/ past projects

/ Poisoned Pasts | Legacies of the South African Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme / 2016

Between 1981 and 1995 the South African military maintained a secret chemical and biological warfare program code-named Project Coast. Through the endeavours of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an extensive legal trial, and various other investigations the activities of the program have become treated as emblematic of the perversities of a former time. And yet, each attempt to determine and remember what took place has been structured and delimited by the very investigations that enabled it.

Conceived in the context of a state under severe pressure and just prior to the first major wave of student protests in 2015, Poisoned Pasts is a response to the frustrations of transitional justice to deliver accountability, and sanction those involved in human rights abuses; the exhibition sought to engage new audiences in questions about the relevance of the past to the present.

Working in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, researcher Chandré Gould (Institute of Security Studies), sociologist Prof Brian Rappert (University of Exeter), and visual/forensic artist Kathryn Smith (Liverpool John Moores University/Stellenbosch University), conceived a multimedia interpretation of several thousand documents retained from Gould’s work as a Truth Commission investigator into Project Coast.  

Trace was engaged to interpret and produce an exhibition design in which a range of visual strategies were employed to represent what is known and unknown about the programme. 

This story of Project Coast – one of many possible versions – is organized into a series of narrative clusters. Spatial design and material choices reflect concepts of revelation and concealment in which facts and testimony are set against contested and conflicting accounts. Meticulously researched commentary, visual reportage, original artifacts and historical documents are interspersed with proxy objects (re)constructed to represent products or devices which otherwise only exist through verbal or written description. A restraint chair designed for animal experimentation, and a safe in which the secrets of the programme were allegedly safeguarded, are rendered in cardboard, for example, denying them their original function. 

Visitors are imagined as active participants; they are encouraged to spend time in the space, discover and work with the documents filed on shelves and in drawers, and think critically and courageously about our received histories.

Poisoned Pasts questions our knowledge of and attitudes to scientific research, ethics and social responsibility; and reflects on how chemical and biological weapons might be impacting on our contemporary lives. It seeks to engage young people in histories that might seem of little relevance; challenge the conventions of heritage practice; stimulate questions about the dual-use potential of scientific research; and foster an appreciation of how archival research and the study of secrecy often promotes further questions rather than closure. 

Tel: +27 82 554 0747 (Lauren) / +27 82 335 4586 (Clive)