“I’ve been trying to think about this thing…the future as a kind of general, open, and wide concept. And I’m looking at it—I mean, of course the most obvious answer is for me to say that time is not linear, it’s cyclical, which I think it is…cy-cli-cal, cyclical. But further than that, I think I’m more interested in understanding: whose future [are we] talking about?”
Simnikiwe Buhlungu in What We Put in the Skafthini (Mixtapenyana), 2021.
Futuring as a Verb
Simnikiwe Buhlungu wastes no time in the opening lines of her new sound work, What We Put in the Skafthini (Mixtapenyana). Over nearly ten minutes, Buhlungu’s voice fills the room with her wide-ranging exploration of how concepts of futurity and community change depending on their geographic contexts. In the past, Buhlungu’s practice has been concerned with questions of power and epistemology: how do we know what we know?
In this new work, Buhlungu considers compelling forms of knowledge production which are rather casual or mundane. Recorded directly onto an audio cassette over one week in the summer of 2021, Buhlungu anchors her ideas with examples from daily life, weaving practical objects and common terms into her theoretical musings. One such term, skafthini—referring to reusable plastic containers for storing and transporting food—comes from Buhlungu’s upbringing in Johannesburg, South Africa. Buhlungu first mentions the skafthini as an example of an object with an intended function connected to futurity through preservation. Buhlungu refers to the skafthini and objects like it as “future archival bodies,” things which simultaneously encapsulate a speculative gesture and a very utilitarian purpose. Such objects embody an everyday practice of “futuring as a verb,” as the artist puts it in our acquisition interview for the work. In other words, they activate the human impulse to anticipate the needs of the future in the present.
Buhlungu has chosen to record and preserve the sound work on an audio cassette, which, correspondingly, can also be considered a future archival body. Buhlungu grew up experimenting with cassette tapes with her brother, recording their own material over older tapes to create their own shows. Buhlungu’s interest in sound has permeated her practice for years, especially though her Mixtapenyana series, where she experiments with various sonic formats, including radio and, as the title suggests, the mixtape (in an interview with Buhlungu, she explains that -nyana is a common diminutive form used where she grew up; akin to the Dutch suffix -tje).
Recorded in an age tormented by a collective sense of anxiety and uncertainty about what the future may hold, Buhlungu’s interpretation of futurity through the skafthini metaphor feels radically down to earth. For Buhlungu, futuring does not always amount to a monumental or impenetrable frontier, it is something we already do on a daily basis.