Installation on post-apartheid South Africa jars audiences

One of seven places displaying the installation, Thompson Chapel plays the full work of REwind.
One of seven places displaying the installation, Thompson Chapel plays the full work of REwind. Grace Flaherty/ Photo Editor.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established in the 1990s, helped deal with the violence and human rights abuses that happened under apartheid, a system of enforced segregation in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. The meetings of the commission investigated the crimes of the era and aided their victims. At a TRC meeting in Cape Town, Eunice Miya testified about how she had come to know the news of her son’s death. She had seen an image of his body on television. “One of the children was shown on TV who had a gun on his chest,” she said, in a testimony. “Only to find out that it was my son, Jabulani. I prayed… I wish this news could just rewind.”

So comes the inspiration for the name of the multimedia piece composed by Philip Miller and set to film by Gerhard and Maja Marx. REwind: A Cantata for voice, tape and testi-mony was first initiated at the college by Professor of Theater David Eppel, hailing from South Africa, and Choral Director Brad Wells. It is finally returning to Williamstown after moving to a number of places abroad, including Cape Town in 2010 and the Venice Biennale in 2014. The installation is set in seven parts and distributed around campus at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Hollander Hall, Sawyer Library, Milne Public Library, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), Schow Library and the Davis Center, with the full set playing in Thompson Chapel. The installation comes down on April 17.

REwind works with the testimonies collected by the TRC directly after Apartheid – not just the words, but the breaths, the sobs, the harsh, screeching sound of tape spooling when being rewound. This splicing of the recording breaks the narration but leaves the viewer with odd, disconnected chunks of sentences, phrases perfectly weighted to catch in one’s head and repeat in memory – something akin to rewinding, maybe. “Say it to me now, say it– / say it now,” one of the parts goes. ‘So Peza says…’ And then again: “Say it to me now, say it.” The spoken phrases are matched by text, projected shakily onto objects in the frame like imperfect subtitles, wavering and drifting uneasily off the sides of the screen.

This, combined with Miller’s gorgeous score, which sways between the clear, soaring soprano of a woman’s voice, often a cappella, and the roughness of chanting male voices, lends the piece a certain agitation, the frustrating feeling of being subverted by some sort of disruption every time there is the possibility of closure or release. While typically done by distorting and rewinding, this arises also by pairing things that don’t seem like they belong together. In one of the pieces, a woman’s singing voice, lovely and high, tells a (different) story of the murder of her son: “He came back during school break… wearing his school uniform/ cut himself a slice of bread… leaving crumbs all over the cupboard, and the knife still smudged with peanut butter…” The voice continues, perpetually lovely, telling of how the child called out for her, how she felt his last breath leave him. On the screen, jerking, stop-frame animation shows a loaf of bread, slowly crumbling; a glass of milk, depleting.

The sense of domestic intrusion continues not just throughout the piece but also into the space occupied by the viewer. This is done through explicit reference within REwind, notably when one of the voices says “I was sitting right where you are. Sitting in that very chair,” as the upholstery of a chair on screen is gouged out. But it’s done also in the installation of the piece, which interrupts the most domestic space of each of the buildings it inhabits on campus: the reading room on the top floor of WCMA, the living room of the Davis Center.

Interestingly, though, the piece only flickers mutely in the room it occupies. It’s not easy to ignore – but it’s certainly possible. To hear the cantata, one has to walk over, of one’s own volition, and put on the attached headphones. This is significant: It is the literal act of giving voice, as a word unheard might just as well be unspoken. REwind, like any piece of art-work, requires a viewer to consume it.

But REwind is different from just any piece of art in that the subject of the work itself desires an audience, a remembrance. “What do you hope the truth commission can do for you?” inquires a voice in one of the pieces. “There were no memorial services done,” a quavering voice responds. “What I would ask… is a something, a memory that would be held for them, even if it is just a crèche, or a building, or a school.” There is something nice about the idea, then, that all seven pieces are installed in Thompson Memorial Chapel, in a place of remembrance, the same place in which are incised the names of so many American dead.

If REwind Cantata inhabits one of the spaces you traverse daily, it will be worth your time to pause for a moment and see it. Even if it doesn’t, you might consider going out of your way and doing so anyway. This is a piece – more so than many others – that needs to be seen, and heard.

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