Long Period Swellsby Kristine Kronjé / 31.08.2011
During the FIFA World Cup last year Thomas Mulcaire together with Ricardo de Oliveira set out to shoot Afrika, a documentary film following a group of Brazilian surfers traveling from Maputo to Eland’s Bay. In extension to this film their exhibition of film stills Light and Variable Winds with a Large Long Period Swell showed at the Goodman Gallery Project Space in Johannesburg recently. Answering the question how soccer, surfing, Africa and art relate. This is the story…
Mahala: In your exhibition press release it stated that the film was inspired by Timothy Leary’s proclamation that humankind was evolving towards a purely aesthetic state and that surfing is the embodiment of this process. What exactly started off this project?
Thomas Mulclaire: It started off over a beer basically. I live in Itamambuca, a little surf town halfway between Rio and São Paulo. I was hanging out with some friends and thinking of ways to get back home for the World Cup the following year. Our idea was to get a van and travel around the country. Another friend of mine in São Paulo who runs a magazine called Vice needed an idea for the World Cup so I suggested taking a bunch of Brazilian surfers around the country from Mozambique to the West Coast. He thought it was a great idea and presented it to Brazilian MTV. My trade-off is that I produced a documentary for MTV based on some of the footage that we shot but actually I used MTV’s budget to fund the film.
Although your apparent purpose was purely to surf, it seems that you followed quite a specific itinerary. Along the way you visiting memorial sites, supported the World Cup and joined a protest against a nuclear power station which threatens to destroy the world’s most perfect waves. What was the ultimate overall purpose of the project?
Although there was no script my idea was to visit the memorial sites as a homage to kids in South Africa and what they did. I wanted to consider the ‘76 uprising from the angle of how it came about. The black consciousness poet, Ingoapele Madingoane, wrote a poem called “Africa my beginning” in 1973 when he was 19 years old. This poem together with the influence of Frelimo when Mozambique won its independence initiated the whole energy of ‘76. There’s a line in Madingoane’s poem which reads: “For a leader had emerged From the bush to Maputo Viva Frelimo.” I wanted to follow this trajectory literally from the bush to Soweto, from Maputo to Soweto. The idea was for these Brazilian surfers to somehow become consigned to the history of the country, picking up on some local gossip like the construction of the nuclear power station and then showing their solidarity by taking part in a protest of sorts. This tails back to Leary’s idea of the surfer as someone who might know the way forward as he also said that if you are a surfer who believes that you somehow found this path, you have to be an active proponent and show other people by living that life and dedicating your life to that. While just being a surfer and enjoying the waves and the road trip you are actually living an exemplary life and becoming hyperconscious by trying to learn and observe as you go. The whole idea is having a heightened sense of consciousness and I think surfing involves a natural or implicit reconnection or reawakening with nature. As in Keats phrase “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, the film is really just an explosion of beauty every couple of minutes and at particular moments where you need to be aware. It’s a psychedelic, aesthetic trip with an undercurrent of geo-political history.
In the light of coming to Africa to shoot this film, and engaging with African people who could be said to have embodied the ambivalence of being both the dangerous third world citizen and in need of rescue or enlightenment, what is your take on Africa as a place and its people?
I think the biggest compliment I ever received in Brazil is that I graduated from being o alemão or the German (because everyone that is tall and has blond hair is German) to being the Bahian or the big Bahian which means African. I like saying “Ek is ‘n Afrikaner” and in terms of Africa we really need to think of it as a place where we are all from and to which we are all connected fundamentally. I would like to problematise the whole idea of the “African”, “the black man”. It’s a state of mind as Biko said. The choice of “Afrika” as a title is very deliberately at play on Afrika and “Afrika” as in the black consciousness use of the K separated form say the Latin language. It also refers to the idea of Africa as a name which you give yourself when you don’t have a name as a slave. So despite of the play on etymology it’s just about where we are from. In terms of enlightenment, I think we now suffer from the fact that the whole project was completely trashed in the 80s by some cultural materialists because I think people are too terrified even to now speak about each other. I don’t want to be told who I can speak for and who I can’t speak for and if I can only speak for myself. The idea of autonomy or authenticity is a major headache.
How did your visits to the memorial sites of Hector Peterson and Samora Machel contribute to the greater project?
I think it was just to get his (Machel’s) blessing and start us off on our trajectory. This off course relates to places in terms of Frelimo and Madingoane’s influence on the uprisings, but there is also a really beautiful part of the monument which talks about the guy who carries Hector Peterson. This notion of camaraderie, which is very well encapsulated in that picture and the monument is another theme of the film. It’s about trying to give a portrait of men which is positive. Off course we do unspeakably horrible things and I think we all have it in us to do extreme good and extreme evil but I think the general image of men is something that needs to be recovered. So it was a very boyish trip with generations of men. The portraits of men, from the guys out after the Brazil vs Ivory Coast game through to Samora Machel and Hector Peterson representing some kind of parameter of action acts as a spectrum of the ages of men. For me the interesting part of it is not about the fact that they were protesting about a language or a law, but how kids (some at the age of 12) revolutionised this country. There were, off course, major figures and major moments but I think the uprising of ’76 really ended Apartheid because it was perfectly timed. It spread doubt throughout the country and then, off course, the first reaction was to clamp and then to release – so you see little pieces through football like the National Party trying to allow a certain, controlled multiracialism to happen and allowing stadiums to be filled with multiracial audiences and teams to have black and white players. So there’s a connection to the football aspect of the World Cup, through for me the uprising and the late ’70s, the rise of the professional soccer league and the multiracialism that it brought. That was also an important moment for soccer – the breaking down of racial divides.
In the press release it specifically states that your film references the 1970s surf movie genre. Why?
I think it was the golden age and particularly in terms of the style that we wanted to make and the kind of movie we wanted to make – in which nothing happens, where you just kind of roll along. It’s pre-TV. There are plenty of references stylistically to iconic scenes in iconic movies, like The Morning of the Earth which opens with a completely insane 3 min wave somewhere in Indonesia with this great music. The film is very layered but if you know the genre of surf movies you’ll recognise the respect paid to different film makers. The film itself is structured to have components based on The Surfer’s Journal magazine format combining history, technical aspects, beauty and general ethics. So, although everything was moulded together, the complete stretch from nothing to the most techinical advances come out eventually.
Using a multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach, how do you see the relationship between the actual journey, the documentary and the exhibition? Does everything amount to an interlaced network or is there one vital component to this project?
It’s a modern opera really. All its parts contribute to the whole. In one sense the project is designed to be just a surf movie but it’s also designed to be a combination of elements which are trying to be in harmony. That includes everything from the images to the score to the model contracts based on the work conventions and acknowledging the rights of the surfers and everybody that has a creative function. However, we want to do this as a beautiful form and literally make the model contract. Another element is trying to be very attentive or receptive to what has happened to technology. We’ve reached a parameter, a threshold. Basically if you shoot with any decent camera, you’re shooting in HD which now has enough information to produce a completely, acceptably beautiful photograph. The way to shoot photography now is just to make a film and then to extract the moment you like or remember and print it. The film embodies that idea. From beginning to end there are probably 100 000 unique frames. Each one of these frames will only be printed once and hopefully somewhere at some point the film might exist in different parts of the world or as a complete whole. In time each of these 100 000 frames will be printed, but only on demand as a model of how to work efficiently and not to waste. Ideally the chosen frames would be destroyed digitally after it has been printed. As the interest grows the film will dissipate.
Collaboration and engagement often lie at the heart of your methodology. What in your opinion is the value of collaboration?
It comes naturally. I like to collaborate. I don’t know why we are here if it is not to communicate, to learn from each other. Everyone has something to offer. If it wasn’t for Ricardo, for example, the project would be very poor as he presents a whole angle of surf history in addition to his own aesthetic. He knows everything about surfing and if I didn’t have that collaboration I wouldn’t want to do the project. In that way it’s an imperative to collaborate. Collaboration is about respect and about trust. It is a beautiful thing to do something together and the great thing about the credits in film is that everybody is mentioned and everybody is respected for what they did.
The title of the exhibition Light and Variable Winds with a Large Long Period Swell refers to the the absolute ideal surfing conditions. Does the title merely function as an embodiment of the surfing Mecca or does it represent a certain cultural ideal?
On the surface the idea of Light and Variable Winds with a Large Long Period Swell is a subtle salute to minimalism and people like Lawrence Weiner and Liam Gillick in terms of wall pieces but more than that it’s about communicating an ideal state. That ideal state might be the state of the project or it might be the actual conditions, those perfect conditions for working or doing what you are doing. We are using the allegory of the surf forecast to comment on our project. The title was condensed from a site called Buoyweather.com I think they are the most poetic because, in addition to the data which is also very interesting, they offer a phrase which is hopeful while being about efficiency and minimalism at the same time.
In your personal opinion, is surfing the embodiment of evolving towards a purely aesthetic state?
Yes, totally. It’s just about looking at the sun again which is a nice object.
* The Afrikaans translation of this interview was published on LitNet.