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Public Culture 16.3 (2004) 532-547

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A Laboratory of Uncertainty

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Figure 1
Three Cities Triptych, 2002
Capetown, 123.5 cm X 82 cm X 8 cm
Durban, 123.5 cm X 123.5 cm X 8 cm
Johannesburg, 123.5 cm X 82 cm X 8 cm
Mixed media in casting resin
[End Page 532]

Sarah Nuttall: I want to start by asking you about the images of maps you made, because they are about spaces mapped onto other spaces, the aesthetics of African connections, and, within this, they approach an idea of Johannesburg as a city in formation. What kinds of acts of topographic and artistic decipherment did you intend these to be?

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Figure 2
Bread City: Street Wear, 200 cm X 70 cm (approx.), 2002
Mixed media with screen and stencil printed garments

Rodney Place: First, I'd like to say something about work in general, about making things "imaginary." According to Ernst Cassirer, imagination has as much to do with recall as it does with a projection into the future. Flannery O'Connor was once asked by her agent to give an outline of her next novel, and she replied that she was like the little old lady who once said, "I don't know what I think, 'til I see what I said." I like language as something of an agitator of things whose visual meaning is "set"—a conversation or joke that reinterprets and often disrupts things, particularly clichés. I'm not looking to language as the final solution to the visual world.

In the early eighties I set a project for architecture students in the midwestern United States. It was called "Use, Misuse, Abuse." The U.S., under Reagan, was then entering its current period of acceptable, consuming certainty, having lost any sense of the interesting doubts of the sixties and early seventies. I asked students to choose particular spaces and objects and take up different viewpoints in which they neither accepted the meaning nor the function of what they were looking at. The most successful projects involved creating longish narratives where students displaced themselves thoroughly into characters with lives and viewpoints other than their own. The less successful were those that professed to define a new aesthetic. After that I began to work, along with a writer, more explicitly with fiction [End Page 533] writing in conjunction with visual work through a studio we dubbed "The Laboratory of Uncertainty." It was a way, as well, of trying to resist the academic pretensions implicit in contemporary visual production. Fiction writing manages for the most part to resist academia. What if you created a character who didn't care much about visual work, or found it boring, or slept through dissertations? It is a form that best celebrates the ordinary, where the writer has to wait while his characters finish dinner.

This is something that has always interested me and I think it probably comes from growing up in South Africa and thinking a lot about it—even at a distance—in all its dualities and absurdities and rejecting the usefulness of ideology in trying to imagine something. The dance piece I made on Sigmund Freud was ostensibly about masturbation, not in its pejorative sense but rather in its amazing sense of combining a physical act with an act of imagination, in a way that is difficult to grasp exactly.1

I was given a residency at the British School in Rome, after I graduated in 1978 in London, to look at parts of the city in the period just after the sack of Rome. Those parts, near the Forum, that were reconstructed by inhabitants who had little respect for the meanings and symbols established by imperial Rome. Emperors' heads ended up as bricks in houses. It is a very beautiful part of Rome where you can see changes of mind and priorities through habitation. I think this is an aesthetic that arises from a dynamic rather than a stable position—more like "thinking" than...


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pp. 532-547
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Archived 2004

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