Out Wit, Out Art, Out Last?
The idea of staging a Survivor for artists has frequently been jokingly toyed with at many informal art gatherings. One intriguing question arising from such an idea is what the equivalent of 'voting someone off' would be in this context. In some ways at least, the 52weeks52works project, organised by Thomas Cartwright and James Webb, is giving a possible answer.
Launched in January, 52weeks requires every artist who wants to take part, to make one work every week for a year. The idea is, that when someone fails to deliver the goods, they will be dropped from the project. With heavy schedules and deadlines, for many this seemed more than they could bear. Importantly, however, 52weeks is not a curated show; thus, taking part only requires a decision from the artists to commit themselves to such a programme.
Another requirement of the project is that every work should be installed in a public space, and documented. The documentation is then sent to the organisers who post it on the project's website. In this way, the project encourages public interventionist works and employs the internet as the space for exchange. Artists taking part in this project hail from both local cities, such as Cape Town (e.g. Richard Mason), Johannesburg (e.g. James Sey), and Pretoria (e.g. Abrie Fourie), and overseas ones, such as Osaka (Tegan Bristow) and Berlin (Joao Orecchia).
Of course, every one of the participating artists would have a different reason for undertaking the task, and it is around this motivation that the project becomes most interesting. The challenge that 52weeks presents for artists is to their imaginations and productivity. But, by setting up such a rigid, almost mathematical framework for the production of work, the project departs from standard practices, and by implication subverts those practices. The questions that face artists here, are how to make sense of such an external set of requirements for their own work, and in what way one's creativity responds to the authoritarian rules. Perhaps only the most masochist will derive pleasure from it.
By not curating the project, Cartwright and Webb are making it radically democratic. The project is, as it set out to be, a space for both the actualised and frustrated art maker. In a time where the curatorial voice is justifiably recognised as a seminal one in the discourse around contemporary art production, this opening up can be seen as a brave move, and one that could possibly invite much criticism. The project ostensibly functions only as a platform; it does not force the artists to make work around a specific issue, and does not encourage grandiose large-scale 'ego' works.
Perhaps predictably then, the works are diverse in focus and quality. Some artists, such as James Sey and Ryan Johnson, chose to see the project as an opportunity to produce one large work, with weekly instalments. Others, such as Andreas Sch�nfeldt, are using the project as an opportunity for small, intimate and unobtrusive interventions that disrupt the drone of everyday life. Then, in terms of a demonstration of exactly how free an uncurated project can be, one only has to look at the work of Adele van Biljon from Pretoria. Obscure performances by a woman dressed in white robes, sporting one black eye, her dramatic presence is one of the most ridiculously pretentious things I have seen in years.
I do, however, take the presence of dubious work to be part of the beauty of the project. Its not like Cartwright and Webb set out to produce a best-of-contemporary-art exhibition. In fact, Webb tells me that the project is, in part, a response to his previous large-scale project, namely 'YDEsire', which he co-curated with Kim Stern. While 'YDEsire' was an enormous one-night-stand party/exhibition, 52weeks is an inversion of that, both in terms of time-span and organising principles.
What is at issue here is thus not single works as such, but a kind of art experiment, a way of allowing diverse and eccentric artistic subjectivities free reign, and seeing what happens. Consequently, I am inclined to see 52weeks as a whole, a project in the true sense of the word, rather than an exhibition of single works. If seen in this way, 52weeks presents a coy challenge to contemporary art practice.
Because of its comprehensive nature, the requirement of the project that the work has to be installed in a public space, also then provides a map, of sorts, of some of the possibilities for exploration of the relationship between the world and art. Many artists cleverly bring the notion of public space into play. Activities of some artists take place on the internet, others use cell phones. Adrienne van Eeden's Red Tape revolves around the postal service: she uses a postbox at the Stellenbosch University to send messages to a number of people in the bureaucratic structures of the institution, and retains the paperwork generated by the act as documentation. Tegan Bristow, on the other hand, engages with the sacred spaces of Osaka, such as shrines.
The highlight of the project so far, is James Webb and James Sey's Compendium of Imaginary Wavelengths, broadcast on Bush Radio (on February 2). The work is a parody of radio plays, and it documents the writing of an imaginary author whose name we never learn. What is presented in this work, are audio synopses of 15 of the author's books - not the writing, but an audio correlation.
We learn that this author has travelled extensively, that he has expertise of esoteric subjects: one of his books is "the book of scars", in which we hear chilling sounds of knives and plasters being pulled off bodies. Another book purports to be a history of rain, which chronicles the journeys of every raindrop on earth, throughout history. Clearly, an impossible book, this is but one example of how the Compendium employs the aural space of radio to evoke imaginary realities in the mind of the listener.
If the project is to be seen as more than the sum of its parts, then the website is an important portal for it. At the moment, it still lacks explanations of the works, and we only have the images. But, I am told that more information on the work is forthcoming. Meanwhile, be sure to look at the works of, among others, Abrie Fourie, Nathaniel Stern and Niklas Zimmer.