‘Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true,’ says actor Mark Lotito in Synecdoche, New York. The film – which follows a theatre production directed by an aging director that pushes realism to a point where fiction and reality begin to blur – sprang to mind when Jake Singer sent over two digital renderings in late 2016. What could have easily passed as eerily futuristic artworks, were in fact plans for an ambitious sculpture project, made by refashioning a decommissioned emergency staircase. Fast forward two months and what were then multivalent renderings, channeling M.C Escher, are now Roark’s Evacuation Plan. Commissioned by Propertuity, the windmill-like sculpture is pasted against the New Doornfontein skyline at the apex of a six story Johannesburg highrise.
Fittingly, in scale, stature and significance in personal achievement, Roark’s Evacuation Plan reads as a type of synecdoche for Singer’s practice: it is a rumination on space, architecture, materiality, design and the Internet, yet, simultaneously, it speaks boldly, through form and ambition, to larger questions of how and why he works the way he does. Articulate, erudite, rather whimsical, and measured in response, Singer seems acutely aware of the possibilities and consequences of meddling in the balance between fiction and reality, or in pushing the boundaries between design, architecture, photography and art. He has recently received the Eduardo Villa Foundation Bursary Grant and participated in the Also Known As Africa Fair (AKAA) in Paris with Hazard Gallery. What follows below are parts of a conversation between us around the architecture of his practice that unfolded over email.
Houghton Kinsman: I am interested in how you described the idea of your photos as sculptures for the Internet. In what way(s) is the Internet architectural for you? How does this space influence the meaning and reception of your work, as opposed to a traditional gallery setting?
Jake Singer: What I mean by a ‘sculpture for the internet,’ really has to do with the process of making the photograph. The photographs are made with materials that are less durable than what I would usually make a physical sculpture from. This is interesting because the relationship the work will share with ‘monumentality’ and ‘permanence’ is complicated by the fact that the line between the spatial and the digital is blurred. Here, the sculptures are literally built around the lens, prioritizing it as a digital thing. If one considers how, today, more people are likely to see a work on the Internet than IRL, the ‘truer’ version of the work is the digital ‘reproduction.’
The idea of meaning today is rapidly changing. If something is meaningful it gets seen and then liked, copied or shared but seldom looked at multiple times. Considering how infinite the space of the Internet is, the sculpture’s space tends towards zero. I like the idea of someone seeing the spatial detournement on the hyperreal spectacle of the cyberwebs, wondering how it works in actual architectural space and if it’s ‘real’ or computer generated? This becomes a question of authenticity and reality, which I can adjust in less than 1.2mb.
HK: My first real encounter with this concept of ‘real’ or computer generated in your practice came when I received those initial renderings from you. I was instantly made aware that there is a very delicate balance in your practice between your use of photo(or the digital) and sculpture. Both oscillate back and forth, influencing each other. However, at certain moments, such as in the Mfuleni series sculptures, they amalgamate, becoming almost indistinguishable. Are these moments conscious constructed? Why?
JS: It all boils down to these awkward translations between digital space and physical space and the fact that the contemporary idea of space is becoming a set of images. The Mfuleni series was the inverse of the previously mentioned photographs. In the Mfuleni series, using tactics of the flaneur, I documented and then sculpted. That series was really about seeing images as a function of space and imagining the weight of an image-constellation. I was photographically documenting and contrasting structures and textures of two different places, located as a fractured but interrelated system. This is not dissimilar to the Internet itself.
HK: What do you think the implications are for artists of the way(s) contemporary space is becoming a set of images? What might the possibilities or limitations be in a moment when the installation shot seems more valuable than the exhibition itself?
JS: We have already passed the moment when the installation shot is more valuable. Rather than thinking of the ‘installation shot’ as documentation, I like to think of it as something that is integral to the exhibition itself in a Derridian sense. Here a paradox emerges: the physical encounter with art becomes more urgent and the meaning is incomplete until the work is seen online. These are exciting times!
Additionally, the implication of this is that art finally has the potential to become accessible and truly democratic. With this, people are becoming visually intelligent because they are seeing more images. Here curatorship can be informed by democratic consensus. But is this not possibly dangerous? Does this mean that art becomes entertainment and good work is defined by how many likes it gets?
This is a Warholian art trajectory that doesn’t necessarily mean that art can no longer be serious, meaningful or complex.
HK: On this idea of ‘changing’ space, in 2016 you presented work at six galleries, three art fairs, a biennale, an artist book fair and an arts festival. How interested are you in the way these different platforms influence the reception of your work?
JS: Of course, each different platform presents different viewers and different ways of viewing- all with different agendas. Some platforms are traditionally considered more ‘ideal’ for viewing art. This shouldn’t mean that one can’t have as meaningful interaction with art at a fair as one can have at a biennale.
HK: Perhaps it is about adaptation? Pliability figures into your work both theoretically and physically. What about this process is so vitally important for you?
JS: With the world becoming more and more digital and with the human condition being shaped by screens I see part of my job, as a contemporary artist, playing with the relationship between digital and physical. In some ways the body is wiser than the mind. The body naturally understands more about entropy and death than the mind does. Physical experience is becoming more submissive to experiences of the seeing. This is why I think the principle mode of experiencing a sculpture IRL should have to do with touching it, rather than seeing it. If making a sculpture is a tactile experience, shouldn’t the ‘viewer’s’ engagement also be a tactile one?
HK: And how does it influence what you say is your ongoing process of experimentation?
JS: Sometimes when I am making a sculpture and I make a mistake I have an actual reflex of wanting to push cmd+z. But I can’t and sometimes not being able to do so leads to an outcome that is more dramatic and spectacular than I could have thought about. I like the idea of changing the world through sets of mistakes, in a Martin Creed-y kind of way. It is important to remind people that mistakes can have desirable outcomes. In the process of experimentation, I’m looking to find an urgency in the tactile, something that can bring people closer to their physical senses and their bodies.
HK: Finally, where do you feel your practice is headed in 2017?
JS: At the moment I have been researching the fourth industrial revolution. I’m interested how this might mutate in a post-colonial environment such as South Africa. An important point of departure was William Gibson’s sci-fi novel Neuromancer. Many people consider this text to be the primary source material for film trilogy The Matrix. I find it useful in terms of framing what this brave new contemporary world is becoming.