Adventures in public spaces
by Paul Edmunds
If you're like me, the thought of spending an entire summer's day in an air-conditioned lecture theatre probably reminds you of the 12 worst years of your life. Contrary to this, however, last weekend's 'Beyond the Gallery: Art in Public Spaces' symposium in Cape Town proved to be extremely stimulating and engaging.
Organised by Public Eye, alongside the Spier Outdoor Sculpture Biennial, the symposium was directed by Sue Williamson and attended by more than 80 participants from South Africa and several countries abroad. A whole spectrum of issues were addressed, ranging from exploration of the term "public" to presentations by delegates of various public art projects. Participants included students, academics, artists and arts administrators.
The keynote address was given by Professor Jane Taylor, Skye Chair of Dramatic Art at Wits, who has previously applied her talents to such diverse endeavours as curating art exhibitions and writing the libretto for an opera. Her paper, titled 'Inside/Out', kicked off the symposium with an exploration of the term "public". Noting its omission from several standard lexicons, she set about defining this fuzzy term in relation to its apparent opposite, "private" - which, she pointed out, shares a Latin root with "deprive". Her analysis took in Brett Murray's Africa, Clive van den Berg's fire drawings, Christian Boltanski's Lost and Found and collaborative works by William Kentridge and Doris Bloom - their large chalk image of an anatomical heart embodying the apparent contradictions between "private" and "public", making manifest what is ultimately personal and literally hidden from view.
Durban-based dance director Jay Pather showed video footage of his current project, entitled Cityscapes. Drawing on Durban's diverse cultural influences, this dance production has been taking place around that city, on North Beach and at the foot of escalators which spill onto Durban's busiest street.
The first panel the following morning was titled 'Memorials: Approaches to commemorating the past in public spaces'. The former head of community development of the city of Cape Town, Ahmedy Vawda, painted a fascinating picture of the city, demonstrating the inequity of the distribution of amenities and cultural facilities. He described how this put communities, most notably in Manenberg, at a disadvantage in terms of what he called "citizenry". A fascinating slide show revealed how the city council's highly inadequate signage in the area was far less visible than the turf markings of gangs whose guns and drug-running ultimately control the economy in these areas. He included a few examples of communities who had begun eradicating this graffiti in an attempt to reclaim cultural and communal space.
Gregory Sholette from the Art Institute of Chicago described the projects of a group of activists and artists called REPOhistory. Active mostly in New York, they have researched the social history of various neighbourhoods, uncovering stories from formerly African and African-American districts. Some work take the form of signage, hung from lampposts, telling the story of neighbourhoods, injustices and individuals. I found the methodology of REPOhistory to dovetail neatly with issues of reclamation and ownership which preoccupy so much cultural activity in South Africa.
In a paper titled 'No thanks for the memories', Capetonian writer Melvin Minnaar described the slow removal of a work of art from the Nico Malan Theatre (now the "linguistically challenged Artscape") which went unnoticed by the public. He also described how Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans' War Memorial, in its use of a simple, minimalist vocabulary, set an important precedent in the visual language of monuments and memorials.
In a second panel on 'Reclaiming spaces: Projects which help to bring communities together', Professor Yacouba Konate, a philosophy lecturer from the Ivory Coast, delivered a paper amusingly entitled 'Short Adventures in Public Art in Africa'. Drawing attention to the difficulties of such endeavours in Africa, where the notion of art in private is an unfamiliar concept, his paper was filled with examples of the anomalies of such practice and the difficulty of establishing ownership of artworks in the public domain.
Dorothee Kreutzfeldt spoke about the Joubert Park Public Art Project which she was central in initiating and running. In the midst of urban and social decay, but ironically adjoining the troubled Johannesburg Art Gallery, the park is central to the activities of a vast range of communities and individuals. Kreutzfeldt described the project's attempt to reconcile these divergent elements using everything from lantern parades to karaoke and dramatic productions.
Architect Iain Low completed this panel with a paper entitled 'Space and Transformation' which was pitched at a fairly academic level. It's difficult to paraphrase his articulate presentation other than to say that it was a fascinating examination of private and public space and how this finds form in architecture and planning.
The third panel was entitled 'Sensitising the public: Environmental and social issues'. The Australian/English duo Art at Work, namely Janis Somerville and Pip Cozens, gave a presentation about their public performances which manage to reduce complex environmental and social issues to the simplest images and actions. Video footage showed their Earth Ball Project, which encourages responsible stewardship of our planet, and their Blue Hand Project which addresses difference, discrimination and tolerance. This performance will take place during the Cape Town Festival at the 'Voices in Transit' exhibition and later in Johannesburg.
French artist François Davin provided a breath of fresh air in an artworld replete with egos and status. He described the problematic relationship between artists, public and critics/publications. He lamented the existence of rich, famous artists who feature on what he called "lists", describing his own career as follows: "At first I was worried I was not on the list, and then I was on the list and then I worried about that." Davin left Paris and settled in a small village in the east of France from where he regularly travels to create site-specific work, largely from natural materials. He emphasised the support systems he has been able to create, allowing for his projects to cost very little money, and how his work is created with the participation and inclusion of the community in which he works.
Sabine Marschall, a German-born academic from the University of Durban/Westville, presented a critique of the 'Break the Silence' billboard project in KwaZulu-Natal. This involved a selection of international artists creating graphic works for a print portfolio. The images were later turned into billboards displayed in townships surrounding Durban. The visual languages employed and the slip between art for private and public assumption seem to have dogged this project.
The final panel began with a performance outside the lecture theatre by Robin Rhode. Marking lines on the brick surface with a wet brush, Rhode began a game whereby he leaped increasingly far from a central line, getting an audience member to mark his landing points with the brush. He explained the rules, revealing that the liquid in which the brush was being dipped was his urine. Called 'Flyer', the work was derived from a childhood game, and involved the maring and extending of territory, all traces of the work slowly disappearing from the sun-warmed bricks.
Sabine Lang of Swiss artmaking duo lang/baumann gave a show of the collective's work, which provided a welcome relief from the murky issues which had come to dominate the discussion. The duo has an extremely refined sense of design which finds expression in forms ranging from redesigned demarcations on a soccer field to a gallery café covered entirely in warped psychedelic carpeting.
Ex-Capetonian art student Ralph Borland, now resident in New York, sent a video featuring commentary and footage of projects with which he is involved. Most of the work centred on anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist activism - including Borland's designs for clothing to be used in protests and a range of outfits made by Spanish activists Las Agencias. The latter blend protective elements with a bright and carnivalesque appearance, while Borland's designs incorporate aspects of vulnerability, such as an amplified heartbeat. Similarly MIT student Brad Pitt has produced a number of tools for protest, notably the Bikewriter which, when driven through paint, proceed to print slogans on the road.
Artist, lecturer and Artthrob contributing editor Virginia MacKenny presented a paper titled 'Indecent Public Exposure - An analysis of gender and identity in Steven Cohen's performances Crawling, Flying, Voting and the Chandelier Project'. MacKenny described how her own difficulty in receiving Cohen's work led her to an in-depth exploration of it. His examination, she contends, is of the marginalised within the collective. Cohen is white, Jewish, gay and South African and as such represents an awkward slip between oppressor and oppressed. His use of the camp is both parody and manipulation of many conventions and often involves a real risk to himself, taking place as it does in a range of public situations. Cohen, she claims, ultimately tests the "veracity of the idea of our constitution".
A workshop the following day took up where the panels had left off. There was very little tension despite the wide range of opinions expressed and the highly varied group of contributors. Recapping the previous day's activities, Janis Somerville pointed out that the words she had heard most were "collaboration" and "connection". This served to sum the symposium up. Connections had been made and possibilities of collaborations between delegates, disciplines and departments had been described. It was unanimous that issues of community, ownership and co-operation were essential to any endeavour in the field of public art production.
Finally Williamson invited Nyami Goniwe, widow of slain activist Matthew Goniwe, to introduce a project she has established in one of apartheid's worst hit communities, Cradock in the Eastern Cape. The project is about the healing of this community, and the floor was left open, as it were, for a work of public art to take up this challenge. This served as a sobering reminder of the context in which we find ourselves as well as an inspiring opportunity for a creative and imaginative gesture.