Chapter 1: ‘What am I doing here?’

Edited transcriptions of discussions and conversations which took place during the Very Real Time 3 residency (Cape Town, March-April 2012).

Discussion at Zink, April 18, 2012

Gregg Smith
Thank you for coming here tonight, to talk about the past month of the Very Real Time residency, what’s worked and hasn’t worked, how the time has been experienced for the visitors and how its been experienced for those here that have been involved.

Its an interesting time right now because it seems in general that arts funding is getting increasingly tighter and more controlled, and the opportunities to do things like this are getting more scarce. In terms of funding criteria this creates more accountability which can be awkward to deal with, but in terms of the times we live in I think its also valuable to think very carefully about what the real value of a project is, how it can benefit this place in the best way.

I’ve been away from Cape Town for quite a while and so every time I return, I’m aware of the changes. The way that I used to experience the city (which formed the initial motivations for VRT, 10 years ago) is different now. The cultural scene in Cape Town has also shifted and reorganized itself, perhaps there are more separate scenes now, people have taken up positions and there are less overlaps than before. Then there is also the fact that my friends have grown older and are more inclined to be busy in the evenings. But in general I think people are less available than in the past because of the scary economic situation and the cost of living.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that the group of us assembled here tonight is a fragment of the larger city, speaking from a personal point of view. It also seems to me that we have reached a stage where we no longer feel obliged to speak in an all inclusive way which takes into account the separations, but rather feels comfortable to speak about what is specific to our situation, feeling good about this particular position and trying to make the most of it.

Perhaps to begin with, it would be interesting to have one or two accounts from some of the visiting artists on their experiences here.

Kianoosh Motallebi
All the time while I’ve been here, I’ve been thinking a lot about the experience of difference and this so called different place and what makes it actually different. Because you can go to all sorts of different places and they’ll all be ‘different’, so when everything is different nothing is different because you just experience difference from your own brain. I mean, you’re relating to it from your own projects; I’m interested in certain things, you are interested in certain things and this applies to everyone, we all experience things in our own particular way. So being in a strange new location is really not that different in the end, because you are the constant within that.

So a lot of this past month, I’ve been asking myself, like, ‘What am I doing here?’ I have nothing to do but go around and think. Why should I produce here?  You could put me anywhere, on Kilimanjaro or in a tent in the desert and I would have an experience, something that made me think ‘Wow!’ but that doesn’t constitute and idea or a project, so I have been troubling over this. Going around the countryside looking at things like a tourist, its interesting but what the hell does one do with it?

I guess in my normal daily activities at home, a lot of the time I’m just concerning myself with the technical problems of doing a project. I mean normally that’s a large part of how I spend my time, with the light bulb piece for example, its just trying to figure things out and trial and error. And I can spend up to two years getting that right. The light bulb I made 3 times in the end, and each time it was different.

Julia Rosa Clark
But don’t you think it would be interesting for example to try and make the light bulb here? It’s probably a completely different working process and network of technical people, but the experience might be quite interesting. There are all these workshops and studios set up around the film industry. My Dad (John Nankin), would probably be able to help you…

Kianoosh Motallebi
Yeah, of course it would be interesting to do that here, and making the light bulb in Switzerland would also be very different, it would happen in two seconds probably…call someone up and they would have one ready. Here it would be more complex, maybe it would be faster.

But I’m just highly skeptical of this thing of ‘experiencing difference’, because it also gets into this whole mess of the way politics deals with it as well, and culture, to experience ‘diversity.’ For me these things are really interlinked certainly because these residencies are often brought about by western countries wanting to explore the rest of the world. And I’m not saying this from a moralistic point of view. But how do you observe this difference and say something interesting about it without just sucking it dry and putting it back into your work?

Gregg Smith
What’s interesting about you is that you problematize things all the time and articulate them very well which allows one to reflect quite carefully on how one is spending one’s time and reacting to things. Despite what you just said, you also seem to try to get out of your own head a lot and see things from other’s points of view. And for that reason perhaps your rhythm is quite slow and you make one work a year rather than one work every two weeks. This is a very important part of this residency, first of all the attempt to find an alternative to the automatic reproduction of one’s practice in every new place that one arrives in, but also the possibility of finding confidence in people around one regarding what one is going through as an artist; for me growth has always been linked to moments like these: there is research, working, making mistakes but there is also spending time with other people who give a sense of common ground and relevance to ideas which one has otherwise arrived at intuitively and in isolation.

Leonid, maybe you can tell us how it’s been from your point of view?

Leonid Tsvetkov
When you come to a place like this and there are all these social issues which are blatantly obvious and its also a very new and young society, you feel pressured to engage in some sort of social aspect or make work about the social aspect. For me it was a long time ago but I separated from this in my work and it was a strong break. Dealing with societal involvement for me was very much from a bird’s eye point of view, it was far removed. I made environments for things to happen and for people to engage in but I don’t engage the people, I just make the place. And here I felt this need to engage with people and at this point of development in my practice it’s a good thing to do.  To came back into a society, out of the studio, through my practice.  I was forced to think about it more and more.  Through one kind of experience with a specific person followed by experiences with others.  That is how project with Claire came about, through a developed friendship, and the other project addressing an unknown population.

I think Kianoosh was saying that he has an ongoing process, and he doesn’t respond to the environment in the same way.   His process is constant and it is directed from one source.  For me I think it is the same as for Kianoosh: from the aspect of being involved in an internal research based practice…  But as with anyone, wherever you go to, after a while you will respond to the environment and you will start to put it into your practice in varying degree.  The situation affects your practice and after a certain time of being in a place you become a part of it.  If for example the social context is such a big issue, it forces itself into your work, into your practice, because you are responding to your environment through your work. I mean, you form ideas, you do little things and you connect things together wherever you go and whatever you do. It is a reflection, something which we cannot avoid, no matter if it is very conscious or if it is something that creeps up in the background on a subconscious level.

It’s also really strange to have such an experience. We ended up spending a lot of time together and getting to know each other better and we are all very different.

Gregg Smith
Last night you were also talking about how the dynamics between you as a group, and the way you start to affect and influence each other, begins to change your way of seeing things when you’re suspended from your mundane life.

Leonid Tsvetkov
Yes, in that way, the time spent becomes life changing. It is the experiences I have; they can be life changing through the people I meet. These connections I make with people here, engaging with the city and engaging with nature, thinking about how important one or the other is for me. Maybe it is something that pushes me over an edge that will make me set a decision for a new path.

Julia Rosa Clark
I think chance also plays a strong role in how things unfold. I mean look at who is here tonight, it could have been so many other people and it would have been a completely different conversation.  I often find particularly with artists’ residencies that chance is a very important factor. Because in your normal daily life, of course there is chance everywhere in every moment of your life, but you have certain guarantees and habits when you are at home. When you are away from home in some strange place, chance and accidents or small details or switches in the current agenda, start to play a much more influential role in your time there. And I think these chance events are also much more able to happen in these situations because you are much more open and available than you would be at home. I mean, I’ve had the most amazing conversations with people that I’ve only spent a few hours with, in a small town in Egypt for example, but that will really stay with me as very significant moment.

Kianoosh Motallebi
This discussion about chance came up last night as well, and Milena was also talking about how chance influenced the development of her project. But I find it funny that you’re talking about chance and chance encounters. For chance you need to have a really sterile environment where chance can happen. If you want chance, you better make sure that there are very few other influences. There’s a huge problem in making random number generators which is a big deal in Science, for example. If someone can invent a random number generator they will probably win a Nobel Prize, its really hard to have something that’s purely chance.

I mean you come here and you do things in a particular way and you meet interesting people, for example Ludwig happens to have family there in Sutherland, and the South African large telescope is there, but obviously I would have never wanted to go there if I wasn’t me. But the funny thing about coming to this kind of exotic setting is that it really makes me think about how much of the place is really influencing me, because I think its very little in fact, from my perspective, its almost nil, because I’m really interested in certain things and hang out with certain people and with other people it doesn’t click. That’s not because of the situation, I think a lot of that is just me and what I’m used to. I guess the whole experience of being here from quite early on has made me think about where do one’s ideas come from? Are they coming from here, or does it even make sense to do a project here? Because, you know, its basically continuing a project I would have done elsewhere perhaps as well. I think its relevant because all these residencies are – similar but not quite the same things as Very Real Time – are happening elsewhere as well and they’re often set in places you would never think of. And you have this idea that you would do something with that context, and that feeds something into the context and the context feeds something into your work, just by virtue of its being different.

Claire Harvey
Julia, was talking about like having meaningful conversations when you know you’ve got limited period of time with these people. For me, a lot of the more meaningful conversations that I’ve had back in Amsterdam in the last few years have been on Skype. When you have this frame of, even though you have a good friend in the studio next door you always think, ‘oh, there’s going to be time for to talk to them later on…’ you know, and everyone’s busy with everyday stuff and rushing around, but then there’s these weird intense Skype chats with friends who are far away. It’s kind of in this frame.  It’s also handy because you can pretend, if the conversation is getting boring, that there’s a bad connection, you can just freeze, stop moving… and then turn it off. Make sure there’s nothing moving in the background that will, uh, ruin the illusion!

There are a lot of strange different zones here that you kind of enter. I mean you get that in many cities, there’s different kinds of contrasts, which give some kind of picture of truth, and there’s always going to be a rich/poor thing but here it’s just so strongly intermingled. These differences, which you know and you read about before you came, but the physical experience of walking through and experiencing it… I know I’ve only experienced the surface of it and maybe that’s all I will. But there’s something that’s just really present here, so that’s what also maybe made me think a lot about different kind of zones within a space.

Gregg Smith
There was moment where I thought this was quite interesting to observe the more metaphysical aspect of the ideas you have all been pursuing, rather than making overtly ‘public art’ projects. And what this said about being an artist today and also what it said about the city and trying to do the Very Real Time here again. I agreed to your trip to Sutherland, even though it seemed like a strange tangent to your engagements with Cape Town. And then the reason for going there fell flat as it turned out that it was a full moon and so none of the stars were very visible during the nights that you were there, and eventually it seems like the more interesting part of the trip was the culture shock of staying with Ludwig’s family and all that that entailed – being completely removed from regular urban society, other political viewpoints, the gun culture and the relationship with nature out there…

Then at a certain point when you all went off on the Pringle Bay trip I started to get a bit stressed out that you were spending too much time together and that this was a way a dealing with an insecurity, and that this was also starting to get quite boring and irritating for you. It was around then that we had the meeting at Café Neo and I said, hey, do me a favour, start calling the people who have given you their phone numbers and arrange to meet up. Normally that happens in a much more natural way in the residency, but this time less so. But it was interesting because I think then there was a shift. We started to be able to have more distance on the way one is experiencing things and behaving during this month, and articulating that, not as a good or bad thing, but trying to understand the conditions which had been shaping the time till then, both in terms of Cape Town and in terms of the international art scene.

Claire Harvey
I guess everyone comes here with their computers and Internet stuff and continues trying to deal with stuff back home, and as a result not being properly here. So in the first week you’re still kind of dealing with stuff back home and it was strange being in two different sorts of time zones at the same time. It was only like after that first week that I kind of just ignored the computer and caught up with myself here and started to experience things in a more present way without always being somewhere else. So yeah, at the beginning Amsterdam or the place that you’ve come from is very much present, in the forefront of your mind, and then through the time of being here, over the month it just got smaller and smaller and smaller. And so, this place which at the beginning seemed quite abstract suddenly has come into focus in different ways.

Trasi Henen
Can I ask, how did you select the people for this residency?

Gregg Smith
The main criterion was that they were nice people, sensitive and comfortable to engage with others without jumping to conclusions. I think that’s quite important, especially in a place as socially and psychologically complex as here. I had not seen all of the artists’ work in much detail. Milena I met in Spain on an exhibition there, and Claire I have vaguely known for 7 or 8 years, but we did a project with some other common friends in Amsterdam last year where we got to know each other better. Kianoosh and Leonid I talked to on the phone and by Skype and I just enjoyed our conversations.

One has to try and consider the group dynamics in social situations when inviting people from abroad, how to make that group of ‘foreigners’ permeable, bearing in mind that people are quite impressionable here, slightly intimidated by artists coming from the ‘centre’, who have done the Rijksakademie for example, and might have an international career going on, moving around a lot. From the isolated viewpoint down here this can seem larger than life.

Ray du Toit
And they have all been very nice people to spend time with over the years. But I disagree that we are overly impressed, I think that time is over now. It might have been true a few years ago, now I just have a thirst to meet other people who are artists who are doing interesting things from elsewhere and be able to talk. I remember when I met Leonid at the Kimberley Hotel and in no time at all we were talking about camera obscuras. Maybe because I’d just made one in my apartment, but I had no idea that he was into that as well and I would probably never have talked about that to one of my friends here.

Julia Rosa Clark
One of the first things you told me that night was about your camera obscura! (laughs)

Trasi Henen
But its interesting to me, this kind of model, because when Jonathan (Garnham) told me that you were looking for people to host artists from overseas for a month my gut reaction was, ‘No!’ This is because I was recently involved in a project where I had to host visiting artists who were doing projects here and it was a very uncomfortable experience, I felt like I was a resource for them to carry out their projects and access other people and information, so that as quickly as possible they could assimilate what they thought was going on around them, and make a work an important work out of it which would help them with their international careers. When Jonathan called me, my housemate, Francis Burger was about to go up to Johannesburg and so I had a spare room but I decided not to give it up. Then when I came to the ‘function’… (laughter)

Gregg Smith
I prefer to say ‘get together’…

Trasi Henen
…at Roger’s place, and I realized that this was a very different kind of project with different kinds of people involved.

Roger van Wyk
Having done some exchanges with international artists, I think its quite often that we find as the hosts to European artists who are here having to achieve things in a fairly short space of time, that it’s a fairly strange relationship. Its made easier when artists are here on a singular mission and that’s clear, but when its linked into some sort of developmental objective which is meant to link into community of some sort, then its very challenging to make something meaningful out of it. One really needs long periods of time and lengthy opportunities for engagement to do something meaningful. So I found it really refreshing that Very Real Time had no direct outcome, was not staked around any kind of an agenda or outcome from the work and really left it open for people to engage in their own time and in their own way. Obviously it takes a while before they find their way and for people to find their feet and find things that make sense to them, but there’s something very refreshing about that. I felt that they were all pretty earnest and eager to find a way to do this engagement. I suspect that, although it might take longer, I think that they would have more interesting things to say and do about it, particularly if they have the chance to reflect back and come back again later.

Tracy Henen
But I was interested in what you said about the kinds of projects having changed, that the projects are no longer necessarily ‘public art’ projects in the city.

Gregg Smith
Well that seems to be a gradual change that’s happened over the past 10 years since the VRT started.  It feels like that these kinds of projects which overtly engage the public or the city, are no longer appropriate now, or that the interests have shifted and become more fine-grained.

For example there was a beautiful project by Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle and local photographer and filmmaker Jean Meeran (for VRT in 2003), which developed into a photo series of images of Cinthia in different parts of the city, camouflaged into her background using different colored fabrics which they had bought at the Oriental Plaza. It had to do with her identity as a visitor from Brazil, physically resembling people here and so blending in, but at the same time feeling voiceless because her English was not so good and how all of this developed into project with her host, Jean – both through their friendship and his interest in creolism, being of Indian descent.

There was in the same year a project by Thembinkosi Goniwe, called ‘Parties in different places’, in which, over the period of a weekend, he took us to various shebeens and bars which he likes to frequent in Gugulethu and Nyanga (where he lived at the time). It was an extremely rich experience and at the same time incredibly stressful, because one had the feeling that people were on the one hand very happy to have us there, but at the same time that we were communicating across a huge cultural divide, so that it felt that we had to shout at each other to make ourselves understood. By Day 2 of the project, our group was decimated from 12 to about 4. I remember fielding this trail of feeble excuses by SMS, while we waited at the taxi rank.

I have the feeling that the rainbow energy of that time, the curiosity to overcome the geographical and psychological barriers in the city, which were part of the initial motivations for Very Real Time are now shifting to a more fine-grained experience, and quieter and more considered conversations.

I get the feeling that, to a certain extent, the cities defense-orientated town planning (which began in the 1920’s and 30’s and culminated with the forced removals in the 70’s and 80’s), has won, but also that the city has gradually grown into typical international city with its complex networks of subcultures which we don’t really know very much about. But I have a feeling that a lot is going on in different places and on different generation levels and that perhaps people have reached a fairly tranquil space in realizing the place where they feel comfortable to invest in, and no longer having the energy, curiosity or moral conscience to go on trying to bridge the gaps between different social groups. Its possible that the psychic stress involved in trying to do that became draining at a certain point, and also possible that there was an awareness that whilst one felt very alive in penetrating these other parts of the city, it was also a vicarious kind of experience. Maybe its interesting to hear about Milena’s experience of being here, compared to what she experienced living in Colombia?

(to be continued…)

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