Talking with the Black Noise guys

sampson_linby Lin Sampson

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A man called Michael Blum turned up in our street, staying in the house opposite. He is a French-speaking Israeli who lives in Vienna. He said he was doing a “project” on the house and the area. He had a grant from somewhere and asked if he could come and talk to me. He was a short, energetic little mesomorph who arrived and immediately set up video equipment – something I was not expecting.

I remember thinking at what a disadvantage I was as I shrunk into the sofa like a small pile of sand and he asked me all the expected questions, slowly building to what he really wanted to ask. Would the people who live in the house have been able to live there during the years of apartheid? And what had I thought when they first moved in? I said, “noise”, which is always my horror. I explained that I had had meningitis and it had damaged cranial nerves that amplified sound in my head. Busy little Mr Blum video-ed away.

He then organised a sort of halfhearted party on a patch of lawn that abuts the street, which he importantly called “The Green Patch Party”. There were some breakdancers, some students, a few peripatetic vagrants whom we had never seen before – and of course Mr Blum batting about with a video camera. Mr Blum went away and our street returned to its normal old slightly low-rent atmosphere. However, searching through the Internet for something, I came across Michael Blum’s name again as being the author of something called “Very Real Time”, his project on 17 Aandbloem Street and there I was – as usual – the old colonial racially biased person.

He described the flaky party on the grass as becoming, “A milestone in Cape Town’s partying history”.

“It aimed,” wrote Blum, in his lefty join-the-numbers prose with its self-congratulatory subtext, at “squatting” the patch of grass in front of the house. Well thank you Mr Blum, we as residents in the area, have spent a long time trying to “unsquat” the grass in front of our houses.

He went on to say, “The appropriation of the small piece of land in front of the house can be seen as a natural extension of the private sphere”.

This sort of half-baked thinking, this lauding of the underdog, this scream of ecstasy over anything disadvantaged, ill, poor, mad or homeless and this thoughtless beating down of anyone who earns a living by actually going to work is big business in the art world of Europe. Grants can be got with a flick of the finger, if the projects come sashed with kneejerk words like Aids, apartheid, Robben Island.

Mr Blum is a true journeyman of this type of thinking; his other work is a “book specifically designed for waiting rooms”, which purports to be “following the visual paradigm of loss and exploring related issues through diverse imagery”.

In South Africa we have always been victims of a foreign eye, often attached to a camera, filtering across our lives with ease. Many of us have given up time to try to explain this country; few of us have been rewarded. And the harder we tried to explain, the more subtle the thought, the easier the whole thing was to misunderstand. When I said to Mr Blum that whenever I saw new neighbours I was worried about noise, he conveniently saw it as racial, because what would his principals think if he came back without some white bogeyman?

His report states, “Lin Sampson, despite her political opinions, sat with the Black Noise guys and talked with them”. Once in the thick of apartheid, a British TV station asked to interview me. They took me to someone else’s house and posed me beside a pool with a drink with a little umbrella in it. It appeared with a voice-over that went, “While Lin Sampson sits beside her pool sipping a drink, her maid lives less than 5km away in a cardboard box”.

I didn’t even have a maid. But the real irony of Mr Blum’s essay is that until he turned up we were all living together quite happily.

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Lin Sampson is the doyenne of South African columnists and the author of the collection Now You’ve Gone ‘n Killed Me (2005).