On the 2nd of April 2020, Unit 18 and Unit 13, two design research groups at the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA), University of Johannesburg, hosted a “quarantine marathon” titled Dialogues with Dust. Initially organized as a twelve-hour online event in response to cancelled field trips to Egypt (Unit 18, which we led) and Namibia (Unit 13, led be Claudia Morgado and Eric Wright) it emerged as a rapidly collated set of exchanges reflecting on a provisional and embedded sense of global fragility across borders and regimes of isolation, solidarity, and care. A reflection on conditions of site in dusty places developed into a reflection on thinking with and through dust and its attendant hauntings, displacements, and atmospheres. Dust particles—airborne, mobile carriers of environmental and geological code—became a metaphor through which to read and follow the resonance of the virus, health, and care as they affect bodies. Across time zones and from various forms of isolation, the presentations and dialogues suggested, albeit briefly, how by thinking with dust we might attend to experiences, exclusions, exhaustions, and invisibilities around the globe in this uncertain time. Students, architects, activists, and researchers generously shared fragments of their lives from South Africa, Cape Verde, Egypt, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Sweden, Turkey, the UK, and the USA.
Haunting, displacement, disposable bodies, atmosphere, resonance.
As a pedagogical tool, a unit trip enables an immediate and collective displacement to an “elsewhere,” asking us to readjust to new codes of space and place through an immersion. In the displacement of the field trip to an online marathon, Dialogues with Dust acted as a momentary gathering of far-flung fragments, held for an instant in an entangled web of places, scales, words, images, and sounds. Through the marathon, we asked: “How might we be able to understand a sense of place from a distance, without being able to travel?” And: “How might we continue to develop forms of solidarity, connection, and collaboration across time and place from our respective locations?”
As particles which travel through the air often unseen, both dust and the virus sweep into our immediate ether fragmented derivations from far off territories that make visible latent inequalities, the impact of history, and our environmental vulnerability. Aya Nassar, a researcher working on the post-independence history of Cairo, led us on a journey with dust through that city’s fragmented urban histories. For Nassar, dust is an essential part of Cairo, from seasonally enveloping the city during the spring khamasin, to the dust clouds created from the rubble of buildings being demolished. Dust marks the postcolonial city’s sense of disappointment and failure. In telling stories with dust, Nassar suggested that we might be able to write more complex histories of emotion and affect that begin to capture the history and presence of place and time, recognizing the fragmentary nature of postcolonial urban space. Similarly, Sara Salem took us through ghost stories found in the afterlives of Nasserist Egypt, exploring the liberatory potential of haunting in an anticolonial moment that encompasses both promise and failure. Drawing from the work of sociologist Avery Gordon, Salem argued that perhaps haunting enables a new way of seeing, bringing to the surface the turmoil and trouble of that which has happened in the past and present. Haunting brings to the fore those things not in their place. As we listened to these histories of Cairo, with us, too, were the wider hauntings of structural and racial violences being rendered starkly visible in our immediate vicinity through Covid-19. For as Bongani Kona reminded us, “you cannot walk away from history.”
The term quarantine generally refers to a period of isolation, imposed in order to limit the spread of an epidemic. Most of us on this twelve-hour marathon joined from some version of isolation around the world due to Covid-19. Yet, cognizant of our location in Johannesburg, we were particularly attendant to the term being used interchangeably in relation to “cordon sanitaires”—zones of confinement and spaces of exception for demarking and limiting the movement of bodies deemed “other,” used strategically to racially segregate cities into townships and suburbs under Apartheid. As practices of coloniality, spatial segregation gained particular speed with the formation of the Union of South Africa, cemented in 1910, and the implementation of Apartheid as a governing system in 1948. (1) Cordon sanitaires demarcated those worthy of living healthy lives from those deemed “racialized other” and disposable. Many of the early segregation laws in South Africa were undertaken in the name of public health: the Native Reserves Location Act of 1902 was implemented to ostensibly contain outbreaks of bubonic plague, yet effectively led to large-scale displacement, defining urban areas in South Africa as “White” spaces. The 1914 Tuberculosis Commission Report was one of the first major surveys to support the expansionary aims of the British Empire. Under Apartheid Group Areas Act and Influx Control laws, these acts of dispossession controlled and defined space as racialized, demarcated through infrastructural violence.
In 2020, the online format of our twelve-hour Zoom call both collapsed distances, allowing us to seemingly overcome our inability to travel, and revealed the invisible inequalities that divided and separated our experiences of isolation. The call was haunted by glitches, echoes, dropped connections, and shaky internet, revealing our location on a spectrum of infrastructural access. As we thought through the promises and failure of liberation in Egypt, we were made aware of the current difficulty of quarantine in an informal settlement, or in unsafe homes in South Africa; of the inability to participate in an event such as this, for so many in our immediate proximity. We occupied dust as a provisional constituent: it fills and conceals; it is scattered, haunting and ever present. Swept away, it returns, only to be cast back up into the air.
With dust, as with Covid-19, we become conscious of what we are breathing in. As we questioned how this novel coronavirus spreads, the speakers’ words made us conscious of our corporeal vulnerabilities in relation to natural and industrial environmental forces. They reminded us how this fragility is not always felt equally. As we remember that the dust storms of the Sahara unearthed millennia-old movement of sand swept across the continent revealing histories of ancient climates, Sumayya Vally reminded us that in Johannesburg some have access to the world’s largest man-made urban forest while others are left to breath in and out the toxic air foundational to this “City of Gold,”. Vally took us through the toxic materialities of the industrial landscape of Johannesburg’s mines: silicosis, tuberculosis, asthmatic complications, and other comorbidities. As the language of health takes over our news reports, thinking with dust allows us to see how architecture becomes that which we ingest, breath in, and exhale again. As Vally suggests, in parts of Johannesburg, there is an extreme violence in breathing in. Through dust we are taken through a history of this violence, of incandescent mine waste, of a cemetery unearthed, of the erosion of a mine dump bringing its history to the surface, of the underground cities of deep-level mines. As we breathe in, we are ingesting past histories and legacies. The air has momentarily cleared thanks to a drop in global industrial activity, and there is a recognition that another response to the climate is possible. Meanwhile, for those living in toxic air environments, their vulnerability to respiratory violences is made immediate again through the insurgent Covid-19 pandemic.
In the twelve hours we spent online for Dialogues with Dust, relatable atmosphere, auras, and ghosts were conjured. We were aurally transported to a street in Cairo, listening to local radio stations, visually travelling to the Alexandrian corniche, almost able to feel the mist in the air and the concrete of the monument for the unknown soldier. We were there, but we were also here. It is through this aural displacement that the hyperreal takes hold, augmenting resonances which are at once close and far, historical and happening at this moment. In this strange state of quarantine, we are both in the world and in a world inside the world—looking out and looking in at ourselves. We are both stuck, in a stasis, and yet we know things are changing rapidly beyond recognition.
A visceral engagement with dust from a distance and up close became a medium through which to experience these disembodied visits. With Thandi Loewenson and David Roberts dust returned us as static, an architecture of the body, of how we might listen closely and attentively to the white noise around us and to other fields of experience and interferences. While we were reminded by Endriana Audisho that the history of the screen in architecture is far from neutral, here, we adopted the screen as a medium for collaboration. Through our screens, and acts of looking, listening, engaging, and recalling—in between breaths, digital glitches, and lost connections—the format became a collection and archive of the fragmentary. A reminder of our fragility. Paralleling historical and contemporary notions of crisis and containment which have occurred across the continent in the past with those of the pandemic and quarantine today, we collaboratively produced a field of resonance—a circularity of displaced objects momentarily finding meaning in what it means to be vulnerable, to be in a state of immense flux. In this existence, we are both describing and producing in an elusive, precarious state of thinking and doing—we are designing with dust.