Sound and visual installation A musical journey down the mineshafts

Philipp Miller
Philipp Miller | Photo: © Catherine Meyburgh

Extracts From the Underground, a sound and visual installation that personalises the human experience of miners.

It all began with the World Cup in 2010 when innovative composer Philip Miller was asked by the Goethe Institut to do something about his hometown, Joburg.

“It’s been a strange journey,” he says because it all started when he began thinking of the city in a vertical sense. It’s about going underground and about a city built on its mining wealth.

Hence the title Extracts From the Underground, an original South African sound and visual installation that will be opening at the Wits Art Museum (WAM) on Thursday with a one-off live performance with sound and video displays for the rest of the run until June 24.

What he was trying to do was to personalise the human experience within the anonymity of the industrial mining sector. “It all changed for me when I went down a mine,” he embroiders.

He suddenly discovered the underworld economy but also experienced the feeling of physically going that deep underground and being there. “It was profound,” he says and hooked his interest as well as linking old passions like his archival fascination which takes him back into yet another world.

Turning to the word and music which is where his strengths lie, he discovered a 1967 Miners’ Fanakalo Dictionary, issued by the Transvaal Chamber of Mines.

Fanakalo is described as a pidgin language originating in the South African mines which was created and adopted so that the many different tongues could find one another and this is where he discovered the way to write his own narrative about this nether world. It was an apartheid tool, the language, but it’s still used today and he quickly realised that the issues are more complex than that.

How could he resist playing, subverting these vestiges of a colonial past, to make his own statements about labour issues erupting and burning throughout the world, not only in South Africa.

And although he also composed the music for Rehad Desai’s Miners Shot Down, he wants this installation (which will hopefully expand in the coming years and is slated for the National Arts Festival next year) to reach widely through the mining sector globally.

When listening to just a snatch of the voices, the words that are flung around and hit against one another show his intent. “Mine, not yours,” shouts one as your mind flips between the mine in the ground and who it belongs to – mine, of course. It’s clever, it makes you think on your feet and it takes you way down below into the underworld that so impacted on his world view.

“I really wanted to make civil society aware of the notion of being underground. We don’t ever contemplate that – really.”

There was much to play with and much to say as he worked around themes of people working underground, thinking about our country’s past – those who were underground – literally and figuratively. What are the struggles of the day? Have they changed?

Are the people fighting any different to those who went before?

The installation builds on the recent success of an original 30-minute performance by Miller, The Anatomy of a Mining Accident, commissioned by Cape Town Opera and Stockholm’s University College of Opera. Recognising the work’s potential and universal relevance, Tshisa Boys Productions (Philip Miller; Warren Wilensky, producer of Winnie, the Opera; and Thuthuka Sibisi) was established with the goal of further developing the work into an installation.

The first presentation was at a Gipca (Gordon Institute of Performing and Creative Arts) conference at Cape Town City Hall last November.

Part of the their vision is for a full-length opera to be staged in a site-specific locale, such as a disused mine or a decommissioned power plant and they are seeking support to complete the work and tour it locally and internationally.

That’s why Miller is so thrilled about Hollard’s sponsorship of Extracts From the Underground at WAM.

“This isn’t Mary Poppins,” he says and salutes their bravery. But what he is really hoping for is to develop the concept even further, but not exactly into an opera, (that’s such an elitist perception,” he explains) but to take it to the forecourt, to the people involved, to old mineshafts and to really engage.

That’s also why he is thrilled about what’s happening with this current installation.

“The sound and pictures will be pumped into the streets and people passing WAM will hear the sounds of Miller’s constant collaborator Bham Ntabeni, the vocalist and musician and see the videos of the brilliant Catherine Meyburgh as they’re projected on to the glass windows and walls of the museum.

Nearly two years on from the strikes at Marikana’s Lonmin Platinum Mine, South Africans are still trying to process and understand the killing of 34 miners by armed police. “The scenes broadcast throughout the mass media bring the horrors of a seemingly concluded past into an increasingly troubled present,” notes Miller.

But he also knows that this isn’t our issue alone. Think of recent events in Istanbul and Chile. Mining is topical around the world, the circumstances of the people working there and the economy generated and who it is passed to. “We need to have those conversations,” says the composer and that’s why he seeks further sponsorship to travel the work internationally. “It’s not highbrow, it’s for the people.”

Extracts from the Underground. Wits Arts Museum (WAM) from 5 - 26 June 2014. Opening hours: Wed - Sun, 10am - 4pm.