The Grand Coalition – for SLUM-TV project in Mathare, Kenya

Published May 2008. in “SLUM-TV IN BELGRADE AND NOVI SAD”, Anonymous said, Belgrade. Download the newspapers here.

Audience at the screening of the Peace Newsreel [Mathare, 25.04.2008] Photo by SLUM-TV

Written May 2008.


The Grand Coalition

“Safari

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

A safari (pronounced /səˈfɑri/) is an overland journey. It usually refers to a trip by tourists to Africa, traditionally for a big-game hunt and in more modern times to watch and photograph big game and other wildlife as a safari holiday. There is a certain theme or style associated with the word, which includes khaki clothing, belted bush jackets, pith helmets or slouch hats, and animal skins—like leopard’s skin.”

It felt weird when I got the invitation to write about Slum-TV, from Dušica Dražić, in accompanying documentation being signed as the author of the project. I contacted Alex Nikolić, who alongside Lukas Pusch and Sam Hopkins was the author of the project as I was aware of. The notion of the “the author” was not something I connected immediately with this project as such, as I knew about it’s “participatory” and “collaborative” premises and the aim of the three of them to be “the initiators” rather then “authors”. At the end everything was fine, and I became one of the elements of this long “authorship” chain – I am “the author” of the text for the project of presenting the project whose “author” is Dušica regarding the project whose “authors” are Alex and Lukas and Sam and others I may not know of, project itself being that the “authors” of the video content should be the residents of the slum (worth visiting: Wikipedia entry) somewhere in Kenya. So what kind of “author” am I, and how do I relate as “the author” towards “the authors” in Mathare, where they record stuff on video and present it in local cinemas and online? What my position regarding all this could possibly be? And who cares, really, for this “authorship” disease anyway?

In the lack of a more articulate orientation, I’ll do what as a friend I could – will perform the search around some keywords and try to make some hopefully meaningful associations around the project, never slipping from my mind the awareness of my, in all senses of the word, personal and “external” position on the subject… So what do I know about Slum-TV and the slum of Mathare, what could I possibly contribute?

A fake promise is also a reality

During yet another of his stormings trough Belgrade a little more than a year ago I asked Alex about his plans for the next period – always a source of delightful and unexpected answers. To remind you, Alex is a kind of person who talks trough the medium with the famous late curator Harald Szeemann, and who knows where the severed head of Gavrilo Princip, a man whose assassination on Franz Ferdinand started the First World War, lies hidden. He is really doing that stuff. No kidding.

– Oh, I go to Africa – he said. – To Kenya.

– Really? What for?

– Well, to make television – was his short answer. As always, I felt stupid for asking the obvious.

Then I of course smiled, as one does encountering something which looks perfectly fine in the semantical order of things, but doesn’t quite fit in the everydayness of what is considered as “a common logic” of the cultural codes we are programmed to use… During the months to follow, Alex and Lukas went to Nairobi’s vast slum of Mathare. And they made some television. My insight into the project remained to be limited to these small windows of communication when Alex was passing by, or to the short snippets of online communication. Of course, later came slum-tv.info [UPDATE: the new site of the project is slumtv.org], but somehow I preferred to retain this more direct communication with somebody who is actually inside the project. Was this a consequence of my hesitation to accept what I might have considered as another “research” project, both regarding the “different cultural identities” and “the use of media”? No, definitely not. I don’t believe in any of those memes, and I know Alex better than that. And it wasn’t for I could feel that it was another of “real activism” projects, placing “non ideological” infrastructure and capacity building as the only premise behind the action, relying on “human rights” as a non-critical platform to temporary allocate funds and labour from “developed” to “developing”, making a kosher headlines and helping burning some surplus of resources. No no no. Never crossed my mind. The more I think, more and more it appears that I reacted in the similar way to what I did when being the invited speaker in “Parliaments of Art”, one of my first symposiums ever – ahead of my talk, I asked around netznetz.net network if there is somebody in Vienna to borrow me a pith helmet, a safari hat, you know, the straw-made one we could see in “brave-white-men-conquering-the-wild-and-unknown” kind of movies. Being invited to talk about self-organization and positioning of independent cultural scene of Vienna towards the city authorities and public funding, I felt the need to underline and perform my “external” position. Not because I ever thought that there is the problem of the language, or cultural codes, that will be a point of misunderstanding and miscommunication, or that I felt that the experiences of this Viennese network are so unique that it all demands to be articulated exclusively from the inside – quite the contrary. What I wanted to make perfectly clear is that whatever I, or other foreign guests of the symposium will say or share with the local people, will not affect us directly – we come, we talk and “advice”, and then we go back, leaving netznetz.net people to deal with the consequences of whatever decision they made.

At the end, I couldn’t find a pith helmet – but I borrowed a big professional camera to have it hanging around my neck while I was at the podium, hopefully making my “tourist” position clear. It felt very solid. And heavy, for the bad back sort of guy I am…

Fred Otieno, James Njuguna and Saidi Hamisi filming in Mathare [Mathare, August 2007] Photo by SLUM-TV
Fred Otieno, James Njuguna and Saidi Hamisi filming in Mathare [Mathare, August 2007]
Photo by SLUM-TV

The same “weight”, the same deliberate exposure to uneasiness I imagine felt Lukas Pusch during his first visit to Mathare. Watching the photos Alex provided of Lukas walking around this hot and humid part of Nairobi in white buttoned-up tuxedo and black bow tie, doing his “Vienna Voodoo” performance, it did look like performing the need to be straightforward about what was happening there – it obviously was no attempt to false represent any positions. Not covering in any way their origin of “outsiders” to Mathare, even underlining it as much as possible trough the clothing (and possibly committing a sort of self-sacrifice by sweating to death), both the attention and the confidence of the local people was won. White people in bow ties and tuxedos present no danger to appropriate the voice of the people of Mathare. It was one time too many, I presume, that some “sudden friends” came there bringing their surpluses and leftovers, presenting themselves as “the one” with the local people, taking smiling photos showing the success of understanding and recognizing their “projects” achieved, and rushing back to their air-conditioned hotel rooms to write praising reports to the funders or to boost their careers of journalists or artists “working on the edge”. But, maybe more important, the start with bow tie and tuxedo gave the project the peace of mind and a clear conscience – they came from Vienna, and they will be back to Vienna. No appropriation, no false comrading, no fake responsibility… No fake promises.

Audience at the screening of the Peace Newsreel [Mathare, 25.04.2008] Photo by SLUM-TV
Audience at the screening of the Peace Newsreel [Mathare, 25.04.2008]
Photo by SLUM-TV

Subaltern Subsafari

It happened that during the Under The Bridge project, another of actions initiated by Alex, I visited surreally cold surroundings of a cardboard Roma settlement below the Belgrade’s Gazela bridge together with Kathrin Grasser, the friend and photographer from Vienna. She did a series of photos of the event and the scenery, often pointing the camera at the merry bunch of Gipsy kids enjoying the happening and the attention. The problem arose when the kids started to gather around Kathrin, demanding that she flip her camera over so they could see the pics. It wasn’t possible to explain that she used an analogue, film-based camera (the same one I borrowed for my “tourist” talk in Vienna), and that there is no display on which they could see the shots immediately. They refused to believe, and apparently felt that Kathrin, for some reason, did not want them to see the images. This small dispute and discontent over the technology limitations of the analogue camera was somehow a very significant detail in my understanding of the scope of the common language provided by contemporary culture and technology. One of the things fighting for attention of my undernumbered brain cells at the period was the notion of “subalternity”, as coined by Antonio Gramsci around 1935. And later it became very “sticky” when thinking about Slum-TV to consider this term. Originally, it was meant to describe the inability to communicate, in the terms of language of symbols and culture in general, between “developed” culture of both educated minority of Italian bourgeoisie and progressive intellectuals, and “subaltern” cultural majority of Southern Italian peasants. The usual historical interpretation is that the term itself was being introduced by Gramsci to replace the traditional class-related terms of the language of Marxism, so it would be below the radar of fascist censorship of Italy at the time (considering the geopolitical and historical situation, looks like that a vast majority of non-fascist cultural actors more or less lived in prisons at the time, so was Gramsci). This alleged complete lack of common, shared knowledge, or the presumption that any cultural codes or symbols could not possibly be translated to “the other side”, results with the exclusion from institutionalized political life and cultural communication, both in the case of communication between subaltern entities and the “official” representatives of the society and between different subalternities themselves (as each of them presumably couldn’t communicate outside it’s distinctive cultural codes), thus effectively placing the subaltern entities outside of any possibility to become a relevant political subject. For the average educated person (by the standards and codes of post-1848 Europe, or mandatory elementary scientific facts-oriented and secular education as introduced in post-colonial United States, for example – but also by any standards of any systematized traditional educational system), it should present a Big Void, a cultural black hole, and trying to exchange any package of information should resemble shouting at the monolithic wall of this fortress of subalternity… Furthermore, it meant the complete inability to influence the process of evolution of those distinctive social groups and to even observe and understand what culture subaltern entities developed, as the language was not possible to be learned and applied outside of within a particular subalternity. Now you may understand better why my brain cells were fighting a dirty civil war between each other – just thinking about the possibility to find a crack in this presumed condition, uniting subalternities and providing them with a voice, a tool to blitzkrieg the corrupted politics and culture of contemporary ‘order of things’, if not by any theoretical and social achievement then by the sheer power of numbers – or just the idea itself of dealing with “incommunicado” entities – it all sounded very seductive and sexy. You know, in a way like 7 year old boy like myself, raised on historical fiction of classic popular culture, could daydream of the possibility of encountering the new boundaries of the Universe in his trusty Millennium Falcon-like spaceship, or at least discovering the remaining secrets of unknown parts of the Earth.

Fred Otieno, James Njuguna and Saidi Hamisi filming in Mathare. [Mathare, August 2007] Photo by SLUM-TV
Fred Otieno, James Njuguna and Saidi Hamisi filming in Mathare. [Mathare, August 2007]
Photo by SLUM-TV

But this act of Gipsy kids helped settling my brain cells civil unrests, albeight slightly bringing the disappointment of a kid who suddenly learns that there are no secrets left to be discovered, and that the stroke of luck of bumping onto something mysterious and never heard of will never happen – the kids knew exactly how digital cameras, that sophisticated tool to generate the signs of the language of images, work. They obviously did not care for the history of the tool – why should they? – and they might not be interested or able to use it in any explicitly political way, yet, but the language of the technology was perfectly understood and accepted by 5 year old Roma kids living in a cardboard settlement under one bridge in “developing” and messy area of Balkans. I see no reason for this to be different under any other circumstances. No culture is isolated. There can be a whole philosophy developed around if one society built, for example, the culture of slow or fast drugs and related rituals, and the sources, implications and consequences of that, or about the possible initial misunderstandings between various different historical and geopolitical specificums; but it is hard if not impossible to find the culture which does not recognize, in however distinctive language, that it is on drugs. Equally hard proved to be to discover, even to theoretize, on the culture of the society not based on some fundamental relations towards the notions of ownership or property. So there goes the subaltern territory of “impossibility” to communicate down the Sava river, clearly replaced by what really is a problem – the Roma kids just were not in the possession and wide-spread use of the technology, they were in no way deprived of understanding how it works. In a similar manner, they are not unable to understand the development of contemporary society – they are just born deprived of the tools to “take part” in it, the tools mainly embodied in the accumulated wealth and power. They were being tagged by the “wrong” skin colour, accent or personal names. But, most important of all – they were being robbed of their entitled right to education and communication. Both things are perfectly possible to be achieved, and those two things are exactly what I think Slum-TV is working with. The people of Mathare are in no lack of the “proper” language – as a matter of fact, it is the same language we all use; it is not the words that they don’t have, but the voice… And it is not the aim of Slum-TV to give them one, despite what the language of project proposals might say. People of Mathare shall and will choose and use their voice themselves. Consider a little “technical” help here and there…

Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood… Kennywood? No, it’s Riverwood.

Speaking of technology and culture, and on a second thought, maybe Gramsci was right, in a way. From the perspective of 1935, when books had to be invested in, written, printed, published, distributed, paid for, and finally they could be read, If one knew to read in languages – considering this state as a permanent order of things, the situation might have appeared to be desperately unsolvable. But is anything really different now? And no doubt that today capitalism is stronger then ever. So are the consequences of it. Let’s look at post-colonial Kenya… Instead of dozens of languages spoken by too-often mutually hostile ethnicities, the legacy of what was known as British East Africa Protectorate is the English language. Alongside Swahili, Esperanto of it’s kind developed trough the trade with Arabs, Persians, Indians, Germans and Britts, it did help forming the wide and interconnected sphere for economical and cultural exchange. First to serve for the purposes of colonization, of course. On the other hand, let us not forget that this provided tens of millions of people to start talking between themselves without much mediation and interpretation. The language became the strong tool to resist the manipulated and corrupted politics of identities, often designed to maintain colonial relations and to smoke-screen what was precisely defined as class relationships within the society. Also, the news, positions and viewpoints from abroad became much more transparent to the local people. If we ever could discuss subalternities before, after the likes of “Redykyulass” satirical national TV show on Swahili during 90’s, introducing the public critique of the current government for the first time in contemporary political history, the possible power relations are changed irrevocably. What to think of the “identity” politics of the myriad of distinctive language-oriented ethnical cultures? It is not the aim of this text to “raise the case” of local languages VS global dominance of international English, but it surely remains an issue to be discussed. Here’s the short remark by Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, from the interview we did last year – the project of Wikipedia he initiated in 2001 is running on 255 languages at the moment…

“…I don’t think we have to make a choice between preserving your own language or joining the global economy. I think you can do both – you can maintain local language and local culture but also have a lot of people speaking English, so you can do business internationally and participating more in global culture, and I think that it seems to be quite possible for lots of cultures to receive education, which is in two languages. Sometimes it’s French in some parts of Africa, but increasingly around the world it’s English, and I think that’s fine. It’s fine as long as we don’t imagine that local languages are less important. It’s just important to know that this is a practical matter. In the early days of Wikipedia we used to be very concerned about the problem that all of our international communication was in English, but there’s no other solution. It’s not the problem of our making, it’s the history of the world. The British Empire had a lot to do with it. If you have a Serbian and Italian and the Japanese and they all want to speak to each other, there’s only one hope – that they’ll speak English. It’s an interesting problem.“

<From the interview with Jimmy Wales @slobodnakultura.org>

And it is not just the spoken and written language of symbols that is at the table – images, moving or still, became the essential cross-platform language of contemporary culture worldwide. We could witness Nigeria becoming the world’s largest movie industry in the matter of years, considering the number of titles, Nollywood producing four times more films then Hollywood, twice as much as Bollywood (note: the income and annual turnover are in quite the opposite order, still). We could witness, as well, a lot of theories interpreting this success, connecting it with installing the favorite neo-liberal cultural meme of 90’s, the principles of creative industries. Not to discuss the issue further here, let’s focus on the perspectives of Kenya. Is there any agenda outlined by businesses and government? Wikipedia entry on Kenya says:

“Film:

Although the government has not been very supportive of the film industry in Kenya, the country offers some of the most spectacular sceneries and can only be compared to South Africa in regard to producing some of the most talented actors and actresses on the African continent. Due to the nonchalant attitude and lack of enthusiasm exhibited by the government, the industry has remained considerably dormant whereby notable movies shot in the country have been few and far between.”

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenya>

…but on the forum of naijarules.com I found this:

“06-23-2006, 09:10 PM, posted by: bolanle

Kenya: Changing Riverwood

Americans have Hollywood, Indians Bollywood, Nigerians Nollywood and Kenyans Riverwood. Riverwood has become synonymous with film production in Kenya, thanks to its constant supply of short films, mainly musicals and comedies.

This industry, which deals mainly with drama in local languages – mostly Kikuyu and Dholuo – is increasingly attracting attention and has become an outlet for many upcoming comedians, who would be frowned at by the mainstream media. Riverwood is derived from River Road, where most of the films are made. As for “wood,” you know where.

The Riverwood explosion comes as a rude awakening to local formal filmmakers, who appear to have ignored the potential in the likes of Machang’i, Kihenjo and Githingithia – now household names.

Many of the local formal and invariably donor-funded movie makers, have conceded that Riverwood is the way to go for the local film industry and want to inject more professionalism into it. We are talking of lighting, shooting, editing and so on….”

<http://www.naijarules.com/vb/ghanaian-movies-other-african-non-nigerian-movies-stars/16706-kenya-changing-riverwood.html>

It is not just about the potential to produce a certain critical mass of video content, even more important should be how to distribute it and reach the audience – both from the perspective of creating the ideological critique and cultural politics by networking the experiences and opinions, and from the creative industries perspective of market and numbers.

So, there should be more then 3 000000 of internet users and 7 000000 of mobile phone subscribers in Kenya as we speak – not really impressive numbers if we consider that there are around 38 million of people, but what is impressive is the stellar rate of it’s growth, despite the turmoil of daily politics – and don’t forget the collective manner in which a lot of the internet connections are being used. The chains of “pirate” cinemas, besides the (still scarce) broadband Internet, remain to present maybe the most intermediate and deepest-penetrating platform for communicating trough the images. What is actually being communicated here?

Fred Otieno setting up the public screening [Mathare, 8.10.2007] Photo by SLUM-TV
Fred Otieno setting up the public screening [Mathare, 8.10.2007]
Photo by SLUM-TV

“…this is not movies, this is not cinema, this is something else.”

A common materialistic standpoint reads that the subject of the desire of one society is always being represented in cultural artifacts trough reflecting precisely that which is perceived as “in the lack of” – in other words, the material scarcity of certain (quite often of a more symbolic than utilitarian value) goods, and related social relations, is what we see being represented most frequently in popular contemporary culture of the certain society. Somehow this claim seems to navigate towards connecting this with exclusively geo-political circumstances (maybe even making a full circle by producing “identities” again?). Then, from there it leads to conclusion that the popular culture of United States, Europe or Japan is very busy nowadays exploring the possibilities and implications of digital networks, RFID chips, omnipresent surveillance technologies, or dealing with the case of “missing flying cars”, as the unfulfilled promise from 50’s, and that the culture of “underdeveloped” societies of, say, Latin America of Africa or Asia, would mainly deal with more “basic” commodified objects of desire, those which are already being considered fulfilled, “historical” and digested elsewhere, like the material goods presenting the usual living and working set of resources in the “developed” part of the world. And the same goes for “the values of democracy and human rights”, presumably achieved and considered as default condition mainly in the North West of the planet. Is it really like that, is this simple division working? Doing the interview with Ronaldo Lemos, the chairman of the board of iCommons.org and the director of the Center for Technology & Society at the Fundação Getulio Vargas Law School in Rio de Janeiro, but also somebody who has tremendous knowledge about Nigerian movie industry phenomenon, he at one point said, referring to what is described as “the peripheries”:

“…these peripheries can be everywhere. They can be in Brazil, in poor countries, in rich countries, they can be in Eastern Europe, anywhere, it’s not a thing about poor and rich, it can be the peripheries of London, the peripheries of New York, the mix tape markets, all the things that are emerging out of the pirate radios, it’s the same thing.”

We may argue about if it is “a thing about poor and rich” or not, but obviously using just the traditional geo-political determinants is not working anymore, if it ever did. Even further, the fiction unrelated to the existing “order of things” outside or within the current social and geo-political relations, “the imaginary futures” as Richard Barbrook would say, should present the strong tool bearing the potential of “quantum leap” of one society, developed or not. Restricting such a tool to “bourgeois amusement” dramatically reduces the maneuvering space to compress the necessary time for the evolution of society by appropriating already “developed” positions, and to mobilize wider social groups around the idea of “imaginary futures”. We should not estrange the tool of fiction from those already deprived of material reality… This is not to say that the movies produced around Slum-TV project contain any fiction unrelated with their daily material practices and their desires to approach to what they learned trough the media about “how the future should look like”, being presented trough the images of life elsewhere. It is to keep the gateway open and not “purging” the others out of tools we had the opportunity to use ourselves. So far and as much as I could have seen, Slum-TV movies do speak exactly about Mathare today and hint about the Nairobi of tomorrow; there is no single frame of fiction there. I feel that saying just “documentary” or “critical” will not do them justice, and I don’t know what I could say more on that particular subject, as I have seen just a few. Sam Hopkins should have a lot of the actual hands-on experience on the matter, and you really should read his excellent text about the project, revealing the impressive range of concerns, from the issues of positioning within Slum-TV’s ad-hoc community to the very content of the movies. And what kind of movies those could be? Let Ronaldo speak again:

“…When I mentioned the Nigerian movie industry to a very well known movie maker in Brazil, he told me “Ronaldo, this is not movies, this is not cinema, this is something else”. I was intrigued, I researched and I found an article by the founder of the Cinémathèque Française, a guy named Henri Langlois. He wrote in 1969 that the true cinema would only emerge when the peripheries would appropriate the means of producing audiovisual content and were able to tell their own stories unmediated. This is the time when the true cinema will emerge. And I sent this article to this famous Brazilian director and he never wrote back to me, so I don’t know what he thinks.”

<From the interview with Ronaldo Lemos @slobodnakultura.org>

And there we are – we don’t know. What I know is that I do think that this particular fact about how the first and second reel of Slum-TV movies exactly looks like is not that important right now…

Audience at the DIY screening [Mathare, 23.05.2008] Photo by SLUM-TV
Audience at the DIY screening [Mathare, 23.05.2008]
Photo by SLUM-TV

Barack Obama knows best…

…how everything is connected. Just look at his campaign’s web site. So we all hope he is aware of how his growing influence might be viewed from inside Mathare. See, Barack’s father was the descendant of a family coming from the Luo ethnic group – off course that Mr. Obama is really a genuine resident of the United States, but family names still make all the difference in Kenya. Writing this from post-Yugoslav experience, I think I could have a pretty accurate insight into the situation myself. Lets peek into the Wikipedia once again:

“In 2006, Mathare was damaged by violence between rival gangs the Taliban (not to be confused with the Islamist group of the same name), a Luo group, and the Mungiki, a Kikuyu group. Brewers of an illegal alcoholic drink, chang’aa, asked the Taliban for help after the Mungiki tried to raise their taxes on the drink; since then, fighting between the two has led to the burning of hundreds of homes and at least 10 deaths. Police entered the slum on November 7, 2006, and the military arrived a day later, but many residents who fled are still afraid to return.

On June 5, 2007, the Mungiki murdered two police officers in Mathare; the same night, police retaliated by killing 22 people and detaining around 100.

Following the controversial presidential elections that took place on December 27, 2007, Luo gangs burned more than 100 homes.”

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathare>

And now we are back to the economy of Mathare. Of course that it is not about the ethnic or religious origins, really; it is about being in possession and control over the means of production and the products of work. But still those “identitary” brands of a nation or a confession play a crucial role in obscuring the real and material issues of ownership and exploitation of resources. The “fine balance” of established positions between the gangs on the field producing temporary standstill could allegedly be upset at any time, by any reason; but obviously it will happen either when one of the actors will decide that it is strong enough to push out the others, or if one entity views the escalation of violence as the only way to survive on it’s, for some reason, declining market. Any of them possibly being controlled or influenced by the interests from “above”, or “outside”. Having the eyewitness experience of the supreme awkwardness, be it deliberate or not, of the different actors of the international community interfering at Balkans since 1990’s, and having some vague idea about the artificial complexity in the articulation of the issues behind a Grand Coalition <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenya#The_grand_coalition>, established just recently to “reconcile” different interests from all sides, I would be very cautious to claim that the people of Mathare will contemplate their affairs from the cosines of the creative industries side of the capitalism anytime soon; but as economical relations on the global level are in the largest turmoil ever, speeding towards open-source capitalism, as much as we should be aware of “our place” in “the order of things”, for the most of us anything, really anything is possible. Where does that leave the lenses of Slum-TV cameras? Exactly where they are, down at the forefront… Raise your chang’aa and say cheers, everybody!

All the best,

vlidi.

Audience at the public screening [Mathare, 8.10.2007] Photo by SLUM-TV
Audience at the public screening [Mathare, 8.10.2007]
Photo by SLUM-TV