Interview: Laurence Hamburger

Laurence Hamburger & Rachael Allen

Frozen Chicken Train Wreck is a book of reproduced tabloid posters from daily newspapers – The Star, Daily Sun, The Times and others – that have been displayed on roadsides in South Africa since the First Anglo-Boer War. Laurence Hamburger has been collecting them since 2008, and a selection of these make up the book recently published by Chopped Liver Press and Ditto Press. Here, he answers questions for Rachael Allen about the concept of the book, why he started collecting the posters and offending everyone.

RA: Could you tell me a little about why you decided to start collecting the posters?

LH: I think it’s very important from the outset to state that I’m not the first person to collect posters of this kind in Johannesburg. There are a couple of famous bars, like The Radium, who have some on their walls, some from as far back as the emergency years, and many others – journalists, artists and students – that I know have a few choice ones hanging in their homes. They have become kitsch, part of a certain South African pop culture. All I’ve done is collate a series of them and show something of the experience of reading them in sequence. I began to see that there was a kind of pattern that could at some stage be curated in an interesting way. I first used the collection when I filmed a series of them in an animation in six locations around Johannesburg. I was, at this point, creating live visual backdrops for a band, the BLK JKS, and I suggested using the posters as a piece for a part of the performance. That was with Mpumi Mcata from the band, and Liam Lynch, a photographer. Initially Chopped Liver Press and I discussed the book as a series of these stills, but Liam wasn’t interested in that as a project and so through discussions with Chopped Liver the book, as it exists now, evolved. I’m very happy with this choice to ‘recreate’ the posters. I think it was the best decision in terms of reflecting their design qualities, and letting the reader experience them in a fairly pure way. They feel the most archival, but ironically the most alive.

But to be less obscure, my reasoning for collecting was that I felt they made an appropriate narrative of a kind of South African vox populi.

Vince Pienaar, Copy Editor at the Daily Sun said that the posters were ‘the perfect marriage of a corrupt society and a progressive constitution’. What were you hoping to show in gathering them all together – and at what point did you realize their relevance as a marker for a historical context?

I’d returned to South Africa during the FIFA World Cup in 2010 to research another book on township pop records and had collected the odd poster over the years, and it was during that period that I began to think of putting them together. It wasn’t just the individual posters but the sequencing that became the trigger. Read in groups, they really seemed a different way to reflect the ‘temperature’ of the place, which I was maybe noticing more acutely then, having been away for the best of part of a decade. I think it was a simple revelation, a result of feeling a little like a tourist in my home town for a while. It was only when I finally came to look through them, and there were about fifty, that I saw how much had actually ‘happened’ in South Africa. There was such a vast variety of political drama and social transformation that it was like a film script in the making. I’m a filmmaker and I suppose I just saw stories, and the new stories created from throwing groups of stories together. Also, as a student in the early nineties I had a conversation with my late friend Paul Botha (now the subject of the novel False River), about one poster hanging in a friend’s kitchen. He was a very sharp guy – a poet – and I clearly remember him explaining the word-craft required to do this kind of thing and how at its best, it reflected the unique quality of South African speech that was often absent in South African English literature. I suppose they were part of a broader process of turning me on to what was uniquely South African. We are still a very young culture and we have suffered from great insecurities as to what we are and how we have been formed. These posters are a kind of reassurance that we are no longer a mere colonial afterthought or, worse, a form of the USA with the sound turned down.

There is so much that happens in a week in South African society. It is a pretty rich source of ‘content’ journalistically speaking, more so than, let’s say, Sweden, where the society has been stabilized over the centuries and is now capably managed. This place is still in upheaval and has experienced such radical social trauma – one example being the number of rape crimes committed daily – and that the news in many ways is almost unbelievable and unbearable. Increasing amounts of this daily trauma was reflected in the posters.

I could see a change from the content a decade ago – they had become more relevant to the ordinary person and their experiences here.

Also, most people I know collected the posters that had their names on them – Clinton, George, Jacob – so were personally relevant, or because of a great political pun (‘the NP [National Party] loses its Virginia’), but I began to collect posters with the larger picture in mind. So posters like ‘Missing Baby: Woman Held’, which might not be so amazing in the hipster bedroom, were very good for my purposes, because it could function as part of a grander narrative.

Which poster is your favourite?

It’s always changing. We’ve been thinking of what to do with them now, and so the topic always comes up. This week I like ‘Tree Kills Tree Expert’ for its sheer surreal, droll humour. I just love the whole idea of a tree having a personality. ‘World Loses Hop[e]’, only because you know someone had that one banked waiting for Bob Hope to die. Many of these would hang in my film offices for weeks until we replaced them, some of the more popular ones were: ‘No More Mrs Nice Guy’, and ‘Karate Goat Hates Me’, which is as surreal as a newspaper headline could get, I reckon. I do love ‘All Blacks Are Brilliant’, which was the working title of the book. It has the potential to offend everyone.

Is there a poster that you drove past and never stopped to pick up but wish you did?

When I initially started I thought I would complete this project in a week or a month at best. I expected to find all of the posters in the newspaper archives and the printers. Both sources had nothing. I was quite shocked and that’s when the project became a matter of action, and a matter of having to stop and collect. So often I have missed ‘classics’ because we had to go to a meeting, or were chasing light on a shoot. Sometimes I would try to remember where they were and attempt to go back and collect. Often it was too late and they had been changed or someone else had taken it. Maybe I’m so crushed by missing some that I cauterize myself and forget what they’ve said, because right now I can’t think of a single one. There was one recently, about a dancing gay pastor that I can never remember the exact phrasing for, but I remember being disappointed I didn’t get it.

‘The ones that never got published’ is the real list I’d love to make. One of the copy editors told of how they were stopped from using ‘Oscar Will Walk’ after it looked like the detective had blown the Pistorious case in the first few days of the trial.

All images courtesy of of Laurence Hamburger

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