‘Empathic unsettlement’ in the field of vision: Jo Ractliffe’s Vlakplaas in photographs and video

This is an extract of Yvette Greslé (2015), ‘Empathic unsettlement’ in the field of vision: Jo Ractliffe’s Vlakplaas in photographs and video, Critical Arts, 29:sup1, 73-87. See here for citation or to read the article in full.

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

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In an interview with me, Ractliffe (2011) describes three journeys to Vlakplaas, all of which contributed to the production of the photographic works for ‘Truth Veils’, the later video and the editioned photographs. (ibid) I focus here on the performative aspects of these journeys, and propose that Ractliffe’s articulation of her process – conceptual and critical in inflection – is important for an understanding of the ethical and political capacities of the work. Ractliffe refers to her first trip, in the language of military reconnaissance, as a ‘recce’, recalling that once she arrived at the gate of the property she ‘got out of the car and started videoing’ adding: ‘Initially I wanted to make this very forensic video. I was holding the video down on the ground, moving around’ (ibid.) Ractliffe did not make use of this footage in the making of the Vlakplaas video, but the idea of forensics extends across her work as a whole and appears to be part of a concern with the process of documenting what is unknown, or invisible: ‘You don’t know what you’re looking at and especially at Vlakplaas. There are no bodies. There are no graves. You have no idea about what becomes significant in terms of the evidentiary’ (ibid.) Ractliffe describes her first expedition to Vlakplaas as a ‘non-trip’ that left her with a ‘sense of what [she] could and couldn’t photograph’ (ibid). This journey was inhibited by the difficulty of gaining access to the site; its caretaker reticent about allowing her and her companions inside: ‘We got through the gate, walked up through the drive to the house and then he [the caretaker] gave us all sorts of reasons for why we couldn’t be there. So we had to leave’. (ibid.) Her second expedition took place on the day of South Africa’s second democratic elections – the date invoked in the title to both the photographic work for ‘Truth Veils’ and the later video.

Ractliffe then made a third journey to Vlakplaas: ‘I knew then that I’d do a “driveby shooting.”’ (ibid.). She describes the method of the ‘drive-by shooting’ as driving ‘slow enough for me to drive, look and shoot at the same time’(ibid.). Her deployment of this performative act of driving and shooting differs from documentary photographers or photojournalists who position themselves in direct proximity to violence. The ‘drive-by shootings’ are taken with disposable plastic cameras, with gendered proper names such as Diana and Holga. This speaks imaginatively to her own situatedness as a woman artist photographing Vlakplaas in order to trouble and, in Sara Ahmed’s (2014) sense, ‘willfully’ disrupt the dominant narratives of male perpetrators, and the journalists who told their story during the course of the mediated representations of the TRC (Greslé 2015). The violence the site of Vlakplaas implies is not apparent in the landscape but rather opaque; Ractliffe’s performance invokes threat, which is unseen. One might imagine the clandestine space inhabited by the Vlakplaas operative at work in his car, which Ractliffe so deliberately and performatively simulates. She talks about how she ‘repeated the drive a few times … ’ and then describes how, out of the car, she took a ‘series of single frame, close-up, forensic photographs … patches on the ground, track/tyre marks etc. – as if they could reveal something’ (Ractliffe 2011). Of the drive-by shooting she says: ‘There’s something very specific about an actual drive-by shooting: apart from the action – fast action, fast getaway – it also implies covert/clandestine behaviour and a certain cowardice. Like a sideways glance as opposed to registering seeing’ (ibid.).

Ractliffe (ibid.) talks of how the disposable cameras allowed her to experiment with effects of light, and what she calls ‘light-leaks’. She speaks about the ways in which she might at times quite literally reconstitute the mechanics of the camera, allowing for chance occurrences and spillages of light. She sets out to capture what cannot be seen, but simultaneously tampers with the evidence. The photographs – whether as works in and of themselves, or deployed in the video – draw attention to their status as construction: the borders of the photographic film with its numbers and letters revealed; the deliberate double exposure; and the washed-out sensibility of photographic film encountering light. The video which followed the ‘Truth Veils’ exhibition registers an imagined sense of disorientation: fitful and uneven, Ractliffe dragged the strip of joined-up photographs counter-intuitively from the right-hand side to left beneath a video camera.

The soundtrack is composed of segments of speech appropriated by Ractliffe, which are to be found in online archives of the Truth Commission special report (Truth and Reconciliation 1999a and b). In the video, as opposed to in the photographs, actual violence is brought into the space of the work although it is heard and not seen. A car engine segues into a male voice, one of a number of voices that feature in the video. The voice belongs to Dirk Coetzee, the notorious founder and former captain of Vlakplaas. Coetzee speaks of his application for amnesty at the TRC and, as he speaks, a second voice intervenes and unfolds simultaneously, its volume oscillating. It is again recognisable as Coetzee’s voice, as he narrates the murder of the missing student activist, Sizwe Kondile, and the subsequent burning of his body, at which he (Coetzee) and other police officers were present. Coetzee tells of how Kondile was given ‘knock-out drops’ in a drink, and then while lying on his back was shot with a Makarov pistol on the ‘top of the head’. ‘There was a short jerk and that was it,’ he says. He then describes how Kondile’s body was placed on a pyre of tyres and wood, and then burnt: ‘Now of course,’ he notes, ‘the burning of a body to ashes takes about seven hours’, adding, ‘whilst that happened we were drinking and having a braai [barbecue] next to the fire.’ As Coetzee speaks intermittent sounds, suggesting gunshots, puncture his speech; and as his voice fades, the voice of the investigative journalist Max du Preez makes its entrance. At first Du Preez is a barely audible accompaniment to Coetzee’s description of Kondile’s killing. Du Preez invokes the name of National Party cabinet minister, Adrian Vlok, Minister of Law and Order between 1986 and 1991, but the various constituents of the sentence are barely audible. He recounts, now audibly, questions directed to former State President F.W. de Klerk during the course of media coverage of the TRC hearings. Du Preez asks De Klerk why it is that ‘he [De Klerk] did not do something about Vlakplaas when he read Coetzee’s confession in November 1989’. As Ractliffe’s video draws to a close, De Klerk responds to Du Preez’s questions. De Klerk’s response is clearly heard, although ruptured by pauses, stops and starts: ‘Vlakplaas was also then at a certain stage … disbanded when allegations came substantially [ … stutters … ] almost [ … stutters … ] you couldn’t prove. You could no longer prove … You could no longer say it was just rumours and we then took steps as information ….’ While De Klerk speaks, Coetzee’s testimony continues but in a softer register. De Klerk’s voice becomes fainter and fades out mid-sentence.

I hear an account of abject violence narrated as though it were a banal, ordinary occurrence. Historical, discursive and epistemic violence is embedded in the idea of who is audible and heard. In the following section, I consider the significance of the internal visual and sonic life of Ractliffe’s video. I think about how the joined-up photographs are animated within the space of the video as a temporal structure constituted by movement, duration and time. The video registers Ractliffe’s presence as she drags her joined up photographic strip manually beneath the lens of a video camera. This dragging suggests a performative iteration of the drive-by shooting; an affective sense of the  moving car crawling past the site as the artist photographs.

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Empathic unsettlement

The conjoined photographs Ractliffe filmed for her video suggests the idea of a panoramic view. But here there is no attempt at a seamless, spectacular vista. This is a landscape that appears unremarkable and banal. It is not spectacular, picturesque or sublime. Vertical black or white lines suggest distinctions and separations, but I am not always certain where one image begins and another ends. The beginnings and endings of roads and gates, and their location in the site in which they are embedded, are unknowable. Dirt roads are imprinted with the tracks of car tyres – markers of journeys that remain invisible. The photographic sequence is unevenly paced: it moves in gradations of slowness, from right to left. Its trajectory disallows any attempt to imagine a narrative guided by conventional filmic languages which, shaped by movement, deploy seamless pacing and causal openings and closings. Relations between scale, horizon line, background and foreground are ambiguous and unstable: I see a miniature landscape of mountain and water tower nested within a larger image. Above this diminutive landscape is a dominant expanse of sky (or what I imagine to be sky), and on the left-hand side is a monumental, apparently incongruous, tree.

I make out what appear to be joins between the photographs: tree is joined to tree, gate to gate and so forth, but the joining is artificial and the overlaps not always congruous. Trees, gates and road appear repeatedly and insistently, but I am not always sure how it is I am seeing them. The landscape is cropped from above and below, structuring and shaping how I look. I see shadows, folds and the whited-out images of the double-exposure. An ambiguous black form is perhaps an unstable indexical reference to the wing mirror of the car from which Ractliffe photographs. I see these
ambiguous forms elsewhere – perhaps the artist’s shadow as she photographs, or imprints of her car – but I cannot always make out what they are.

As I watch the video, I enter the imaginative space of a simulated car journey. I reach a paved driveway leading to a gate. Behind the gate, trees obfuscate my view. Dogs are behind the gate: distant, barely visible. The video continues its movement and the imagery of dogs moves to the foreground. A dog confronts me, barking through a fence. As the video moves, I encounter what I imagine to be a still and stagnant pool of water surrounded by dense grasses and what may be trees and shrubs. The barking dog, tyre tracks, water, illegible signposts, ambiguous spatial ordering of the landscape, repetition of gates without walls or fences, fitful movement and pacing, and the unexpected trajectory from right to left function in my imagination as points of disturbance. They puncture the veil of ordinariness, and suggest that which cannot be seen. This ambiguity between banality and disturbance threads itself through the narratives, in the image, text and spoken word that shape the meanings and affects associated with Vlakplaas. Stories are vividly told, but Vlakplaas remains in many ways unknowable and unreachable.

[… to read this text as a whole click here or contact me directly].


References (as they appear in the full, published article)

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Atkinson, B. 2000. Jo Ractliffe: artist’s book. TAXI-001. Johannesburg: David Krut Publishing.

Atkinson, B. and D. Hook. 1999. Listings: Truth Veils at the Gertrude Posel and Market Theatre Galleries. ArtThrob, July. http://www.artthrob.co.za/99july/listings2.htm
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Bennett, J. 2005. Empathic vision: affect, trauma and contemporary art. Stanford: Stanford
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Greslé, Y. 2015. Precarious video: historical events, trauma and memory in South African
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Hamilton, C., V. Harris, J. Taylor, M. Pickover, G. Reid and R. Saleh, eds. 2002. Refiguring
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LaCapra, D. 2001. Writing history, writing trauma. Baltimore and London: The Johns
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Ractliffe, J. and Y. Greslé. 2011. Interview. London, Saturday 25 June.

Sanders, M. 2007. Ambiguities of witnessing: law and literature in the time of a Truth Commission. California: Stanford University Press.

Truth Commission Special Report. 1999a. TRC Episode 27, Part 1. http://www.youtube.com/
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Truth Commission Special Report. 1999b. TRC Episode 80, Part 3. http://www.youtube.
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