Near-Digital SA: Interventionist Influence (an e-interview with Carine Zaayman) -- nathaniel stern

Posted by nathaniel stern | Thu Feb 12th 2004 3:35 a.m.

Near-Digital SA: Interventionist Influence
(an e-interview with Carine Zaayman)

nathaniel stern

My arrival in, and move to, South Africa was marked by a meeting with Marcus
Neustetter of The Trinity Session (see later Rhizome interview -
http://rhizome.org/thread.rhiz?threadv30&text643 ). At the time, he
was curating a show called 'online | offline,' an attempt to "display
digital works on and off the screen in order to illustrate the relationship
of more traditional art-making processes with contemporary creative uses of
new technology."

I was most interested not only in his exhibition of work, but also in his
creation of a space where South African viewers were asked to challenge
their notions of 'how to look at' art. In a place where access to
technology and the comfort level around it is still fairly limited, we now
have artist-curators using new media and new media influenced strategies to
provoke explorations of identity, translocality, globalization, historicity,
public dialogue, and art in general.

This month, ArtThrob ( http://www.artthrob.co.za/ ) - a webzine dedicated
to contemporary art in South Africa - formally announced their newly
appointed new media editor, Carine Zaayman. The site was founded by SA
artist Sue Williamson in 1997, and has been growing with contributors and
recognition ever since. Sean O'Toole, who took over as editor-in-chief in
2002, is working towards more diverse coverage, using the existing ArtThrob
template. His hope is that Carine will "facilitate debate and steer
critical thought on new media in South Africa."

Carine and I emailed about the state of digital art in South Africa (SA).

NS: I think of this inclusion as a signifier of potentially big changes in
the art scene in SA. First, we saw the biggest art awards here (the Brett
Kebble Art Awards - BKAA @ http://www.bkaa.co.za/ ) start its new media
category; now, we have one of the biggest/best publications creating a job
around the coverage of new media. What are your thoughts?

CZ: I think you are right. There seems to be some major shifts under way.
This is evident in the move towards less object-based art, more non-gallery
art etc., a strong sense of events-as-art (ala YDEsire -
http://spo0ky.net/ydesire/ydesire.html ), audio art and so on. I would like
to see new media as part of this move, as being not so much only a set of
"media," but that its relatively recent rise in the art world suggests an
"opening up" of our notions of the kinds of roles that art can play. Here I
am thinking of more socio-culturally-engaged art. Some of the work The
Trinity Session ( http://onair.co.za/thetrinitysession/ ) has done, in which
new media plays a role, is an example. What is at issue is the fact that new
media gives us alternative avenues of presentation, i.e. the web and other
technological public spaces.

But this is why I am not really happy with the glib positioning of new media
as another "category" in competitions such as the BKAA. Having the category
does not mean that the medium is really recognised. With painting and the
like, having objects/images made by one person and exhibiting those in a
specific location is not uncommon. The dissemination of information and
discussion around these objects is also relatively well established. The
problem with new media is that it does not fit into the category of
object/exhibition easily, and though some works might, new media as such is
much more fluid, and competitions cannot really provide adequate space for
the collaborative and ephemeral aspects of new media.

I also believe that once you say that there might be big changes under way
in the SA art scene, you also have to accept that the people working at
these changes will be young "trailblazers". The new media scene is very much
a nascent one. I remember that when I was studying most of the more
established artists around saw the web as simply a new means of promoting
their "real" work. I also remember the furore in some circles when Kathryn
Smith won the new signatures competition with a video work. Seeing that
video art is hardly really new media, I think we have come a long way, but
this has not happened because the establishment changed their collective
mind. No, it is through the consistent work of the younger generation in the
utilising of new media, and pushing the notions of collective art making,
the importance of curators, creating alternative spaces for work and so on
that the potential of new media is starting to become realised here.

My "vision" for my contribution to ArtThrob includes creating awareness of
the ways in which new media is reshaping our sense of artistic practice, and
our understanding of the notion of locale globally. I want to focus on the
ability of new media to enable exchange and public forums. An angle that I
try to take is to give a short analysis of the contents of certain projects,
and place them in contexts that address issues within new media discussion.
In other words, if new media is able to facilitate dialogue between any
number of people dispersed around the globe, where is the work that shows us
how this is done? Then, I try to draw a relation to a South African example
as well, to give voice to those kinds of projects that can easily be
overlooked by the established channels of dissemination. Hopefully, artists
can then embark on such projects more confidently in the knowledge that
there is an audience, and some reflection on their work, and they do not
need to compromise.

NS: Who are some of the predominant SA artists working in new media? What
about collectives, institutions or schools working with/in new media?

As I said above, these are young ones. Internationally established artist,
Minnette Vari, works in video, and it is evident that she works with the
technology of video to some extent....

The point for me is not so much artists working only in new media, but
artists who employ the potential of new media for public and social
engagement in their practice. From this perspective I think that the work of
The Trinity Session and Marcus Neustetter are examples. Your own
contribution is already felt. Abrie Fourie's new space in Pretoria (Outlet)
is not exclusively for new media, but he is willing to assist artists who
use technology. His own practice also includes some new media work. Matthew
Hindley, who has worked with new media related things for a while, was
recently awarded the Cape Town public sculpture commission. For this
sculpture he proposes to have microphones placed in strategic places around
Government Avenue. These microphones will then pick up pieces of
conversation and send the information of these sounds to the LED screen on
the front of the National Gallery where they will be displayed.

I also think that projects are starting to be shaped around new media.
'52weeks52works' is a great example of this. Organised by James Webb and
Thomas Cartwright, this project involves artists making one work every week
- not necessarily new media - in a public space and sending in the
documentation, which is then published on the [pending] website. Again, it
is clearly not a "let's - get - together - and - see - what - flashy -
digital - stuff - we - can - make" exercise.

A crucial point here is that we are not only talking about artists making
work when we want to understand the impact of new media. Many musicians,
curators, designers etc. are also becoming agents in the new media field.
The conference held at WITS in 2000, entitled "Urban Futures", made this
very clear, especially in the curatorial contributions of James Sey and
Kathryn Smith, and Rory Bester.

The kind of work done by Andries Odendaal from Wireframe studios in Cape
Town ( http://www.wireframe.co.za/ ) can also not be overlooked. Odendaal
is a designer/programmer who has received many accolades for his work in
flash, but at the same time he has also helped to establish the freefall
network in Cape Town ( http://freefall.za.net/ ), which is an informal group
of artists / designers / musos / teachers, that work digitally and in new
media, who meet and exchange ideas etc.

Then, of course, there are a number of other art fields also using new
media, especially theatre. I am not an expert in these as such, but I can
mention the work of Mark Fleishman and Magnet Theatre (
http://www.magnettheatre.co.za/ ). My point is that because new media is a
physical reality in many people's lives, it cannot be considered only as the
domain of art. This forces artists to be more open to public dynamics, other
art forms and the challenges these put to their practices.

A (very) recent new media highlight for me was James Webb and James Sey's
radio broadcast 'A Compendium of Imaginary Wavelengths' (2 February 2004
Bush Radio). This was a half-hour radio piece, with audio (sounds,
interviews etc.) mixed live on Webb's laptop during the broadcast. Webb and
Sey "invented" an imaginary author, and provided a kind of "sound-scape"
synopsis of 15 of this author's books. Quite a bit of the audio was created
digitally, and obviously everything captured digitally.

All of the major art departments in the country have recently shifted some
of their focus onto new media. Sections in art schools that attempt to teach
new media as a stream, just like painting or sculpture, have sprung up in
the last three years or so.... The shift from using the computer as a tool
for design to a medium/space for art-making, is an enormous signifier of
things to come. This shift is not easy, and many new media teachers find
themselves coming up against age-old systems and prejudices. As a teacher, I
am often astounded at the inability of some very good, long-standing
professors to understand the nature of new media. When one is dealing with
students who are not consummate practitioners, this becomes an issue. Still,
it is the role of the teachers and the students to change the situation and
create an audience for themselves. This will happen. The creation of
postgraduate degrees in new media is a good step towards it. The Institute
for Film and New Media or IFNM (where I work) at UCT (
http://www.ifnm.uct.ac.za/ ), and the WITS School of Arts MA programmes in
digital art ( http://www.wits.ac.za/artworks/postgrad/digimedia.htm ) are
the primary movers in this regard.

Perhaps it is important to say at this point that I am emphasising 'the
positive' by pointing out all that is being done. I believe that this is a
more productive position than lamenting the small size and minute history of
new media art in South Africa. It has not been going on for very long, and
it is still small and humble. But things are changing, as I hope I have
indicated.

NS: What are you hoping to see more of in the new media art scene here?

CZ: I think more of the kinds of things I have mentioned above. Obviously
there are other kinds of work being done in the field, but I have chosen to
highlight the ones I think are most pertinent or interesting. Aside from
that, I would just like to see the reception of new media work change. I
would like to see more variety - thus not only websites or video, but some
more of the kinds of things that happen at places like ITP (Interactive
Telecommunications Program - http://itp.nyu.edu/ ). I would like to see
artists utilising public space and addressing political issues more
directly. I'd also like to see more serious theoretical writing on new media
that is actually in touch with what is happening on the ground, rather than
carrying on about virtual realities and space-time continuums in a hackneyed
fashion.

NS: How are you seeing new media influence the more traditional art scene
here?

CZ: ... just as digital technology has become indispensable in our daily
lives, so it has become indispensable for many artists who do not consider
themselves new media artists. In this way, digital technology makes many
things easier for artists working in a more traditional mode....

What I think is more important though, is the fact that a general shift (as
you suggested earlier) is taking place across disciplines. New media is one
player in this shift; it vastly contributes to the direction and
developments. This is, perhaps, more where I would like to locate the
influence, as it is far more radical and positive.

NS: What are some current goings-on that may shift the art scene in
different directions in the near future?

CZ: New media in South Africa is very young and still under-developed, and
the projects that I have listed here signify some great strides that have
been taken to establish viable channels of production, discussion and
recognition. These developments will continue, I believe. From The Trinity
Session to the IFNM, we have a stage set now. I think the coming five years
will probably see youngsters taking over more of the field.

NS: What are some projects you, yourself, are working on now?

I am currently trying to raise funding for a collaborative project between
artists in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The project will focus on finding
ways of translating the private lived experience of their cities into
digital material. I see this project as involving an online exchange between
artists, public interventions, and a catalogue of some sort.

There are two aspects here: the one is to investigate the specificities of
the different cities, the second is the notion that one's life in, and in
connection with, the city is impossible to fully communicate to anyone else.
The metaphor of encoding and translating is crucial. I am also taking part
in the 52weeks project, and making a couple of pieces here and there for
other venues.

I am writing a number of articles about artists working with digital media
in South Africa for academic journals, and a chapter on the ways in which
digital media is shaping sub-cultural expression. Then, I see my teaching as
a project as well. As a new media lecturer at Michaelis and the IFNM, I
think that stimulating discussion and production of work in the field is
essential. Also involved here is developing the role of new media within an
institutional context. This means articulating some of the inherent concerns
and possible directions of new media as an artistic practice, and setting up
links with other departments such as computer science, music, drama,
education, African studies and the school of languages.

Look for more from Carine at http://www.artthrob.co.za/
http://nathanielstern.com
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