and contemporary art Bennett writes about the ‘conjunction of affect and critical awareness’, which ‘may be understood to constitute the basis of an empathy grounded not in affinity (feeling for another insofar as we can imagine being that other but on a feeling for another that entails an encounter with something irreducible and different, often inaccessible’. [6]. In addressing the problem of what, in Bennett’s sense, is ‘crude empathy’, I mobilised LaCapra’s (ibid.) argument for the ‘role of empathy and empathic unsettlement in the attentive secondary witness’ which ‘involves a kind of virtual experience through which one puts oneself in the other’s position while recognizing the difference of that position and hence not taking the other’s place’. [7]. In writing histories that exist in a relationship to trauma the act of ‘opening oneself to empathic unsettlement is … a desirable affective dimension of inquiry which complements and supplements empirical research and analysis’. [8].

Vlakplaas 4

Jo Ractliffe, Vlakplaas: 2 June 1999 (Drive-by Shooting), 2 minutes, 30 seconds, 1999/2000, sound, black and white, Still Image. Copy of the video courtesy the artist and Stevenson Gallery (Johannesburg and Cape Town).

I explore how Ractliffe journeys towards a site of historical violence, and the works that emerge from her process, simultaneously affective and critical, invite me to respond to their internal worlds. [9]. These works do not seek to empirically explain or represent Vlakplaas, nor do they assume an authoritative, totalising voice. [10]. Rather, through an encounter with their affects they speak to the idea of a relationship between affective operations and critical awareness so central to Bennett’s concept of empathy, and its relationship to vision and trauma. [11]. Ractliffe’s de-stabilising and opaque aesthetic invites a dialogue with LaCapra’s idea of ‘opening oneself to empathic unsettlement’ and to a critically aware, yet affective and empathetic, account of events related to historical trauma in South Africa. [12]


[1] Nomusa Makhubu, ‘Race and the anxieties of cultural obscurity: Meditations on blackness in South African performance and video art’, 2012, 42-53, 42.

[2] Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

 [3] Ibid. See Chapter 1, pp.1-42.

[4] I draw here on LaCapra, Chapter 1, ‘Writing History, Writing Trauma’, pp.1-42. See also Chapter 2, ‘Trauma, Absence, Loss’ for his juxtaposition of the holocaust and the South African TRC, pp.43-85.

[5] See: LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 2001; Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[6] Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art, 2005, p.10.

[7] Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art, 2005, p.10; Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 2001, p.78.

[8] LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 2001, p.78.

[9] See: Yvette Greslé (2015) “Empathic Unsettlement” in the field of vision: Jo Ractliffe’sVlakplaas in photographs and videoCritical Arts: South-North Media Studies, Volume 29, Supplement 1, 2015. Special Issue: Archival Address: Photographies, Practices and Positionalities. Published on-line 26 November 2015.

[10] to [12] Drawn directly from: Greslé, Y. (2015) “Empathic Unsettlement” in the field of vision: Jo Ractliffe’s Vlakplaas in photographs and video, 2015, p.85.

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