New Platforms in Cityscapes
One aspect of digital media that has been commented on at length in this section of ArtThrob, is the notion of alternative distribution. Ultimately, I believe that art practice is a communicative one, and therefore it follows that I would not stand uncritical of the kind of elitist art banter thrown around by the likes of Kendell Geers. But no, this month's project page will alas not engage Geers's hack-up job of an article in the Sunday Times of May 15 2005.
Instead, what I am interested in with the project on offer this month, is the availability of space and exposure for young artists to show their work outside the gallery system and court alternative audiences. The Unseen City Project (www.unseencity.uct.ac.za) is one such opportunity. The project (co-ordinated by Mother City veteran artist Gavin Younge) takes as its point of departure the historical relationship between Cape Town and Amsterdam, and endeavours to develop an archive of young, non-mainstream artists working in these two cities.
The relationship between the two cities is one fraught with colonial conflicts, and as the website states, the two cities '... have been both pulled apart, and conjoined by a shared history'. In fact, Cape Town is the site of origin, in many instances, of some of the many social tensions we can still observe in the whole country today. Keeping in mind the centrality of locations such as the Company Gardens (hailing from Van Riebeeck's era - the raison d'etre of the Cape of Good Hope), and the Rhodes Memorial (erected in honour of a man that would see the land from Cape Town to Cairo united under his rule), it is perhaps predictable that many artists would choose to respond to this history.
As the Unseen City website remarks 'Cape Town especially is a city marked by spatial segregation'. Sometimes I think that the city is one of the 1913 Land Act's greatest successes. Apart from bohemian enclaves here and there, the highly covetable land of the city remains largely divided among racial and economical lines. As someone who grew up in small platteland dorpies that were founded and developed around industrial concerns, I find the force of historical palimpsest very remarkable in the Mother City.
It is with these experiences of young artists living in Amsterdam and Cape Town, that the Unseen City project engages. It asks of its participants that they reveal their particular concerns with the spaces in which they find themselves. Of course, these spaces will most likely not be from the stock of tourist postcards or the like. Rather, the project aims to bring to the fore 'unseen aspects' of the cities, through the personalised and lived experience backgrounds of its participants.
The Unseen City project currently lives on the Internet, where it shows the work of the first three participants: James Beckett, Lebohang Tlali and Mosk Faith. The text is available in English, Dutch and Xhosa - a gesture to encourage artists who usually feel too alienated by the so-called avant-garde artworld to participate.
A small explanation of the artists' concerns as well as a couple of images are available on the site. James Beckett, who hails from South Africa and is currently resident in the Netherlands, explores the notion of urban environment through sound. Lebohang Tlali's work struggles with the notion of finding one's place in the country (South Africa) - a difficult and ambiguous effort indeed. Mosk Faith works as graffiti artist (a particular genre courted by the project in its very nature). Being inherently public and transient, his work interestingly shows cognisance of the 'extremes and contrasts' endemic to the urban landscape.
The Unseen City aims to publish a book, one which will be 'multi-authored', according to the website. The theme and background to this book are phrased as follows: 'In line with the observation that the single most important invention of recent times (the world wide web), did not arise from the academies, this publication will focus on the work of artists, grafitti-ists, muralists, poets, architects, dramatists, community artists, and social interventionists who came to recognition through the 'university of the streets'.
By virtue of the intensity with which they interpret their city, they have foregrounded hybridism as a force for cultural renewal and social inclusion: The process of making public space available to artists, and from there to proceed to publication, signals, to my mind, an important shift in the way in which curatorial decisions can be shaped (and be augmented by digital media).
Of course, such a project is ultimately reliant on the participation of a great number of artists - and most importantly, not those who are most commonly given exposure. I am hopeful that this valuable project receives the deserved support and attention. If you are interested in joining this publication, or if you have students who you would like to recommend this to, contact Elsabe van Niekerk
firstname.lastname@example.org. The website further contains a fully functional facility for uploading work and details. Alternatively, see the call for entry in this month's Exchange section.