/ 21 May 2010

Words for the birds

Few residents of the quaint Johannesburg suburb of Melville will have noticed the word “Artmigration” written in giant red letters on the black roof of a house on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. Having once been carved up frugally, Melville’s small properties huddle closely together. From the street, visibility beyond the walls and the eaves of roofs is difficult.

From the air, though, the word is impossible to miss. This inscription is the work of German artists Achim Mohné and Uta Kopp and South African author Niq Mhlongo, and is one of three rooftop text interventions in Johannesburg produced as part of an ongoing project by Kopp and Mohné, called Remotewords. The other two words are on rooftops in Doornfontein and Soweto and read Maboneng and Msawawa respectively.

Started in 2007 by Mohné and Kopp, Remotewords aims to “isseminate literary statements” around the world through Google Earth and other satellite mapping programmes. So far this intervention has been exercised on the roofs of several public institutions and private residences around Germany, in São Paulo and, most recently, in Johannesburg. In 2009 Mohné came to Johannesburg, a trip facilitated by curator Indra Wussow, where he met Mhlongo to devise a series of literary interventions for the city.

Mhlongo chose all three inscriptions. Msawawa, which is on the roof of the writer’s Soweto home, is an affectionate colloquial name for the township. “When you want to feel like, ‘This is my Soweto’, you will call it Msawawa,” Mhlongo said in an interview with Mohné. Maboneng, which means “city of light”, is another colloquial name, given to Johannesburg by early migrant labourers. This word sits on the roof of the Arts on Main complex in Doornfontein, where the new jozi art:lab — a venue affiliated to the German Sylt Foundation — opened last weekend. The opening show was Remotewords by Kopp and Mohné.

The Melville inscription, “Artmigration”, is, in fact, painted on the roof of the former, less public home of jozi art:lab. But now that the lab has migrated to Doornfontein the initiative is hosting an exhibition documenting past interventions from Europe, South America and South Africa. The exhibition includes an interactive satellite map of Johannesburg, placed on the floor of the space, upon which the public is invited to plot potential future interventions.

Although Remotewords is a form of roaming urban land art, the primary medium with which the project grapples is digital satellite mapping, the all-encompassing aerial views of the world to which programmes such as Google Earth have given ordinary people access. Google Earth allows mere mortals to play Superman, soaring over whole cities and continents, dipping down now and again for a closer view of life below.

In his well-known 1984 text, The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau traces a history of the aerial view to the Renaissance painters, who constructed fictional aerial views of a world they knew only from the ground. These painters would, according to Certeau, “paint the city as seen in a perspective that no eye had yet enjoyed”. He calls it the “totalising eye”.

Today, with the coming of Google Earth, the totalising eye has entered the popular imagination. The mapped images it produces are equivalent to the visual simulacra invented by those ancient painters. Google Earth may tell the official story of the world, but what Remotewords demonstrates is that it does not write it.

Certeau is probably better known for the idea that pedestrians in the city are privy to truths omitted from a distant aerial view. Remotewords inverts this, decorating the rooftops with stories even the observant city walker is unlikely ever to see. The project is about destablising the power of Google’s totalising eye, but it is also about bringing specificity to the official story of a place. It provides small, humanising interjections in the story of a landscape. The project is about destablising the power of Google’s totalising eye, but it is also about bringing specificity to the official story of a place.

Remotewords shows at the jozi art:lab at Arts on Main in Johannesburg until August 29. For more visit www.remotewords.net