by Adrian Hermanides
Adrian Hermanides, an artist trained at the former Durban Technikon and now based in Berlin, recently presented two performances in Durban. The first was at the Durban Art Gallery called Noh Interior where he interacted with the permanent collection. Later, at the KZNSA gallery, he selected some of the cream of European new-media artists for his once-off performance that mutated between Florian Hecker's audio compositions, posters by artist collective CUTUP, graffiti by Dennis Kuhlow wallpapered onto a gallery exterior wall as well as a text by Alberto de Campo on his contemporary research into mind-altering acoustics. Here, he gives the low-down of his visit to Durban:
The only gay bar here is called The Lounge and a particularly dismal example of the genre it is. The last queens in town clump together in whispering huddles sneering across the laminate at anyone perceived to be remotely different from them, which apparently now I am. It's like the old South Africa in D&G. Not that I blame them, their universe (the one that I used to inhabit), that of a secret and privileged sect within a dominant minority ruling over a vast undifferentiated underclass, has undergone a fatal reversal. Exposed by a constitution that in protecting them has robbed them of outsider's exclusivity, the world of queer has shrunk from an elaborate network of underground connections to this single room - maroon and black tiles, blinding striplights, nowhere techno imported from the dancefloors of Southend or Sydney - it doesn't matter as long as it's not here - belching great fuzzy waves of black noise from the dancefloor beyond.
In inverse proportion to the shrinking of this world, its borders, or at least the policing of them, has become ever more hysterical. All thresholds are marked by the thick buzz and clunk of security entry. Everything sanctioned by a mirror of itself - 'He's ok, one of us' - Buzz! Clunk! the steel gate opens and you're in. Beyond the harsh reflectivity of the tiles and the glare of the striplights, a small corridor. The techno is deafening here and on the dancefloor a swaying, gyrating mass, in their tight white T shirts, gurning rabidly.
Downtown there is a skyscraper called 'The Seaboard', probably the highest in the city. Its central five floors have been gutted by fire. Rumour has it the legal documents concerning a corruption case against a government MP were stored there. Great streaks of black scar the sandy concrete exterior and from a certain angle it is possible to see right through the remaining structure to the impossible azure of the sky beyond. By day this view is marked by a hyperclarity of contrast between 1960's brutalism and the African sky. By night it's pure vacuum, a slab of dark matter battling the city lights. In the basement of this building, to the right of the construction work where the floor has been dug up and puddles of city lymph feed the mosquitoes, behind the broken escalator, is another gay bar called Boyzone.
There is no gate at the door, and no sign above it. The walls and bar are dressed in corrugated iron, a decor touch informed by the sexualised hypermasculinity of the construction site but that more presciently mirrors reality outside. There are few chairs, most of them concrete extensions of the walls and floor, with reassuringly wipe clean surfaces of black gloss paint. Lighting is low, a recessed blue glow from behind the iron screens. A jukebox in the corner of the dancefloor plays American R&B and local hybrids - elaborate vocal athletics over thumping township beats. Older Zulu men and younger boys who look a lot like the packs of street kids gambling and sniffing glue on the pavement. There is no aggression here, but not much interraction either. I am simply ignored.
The coastline here is glimpsed through patches of rationalist high modernism and islands of ancient milkwood forest, a not unfamiliar pattern of South African urban development. These are strictly demarcated areas of a particular vision of state-sanctioned hedonism. Walls of high rise apartment blocks and tiered timeshare units line the coast. Suburban malls, seafood restaurants and corner liquor stores crowd around freeway exits for the delectation of a 4x4- and BMW-driving elite.
The rest of the coast reveals vast untouched dark spaces. The huge green deserts of the sugarcane fields and the dense black undergrowth of the milkwood forest are relegated for use by a dark population and thus ignored, undeveloped and isolated. Nowadays this model is reversed with the upper middle classes, in a desperate rush to vacate the city centre to the ravages of a new black urban population, charging into the sugarcane fields to lock themselves into gigantic fenced compounds. Here it is possible to reassert the illusion - originally borne by their colonial forefathers - of an idyllic and uninhabited Eden over which they can exert an uninterrupted dominance.
This process is ideologically underpinned by a nascent environmentalism which legitimises these fenced-in versions of pre-modern abundance as they restore biodiversity to what was until recently monocultural desert. The view from my parent's verandah in the new suburbs of Ballito about an hour north of the city is almost uninterrupted forest. Much of this is reclaimed farmland which, under the pressure of the recent housing boom, has become more profitable as decorative foil to the fields of themed housing estates. The hills to the left are covered in a verdant growth typical of virgin territory in this subtropical area, the milkwood, coral trees (until recently called Kaffirboom), wild banana fronds and kentia palms form an impenetrable mass of green. Ahead into the valley, the younger scrubland dominates, from immediately beyond the razor wire that demarcates the edge of suburbia and my parents' garden for a good kilometre or two until it is broken by the manicured lawns and red roofs of the Zimbali golf course and the estate that funds it. Biodiversity, though it may be encouraged on the other side of the fence, has no place here.
On the same city block as the museum, but on the far corner, where West and Gardiner streets meet, there is a public toilet that is imprinted on my memory, and which, thinking of it now, has had an inordinate influence on the rest of my life. It is where I as a 13-year old was accosted by an older man, and enjoyed the fruits of my first furtive labours in the sullen arts of hanging around the gents'. I return to this elegant example of Victorian utilitarian design, the high ceilings, clerestorey lighting, elegant yellow tiles faded and streaked with generations of filth, the leaking steel troughs, hiss of the cistern and thick smell of piss. Not much has changed - the rot on the toilet doors is higher, the puddles deeper, but the charged atmosphere of homosocial camraderie and the promise of exposure is the same. It is only on my fourth or fifth visit that I get lucky, but it is not possible to continue with the catch here so I am followed back to the museum where, in genteel, jasmine-scented comfort, with the light of the temperate afternoon streaming in through the stained glass windows, we are able to close a cycle begun in my teens.
It takes me a few days to find the cruising ground. When I lived here and the nationalist regime exerted a more direct control over space and access to it, I was not aware of its existence, but it's not too hard to find, and I am now quite experienced at this kind of thing. Drive north on the beach road, over the Umgeni river mouth and take the Broadway turnoff. Take a right and cross back over the freeway then an immediate left. Pass the mansions that border the Old Durban Club Golf Course, then take the first right past the clubhouse and on to the beach. Park here and head left on to the dunes.
I come here not only for sexual release with the middle-aged white blokes - telltale tan lines on their ring fingers - who seem to frequent this particular haunt, but also to escape the suffocating paranoia and fear that dominates so many interractions in this city. To participate socially here means to implicitly accept a system that places everyone in their correct place and time. Renegade activity, or that which chooses to disrespect the borders that the rest of culture is entirely geared to enforce, often feels dangerously naive... even criminal, and so it seems impossible to release yourself from the repressive regimes of the security industry. But here, where the forest meets the sea; where the city loosens its grip and spaces are wider, the sky even bigger; where the rich playing golf behind you give way to the open democracy of the beach and the dunes, and trees break the vista into intimate salons; where the sand is soft beneath your knees and the sun warm on your shoulders, in a boundary already transgressed, a wedding vow broken, it is possible to forge a new and fleeting trust, between strangers.