23 June, 2008

When the Media Gives You the Shits, Turn to the AMM for Inspiration

I’ve never been so stimulated in a public toilet. Get your mind out of the gutter! I mean intellectually. There I sat…on the loo, reading quotes about journalism from Nelson Mandela and Oscar Wilde inscribed on bathroom tiles that covered the walls of the cubicle.

The toilets in question are housed in an extraordinary building in a provincial city in the poorest region of South Africa. The Africa Media Matrix is home to Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies in Grahamstown.

Built at cost of 26 million rand (approximately A$4million), and on the back of extraordinary vision, it melds state-of-the-art technology with African culture and journalism history. And wittily, at times irreverently, it tells the story of South African media struggles and champions media freedom through clever interior design that makes you gawp…particularly while using the ‘facilities’.

Let’s start the tour back in my favourite toilet cubicle…yes, I have a favourite loo here. It has tiles that quote both Nelson Mandela the founder of the Rainbow Nation and Matt Drudge – the founder of online gutter journalism. Mandela’s tile reads: “Freedom of expression is not a monopoly of the press: it is a right of us all”… appropriately, Matt Drudge’s says: “I go where the stink is”.

I was busted by a student while photographing these tiles. She said: “Wow, I’ve never seen someone take a picture of a toilet before”. I responded with the obvious: “I’m Australian”. She looked at me with judgemental understanding. Australians are the butt (a little toilet humour :) of many South African jokes. Another tile quote from Alfred Eisenstaedt seems appropriate at this s-bend (yep, more toilet humour!): “When I have a camera in my hand, I know no fear”.

OK, let’s leave the loos and take a walk around the building. In the vibrantly coloured foyer is a Venda drum – made of clay, its skin-covered top is gonged to announce functions and gather staff and students. It sits beneath a mosaic wall which spells “news” in sign language and Braille. This wall houses video screens that channel student-productions, promote the School’s activities and carry and news from around Africa. Tall tables used for feasts and talk-fests are also covered in mosaic tiles portraying proof-reading symbols and carrying more inspiring quotes from journalism history, including this one from the crusading anti-Apartheid editor, Donald Woods, who was forced into exile in 1978: “Why was I, a fifth-generation white South African, Editor for 12 years of one of the country’s longest established newspapers (Daily Dispatch), escaping in disguise in fear of political police?”

Media Freedom is a major theme of this building. Behind the reception desk hangs a cloth printed with section 16 of South Africa’s constitution which guarantees free speech. Elsewhere in the building, curtains are printed with the text of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" ; a copy of the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, which called for an independent, pluralistic and free press, hangs on a wall; and newspaper flyers and front pages relay flashpoints in South Africa’s struggle for democracy and an unfettered media.

The tea room is a slice of 1950’s activist journalism - it’s a tribute to Drum magazine, the publication which gave a platform to many influential black journalists including Nat Nakasa, who wrote: “The writer can make his choice. Bow to the social conventions and the letter of the law and keep within the confines of the white world. Or, refuse to let officialdom regulate his personal life, face the consequences and be damned”. Nakasa suicided while exiled in New York in 1965.

But this building isn’t just about symbolism and story-telling: here, art intersects with state-of-the-art technology. Colourful baskets woven from telephone wire adorn one wall of the foyer – they’re strung with a piece of thick blue high-speed cabling that represents the 35km of the stuff that weaves throughout the building, making it the ‘fastest’ edifice in Africa. This is contrasted with quirky wire radios, made by a local trader, which are triggered by sensors near the entrance to the radio studios. The building also houses a television studio and production labs adaptable for convergent journalism operations. They’ll be in full swing later this week when the AMM becomes the hub of radio, print, TV and online coverage of the National Arts Festival.

And the high-tech isn’t restricted to the building’s interior. Wrapped around the exterior is a Times Square-style electronic ticker which transmits local headlines to the Rhodes community. Yes, it’s totally OTT, but it laughs in the face of Africa’s tech-challenged, disconnected status and brashly signals the readiness of this institution to meet the future head-on.

Juxtaposed against the ticker is a rusty pre-World War One printing press which decorates the garden. Visitors are invited to cross the garden via stepping stones made from brick tiles extracted from the floor of Grocott’s Mail – the oldest independent newspaper in South Africa. The paper is now owned and operated by this journalism school and used as a training facility for its students. Shredded Grocott’s printing plates are woven around pots at the building’s entrance and, back inside, old printing blocks and trays from the paper decorate the walls. This is a building that looks to the future without forgetting the past.

Eight degrees and more than a dozen outreach-projects are driven by the people of the AMM. There are some 50 staff and over 500 full-time students attached to this place and at the healm is the zeal behind the AMM, Head of School, Prof. Guy Berger.

Other AMM highlights include:

• Teardrop shaped lampshades made from woven 16mm film that light the internal stairwell

• The TV camera and tripod in the foyer painted in bright, traditional design by an Ndebele artist
• The banner at the entrance to student computer labs which bears the image of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, made from bottle tops
• The confidence of the building: it screams the successes of its occupants and graduates with their achievements and outputs proudly championed on its walls.

1 comment:

enigma said...

Girlfriend, you've done it again! A beautiful and colourful painting of your current surroundings - I closed my eyes and felt a part of it all...thank you.

«design» enigma CREATIVE MEDIA                © Julie Posetti «2007»
[ *The opinions expressed by j-scribe reflect those of the author only and in no way represent the views of the University of Canberra ]