Interstices and thresholds:

the liminal in Johannesburg as reflected in the video programme, the Underground, the Surface and the Edges

  • Anthea Buys
  • Leora Farber


A former gold-mining camp whose acquisition of the aesthetic markers of a metropolis was almost instantaneous, the city of Johannesburg can be represented, economically and philosophically, as geographically plural. The dialectic between the surface life of the city and its wealth-deriving underground spaces, and the concomitant activation of a third, liminal, space, namely, ‘the edges’, characterises ‘the African modern of which Johannesburg is the epitome’ (Nuttall & Mbembe 2008:17). We examine the relationships between these urban spatialities as they are articulated in a programme of selected video artworks curated by the authors that take the city of Johannesburg as their subject matter, source material or provenance. In the article, we pay attention to how the uses and meanings of these spatialities may have shifted, or failed to shift, between their constructions in apartheid-era and contemporary, post-apartheid South Africa.

We propose that the underground, the surface and the edges are at once identifiable modalities that emerge coherently in the selected works and interconnected inflections of a singular urban phenomenon. Building on this, we observe that the dialectic between the underground and the surface in Johannesburg contains echoes of the literary and artistic tropes of burial and resurrection, and in support of this observation, employ Jacques Derrida’s (1994:xvii) notions of “hauntology”, in which he considers the spectral or ghostly as that which ‘happens’ only between two apparently exclusive terms, such as ‘life and death’. In considering “Johannesburg” as a metropolitan phenomenon in the selection of works discussed, we speak of a spectral, interstitial realm that exists in-between the strata of surface (the stratum of life, goodness, health and visibility) and underground (a catacomb where the dead, the corrupt and the ailed are hidden). We thus offer a view of being-in-Johannesburg in which inhabiting takes place in liminal spaces – or in-passage between – fluid spatial terms, wherein constant mediation takes place.