SPECIFIC CONDITIONS APPLY: Culture-of-protest on sale, for sale, to sell or the already sold ones?

A set of curated essays

Come to the edge: The Piracy drift

By Parnab Mukherjee

(the name of this piece has been taken from a pirated quote attributed to Guillaume Apollinaire. The quote says: Come to the edge, he said. They said: We are afraid. Come to the edge, he said. They came. He pushed them and they flew-)

I am a little tired of this copyleft versus copyright debate. If big money can gobble up the niche in the name of democratizing information then our fight for what is real and what is counterfeit is completely flawed. The celebrated ( or not so celebrated ) Ursula Askham Fanthorpe, the first woman to be nominated for the Oxford Professor of Poetry says in an interesting line from her poem St George: I have Diplomas in Dragon/Management and Virgin Reclamation…”Maybe these are the skills needed to be a pirate. Oh by the way, this edit happens to be a words treatment on piracy. Or that is the at least the attempt.

What can be the manifesto of a pirate? Or is piracy and social enterprise…two diverse opposites that simply cannot gel. No. To put it in simple ideological terms, piracy is necessary and important. Sometimes indispensable. If you are in the midst of a political movement or if your monologue is a part of a larger social rumbling which a globalised society gobbles up, sexes it up and re-packages…and at the end of the day you feel used…piracy helps you to connect to the underground.

Re-visiting piracy as an issue that talks about the thin line between development and anti-development paradigm is both a look back and a look forward. The notion of the underground is inherent to piracy. Piracy attacks the notion of binary which deals with the official and the unofficial. What about the grey zone in between. How can an underground book work? How do you subvert the distribution machinery of organized fascist film-distribution channels? How do you challenge Facebook philosophers and Twitter revolutionaries? By copying and recopying; by subverting the economic delivery system and giving a democratic access to materials that need larger dissemination.

The notion of piracy has to be differentiated from the notion of cloning. Piracy is not reproducing through illegal channels. That is one aspect of it and maybe an aspect that will and should come in the purview of a legal framework. Yet, again let me say that is just one aspect of it. The larger and the less discussed aspect is the concept of one world network. If we glorify the rhetoric of the world coming together..it is more because of the audio-visual piracy than by the United Nations or NATO or an Opec or a G-8. How else can a revolutionary in the heart of Shanghai smuggle a Manipur video or a rapper from Mozambique reach Diphu or Kokrajhar in the north-east of India. Piracy, becomes like pigeon post …the bird knows the trajectory and the exact catchment segment who needs to be reached out to.

Yet, that humanism has become ossified in the buy-one-get-two-free paradigm. There is a sense of manufacturing profit amongst the roadmap of a hidden long-term loss. Piracy challenges the notion. It completely tilts the status quo. Questions hierarchy. Rips open the existentialist, escapist mask and challenges the boat that does not rock. And why is that boat not rocking. Because the world cannot be Chomsky, Vaclav Havel, Habermas, Ashish Nandy, Felix Guattari, Enrico Fermi….it needs its Mahasveta Devi, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, tribals standing on the edge of a neon-bathed highway and mocking notions of development.

Ask Bei Dao (on whom let me share this self-composed poem)

For Bei Dao 











Half-cut fingers’ 

Vegetables with fragile nerves

Someone followed the street’s instruction to go home

The giant harvester that clears impure thoughts 

Call me what you want

I will still bark …till uncouth foams form in my mouth

And when I finish the barking…the completed poem is of course my bite

 And this is where piracy takes away the philosophy of centralized ownership into the domain of the centralized sharing. It tells the jugglers of globalised market forces, that we are not aggressors, oppressors or the pilfer brigade but within a framework of pacifism and passive resistance, we need to replicate fluid, non-dogmatic, no theorized, working political models instead of signing e-petitions and bullshitting about 700 page books that are read by 7 people. That sense of abandon with the sense of sharing is the new discourse of piracy.

So pirates don’t only attack ships. Or copy your DVD. Or put the Trojan Horse in your Helen-like-pixel-perfect-software but spread materials of revolution. And I don’t just mean arms smuggling but resource smuggling. Smuggling of Ideas. As opposed to smugly existing with the ideas(as if the fact that we thought about them makes us own them). Which is why a Lalgarh activist may know more about Tupac Amaru or Shining Path or the Peruvian context than the university kid who is too busy searching for the right jargon, for the right fellowship, for the right career mixed with right ambition, the right kind of procreation, the right satisfaction of the right libido, right fornication and fashionable notion of lip-service human rights….albeit with wrong elitist and non-mass results.

Yes, we are at the edge. And definitely not flying. But we have to reclaim our spaces before that proverbial tomorrow. As Ursula Askham Fanthorpe says in one of her poems: Tomorrow, these names will turn nasty/Senile, pregnant, late…/Be stained by living..”

Achille Mbembe: “Donors have a simple notion of development”

September 2009 – Achille Mbembe is research professor in history and politics at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“Relationships between Western cultural funding agencies and local artists and recipients have never been so bad. Instead of creating art, many artists in the Continent are forced to spend most of their time, energy and intelligence filling useless bureaucratic forms, begging, desperately trying to respond to ever-changing fads and policies when they are not checking the mood of ever-touchy ‘cultural attachés’ of Western consulates or agencies from whom they hope to get some support. This is a huge waste.”

Achille Mbembe

“We can keep dressing up the unlimited power of the donors and their money and the material poverty of the recipients in the fancy language of ‘partnership’, ’empowerment’ or even ‘friendship’. All these words won’t mask the brutality of the encounter between those who have money but no good ideas and those who have some good ideas but no money. South Africa has the means to develop a powerful cultural policy. But the country profoundly lacks imagination. It could fund by itself a major Biennale in the global South.”

“Johannesburg could become a cultural and artistic Mecca. But the ruling party, the African National Congress, confuses ‘arts and culture’ with ‘heritage and folklore’. It is still trapped within a racial mindset to the point where the politics of race (who is black and who is not) overshadows any intrinsic value given to aesthetics as such. For South Africa to fulfill its potential, it needs to become an ‘Afropolitan’ nation in which white South African artists are presumed to be as ‘African’ as black South African artists.”

“Most Western donor agencies come to Africa with a simplistic idea of what ‘development’ is all about. They consider Africa to be a zone of emergency, a fertile ground for humanitarian interventions. The future is not part of their theory of Africa when such a theory exists. Africa is the land of never-ending present and instant, where today and now matter more than tomorrow, let alone the distant future. The function of art is to subsume and transcend the instant; to open horizons for the not-yet. Such is too, at least to me, the task of cultural criticism. In circumstances where millions of people indeed struggle to make it from today to tomorrow, the work of culture is to pave the way for a certain practice of the imagination without which people have no name and no voice. This struggle to write one’s name and to inscribe one’s voice in a structure of time that is opened to the future is a profoundly human struggle.”

TRANSCRIBED BY Vivian Paulissen

Rustom Bharucha: “We have to re-imagine culture and development”

September 2009 – Rustom Bharucha is a writer, director and culture critic. He lives in Kolkata (India). He has recently completed an inter-Asian study about Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin.

Can development be a goal when funding the arts? What happens to the arts when artists are funded to communicate a certain message?

“Certainly, the arts can suffer if a didactic agenda is imposed. This is happening in a lot of ngo-related theatre work where the funders – more often than not based in First World economies – expect artists in the Third World to script narratives around specific strategies relating to aids, or domestic violence, or gender disparity, or whatever. Some of these contrived narratives pass off as ‘infotainments’. More often than not, I find them disingenuous and lacking in body and soul.”

Rustom Bharucha

“While there is a place for critical learning in the process of doing developmental theatre, this learning is most vibrant when it is reflexive. In other words, it’s not just a matter of communicating the ‘right’ messages; it is also a matter of questioning the content of these messages in ways which make them more layered and complex. Complexity, for me, enhances activist energy and developmental concerns. It is politically correct simplification that reiterates the dominant dichotomies and fake solutions of our times.”

How can the funding for culture and development be changed?

“I think through a process of re-imagining that seemingly innocent conjunction ‘and’ which ostensibly connects culture and development. We have any number of pundits both in the development and cultural worlds; they have their own vocabularies, theories, and priorities. The problem is that they don’t really talk to each other, or listen to each other. Instead of ‘culture and development’, what actually exists is a schism.”

How can one counter this schism?

“I think by creating a new synergy around intermediary structures in which the spokespersons of culture and development are obliged to learn from each other. What we need are new imaginaries, instead of predetermined agendas. While I reject the elitism which assumes that imagination is the prerogative of artists alone, I also resist the statistically determined instrumentalism of the development world. We need languages which can challenge the existing indices of ‘measuring’ the developmental content of art practice. Only when funding agencies can create new evidence-based indices which can show that the arts do make a difference in the social and political world, can the economist priorities of state-driven development be meaningfully countered.”

INTERVIEWED BY Vivian Paulissen

Elsbeth Etty: Art and its constraints

September 2009 – Elsbeth Etty is book editor at NRC Handelsblad and extraordinary professor in literary criticism at the Amsterdam Vrije Universiteit.

In my view, artists who only want to make ‘art for the sake of art’ are not artists. True artists will climb into a corset, into a shape, if you will, that best expresses what they want to say about the way they relate to their era and circumstances. As long as they climb into the corset themselves and are not forced by some external institution into one suit or another, their art has something to tell us. Doing what someone else wants done, be it the powers-that-be, a group of rebels or a commercial enterprise, is something that any smart advertising guy or gal can do. I believe it doesn’t matter much whether you are an African artist, or Asian, American or European – a universal artist can be recognised by his or her search for ways to find his or her own voice, completely independently, and to let that voice resonate as purely as possible.

Elsbeth Etty

When we – the Book editing staff for NRC Handelsblad – decided to discuss six African titles for our Reading Group (the titles were selected by experts from our staff), we did not look at the message being sent in these books. Without denying that it may well be worth the effort of readers to analyse a literary text in search of possible hidden agendas and messages.

I am not always equally skilled at doing so, sometimes because I simply lack the knowledge. With Children of Gabalawi by Nobel prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, for example, it felt to me that the author had not (yet) found an adequate form with which he could shape his dissident views. At least I thought his metaphors were bland and insufficiently daring, while former Eastern literature has taught me that it is presentation cloaked out of despair that often brings the most painful of truths to light. To find those truths, however, you need to know the taboos and inhibitions of certain historical contexts and cultures. As a relative layman in the area of African literature, the greatest surprise among the six titles was Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe. Based on what I knew about Achebe, I was expecting an explicitly anti-colonial message, but what I read in this novel was a convincing complaint against tribalism and a plea for universal values.

How intriguing to read in the essay that Ruth Franklin wrote about Achebe (ZAM, edition 12, issue number 3) that the author would have totally rejected my interpretation. “Achebe voiced serious criticism against those in search of the ‘universal’ in African fiction; he says Western fiction is never put to such a test”, wrote Franklin. Based on Achebe’s literary perspective, Franklin went on to wonder whether “the existence of the African novel as simply a novel, stripped of its social and educational assignment” was merely a Utopia. Well, after reading the titles selected for the NRC Handelsblad Reading Club, I think that is certainly not the case. Even despite the seriously ideological and educational intentions of Achebe’s novel, it proves to stand very well on its own, and its multi-interpretable nature gives it universal meaning.

Achebe’s message is not unambiguous and that is exactly what distinguishes art from advertising or propaganda, the difference between a self-chosen shape and a mandatory corset. The message told by Nurruddin Farah in Maps that, to put it frankly, seems like Blut und Boden, disgusts me. And yet I would compare this intense and sincere novel to Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, another educational novel with a message, albeit one that demonstrates the necessity of precisely saying in certain historical circumstances that which must be told using the voice of conscience, irrespective of regulations and restrictions. Only then will true art evolve.

Bart Luirink: Fishy art

September 2009 – Bart Luirink is editor-in-chief of ZAM Africa Magazine.

The question was whether I ever give a book by an African author as a gift? My colleague asked it in passing, adding that she never did. She could never get enough of African authors like Achebe, Adichie or Dow, but didn’t want to be known for that. “People think you give a book like that because you feel some need to change how people think about Africa. Or because you want to make them aware of something important.” I agreed with her: that was exactly the reason why I usually gave something by Philip Roth or J.M. Coetzee, because they aren’t as intense, as a gift (but no, not Stieg Larsson: everybody already has him). Zakes Mda and Chika Unigwe were my private treasures. I’m not a missionary! Books from or about Africa are read for a reason, one that often has nothing to do with the beauty of the language or the composition of the story. To the same extent, a lot of well-intended junk has been sold as art in recent decades in order to help those making it. Take a look up in your attic: you’ll probably find a few examples. Ugly as sin, but buying it made you feel good.

Bart Luirink

Late last year the Johannesburg Art Gallery devoted an exposition to Thami Mnyele. The life story of the young author, who was killed in the mid-1980s by South African death squads, had once been a topic that I researched. Mnyele participated in a conference held in Amsterdam in 1983 about the role culture could play in the struggle for liberation. Just before his departure, his host took him at his own request to the Rijksmuseum. He wanted to see The Mother by Rembrandt. In the previous days he had fantasised about a sabbatical during which, far from his home land, he could devote his time to developing his artisanship. Back in Gaborone, where he lived in exile, the wrestling match that must have played through Mnyele’s mind came to an end with the struggle as victor. He reported to an ANC military base in one of South Africa’s neighbouring countries.

In the exposition, that wrestling match had been polished away, out of the history of the young and talented artist. What was more: Mnyele had opted for the ultimate engagement while others had detoured and devoted themselves to their artisanship, according to one of the display texts. Was the curator attempting to say that Mnyele’s importance to South Africa was therefore greater than that of Gerald Sekoto, or Dumile Feni, who came into full bloom in Paris and New York? If so, he was short-changing not only Sekoto and Feni, whose influence on South African visual art may not be underestimated, but Mnyele as well, who had debated with himself with a fury, hesitating between the Mother and the Struggle, ultimately making a different choice than his professional colleagues.

In the early 1990s, the South African legal practitioner Albie Sachs stood on the barricades for open-minded art. The ANC member had had enough of the clenched fists and strong language that had bben characterising paintings and fighting songs. Sachs believed that now that his country had freed itself of apartheid, artists should also remove the corsets into which they had bound themselves – or been bound. Herald the beauty of Table Mountain, embrace the love in your work, do as you like, was what Sachs was basically saying. The importance of his call to the fore should not be underestimated. In exile Sachs had experienced how painters, poets and singers in other African countries paid lip service to post-colonial ideals. In essence they helped to construct the new state of unity, they fed their readers, listeners and watchers, reflecting and putting into words the aspirations of the struggle for independence. Useful? Undoubtedly. Boring? Absolutely. That South African artists understood what Sachs was saying is proven by the exposition that the lawyer himself organised after being appointed as judge with the Constitutional Court. In the reception area of the new hall of justice, the work of the fine fleur of South African visual arts is on display. For the record, Sekoto and Feni can be seen there as well.

In the meantime, signs can be seen of an artistic Renaissance in many African countries. A new generation of authors are attracting attention, especially in Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Galleries are being opened and in some countries, like Angola or Sudan, a domestic market is even growing for visual art. Festivals, galleries and fairs are multiplying as fast as rabbits. This is the result of economic growth, continental cultural networking between players in the artistic sector, international interaction and a trail-blazing role by innumerable African artists in the Diaspora. Above all, however, it is the result of the quality that characterises the artistic products available. There is certainly no lack of social involvement, but the difference with the past is that much of the work is the fruit of efforts by free, daring and difficult minds.

This gives rise to the question of whether we, as Westerners, can really handle so much candid beauty. When you step into a bookshop and take a really good look at the newest releases from or about Africa, you understand that we still have a long road ahead. Victim literature – call it viclit – is strongly overrepresented. The press release accompanying the Dutch translation of Long Road by African author Bruce Cerew, for example, includes the following: ‘At the age of twelve Ray decides to run away from his violent father, family and country of birth, to leave them behind and never come back. He ends up in Nigeria, where he believes he will find peace and quiet. When war erupts there as well, he is once again forced to flee for his life, ending up in Sierra Leone. He attempts to build a new life for himself there, but is again confronted with the atrocities of a beginning war and must flee for his life yet again. Ray flees with hundreds of others from the African shores, but few reach their destination. Many die in the scorched desert, others fall victim to sharks, in search of freedom and peace.” And so it continues. Ray finally lands in a refugee centre in the Netherlands, where he is subjected to “physical deprivation” and “mental torture”.

Sierra Leonean author Aminatta Forna sighed deeply when I asked her over a year ago to explain the success of viclit. During the Kwani! Litfest in Nairobi, we had just listened to Ishmael Beah, who had been transformed from a child soldier into an agent of change: “You can do it if you only want to”. “The general public is screaming for it. Publishers want to publish other books, but Western readers are pining for a context filled with war, illness and hunger”, Forna answered, irritated by the fact that many books from and about Africa are literally dreadful. But even the Kenyan public was lapping up Beah’s well-rehearsed one-liners. The book being used to market a good cause. It need not be surprising that one of the organisations that works for the cause of child soldiers was also involved in promoting Cewes’ Long Road. As puppetry is used in the struggle against aids and folk dancing against female circumcision.

There is nothing wrong with all that, as long as activities of this type are not confused with the actual practice of the profession of artist. For a growing number of members of that professional group have since discarded their robes of subservience. The creation of free and open societies, filled with critically-thinking individuals will certainly be served by that fact.

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One thought on “come to the edge: the piracy drift – a set of essays curated by parnab mukherjee

  1. Parnab’s interesting editorial about Clandestine ideas n literature ignited new thoughts…. I am thinking about unconstrained ideation n the urban guerrilla activity… as it is righteous, profitable n an utmost necessity for ‘virgin revolutions’…. a great read.


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