BY SOPHY KOHLER AND ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
Laurence Hamburger is an award-winning filmmaker who has worked in London, Amsterdam and Joburg for brands as varied as Ikea, Nando’s and the SABC. He founded Goodcop, a production company in 2012. His book Frozen Chicken Train Wreck – a collection of South African newspaper posters – was published last year.
How did you come up with the idea for such a project?
I think already back in my early days as a student of the late ’80s and early ’90s, I remember my friends and I taking an interest in all things “obliquely indigenous”. The art scene of Hillbrow and Yeoville – in Joburg – and Observatory and Salt River – in Cape Town – of that period had a kind of proto-punk vibe that I think, consciously (and often unconsciously) engaged with a number of ideas around “authenticity”. The way pop culture and kitsch as it was being explored in the UK and NYC at the time was a big influence I think: there was a genuine questioning around the traditional signifiers of culture, which were being deemed no longer automatically valid.
It was then that I remember the occasional newspaper poster being pinned to a toilet door or up on a kitchen wall. The ones chosen were more often than not “political”, but also often funny, and mostly in a kind of South African vernacular that maybe you only saw in graffiti at that time. So politics, as I remember it, was about both rebellion and revolution. You couldn’t just be against the system – you had to know how to expose its obvious shortcomings in a clear and effective manner. Often a poster was a perfect rendition of the “temperature” of those times, and “owning” a poster was a public recognition of that temperature.
When I returned from 12 years overseas as a filmmaker in 2008, I began to see that the bill posters were full of that language and that somehow there had been a real change in them – their bluntness, their self-consciousness, their clear sense of vernacular, was very much now on show. It was unique, and by proxy, more relevant to the nature of the country and the new society that I could see had been growing up without me.
I suppose I’ve always been a big believer that if you want to be truly international, you have to be truly local. The posters excited that feeling in me and while they were on more and more walls, no one had actually made a book. I was just amazed that it wasn’t already made. Sometimes in my most paranoid state, I think that maybe I’ve broken some secret unwritten pact amongst the “collectors” to have actually done it. Too late to listen to those voices though.
Has it overlapped with your work as a filmmaker at all?
I think when you chose a creative career, everything you do and everything you participate in must, by definition, be somehow part of that career, or at least be fed by your interest in it. That’s not to imply something as obvious as everything I see is fodder for a film, but more that the characteristics of film are influential in the way you begin to filter life – for example, the way narrative is dealt with, the sequential nature of images, the way sound and language are integrated into each other etc.
Somehow I think watching the posters everyday as I drove past them on the avenues of Joburg, I started seeing them as one watches a credit sequence or chapter headings, or even (maybe if I can be really pretentious) a voiceover of the age we were living through.
When did you start collecting the posters and how did you get hold of them?
Around 2008 is the date of the earliest one in the book, and I collected all of them, except one (which came off the wall of the Radium Bar), physically, by pulling them off the street poles before they were removed by the same people who had probably put them there the day before. Initially it was quite fun, but later it was often just a painful and irritating obsession that I wouldn’t let go of. I think my friends just knew of me as a compulsive person and if I had a “thing”, it was best just to go along with it, but it was also something I think all my friends “got”. They all knew I was onto something. I think it helped that the “reward” of turning around on a busy street like Malibongwe Drive, then suddenly pulling over and putting on your hazards while three cars backed up behind you, hooting in typical Joburg aggravation – was a beautiful “piece” of graphic art.
Tell me about the process behind turning your collection of posters into a book? Why does book form lend itself to showcasing the work?
I’m not sure a book is necessarily the perfect form, but it’s just one that works well. Possibly because of the disposable, temporal nature of the poster itself, giving it such a considered quality, in other words an exact replication of the object, but smaller, forces one to really “read” it as a piece of poetry and as an object. It forces a simplicity that isn’t basic. Giving that space between them, imitating that sense of it being a sheet, as it was when it was ‘an object’, was also something you could only do in a book.
After I moved back to SA, and I started collecting properly, I presented at least five years of collecting to Adam Broomberg and Oliver Channarin, (who happen to be my oldest friends) at around the same time they were beginning Chopped Liver Press, during a trip to SA they were making for a show. They loved it and they then drove the project to fruition, especially technically but also to an extent aesthetically, mainly because they had the experience of publishing books and had the knowledge of a network to make it happen.
Chopped Liver proposed that we go into partnership with Ditto, who had these offset printers (essentially industrial-strength photocopy machines), that could reconstitute the images from their four-colour foundation. We kinda all got it quite quickly; there was no “photo” of it as an object (although it had actually been made from a photo). There was no context, no explanation, no reference to its “authenticity”, other than its strange sense of “realness”.
News headlines have been put up on lampposts in South Africa for decades. What impact do these posters have on society; do you think they encourage newspaper sales?
Technically speaking, we know that these posters do stimulate sales. They wouldn’t exist if they didn’t. Their rise in prominence is a direct result of the research proving it, and the publishers have placed more and more emphasis on them as a result of that research. Hence the kind of “fight to the bottom” that the tabloid sensationalism of the Daily Sun has precipitated in the poster culture, as it were, with more and more idiotic and quite un-witty posters becoming more and more prominent, which I find sad, because the posters are a great opportunity to prove on a daily basis how wise we are as a people, and not how dumb.
I, however, am no expert in either South African society, or its media or journalism, so I have no real idea or sense of authority about what impact these posters might be having. From a personal point of view, though, I think their prominence suggests two things. Firstly, we are still a society that by and large reads the news in the paper, unlike in the over-developed world where it’s read more and more on an electronic device. Secondly, as a result of this, we still have a kind of naïve notion of “truth” based on it having been “written down”.
Maybe one other thing to think about is that these posters, especially in Joburg, function as a kind of valve, psychologically, allowing us as a society to encounter and engage with some horrific events in a way that is somehow palatable.
However, the more interesting response to “their impact on society” is that I think these posters are much more about language and our particular culture of spoken word, our South African English “vernacular”, than journalism or newspaper culture necessarily. I do think it’s bigger than that, and it’s actually the journalists themselves who are the first to appreciate that about the book.
Whether we like the sound of “the people” or not, we can’t deny that the posters have a sense of that voice. That’s when they move not just from news to advertising, but to poetry too, and that’s why I thought they should be in a book….
What can South Africa’s newspaper culture tell us about our society?
Newspapers reflect society, in some way, more or less, depending on the society and its culture of expression. There is a sense of Self that exists under the surface in a culture and that manifests itself both in a very self-conscious and unconscious way, and so a good answer to this would be about “unpicking that weave”, and I’m honestly not sure I can do that in any helpful way.
I do find the writing and thinking in our printed press, by and large, pretty rudimentary, though. However for every news event, there will always be at least one journalist who will get their leg over a story enough to present a super-narrative that lends credence to who and what we actually are, have been, and are becoming – as a nation, and even as a “culture” (if such a thing can even be said to exist!).
Do you think there is something unique about South African tabloids?
Well, yes and no.
No, in that we didn’t invent the tabloid, so we’re still working in a format of another’s culture. But that can evolve into something of it’s own over time, and so yes, because it’s a very particular ‘strain’ of that culture.
However, I think that what makes ours most unique is that ours has a flavour that brings out both the best and the worst of who we are.
I think there is a very traditional, almost fundamental understanding of “truth” in Africa, that is different to the western notions of empirical evidence. It’s something totally unaligned to “fact” and much more connected with the “spirit” of the matter. It’s not something I feel particularly well-versed in, to discuss with any sense of authority, and I apologise if this comes off as cack-handed anthropology, but I do see refractions of these ideas in people whose work I’ve avidly and happily followed, like Werner Hertzog (a filmmaker whose entire career has been dedicated to the notion of an “ecstatic truth”), or Bob Dylan even.
Is the art of crafting witty headlines still thriving or is bleakness getting the better of us?
The problem with humour is that it makes you happy, but it thrives on pain; and anguish, and frustration and anger and confusion and a 100 other large and petty terrible feelings. So I believe our “wit” as it were, in these headlines, is pretty much the result of a bleakness inherent in the society, as well as a hope. Jews call it bittere gelegte – “gallows humour”.
When I refer to “humour”, I mean more than a joke – it’s more an indication of an attitude. In fact, I think if there’s any genuine value in the creation of this book, it might just be in reminding us of how potent and genuinely important humour is in the nature of a place like this. Not in the sense that we can laugh at anything, no matter how bleak or unbearable – that we can make distasteful jokes about dead people for instance – but that in the heart of all trauma, there is always a mechanism to survive. No matter how perverse or obtuse. And that mechanism will always, by its very nature, engender the opposite spirit of its oppression.
Which poster is your favourite?
I always get asked this and I always wonder what it might reveal to the reader, and so I always feel obligated to explain why as well as which.
However, the truth is that just like children, you kinda love them all, and then on some days, you kinda love one more than the others, even though you know it’s just temporary sentiment rather than genuine affection or lack of.
There are posters I have an attachment to because I remember the fight I was having with my then girlfriend and the fact that I had to leave the discussion at two am to go the street and retrieve a particular one that I knew was amazing. On reflection the poster was not that brilliant, but the memory is searing.
The fact that the next day she found one I hadn’t seen and brought it to me, as just a normal part of “living with me”, makes it one of the most special in the book. To me.
And no, I’m not telling, but, if you actually need a “real” answer, I’d go for RAPIST DIES DEFENDING WOMAN. If only because while it’s from the Daily Sun, the most explicit of the tabloids, it’s absurdly, completely capable of functioning as a piece of actual art and one I could truly imagine being revered by someone like Antoine Artaud or Sophie Calle, or Lars Von Trier…
While it really isn’t “a laugh out loud one” (which would be too easy), it’s the one that has the most inherent reflection of how insanely contradictory this place is, and so the most genuinely “true”, if that can actually be said.
What has the response been like to the book?
On the whole pretty amazing, really. I can’t complain and the SA copies are pretty much sold out now, bar a few that Jacana have and the 50-odd that were bought by Big Blue – the SA-themed lifestyle shop (which I found a great compliment).
Basically people really like it, and I’m constantly being buttonholed by folks about it. It’s a “popular” book and it was designed to be as such, even though it’s sold through an art book market, and while at R400, it’s a rarity for the average person, it’s still relatively attainable as an middle class object. It was designed to sit in that space where it’s both rough-and-ready and precious-and-delicate. You know, it’s an art book you should feel OK spilling beer over.
We made a conscious decision not to include an academic analysis in the book. We wanted it to retain some raw purity reminiscent of the content. The “analysis” could take place outside of it, we thought. Even my “explanation” at the back of the book was distilled to its least analytical and most personal.
And so I think that contradiction in its composition has confused or bothered some people, but they haven’t yet made those views public. I’m not sure whether it’s because they haven’t quite resolved their feelings and ideas, or whether they just don’t think the book is deserving of that kind of “academic” attention. I don’t know. I honestly don’t mind to be honest. I do think the book could be criticised quite easily but it requires a real commitment to an academic purity of representation that I’m not sure is on as sure a ground as it was a decade ago.
I do kind of wish there had been a more robust criticism of it maybe or at least some kind of blatant challenge, so that the ideas around its making (as well as the book itself) could be discussed further, but it has got wonderful press and these discussions are slowly happening, so I don’t want to appear to complain.
The best story was when in NYC at its launch at the NY Art Book Fair – which is most painfully hip – there were a number of people who didn’t believe that the posters were real. They thought they were all “constructed”. Some had to be Iiterally taken to my writing at the back, to be convinced. Even then they still stared back at me and said, “No ways.” According to the publishers in Europe, this is a problem they seem to be having frequently with the book in the art world there. Seems the over-developed world is over-irony-ed?
Frozen Chicken Train Wreck is co-published by Chopped Liver Press and Ditto Press. The book is distributed in South Africa by Fourthwall Books.