Nostalgic technological futures


Rowan Smith’s retro-futurist revivals of obsolescent technology are so hip they look as if they were sourced from Milnerton Market, Cape Town’s bohemian boot sale venue. But Smith’s work is not about nostalgia; his carved-wood installations, lightboxes and interventions with defunct technology deal with the nostalgias that are inherent in our projected futures.

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“The present day is characterised by the fast progression of technology,” explains Smith, a somewhat bashful, blueeyed boy who seems to hunch into his keffiyea. “The digital revolution influences every aspect of society. As a reaction to constantly having to update your skills and knowledge regarding technological advances, I became interested in looking at things that were already obsolete, and in so doing became drawn to that very early digital aesthetic – from the 1960s and 70s, at the same time as the space race.” LED-displays, big knobs, wood veneer, Nintendo handsets and dot matrix printers might seem lo-fi but, as Smith explains, lo-fi is relative to now. People back then dreamed of a future in which there would be flying cars and holidays on the moon. Instead we have cellphones, Hummers and the continuing hyperbole of technology that has not satisfied those retro visions of the future. Smith cites art critic Harold Rosenberg’s notion that futures are not so much underas over-determined, and that there are so many defined futures for them to be constantly recycled and reused. As such, our conception of the future hankers back to what we thought would be possible now – it is as though our dissatisfaction with the present and its undelivered promises drives the insatiable thirst for new technology.

Smith’s piece Dot Matrix Loop (2007) drew much interest when it was shown at the Johannesburg Art Fair in March. An installation comprising three outdated printers, with the paper feed on a continuous loop, the original chip in each printer has been reprogrammed to spit out one of 50 human characters to the accompaniment of that wailing pig sound of dot-matrix printers. The output on the paper is random and infinite – that is, until the printer jams or switches off. Peripheral devices traditionally require computers to instruct them: Smith’s self-governing printers clearly speak of autonomous technology. “These three printers are exchanging a loop of paper, creating this mini world that is generative and self-populates,” says Smith about what happens to the man-machine relationship when technology starts thinking for itself.

“The subtle relationship between the people of the loop is always random and determined by the printers, so technology is creating this world instead of us creating a world out of technology.” In a hypothetical future, humans may one day become be nostalgic about the power they currently wield over machines; Smith’s work, with its shifting tenses, however, asks whether technology has not already taken charge. With an ever-enlarging landfill of obsolescent technology, are humans really desiring of smile-detecting digital cameras, or is technology driving the constant rejuvenation of what is new? This dialogue between obsolescence and the ever shifting new recalls Theodore Adorno’s doubts about modern art and how “the new” participated as a mechanism in the generation of mass culture. “The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: that is what everything new suffers from,” he wrote, wary that modern artists were devaluing the art object through constantly erasing the present in their pursuit of the novel. Smith’s nostalgic technological futures raise an unexpected comparison to the constant evolution of the notion of the artist and the artistic space.

“I am fascinated by the idea of the artist in the traditional sense and how much weight that has in society, what the everyday person’s conception of an artist is and how that relates to what an artist might really be today,” he says. “It’s a fascinating thing to be an artist; it’s so bizarre in terms of the trajectory of the artistic profession.” A comment befitting of his alma mater, Michaelis School of Fine Art, Smith brings the corporeal back into the debate through his incorporation of traditional sculpture, woodcarving, casting, etching and painting. Still, his work in the plastic arts is not about reviving a spiritual, cathartic or emotional connection, but again about the associated nostalgia.

“I enjoy the fact that that perception is there for a lot of people – that people think it is now imbued with meaning because my hands made it. Personally, I don’t invest in the notion though. While I can respect skill, in terms of it giving more or less meaning to an art work, it doesn’t make a difference.”

Published in Art South Africa, September 2008

Jennifer Lovemore-Reed exhibition

Remnants, Relics and Reasons by Jennifer Lovemore-Reed forms the second part of her artistic dialogy. Last year, Lovemore-Reed presented the performance piece Bag-lady, Clown, Sycophant at the Erdmann Contemporary.

This performance is said to have been inspired by the immense fear that the artist felt regarding public performance and her decision that confronting this fear would overshadow all of her other frustrations. The follow-up exhibition sets out to document the entire creative process and performance.The exhibition comprises a massive mind-map of the work, all the props from the performance, a video interview with the artist before the performance, a video of the performance, a video interview with the artist after the performance and the half-dressed artist sitting on a pedestal with her mouth taped shut, the latter performance work titled Silent Artist. The props are personal relics such as clothes, artist materials, photos, memorabilia and toiletries from the artist’s past and encompass her relationship, creative life and daily routine.

Aside from three video pieces, shown simultaneously to create illuminating composites, the exhibition is deathly boring. But this is the point, according to Kathryn Smith who opened the exhibition: once analysed or highlighted, the artistic process is incredibly banal, including the artist’s daily medication, financial records and toenail clippings. Prepared to shatter the mirage of an artistic persona, the exhibition is, to use Smith’s word, “brave”.

In her opening talk, Smith went on to compare Lovemore-Reed’s exhibition to the legal case between MassMoCA and Swiss artist Christoph Buchel in which, after funding ran out and the artist withdrew from the project, a court ruled that the gallery could show the incomplete work. This seemingly tentative connection concluded with the question of what say the artist has in the final realisation of an artwork and the way creative suspense is stripped by secularising the artistic process.

However, for the artist, this is not a fictional exhibition. After all, it was inspired by real-world burning, not an intellectual construction. For the artist, there is meaning and intense emotions in every single object in Remnants, Relics and Reasons and tackling the fear of performance in the first exhibition would point to significant character growth. Indeed, the exhibition could be perceived as a voyeur’s curatorial delight or washing your knickers in public if it weren’t for the staid world-weariness of the artistic space. This is when Silent Artist, which seems incidental to the exhibition, highlights the invalidation with which one views art.

Art South Africa, 1 December 2007

Trasi Henen exhibition

The stark contexture of the paintings in Trasi Henen’s Delicate Life Pursuer belies the exhibition title. Life is squashed out of the paintings by her layered structural conglomerations. The exhibition continues the theme of “fractured and alienated suburban spaces”, raised in Henen’s previous exhibitions, Suburbia Fantastical (2003) and Passer By 2005). However, contrary to these exhibitions, which still allowed for mythical space and a human subject, there is complete anonymity and absolute alienation in these paintings. Only impossible spaces are even alluded to, but hidden by dense superstructures.

Clustering architectural forms into absurd intertwinings that deny mathematical or physical laws, Henen creates claustrophobic monuments that seem to crowd any fragile human subject out of the canvas. Walls, pillars, balustrades, windows, scaffolding, roofs, stairs, balconies, bricks and palisade seem to weave into each other rather than hinge off each other. Shadows, layered oil work and meticulous rectilinear brushwork create a tapestry of positive and negative space that frames two- and three-dimensional planes. The theatrical fourth wall is often accentuated by a slashed brushstroke, which seems to cut the canvas surface, the painting itself crawling out onto the gallery wall.Upside down houses that are right way up, wrecks that are castles, facades that have depth and mansions floating on a string – one gets lost trying to trace an escape from these edificial webs, like a nightmare of endless doors. It is as though MC Escher’s prints of the marching minions on the circular stairs were a balloon that has been deflated. Even Henen’s few human figures resemble these faceless marching droids.

The one clear human figure on this show appears in Qufhbnmk; an enlargement from a magazine photo, he is also defaced by a mask formed by architectural elements. Forming the back of the man’s head on the opposite side of the partition is another enlargement: a long mop of blonde hair – it clearly does not match up. However, along with a video work from one of her earlier exhibitions, these works are incongruous with the rest of the exhibition.Anecdotally, this is the first exhibition that Henen has created and exhibited in the Western Cape since relocating from Johannesburg earlier this year. The severe architectural claustrophobia of her paintings might be considered incongruent with the stereotypical perceptions of Cape Town’s airy geography. Indeed, Delicate Life Pursuer resists any anecdotal, social-political or contemporary reading, despite seeming to echo the suburban fear, anxiety and alienation so very topical in South Africa. Instead, without a view of the subject, the object of fear, alienation and hate is erased too. Rather than a subjective assertion of, “I am alienated from…” the works assert “I am alienated” – unlike the typical South African rhetoric that always includes an other.

Akin to Jean Baudrillard’s “violence of indifference”, the overarching universal has failed, creating disarmed, impotent singularities. It is not about South Africa at all. Instead, alienation is itself a stance activated by the very fragmentation and isolation constructed by her sometimes clinical, sometimes violent brushstrokes. There is no trace of sentimental longing towards the mythical elements of Henen’s earlier work.Of course, Baudrillard is dead and it’s about time that someone wrote a new requiem to modern day living. One mostly hopes that an artist will bring a new ring or a glimmer of hope. However, I fear that all Henen manages is to trap a body’s worth of the suburban alienation in each of her knitted buildings.

Published by Art South Africa, 1 December 2007

From Here to There exhibition

To stage a group exhibition on the premise that the artists all share the same geographic location is problematic. At best it might display a unified creative engagement with localised issues, at worst appear as a means of encouraging artists from an under-appreciated region. From Here to There, an exhibition of 15 KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) artists, curated by Nontobeko Ntombela and Storm Janse van Rensburg, treads a path safely between these two strands.

The exhibition’s press release states that KZN’s art scene is “often marginalised”, but the show does not intentionally explore possible reasons. The selected works also provide few clues. Of the trends manifest in these works none seem strikingly localised. Langa Magwa, Themba Shibase, Gabisile Nkosi, Clive Sithole, Vulindlela Nyoni and Zama Dunywa engage in issues of identity and heritage; Michael Croesser, Rike Sitas, Carla da Cruz, Vaughn Sadie, Peter Rippon and Lindsay Phillips display a quirky conceptual flavour. Other arrangements are possible. Bronwen Vaughan-Evans, Sitas, da Cruz, Nyoni and Phillips all use a multitude of smaller pieces to produce something bigger; Magwa, Shibase and Sithole are better viewed in conjunction with photographer Angela Buckland because of the abstract textural quality underpinning their work. And so on. Thing is, while it is possible to see affinities, the artists on show all possess their own autonomy. There is also no obvious visual aesthetic that binds them to their geographic location and it is limiting to place too much store in bogus categories. After all, Phillips, Vaughan-Evans, Magwa, Sitas, Shibase, Sithole, Da Cruz and Dunywa all use brown.

One artist whose work exhibits no bogus associations is Doung Anwar Jahangeer. In his video work City Walk, the artist walks along a pedestrian path next to a Durban highway pouring a luminous pink powder onto the ground along his route. The work exhibited a contemporary societal engagement that made it stand out from the rest.

Published by Art South Africa, 20 May 2007

Walter Battiss review

The Walter Battiss that lives in South Africa’s collective memory is an enchanting character. He was someone who supposedly proffered love and freedom, and art for fun – what ironically gives him the title of “anarchist” in his retrospective exhibition Gentle Anarchist.

A comprehensive retrospective, Gentle Anarchist included more than 160 oils, watercolours, screenprints, woodcuts, lithographs, sketches and tapestries, as well as a significant section of ephemera, including photos, letters and diaries, and artefacts from the fabled Fook Island activities. The work was not ranged chronologically, but rather by medium, making it difficult to trace any artistic phases. This curatorial strategy fairly reflected Battiss, an artist known for haphazardly jumping between media and styles and much of the work is undated.

The diaphanous quality of his watercolours redeems the medium. With a shimmering dreamlike quality, the landscapes, portraits and travel records are still vibrantly coloured and full of depth. The tapestries attempt to give mass to this watercolour dream. The oil paintings vary between lascivious impasto thickness, weaving strands of colour into a single stroke, and measured, smooth concrete abstract squiggles in earth tones. The screenprints are crisp, playing the negative space off the candy colours. And, not to forget, his intricate, absorbing ink drawings.

Battiss is always true to his medium, be it in the strong painterly feel of his oils, the diluted quality of the watercolours, or the hard edge of the graphic. In this he evokes a mysticism that offsets the plasticity of his medium. Even when depicting a naturalistic scene, it is the abstract nature of the medium that comes to the fore – a swimming pool in impasto oil alongside a desert in watercolour.

Some of his works do seem like studies in a style, such as the wildlife and still life pieces rendered in the heavy-handed vein of the time. Battiss has been called derivative and not entirely original. Technique-wise, however, one has to marvel at his precision, and volume-wise, at the prolific output. Ultimately, though, it is when he is seemingly playing or doodling that the fun hits you like a Fanta advert.

His visual language insists on being both abstract and witty. A tendency towards caricature and cartoon encapsulates much of his work, as for example his eight legged pets, naked bodies without torsos and then without legs, feathers cradling baby birds, multi-limbed eyes, many coloured naked bodies with rainbow coloured genitals, a flock of birds that is a tree, and even a particularly pert letter writer. However, even in his trademark squiggles, the abstraction is always humanized with a soft animism. His joyous personality creaks out of every image. A voracious sexual appetite is also evident in his large output of erotica.

Although the exhibition tried to cordon this off as a distinct section, his sexual imagination slips into far more than just the obvious ones. His images are not tempered, with great orgies crammed into the landscape of paper, but they remain naïve rather than dirty, explicating the 1970s ideal of free love without a drop of cynicism. Look to Are You a Bird Lover? as an example. It depicts lots of naked women and beaked bird heads. Battiss’s pen drawings do present an element of voyeurism and kink as one has to zone in closely to read the details.

It is interesting that Battiss apparently only discovered erotica late in his life, possibly by this time it was no longer hampered by a youthful bashfulness. Often he plays with these images distractedly, as though not related to sex at all, claiming at the time they were all about the beauty.

Underscoring the art, the large section of ephemera is significant in viewing an artist such as Battiss, whose eccentric personality precedes him. Battiss the myth lives in my own imagination from second-hand urban legends told by scholars at Pretoria Boys’ High about Battiss’s teaching stint there. In one of the first lessons, so the legend goes, he brought a branch into class and told the students they had to fill it with birds. The next day they made ketties (catapults) and shot the birds out of the tree. There were more such stories, lively counterpoints to the dry lessons on Battiss taught by my matric art history teacher. To recognise Battiss by the crazed but direct look in his eyes, even from age four, in the photos and delve into the artefacts from Fook Island, revived the fun around the mystery.

Clearly, Battiss worked from within Fook Island, a distinct but mirrored other world of which Adorno once spoke – that it makes great art. According to Norman Catherine, quoted in the well documented, lush catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Battiss created Fook Island “because he wanted everybody, children as well as people his own age, to enjoy the freedom to create art, especially at a time in South Africa when there was serious censorship”.

The Standard Bank Gallery was packed during my Wednesday mid-morning visit. A teacher was conducting a group of high-school students through the exhibition. Elsewhere, a couple had trailed off and were necking in the side gallery. A youth orchestra, tuning instruments in the upper gallery, added to the cacophony. Between the mothers drifting in to hear their performance, a handful of serious gallery goers picked their way through the splay of tog bags to view the artworks one-by-one. Was this the art-for-all that Battiss wanted out of Fook Island?

After a year of blockbuster retrospectives, including Dumile Feni, William Kentridge and David Goldblatt’s, exhibitions that generally seemed to repackage familiar artists and images that are often in the public eye, the Battiss retrospective felt truly worthy of the name. Battiss exhibitions are scarce and it seems that he has been living only in our imagination for the last few years. To remember him here was like taking a trip in a time capsule to another generation of art, a space that seemed oddly unfamiliar. Intriguing but isolated, as though Battiss had been, unfortunately, relegated to heritage.

Art South Africa, 1 March 2006

Senzeni Marasela exhibition

Senzeni Marasela’s Theodorah and Other Women is her first solo exhibition since her Fresh residency at the South African National Gallery in 2000. Her understated social bite continues to shine her move towards a personal negotiation of the public space in relation to herself. Discarding the medium of photographically manipulated images, Marasela now explores linoprint.

At first, the white line images on the black background appear to be a rather innocent form of representation. The images range from the absurdly comical to what appears to be archive-like documentation. However, on closer inspection, sinister evocations of gender, religion, public memory and dreams surface.The prints acknowledge the sublime dark space of the ink. The act of cutting away the lino to create the white lines allows symbols of understanding and light to shine through. However, the delicate, gestural lines makes them appear like momentary visions that may be lost again if the murk is stirred.

Untitled (13 Panels) uses 69 images to record the messages her mother, Theodorah, communicated to her while she was growing up. Marasela’s mother was a registered schizophrenic and her experience was relayed between presence and absence, continuity and miscommunication. The icons record pain and happiness in a mesh opened for the viewer’s own associative exploration.In the three-part Theodorah, Marasela inverts the black-white dialogue, using black to embody her mother and white lines to give her form. Her mother’s body is now the vague sublime. The blob-like shape of the black still points to her ambiguous presence. Dotted lines make her seem like a patchwork pull-together, while two strong vertical lines in all three prints slice her body into a triptych. Marasela’s mother has always refused to be photographed and she is depicted hiding her face.

The “other women” in the title refer to Marasela’s public experience and mothering by female icons. Sarah Baartman Remembered records the journey of the icon from her tribe, through Europe, and back to her memorial space in South Africa. The disarming four-part Summit Girls and Virgins emphasises the similarities between strippers in Hillbrow’s Summit club and participators of the reed dance. Maki recalls a news story Marasela saw in her youth about a 14-year-old girl who was necklaced after being suspected of being an informer.

Marasela’s prints display an acute examination of the power of the line. It is not a safe line that designates a separated position for things that don’t relate. Everything is connected — her mother’s presence and withdrawal are part of the same body, as is the public and the personal.

Published by Art South Africa, 1 December 2005

UNYAZI Electronic Music Symposium and Festival 2005

The Unyazi Electronic Music Symposium and Festival was a first for Johannesburg, South Africa and, indeed, Africa. Amidst the urban hum of money coiffeurs and the greying wrecks of buildings not yet given the Blue IQ touch-up, there was a grungy element to the artists who collected at Wits from across the world. Staying in the university residences, this was no luxurious developing world holiday, but rather a meeting of ears, bodies aside.

Heading up the intellectual community were the white-mopped elders, Halim El-Dabh and Pauline Oliveros. Cairo-born El-Dabh is billed as “the father of electronic music” on the African continent having created one of the first electronic works in 1944, predating the French musique concrete school by a number of years. While having worked with musicians across the genre spectrum, his primary concern is the preservation of indigenous African instruments.

Oliveros, the founder of Deep Listening, is regarded as an important pioneer in American music. Her career spans more than four decades and ranges from collaborations with Argentinean metal group Reynols to New Yorkers DJ Spooky and Carl Hancock Rux. Oliveros displayed her expanded instrument system, a sound-processing programme she has been developing since the 1950s. Originally a bunch of hardware and tape-based delay systems, she can now fit it all neatly into her Apple laptop. Using this electronic instrument, she improvises live manipulations of fed sounds. She spoke openly and warmly during her workshops, inviting questions and play.

Contrasting Oliveros’s move to laptops, El-Dabh stuck to his roots. Initially he joined Pops Mohammed on African instruments and then took position behind his sine wave generator for the rest of the performance. With his flame of white hair set off by the sheer coloured backdrop of the stage and his veritable presence, there was a profound reverence in the air, despite the terrible trapeze artists who performed to his electronic drama Leiyla and the Poet (1959).

While their reputation and engaging attitude added veneration to their presence, the work of some of El-Dabh and Oliveros’s younger colleagues was more interesting. Yannis Kyriakides interviewed a number of people and drew his samples from the breaths in between the subjects’ words. The ultimate sound works were an abstract portrait of the people, intriguing for maintaining a sense of the subject’s personality. Brendan Bussy’s mandolin improvisations were commendable for their sheer beauty in the festival’s otherwise often ear-grating musical landscape. Warrick Sony’s layered lattices were the only examples of turntablism at the festival — a severe oversight. Zim Ngqwana offered an inspired integration of jazz, atmospheric sounds and electronic lagging, while George Lewis’s collaboration with El-Dabh left El-Dabh upstaged.

Lewis, who literally pulls his trombone to pieces while playing, also performed with free jazz drummer, Louis Moholo. A member of Chris McGregor’s pioneering ensemble, Brotherhood of Breath, Moholo sparred (more than interacted) with Lewis and his computer-driven, interactive virtual piano. The latter instrument was a key part of the performance, set to respond to the musicians by playing the same, something completely opposite or its own thing. The effect is remarkably authentic. For the duration of the performance I was under the impression that it was a piano backing track. Only afterwards did I learn about the digital ingenuity of the situation.

This “black box” quality of the computer as musical instrument did erase the thrilling monumental presence of performance. After all, watching a guy crouched over a laptop is not riveting. While this is understandable in that one wants to focus on the sound, it gave the venues a lack of focus. People such as Lewis, Moholo, Ngqwana, Mohammed and Bussy offered a more engaging performance due to the physicality of their instruments. Matthew Ostrowski tried to bring a physical presence to his computer by using an electronic glove that creates sound through its movements. However, the magnitude of the Wits Theatre space overwhelmed the slight twitches of the glove.

People such as Johannesburg-based electronic composers Chris Wood and Dimitri Voudouris, as well as Rodrigo Sigal, Kyriakides and Jürgen Bräuninger tried to compensate by supplementing the music with digital visuals. While Sigal and Wood’s visuals were both interesting, they at times snowed under the music. Bräuninger was praiseworthy, displaying a cartoon-like visual score for the music, which acted like visual hooks but never overwhelmed. It seems discordant that the creation of electronic music on computers has become very visual, but that the presentation has withdrawn into a non-entity. Oliveros, for instance, draws a shape on her screen between the speakers to create the output. Bussy’s CMYK is a colour spectrum within which he drags his mouse. However, this is only accessible to the artist.

Possibly, an alternative mode of dissemination for this type of music is required, rather than setting up the expectations of a formal concert. Nonetheless, the intellectual aural community that crawled out of the Johannesburg suburbs were not left unsatisfied due to the indulgence of the event.

Art South Africa, 01 December 2005