Interview with Marcus Neustetter of The Trinity Session, South Africa - nathaniel stern

Posted by nathaniel stern | Fri Feb 28th 2003 12:25 p.m.

Interview with Marcus Neustetter of The Trinity Session, South Africa
by nathaniel stern

The Trinity Session is a Johannesburg-based creative collective whose work
ranges from curating and exhibiting art, to community development and
empowerment projects, and the networking of South African artists with each
other and the international new media art community at large. I spoke with
Marcus Neustetter recently about the what, why and how of their doings...

NS: Marcus, tell us a bit about why you, Stephen Hobbs & Kathryn Smith
formed The Trinity Session.

MN: The first incarnation of The Trinity Session was actually Stephen Hobbs,
Kathryn Smith and Jose Ferreira, instead of myself. It was formed because,
at the time, a lot of arts institutions, organizations, galleries and
facilities in South Africa were closing their doors due to lack of funding
on a governmental level, leaving artists without money or platforms to
exhibit their work. The Trinity was born out of the need to organize art
and artists in South Africa - to keep the community thriving despite this
situation. At the same time, I was developing SANMAN - the Southern African
New Media Art Network - a program to facilitate a network of artists working
in the digital realm. When Jose left the country, we teamed our forces, and
I became a permanent member.

NS: Was that when The Trinity Session began moving more in the direction of
New Media?

MN: Prior to my involvement, there was interest moving in that direction -
Kathryn, Stephen and Jose were all doing some work in video - but, yes, my
contribution was to shift into more electronic and digital media endeavors.
Stephen had been running the Market Theatre Galleries, in the downtown
Newtown Cultural Precinct, for six years, his art focusing mostly on urban
issues; Kathryn was doing a lot of writing and research on the body and
technology, using photography and video; and my interests were primarily in
digital media and The Trinity's work has become more focused on
Digital Media in the past 2 years.

NS: You are, all three, artists, facilitators/networkers, and working in
public interest / community development. How do you manage to keep working
in all these areas?

MN: We're operating as a Creative Collective. We're often invited to
international festivals and exhibitions as a group, not individual artists.
With that power, we see our roles as facilitators and artists as
intertwined, and community development is a function of that. We both
curate emerging and contemporary artists at our gallery, The | Premises,
which is located at the Johannesburg Civic Center in Braamfontein, and
invite local artists and/or bring their work with us to whatever events we
can outside of the country. We're also very interested in the relationships
between business, art and technology. How can you mobilize the art world by
looking at business structures and technological developments? Part of our
public interest work is to try to create and sustain partnerships that can
catalyze more creative developments here.

NS: Is that where most of your funding is coming from, then? Business

MN: Up until only six months ago, we were still looking for, and working on,
paid creative projects to survive. Each of us, at any given time, was
working on various projects on the side in order to make ends meet. Since
then, the research that has always interested us has begun to pay off. For
example, the International Labor Organization (ILO) recently approached us
to research the Visual Arts and Crafts industries in the SADC region
(Southern African Development Community). This was a well-funded project in
development. Through our curatorial, organizational and management skills,
in relation to the arts, we're finding more work in the public interest, and
would like to continue in this direction.

NS: You recently got back from the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, as the
first South African representatives there. Tell me a bit about your
project. What were your goals, both as a Creative Collective, and
socio-politically from a South African perspective?

MN: The theme of the Festival was unplugged, and The Trinity was part of two
projects there. First off, we were the South African facilitators for the
RADIOTOPIA project, which you can read about on the Ars Electronica site at - it was basically a global sound exchange
project; we contributed our sounds to the project in Linz, and held a local
DJ event in Johannesburg. The most interesting part of that process for us
was organizing ways to get clips from all over SA - using everything from
cheap tape recorders in the townships (the one we are using for this
interview, in fact, recorded sounds of schoolchildren in Alexandra), to
emailing .wav files from those musicians with access.

Our other project - the more interesting presentation for me - was SEARCH,
an ongoing research / art project which works towards, and archives, the
process of developing an "art network neighborhood," by setting up further
projects that pull networks together. We invited (and funded, thanks to
Ars) seven South African Digital Media "activists" - artists and people
working in the industry - to come with us to Linz. The relationships they
made with each other and at the festival because of SEARCH resulted in
several collaborations, and are still ongoing. We basically sat down for
five days and networked! The nine of us (Stephen and I went as
facilitators) talked about structures, concepts and ideas, as well as
politics, social forums and pop culture. Maria McCloy and Zubz (Ndabaningi
Mabuye) from both came back and set up several "networking
parties," as a side project and, I'd like to think (grins), continuation of
what we had started in Linz.

NS: Were you well received at Ars Electronica?

MN: The most interesting part of the whole process was the personal
interaction with Festival go-ers. They were very keen to hear about where
we come from and what it means to be in a third world country with x amount
of resources. On the flipside, we brought a few artists who had never even
left the country before; the setting at Ars Electronica was a real
eye-opener for them, and our whole party. It was a learning curve on both
sides. To get back to your question, being well received really depended on
where we were in our discussion at any given time. I see the project as
very successful with its goals. It was both an interesting art
presentation, and a space that catalyzed, through collaboration and
networking, further development in South Africa. We're still seeing the
effects of that now.

NS: From your experience, what's different about how people are exposed to
new media here in South Africa, as opposed to Europeans and Americans?

MN: Right now, most galleries in South Africa do not have the facilities to
house Digital Art. If they say they have a "New Media Room," they mean they
have a VCR and a projector or TV. It's very seldom to have a dedicated
machine or networked gallery. The infrastructure just isn't there. So
obviously, that impacts how and what the public sees. These institutions
educate them.

NS: Do you see things like Telkom's DSL initiative [Telkom is the
telecommunications monopoly in South Africa] and Wits' new MA program in
Digital Media [University of the Witwatersrand, see] changing anything in SA?

MN: Telkom had a different initiative, as early as 2000, to connect SA
schools to the web; there are Wits and a new undergraduate initiative at UCT
[University of Cape Town]; several technikons, such as Vega and The Branding
School, are beginning to explore New Media Art and its blurred lines with
Design; there's the New Channels New Media Competition and the Design Indaba
- which invites foreign artists to show their work here. These things are
exposing possibilities to young artists all over the country. The problem
is that they are often one-offs, as opposed to sustainable projects that
continue to grow. Expertise is always lacking - who will teach web skills
to the students at the schools that Telkom is connecting? Who is lecturing
at UCT and Wits, and for how long? How do we accomplish knowledge transfer
when there are so few skilled artists working in the media here? When we
find willing/skilled teachers, how do we structure a program to put it in
both a South African and global context? If we manage such a feat, how do
we keep this knowledge in the country to disseminate it further?

This last question is one of the major problems we are having at The Trinity
Session. We're being asked to participate in a lot of international
projects as of late, and we have to be sure to balance these with our South
African goals. A lot of national artists have been recognized
internationally in the past decade, and some lose site of their home
country. The Trinity is focused on creating a bridge with the international
community while still basing our development projects locally.

NS: Talk about one of these projects - the Joubert Park Project, for
example. This park is just in front of the Johannesburg Art Gallery and was
considered, for a long time, a very dangerous place to hang out. There's
now an initiative to revamp the downtown area in interesting ways, starting
here. Tell us about The Trinity's involvement.

MN: Good example. The Creative Inner-City Initiative (CICI), in downtown
Johannesburg, focuses on training people in commercial applications of the
Visual and Performing Arts, and Crafts. It's specifically geared towards
poverty alleviation and empowerment. Our consortium, with the Joubert Park
Public Art Project, focuses on the Visual Arts. For example, one of our
workshops teaches traditional painting and drawing, then shows how to turn
that into a profitable skill, like sign making. There are a lot of places
in downtown Jo-burg that have beautiful, hand-painted signs, so this is a
real world commercial application of skills, where people can start to use
their creativity to make money.

NS: Is SANMAN involved in this project as well? Are you working with New
Media in these workshops?

MN: It is one of our objectives to move towards that, but this project,
funded by the Department of Arts and Culture, is more focused on skills that
do not require huge resources for the trainees. There is a video course
taught at the same time, by Movement 76, where people can do some hands-on
training and enter the industry. We
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