Negative Spaces

A visit to a deconstruction site.

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Diary, Financial Times, 15 April 2016. [PDF]

Deconstruction: a notoriously hard-to-define mode of textual analysis associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, distantly descended (my Dictionary of Critical Theory tells me) from Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum that there are no facts, only interpretations.

But also, I recently learned, a term in architecture and building. Deconstruction means the selective dismantlement, repurposing and reimagining of existing physical structures. The other day I was shown around a deconstruction site in the docklands of Cape Town, where a 90-year-old grain silo complex is slowly being converted into the biggest museum for modern art on the African continent.

Taking as its centrepiece the collection of businessman Jochen Zeitz, the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) may sound a bit like a German-engineered coffee maker. But this not-for-profit institution, set to open in September next year, is being touted as our answer to the power station that became Tate Modern, or the Nabisco factory on the Hudson river that is now DIA Beacon.

The deconstructive ambition here is of another order, though, since the building offered no existing grand spaces, no turbine hall that could easily be repurposed. Imagine instead 42 cardboard toilet rolls stacked vertically next to each other – this is how designer Thomas Heatherwick describes the challenge of working with ‘the most tubey building in the world’. The tubes are the concrete silos in which grain was stored. Now imagine a space being cut out of the centre: a wonky oval shape inspired by the form of a grain kernel itself (the Heatherwick studio often works with biomimicry and organic curves – think of the new Routemaster buses).

When this interpretation has been converted into fact, it will be a seven-storey high atrium forming the heart of the museum: a cathedral of cross-sections that is slowly being cut with diamond wire through concrete so hard that two metres a day is the most construction workers can manage. Labouring with drills and cooling hoses amid the silo shafts, one team told me that it felt like mining.

Concrete gets harder as it gets older – ‘It cures,’ the project manager explained as we ducked amid ladders and rubble. As some old silos are cut away, others must simultaneously be re-sleeved in new concrete and then polished as the project unfolds. As different tubes are breached or braced the load path of the building changes: a process tracked by engineers and software in an office nearby, with structural supports shuffled accordingly.

All around us, other enormous building projects were rising: investment banks, hotels, gyms, apartment complexes. They are all going up around this future influx of contemporary art: those kernels of creativity that form the ultimate commodity, or commodity fetish, of global capitalism. It reminded me of a TED talk that showed how financial institutions cluster around the point in Manhattan where trans-Atlantic fibre optic cables make landfall, hoping to track market fluctuations as quickly as possible.

That might sound like deconstructive criticism. But mostly I emerged dazed by the shocking ingenuity of our species, our ability to reshape even the hardest, most recalcitrant material into symbolic form. In a country where most major galleries sit behind colonial gables or neo-classical pillars, the industrial dockscape of the Waterfront’s Silo District is envisaged by its promoters as a more open, accessible space. What was once a commodity export terminal will become a place where art from Africa and its diasporas will be re-imported – having undergone major beneficiation abroad, of course – but free to the public (well, sometimes) and housed in what looks to be an astonishing building. I hope it works out.

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A still more ambitious but very different construction project has just been postponed in South Africa following legal challenges – indefinitely, I hope. Over the last few years, our beleaguered President Jacob Zuma has been pushing for a new nuclear build: one that will add up to nine new reactors to our coastline; that will cost well over a trillion of our steadily depreciating Rands; that will most likely be built by one of the autocracies in the BRICS alliance: Russia or China. Or perhaps France, which violated international embargoes in the 1970s and 80s to provide the apartheid government with Koeberg, a facility just outside Cape Town that is (for now) the only nuclear power plant on the African continent. Sheathed in concrete, the twin silos of its two pressurised water reactors are just visible up the coast at the far edge of the metro – one that would have to be evacuated for centuries if anything went seriously wrong.

Zuma’s ‘Presidential legacy’ project will be, if it comes off, the biggest procurement in our history; and yet it is being rushed through with little debate and much secrecy. It would lock South Africa into this energy path at the very moment when most of the ‘old’ nuclear powers are moving away from the technology, realizing the astonishing expense and difficulty involved in decommissioning plants and dealing with their waste.

But the technocratic, business-minded language used by governments and nuclear vendors seems to present the decision as a fait accompli, with only the details about costing to be ironed out. It is an impermeable, inhuman language that disguises risk and disavows the slow violence of the nuclear option: violence that operates invisibly, at somatic and genetic levels, acting across timescales that are almost unimaginable.

Millions of South Africans are counting the days until Zuma leaves office – indeed we can’t believe he is still there. But if he or his allies succeed in pushing through the nuclear option, these decisions will remain with us for not just for 30 years (half life of Strontium-90 and Cesium-137), but 24 000 years (Plutonium-239), 222 000 years (Technetium-99) and 2 000 000 years (Neptunium-237). At which point we might say: for all eternity.

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As someone drawn to all those literary genres classed under the inadequate label of ‘non-fiction’ (about as helpful as calling all the garments in your wardrobe ‘non-socks’), I sat up when Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel last October: the first non-fiction winner in 50 years.

Her Voices from Chernobyl is the most powerful reading experience I have had in years, a book to hold in mind as we approach the 30th anniversary of the event on 26 April. Subtitled ‘The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster’, it is a polyphonic work of testimony from those affected by the greatest technological catastrophe of the 20th century. Firemen’s wives, farmers, scientists, Party officials, children, soldiers: their monologues and choruses form a kind of documentary oratorio which on almost every page throws up images that are indelible, unimaginable, desperately strange.

There are the Soviet ‘liquidators’ who move through the Zone of Alienation, charged with burying everything in the ground: radioactive crops, topsoil, whole villages. ‘We buried earth in earth – such a strange human activity’. Old women milk cows and soldiers stand by to make sure the milk is immediately poured away. ‘How do you evacuate a pigeon or a sparrow?’ someone wonders: ‘We don’t have any way of giving them the necessary information. It’s a philosophical dilemma’. There are also many jokes: people in Minsk deliberately buying Chernobyl apples for their boss or mother-in-law. ‘You want another joke? After Chernobyl you can eat anything you want, but you have to bury your shit in lead.’

The initial English translation carries a Foreword by Alexievich, an “Interview by the Author With Herself”. She states that she was not interested in Chernobyl per se, not concerned with the “facts” of what happened at the station that night and who was to blame. Instead she hoped to probe the mystery of the event, how those involved had touched on the unknown. In 1986, ‘something occurred for which we do not yet have a conceptualization, or analogies’: something to which our senses, and even our vocabulary, are not adapted: “Our entire instrument is tuned to see, hear or touch. But none of that is possible…”

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the burning intensity of the scenes, the poetry threaded through the documentary. We hear people struggling to make sense of events – both the physical phenomena and endless political cover-ups – that are beyond their perceptive apparatus. At one point a filmmaker remembers being brought in to make propaganda reels. He is in a blooming, beautiful garden and wonders what is wrong with the picture. Then he realizes: he can’t smell anything, since radiation has blocked that sense organ. Somewhere else a scientist remembers the gorgeous smell of ozone that follows a nuclear test.

A book like this also poses a technical problem for literary criticism. What to do with testimony so self-sufficient and powerful? Perhaps all you can do is point, and hope that others will follow.

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About hedley1980

i was born 24 february 1980 in johannesburg i found myself in a situation
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