JNR Gallery, Cape Town
This is the first of a series of articles exploring alternate spaces in Cape Town.
‘A complete work[of art] was not necessarily finished and a finished work[of art] not necessarily complete.’
– Charles Baudelaire
When it comes to conceptualising a project space, certain questions are raised: What is it? What can it be? How should it occupy space? What is its role? What are its responsibilities? As for how these questions are answered, and the subsequent unfolding of a project space’s story, each situation is unique. Defined as much by the context, as by the artists and exhibition programmed in the space.
However, despite such a stark sense of individuality, these project spaces do share a few overarching commonalities: Firstly, project spaces are invariably the places that artists turn to when the institutions aren’t interested in them, and they are also the places artists turn to when they aren’t interested in the institutions. Secondly, these spaces are infused with a palpable commitment to creativity and experimentation. Failure is encouraged and boundary pushing championed. Thirdly, and one that is most compelling, the leitmotif of the project space is often characterized by a distinct ephemerality. In other words, the project space embodies as arts writer Anna Stielau says, ‘a quality of duration,’ as opposed to ‘fixity.’
This characteristic is a consequence of the challenging and strenuous nature of undertaking such a DIY project. The ability to allow for experimentation/failure, to entertain non-commercial interests and to exist outside of the constraints of the market does come with some hefty baggage. As time, focus, funding and energy are four vital components of the project space, there is a heavy reliance on momentum and creative ardor in order to sustain a range of programming. This fervor is both the progenitor and the terminator of the project space. It is a dichotomous element that gives rise to, sustains and as it fades, eventually brings to an end the narratives of the project space. Therefore, whether by design, choice or circumstance, a majority of these spaces exist fleetingly. And, while some do stick around for some time, most seem to be defined by the old adage of here today, gone tomorrow. Sometimes they reach their logical conclusion, as in the case of Cape Town’s Youngblackman. Or other times – evidenced by Clive Kellner’s Camouflage in Johannesburg- the founders just run out of time and/or funding. Either of which mean, the project is consigned to history. Left to live on in mythical stories and nostalgic recollections.
And, the same questions remain: what if the project space did not have to rely on momentum? What if cessation was as much a part of its program as the exhibitions? What if coming to an end was part of its new beginning? What if a project space could circumnavigate the inevitable fate of lack of funding and/or time by continuously reincarnating itself?
Which brings me to JNR.
Founded by James King and Rosie Mudge, JNR has added a refreshing dimension to Cape Town’s art scene. Specifically, it is because of the way in which King and Mudge have designed JNR: as a dematerialised concept. Here, the project space exists primarily as an idea. This idea can be transported, transposed or translated into a myriad of complex and exciting manifestations. JNR comes to life through a series of periodic reincarnations. Many of which are at times drastically different, or even downright conflicting. Today, JNR may manifest as a proposal for an exhibition, tomorrow as a community drawing programme, or the week after as a pop up art space in the back of a camper van. JNR can exist in all manner of (non)physical ways. What’s more is the end of one manifestation, is considered the stimulus for the next. JNR must end purposefully, in order to begin again. Its beginning is its end and its end its beginning.
Self-defined as a ‘transitory gallery promoting artwork that isn’t boring,’ JNR has developed a distinct ethos of wherever, whenever, however. It is a spirit greatly indebted to the flexibility afforded by operating in this sort of expanded, dematerialised way. That is to say, not being dependent on an emblematic, physical showroom. Rather, playfully entertaining unconventional alternatives to the traditional mise-en-scene of the gallery. “Cropping up” in unexpected guises, or in quirky places across the city; continuously reflecting a deep connection and engagement with the city of Cape Town, its public/commercial spaces and its inhabitants.
I came into contact with JNR around the time I was interested in how Seth Siegelaub and Lucy Lippard radicalised exhibition-making practice in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with the dematerialisation of the exhibition. Fundamentally, both Siegelaub and Lippard challenged the white cube presentation of art, exploring new ways for, as Lippard says, ‘art to act as an invisible frame for seeing and thinking rather than as an object of delectation or connoisseurship’. Their respective Xerox and Numbers exhibitions are two perfect examples. Thus, it only seemed natural that I would see in JNR what I saw in Siegelaub and Lippard. Particularly, in the way that King and Mudge have used this dematerialised idea as a departure point for operating JNR.
King and Mudge’s process of having JNR disappear/reappear across the city, has allowed them to circumvent rent or sustained spatial concerns. Additionally, the temporal nature of their projects, has meant that dormancy, is as important to JNR as the exhibitions it hosts. Consequently, this periodic cycle of cessation and reincarnation, has helped JNR deal with two pivotal issues: time and money. With no commitment or pressure to cover recurring costs, this situation has given King and Mudge a freedom and control over possibility. JNR feels as though it will never end. The concept will always be alive. There will always be potential for another exhibition somewhere,or somehow. It operates seemingly unconcerned with time, money and space. JNR embodies what Stan Mir calls, ‘the potential that can be unleashed when freed from the constraints of the market’. And, it’s nifty program history certainly also reflects this.
Of the handful of exhibitions that make up JNR’s history, two stand out as noteworthy: there is the ‘Drawthecity’ event for Infecting the City 2015 and ‘Proposal’, a Hans Ulrich Obrist ‘Do It’ type exhibition.
For Infecting the City, JNR proposed an event that was more of a public programme than an exhibition. High atop the CBD, on the rooftop of the Golden Acre’s parkade, ‘Drawthecity’ welcomed people from various artistic competencies – (non)artists and admirers alike – to engage with the city from an unusual location. Essentially a drawing workshop, this creative act made visible the layered relationship between JNR and the city. It served to emphasise a self-initiated modus operandi of highlighting the city from various (non)physical perspectives. It also reflected JNR’s dependency on the participation of the city’s inhabitants in its projects. Especially because it was a program entirely contingent upon the creative engagement of others with the city. And, ultimately, it was a pertinent example of King and Mudge’s passion for engaging with what others are doing culturally and creatively in Cape Town.
As for ‘Proposal’, its almost self-explanatory: it was an exhibition of exhibition proposals. Here, King and Mudge set out to display and critique the process of idea generation as a creative act itself. Solicited through an open call, the proposals themselves took center stage. It was an exhibition that deftly articulated JNR’s curatorial lexicon. On one hand there was an obvious engagement with the ideas of others, whilst on the other hand, there was an underlying rumination on the way JNR itself functions. Precisely, in that a proposal feels inextricably linked to the genesis of each iteration of JNR. ‘Proposal’ also carried on from where ‘Drawthecity’ left off. It once again elucidated the relationship between JNR and the city. Because, this act of ‘cropping up’ in various quirky places across the city is also linked to the idea of a proposal.This is exactly how we – as inhabitants – engage with the city on a daily basis. There is an invitation from the city and it requests of us, an action. Whether to explore it, to make something of it, or do something with it, we are always presented with the option. The city is full of weird and wonderful possibilities. And, just what we do with them, well that’s our choice. A situation of which JNR is a beautiful expression.
So for now, who knows how JNR’s story will continue to unfold? Their brief exhibition history certainly stands as a testament to the ever-evolving conceptualization of what an in-between space is and can be. And, as a nascent space, there’s hope that much can be expected from it in the future. Until then, however, well we’ll just have to wait and see…