artthrob artbio

James Webb

By Renee Holleman
Saturday Night Can Be The Loneliest Place on Earth

James Webb
Saturday Night Can Be The Loneliest Place on Earth, 2005. VLF receiver, audio (with video documentation available for exhibition / collection purposes) .

One of the most iconic artists in South Africa today, James Webb has established a terrain quite apart from that of his contemporaries. Often described as a 'pioneer', his innovative focus on sound as a distinctive medium has done much to expand the vocabulary of artistic practice locally, while quietly and steadily garnering attention on the international stage. This emphasis, combined with a strategic conceptualism,  humour and a ready sense of wonder has evolved into a sensibility that seeks to engage both site and audience with an evocative mix of the tangible and intangible, seen and unseen.

Although Webb has been an active producer for some time now, not only as an artist, but as a musician and occasional curator, his reputation has grown substantially in the last few years. Since winning the Absa L'Atelier Award in 2008 he has been on a span of residencies, also exhibiting extensively around the globe. This Artbio is an update, and largely looks at James Webb's production since 2004. For further information visit www.theotherjameswebb.com

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Prayer (Cape Town)

James Webb
Prayer (Cape Town)
2002 (Cape Town), 2008 (Huddersfield)
Carpet, 12 speakers, 3 CD players, assorted wires, audio
Dimensions Variable


James Webb
Chaise longue, speakers, CD player, assorted wires, audio
73 x 180 x 65cm

Le Marche Oriental

James Webb
Le Marche Oriental
Installation photograph at blank projects
Photographer: Paul Grose


James Webb
Dimensions Variable

There's No Place Called Home (Calls of South African carnivirous birds in Chinese trees )

James Webb
There's No Place Called Home (Calls of South African carnivirous birds in Chinese trees )
2005 -
CD player, speaker, audio
Dimensions Variable



Webb's work ranges from subtle interventions and elegantly refined installations to public participatory events. Often these arise from an intense concern with the politics of a site, and a desire to open that site up to a different set of associations. Employing sound in variety of a ways, Webb creates imaginative spaces that overlap with the physical space in which the work is presented.

Above all things perhaps, Webb is a consummate collector. His avid curiosity and keen approach to sourcing and gathering sounds and noises has been likened by one writer to that of an intrepid nineteenth century naturalist. Accordingly, he gathers the thuds, whistles and hums of ordinary things that barely warrant a second thought, to those so largely unheard that for the most part they can hardly be said to exist. These are by no means just incidental sounds either. The blast of the Noonday Gun that resounds daily across the Cape Town city bowl, and which Webb captured from twelve different locations for Listening to the world today (2004), is certainly not unusual to the accustomed city inhabitant. It still, however, has the power to surprise. In contrast, the curious range of clicks, clangs and drone of underground machinery that constitute The Black Passage, Webb's recording of the ascent and descent of the empty elevator cage of South Africa's South Deep mine - the deepest twin-shaft goldmine in the world - are alien and unsettling despite not being particularly remarkable in themselves.

The process of collecting extends into a studio practice that involves intense research, and the constant editing and re-arranging of material in relation to the process of production and final presentation of the work. In presentation Webb is undoubtedly an elegant minimalist. With all his work one has a sense of the effort put into suggesting or conveying an idea in the most refined manner, an almost conceptual slight of hand, where it is the mere flick of the wrist that reveals the magic card. This is not without due attention to the other features of the work.

'There are definite sensory elements to all my projects, even though some are merely suggested and are there for the audience to interpret.  A work like Prayer has a tactile part in that the audience kneels down in front of the floor-based speakers to properly hear the words therein. This physical action is a reference to supplication and genuflection; and an important performative and participatory aspect of the installation.'

'Furthermore, my audio works are never just about audio.' explains Webb. 'There are many thematic and conceptual intentions at work. The Black Passage is not just about mining. Yes, the work is an audio recording of an elevator descending the shaft of the world’s deepest goldmine, but this is also a symbol. The reason I chose such a lyrical and Lynchian title was to open the image up to themes of transcendence, mythic journeys and liminal states. It’s also a pun on 'back passage' which opens the metaphor up significantly.'

To say that Webb cultivates a practice of sound, as is often asserted, is perhaps only correct in as much as his is really a practice of listening. Listening not just to hear, but in a way that tends to shift one's attention away from the work alone to incorporate the environment in which it is situated, and to open up alternative spaces for thinking. Autohagiography (2007), is perhaps Webb's most extraordinary combination of sound, text and spatial dislocation. A recording of the artist under hypnosis recounting his past life experiences played from a speaker set into the headrest of a chaise longue, it expands both the temporal and physical frame of everyday experience in disturbingly elastic ways. This shift then registers as an amplification of sorts; your life, but slightly louder, maybe clearer, and is something which governs both his audio and non-audio works. Previously Webb has described 'listening and doing nothing' as both a working methodology and a creative act, and one that I would suggest he endeavors to allow his audience to experience themselves. Audience, as always, is a crucial consideration in his work.

'My projects have many audiences, some of which are incidental, and not all of them might approach the work in terms of an art framework. There’s No Place Called Home could be said to have four audiences: the birds that have a new and foreign birdcall in their territory, the people who hear the call in the public space but do not know that it is an intervention, the gallery audience who are privy to the artwork but not the actual experience of the intervention, and myself, the artist, who conducts the affair.  This project also has a distinctly visual experience. When you hear the birdcalls, you mentally see birds.'

There’s No Place Called Home (2005) was first installed in Japan with South African summer birds broadcast in winter trees during Webb's residency in Kitakyushu. It has subsequently been installed all over the world, each time slightly and wryly adjusted to the context and region in which it is exhibited. It is this natural inquisitiveness, subtle perspicacity, and attention to detail that are the hallmarks of James Webb's practice.


'I am fascinated by the dynamics of belief, not just in a religious, theatrical and social way, but also in an art historical and economic way. I never studied art or music at university. Instead, I read for degrees in Drama and Comparative Religion. I also obtained a diploma in Copywriting. These three subjects, along with an appetite for cinema and experimental music, are keys to my contemporary art practice.'

'The realm of sight is broken down into all manner of media and traditions. Sound’s very different cultural activities are herded into the same kraal and broken down to their lowest common denominator. In order for it to be an effective material, one must understand its nature, history and language, and this goes far beyond an interest in the scientific and demonstrative elements of the medium and its reduced function as music/entertainment, into the realms of its emotional associations, cultural uses and political implications.'
From an interview with Rahma Khazam, 'Ghosts and Spectres - For a broader approach to Sound Art', 2009


'In Webb’s work sound is often used as a kind of avatar, to bring together a concern with mystical or deeply buried psychological experience, physical contextual meaning and ephemeral aesthetics.' Minnette Vári, 'Currencies of change', .ZA Giovane Arte Dal Sudafrica catalogue, Palazzo delle Papesse, 2008

'James Webb is lonely … Lonely not as a cliché of artistic being, of being bitter, broke and unacknowledged; rather, lonely as a form of practice, of ritual, lonely as an effervescence, a defining cause...' Sean O'Toole. 'A sweet and tender hooligan' in The history of a decade that has not yet been named, Catalogue to the Lyon Biennale, 2007

'James Webb is usually hailed as its principal South African pioneer and exponent (of Sound Art), however the artist demonstrates such nonchalant mastery of conceptual strategies, that his work transcends all rubrics.' Lloyd Pollak, 'Enter The Sonic Magician,' SA Art Times, May 2007

'…Acts such as these are also riffs on the irony and bittersweet absurdity of everyday life, reflecting Webb’s characteristic dark humour…Webb is a master of the poetic environmental intervention, the hack as haiku; most of all, his is that most South African form, the prank, but made zen, reduced to its littlest intuitive moment… Webb plants the seeds of implosion, the event that creates beautiful confusion and makes the unhomely homely – but homely for aliens, amusement park lonely souls, and lost and caged birds.' Julian Jonker - 'Haunted Weather', Art South Africa, Volume 4 Issue 3, Autumn 2006

'…And that’s the real power of Webb’s work. It is playful and cheeky and damn funny, but it’s also deeply and squeamishly personal. It deals with his alienation, dispossession, perversion and isolation. It’s a soliloquy highlighting the import of the apparently insignificant. Allowing us to contemplate the magic of the ordinary, as well as to comprehend the ordinariness of the seemingly profound. This inversion, along with the inventiveness of his trickster antics, make his work endlessly provocative – at once irksome and inviting, silly yet seductive, witty and whimsical, teasing and teaching us to appreciate the intimate yet elusive phenomena that is life.' Stacy Hardy - 'That Subliminal Kid', Art South Africa, Volume 4 Issue 3, Autumn 2006

'Sad and beautiful… …undeniably elegant…' Linda Stupart - 'Best of 2005', http://www.artthrob.co.za/06feb/news/bestof.html, February 2006

'James Webb is another artist from Cape Town whose work can be understood as a productive interplay with spatial and geographic determinations, though in a completely distinct way. His success story might be unique, yet for artists feeling underexposed or disconnected it can stand as an example of an artist who, while struggling with local conditions, remains true to his intentions and gets recognition from his peers.' Thomas Boutoux – Flash Art International n° 225 July, September 2002


James Webb is having a busy year. Presently he is an artist-in-residence at USF, Bergen and is gearing up for a large show at Gallery Stiftelsen 3,14. These series of projects are co-commissioned by BEK (Bergen Center for Electronic Arts). He is also preparing for a solo show in June in the UK at Nottingham’s Djanogly Gallery where he will be presenting Autohagiography and a city-specific version of Prayer. In May, Webb will be taking part in 'No Soul For Sale – A Festival of Independents' at the Tate Modern, an exhibition that brings together respected not-for-profit centers, alternative institutions, artists' collectives and independent enterprises from around the world. In June he opens his solo show at the Djanogly Gallery, and also sees him exhibit in Berlin on 'Ampersand, Daimler Contemporary' with Untitled and a new work titled Love Conquers All. At the same time he will be exhibiting on 'Istanbul, Athens, Marrakech, Palermo, Catania' at the Riso Museo d’Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia, Palermo, with photographic documentation of There’s No Place Called Home.


Webb's first exhibition this year, a solo show at Blank projects, titled 'One day, all of this will be yours,' linked together a variety of site-specific and multi-media projects produced over the last nine years. The show included works from his 2004/2005 residency in Japan, projects conducted in Cape Town, and early works like Know thy worth (2001), translated into arabic as E'raf Qeematak and written over the Blank projects gallery sign. This was linked to Le Marché Oriental, a short film with a sound track recording of Sheik Mogamat Moerat from the District Six Zeenatul Islam Majid mosque singing the adaan (call to prayer) in the old abandoned Oriental Plaza, prior to its demolition in 2008. Both made reference to  the proximity of the gallery to District Six and the rehabilitation and gentrification of the Woodstock environ.
2009 saw Webb producing a public installation at Melbourne International Arts Festival consisting of a multilingual public service announcement broadcast from a series of speakers along a walkway at Northbank on the Yarra River, declaring, '“Ladies and Gentlemen, your attention please. You are reminded that everything is fine.' Both authoritative and authenticsounding the announcements conveyed both a sense of calm familiarity and mistrust. Webb worked with a group of Melbourne teenagers in a series of workshops to conceptualise the work.

Webb was also included on the 3rd Arts in Marrakech biennale, curated by Abdellah Karroum where he presented Le Marché Oriental. The piece further won second place at the Documentary Film Makers’ Association’s 'Home Town' short film competition at the 2009 Encounters Film Festival.


In 2008, Webb staged a site-specific intervention at the Museo Reina Sofía, Spain's National Museum of Art, which houses an extensive collection of twentieth century masters, the most famous being Picasso's Guernica. Webb invited staff of the museum to scream at the piece, and in so doing 'raise issues around contemporary history, the horror of war, the function of art and Guernica's status as an art icon.'

In the same year he presented a lecture at 'Call & Response', a series of events including performances, panels and discussions hosted by Candice Breitz at MUDAM Luxembourg. This was aimed at exploring the interactive logic of call-and-response (a key musical idea in oral cultures) and reflecting on strategies of artistic appropriation and creative recycling.

In 2007 Webb was invited to participate in the 9th Biennale de Lyon, 'The 00's - The History of a Decade That Has Not Yet Been Named', curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Stephanie Moisdon and Thierry Raspail, where he exhibited The Black Passage.

Prior to this he collaborated with Francisco Lopez on a one-night event in Cape Town titled September 1st. 75 people were invited to the event, but were told nothing about what they would experience. They were collected from their homes individually, asked to sign an indemnity form, sworn to secrecy, blindfolded, and taken in silence through the city by car to an undisclosed location where they were led through a series of lifts and passages to a room. Here they were treated to a sound concert by Francisco Lopez whereafter they were collected from their chairs, led back to the waiting vehicles and returned to their homes. The blindfold was then removed and no mention was made of the event.


Winter 2006 saw Webb taking occupancy of Blank Projects at their previous location in the Bo-Kaap in Cape Town, with a subtle intervention into the bare gallery space. The press release stated of Untitled: 'While the gallerists are away for six weeks, the empty space will be haunted by faulty electricity resulting in the gallery lights flickering in Morse code.The unspoken message, known only to the artist, will glimmer continuously, though is best viewed at night through the space's shop front window.' The piece was subsequently shown at the Durban Art Gallery, 2006, Nirox Sculpture Park, 2007, and Bergen Kunsthall, 2009.

In 2005 Webb returned from an 8-month residency at CCA Kitakyushu, Japan. The trip marked a distinct shift in his practice and a development of his concerns, and also allowed him to engage with other professional experimental sound practitioners. Key works produced during this time were There’s No Place Called Home, Homme Alone and Saturday Night Can Be The Loneliest Place on Earth. In the latter, the artist hacked into the public address system of 'Space World', a space age theme park that had seen better days, interrupting the muzak with a broadcast of ionospheric transmissions (impulsive signals emitted by lightning strokes relayed live using a VLF receiver) allowing it to receive an actual message from outer space.


In September, Webb will take part in 'Images Of My World,' a multi-city Danish arts festival, where he will be presenting a new installation and citywide interventions as well as collaborating with Francisco Lopez on a special project for the city. His second solo show in the UK at MAC Birmingham also opens in September where he will be exhibiting The Black Passage as well as Untitled (9th August) and a series of brand new works in a variety of media.
South African audiences can look forward to another new piece that Webb is in the process of creating - a contemporary South African version of Orson Welles’s radio artwork, The War Of The Worlds. He writes 'It will fuse my interests in politics, magic and frenzy, and be a very exciting opportunity to properly create an artwork for radio in the context of post-1994 South Africa.'


James Webb was born in Kimberley, South Africa in 1975.

1999 Diploma (Copywriting) The Red & Yellow School, Cape Town, South Africa
1996 B.A. (Drama & Comparative Religion) University of Cape Town, South Africa

2010 L'appartement 22, Rabat, Morocco
2010 USF, Bergen, Norway
2009 Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, France
2009 KIT - Kunst im Tunnel, Düsseldorf, Germany
2009 Stiftung kunst:raum sylt quelle, Sylt, Germany
2009 Visby International Composers’ Centre, Götland, Sweden
2007 MediaLab Prado, Madrid, Spain
2006 MALAB, Amazonas, Brazil
2004/5 CCA Kitakyushu, Yahata, Japan

Prizes & Grants

2009 Art Moves Africa Travel Grant
2008 ABSA L’Atelier Award

Selected Public Collections
Iziko South African National Gallery
The Johannesburg Art Gallery
The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum

Selected Solo Exhibitions

'The Black Passage', MAC, Birmingham, United Kingdom
'Prayer', Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham, United Kingdom
'JWAKZNSA', KZNSA, Durban, South Africa
'One day, all of this will be yours', Blank Projects, Cape Town, South Africa

'Prayer', Huddersfield Art Gallery, United Kingdom

'Beau Diable', Gallery In The Round, Grahamstown, South Africa

'Untitled', Blank Projects, Cape Town, South Africa

'Phonosynthesizer', US Art Gallery, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Selected Group Exhibitions
* Indicates Catalogue

'Images Of My World', various venues, Copenhagen, Denmark
'Istanbul, Athens, Marrakech, Palermo, Catania', Riso Museo d’Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia, Palermo
'James Webb, Stephen Hobbs, Marcus Neustetter', Stiftelsen 314, Bergen, Norway
'Ampersand', Daimler Contemporary, Berlin, Germany *
'No Soul For Sale', L'appartement 22 / Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom
'1910 – 2010', Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa
'Printemps des Poètes', Salon de lecture, Musée du quai Branly, Paris

'Happy House', Kunst im Tunnel, Düsseldorf, Germany
3rd Arts In Marrakech Biennale, Museum of Marrakech, Morocco *
'L’effacement des traces', Musée d'histoire contemporaine, Paris, France *
Melbourne International Arts Festival, Melbourne, Australia *
'Open Frame', Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia
CAPE 09, Cape Town’s second biennale of contemporary African Culture, Various venues, Cape Town, South Africa *
'This Is Now 2', L’Appartment 22, Rabat, Morocco

'Jozi & The (M)Other City', Michaelis Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa *
'Home Bound, Stiftung Kunst:Raum Sylt Quelle', Sylt, Germany *
'za. Giovane arte dal Sud Africa', Palazzo delle Papesse Centro Arte Contemporanea, Siena, Italy *
'This Is Now 1', Johannesburg Art Fair, South Africa
'Light Show', Bank Gallery, Durban, South Africa *

'Sakra!', St. Andrä, Graz, Austria
9th Biennale d'Art Contemporain de Lyon, Lyon, France *
'3C', Critic’s Choice Exhibition, Association for Visual Arts, Cape Town
'(In)visible Sounds', Netherlands Media Institute, Amsterdam (With Brandon LaBelle)
'Afterlife', Michael Stevenson Contemporary, Cape Town *

'MTN New Contemporaries', Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa

'Aqua Art Sound Broadcast', Aqua Art Hotel, Miami, USA
Gallery Puta, Cape Town, South Africa
I'ncidental Amplifications', Various venues, Melbourne, Australia
CCA Kitakyushu Open Studio, Kitakyushu, Japan *

'Typhoon', Maeda Gallery, Kitakyushu, Japan
The Brett Kebble Art Awards, CTICC, Cape Town, South Africa (With Matthew Kalil) *
'Listening to The World Today', BBC Radio 4
'A Decade Of Democracy', Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa *
'Zèppelin 2004'-Festival de Arte Sonor, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, Spain

'Mooimark', Mooimark House, Johannesburg, South Africa
'YDEsire', The Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa

'The Long Night Of Radio Art', Ars Electronica Festival, Linz, Austria

Selected Discography

Audible Geography (compilation CD), Room40
Radio Flirt (with Brandon LaBelle), Room40

Linear City (with Holger Czukay), Dignose
Infinite Coastline (with Niklas Zimmer), Upland

Selected Conference & Lecture Presentations

Influx/Reflux/Reflex, El Centro de Arte La Regenta, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

Call & Response, Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg

Search, Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria

Know Thy Worth

James Webb
Know Thy Worth
2001, 2010
Dimensions Variable

The Black Passage

James Webb
The Black Passage
Purpose-built tunnel, CD player, speakers, amplifier, assorted wires, halogen light, black velvet curtaining, audio
20 x 2 x 2m
Photography : Blaise Adilon

September 1st

James Webb
September 1st
Blindfolds, motorcars, PA system, audio
Dimensions Variable