Wits City Institute Public Lecture

Truth is Overrated

Wits City Institute Researcher Mpho Matsipa hosted the London-based designer, director, and writer Christopher Lutterodt-Quarcoo at a presentation exploring the provocation that the idea of ‘truth’ is irrelevant.

27 March 2017 / Graduate Center for the Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand

Words: Elizabeth Pienaar

The idea of truth is irrelevant, Christopher Lutterodt-Quarcoo suggests. What is more relevant is how you are impacted by that truth. It’s a tricky exploration, but essentially it is looking at the untruth of all truth; how truth depends on your position of perception, in space and time and society. Truth is not impartial: it is possible that an impartial truth is not possible. ‘Truth is only believed when someone has invented it well,’ Lutterodt-Quarcoo quotes George Santayana.

Lutterodt-Quarcoo is after something elusive; and he uses several methods to attempt its capture: he sets out to blur fact, fiction, myth, and reality through time, he searches out ‘speculative unapproved versions of history; versions of history not written; versions not told by the victor, for we all know the old truism – history and therefore the truth of the event – is always told by the victor.

He uses the image of the Angelus Novus by Paul Klee (1920), an iconic and much interpreted symbol of the seamless flow from past to future, the influence of past on future, to reinforce the importance of time in the interpretation of truth. In the drawing, the angel is clearly distressed as it looks backward but has already turned its body forward; its wings are spread as if pushed forward by the debris of the past without its own volition.

He sets out to deconstruct the way we view history by playing with time and memory to create a way of evaluating the story through historical futurism. Take an event, extrapolate it into a future view on it, dissect it from all perspectives, and see how much the event changes…

He looks for ways to ‘insert doubt’ into popular histories, while also looking at the method of controlling these histories – he calls the confessional box the ‘first structure of surveillance’.

His interest in archaeo-acoustics – the idea that every object is a witness – archaeologists can extract sound from ancient objects – has  informed his choice of medium – two websites, Unmaterialised, and The Adversery, both set in the future. A series of extraordinary (and visually powerful) video vignettes document organised discussion groups dissecting chosen ‘events’. In his archive 20+odd (in reference to the first slaves to arrive in America, as described in a letter from John Rolfe to Sir Edwin Sandys), Lutterodt-Quarcoo applies the use of historical futurism to the experience of African Americans. Placed in a notional future 2119, we are told that ‘laws and systems have evolved to cater to all Americans equally’ and yet the ‘African American community continues to struggle’.

Turning to the idea that memories can be passed down genetically, (at least one gene, Fk bp5 has been identified as playing a part in memory and post traumatic stress disorder) and therefore the existence of genetic trauma, the archive proposes a solution beyond laws meant to equalise and the concept of forgiving: it proposes quite literal forgetting: remove genetic memories; genetic forgetfulness can change responses to the world, today.

The archive Second Coming records a workshop in which individuals discuss the impact of inherited memory on the African-Caribbean diaspora. They role play the position of African-Caribbean philanthropists, state government, Liberationists, and potential clients on the ethical social and cultural implications of implementing genetic memory deletion for African-Caribbean people.

Many questions lead from this concept, the (dystopian) fiction just a hairsbreadth from reality. As a participant in Lutterodt-Quarcoo’s presentation, I need to ask: is being happy really a desirable state? Much has been written about the notion that individual happiness is some kind of right, an idea that was seeded in the baby boomers’ me-first approach to life. Different eras put duty/loyalty/devotion – less egocentric approaches to life – first. Is this idea of genetic forgetfulness posited from the same egocentric worldview and akin to a genetic anti-depressant prescription? Many patients observe how numb life is in such an induced state of ‘happy’.

One must ask should trauma be removed? Would it make an individual or group happy/better able to deal with the world? Seeing we’re manipulating genetic make up – what does this do to the Darwinian principles of survival of the fittest? Isn’t trauma necessary? We wouldn’t know till we tried to remove it.

Interestingly, a majority of individuals in the discussion believed one should not undergo ‘genetic forgetfulness’. Lutterodt-Quarcoo said he had expected that no one would want to let go of trauma, but seven out of 38 said yes.

In the archive Trauma Remedy and Reparations Lutterodt-Quarcoo brings together the ideas of genetic trauma and genetic forgetfulness with that of compensation/reparation. The question is, Can an individual be compensated for generations of trauma?

He proposes that one form of governmental compensation that might be offered to people suffering genetic trauma is the procedure of genetic trauma removal.

And here I became really uneasy – again because we are discussing a review of history by playing with time – there’s no moral line in the sand, one cannot decide ‘valid trauma’ happened before or after a certain date (what is a date except a created artefact in the continuum of human experience anyway?), and so every racial/ religious group on the planet must, therefore, hold genetic trauma. Every oppressor was a victim in some historic continuum. Every individual has personal trauma. What would such reparations lead to – a planet full of happy zombie slave putty in the hands of the governing world order? It slips quickly into the territory of eugenics.

In the archive Union of African States, the New York World Trade Fair 1964-65 Africa Pavilion, designed by white Americans complete with giraffe motifs and peanuts, is reconstructed through the imagined eyes of Kwame Nkrumah, using the blueprint for the African Union set out in Ethiopia a few months earlier. It uses the idea that the value of a country depends on its natural wealth and explores a shared currency based on values of joint natural resources.

The archive Undoing Africa again records a work-shopped role play. Each group is assigned the interests of different nations to represent, and must discuss how best to infiltrate and promote or demote the idea of colonialism in preventing or encouraging the redrawing of the African map as a unified entity. How to infiltrate a nation’s sense of self and change it in such a subtle way the nation doesn’t know it? Scary and terrifying content – especially given events unfolding in South Africa.

Lutterodt-Quarcoo proposes fascinating concepts. But he does stress that we all need narratives to exist. We need to tell ourselves into being with our stories. Nonetheless, Truth is irrelevant – we will hold onto a story that is compelling enough regardless of any logical assault on its ‘accuracy’.

As Lutterodt-Quarcoo says, we live in tentative times. The idea of truth has never been more difficult to grasp and the need for belief in a world where everything shifts, and manufactured reality can be more powerful than lived reality, has never been greater. Propaganda is now immersed in our daily lives, manipulated by paid advisers with no morality or loyalty except to money, who may bring a country to its knees for the highest bidder.

Be aware of the infrastructures around you and the stories you have been told. What you’re living is literally Your Truth. But Truth is at best only an understanding of what transpired. Truth is malleable. Truth is not even necessary when one has belief.

Truth is indeed, overrated.