In his book Being and Time: The Emergence of Video Projection (1996), Marc Meyers observed that
For the purposes of art, video’s theoretical and practical possibilities are so inconceivably vast, its versatility so immeasurably profound and of such perplexing unorthodoxy, that even after a quarter of a century, the medium’s defenders are still struck with vertiginous awe as if glimpsing the sublime.
Given that another quarter of a century has passed, and that its fate has intertwined with the surge of the Internet –which has a vastness, versatility and unorthodoxy of its own– the rise of video and digital art in South Africa deserves attention. Employing the visual language of the Web 2.0, Tumblr, vaporwave, hip hop videos, and 90s kids shows, amongst many other things, artists such as Bogosi Sekhukhuni, Jamal Nxedlana and Tabita Rezaire, and collectives like CUSS Group and NTU have created artworks that comment upon the increasingly nuanced issues surrounding identity politics in South Africa. These artists are largely multi-disciplinary, working outside of the confines of fine art in fashion, design and music, and making use of democratised visual languages.
Often creating videos that lack a linear narrative and making use of an array of visual gimmicks, many of the video artists working in this style adopt a deliberately lo-fi aesthetic, reminiscent of 90s-era desktop screensavers and music videos. Video Art pioneer Nam June Paik said about his practice, ‘I can handle a music video better than someone coming from the visual arts. I think I understand time and sequences, kinetics, better than a video artist with a visual background.’ Watching Sekhukhuni’s Yellowbone Pussy Interactive (2012), which ends with a glitched Pharrell music video, and witnessing the similarity it bears with the distorted dancing couple in Paik’s Global Groove (1973), the kinship becomes clear.
At its conception, video art was favoured by artists, particularly feminist artists, for its subversive power. It lacked the ideological baggage that weighed upon painting and sculpture. But the extent of mass media exposure, which does not require an arts education for the audience to access, provides fertile ground for an artist. By emulating, splicing, and distorting footage as disparate as soap operas, Youtube twerk videos and late-night self-help adverts, South African video artists have been destabilising a visual language that many take for granted. In doing so, they disrupt the widely-held beliefs that use this visual language as a vehicle. Their exhibition tactics are more daring than the familiar LCD screens on white walls and projections in dark rooms. They make use of installation art and exhibit in non-traditional spaces. CUSS Group exhibited Video Party #4 (2013) on monitors in the trunk of a car in Harare, in a display that had more in common with a street party than a gallery exhibition opening.
Rezaire is explicit in her use of the ‘Internet aesthetic’ to disrupt dominant, oppressive ideologies, as seen in her video Peaceful Warrior (2015), which plays upon the online trope of the ‘Social Justice Warrior.’ However, Rezaire has also been honest about the limitations of the ‘Web 2.0’ visual language in undermining dominant ideologies. In her video, Afro Cyber Resistance (2015), she questions whether the Internet is actually an extension of the West’s media imperialism. She quotes Sekhukhuni as saying, “We need to quickly snap out of the web 2.0 fantasy of the Internet as a promised land for those seeking a greater freedom of expression or livelihood,” pointing to the commercialisation and surveillance of web platforms as evidence. But Rezaire reminds us that the Internet is not unilateral, and that as Africans begin to play a bigger role, the Internet will change.
A basic obstacle to the Internet’s promise of global access, is the existence of more counter-cultures online than any one person could ever hope to know intimately. In addition, it is the nature of online communities to be as opaque as possible. There lies the risk that the web’s visual languages will become more inaccessibly extensive and niche than the art historical canon ever was. We’ll swim through a matrix of memes and references, until the ‘vertiginous awe’ and ‘glimpses of the sublime’ described by Meyers will cease to be metaphoric. However, stepping away from the abyss of postmodern prophecy, the fact that young South African artists are looking outside of South Africa and Fine Art to radically reimagine what art could be, while working to undermine cultural dominance and complacency, is heartening.