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54 Stories

This month's project is a video entitled 54 Stories. Stephen Hobbs attaches his video camera to a parachute and allows it to fall down the centre of the Ponte Building, as so many suicides have before. Twenty seconds later, the fall is over.

Cape Town artist and curator Robert Weinek conducted this interview with the artist:

What is it about Ponte that makes it your focus of attention?

I think a lot of people are unaware that Ponte City is hollow in the centre. I distinctly remember my shock and surprise when stumbling upon the inner core four years ago. I was on my regular monthly visit to pay my rent to my estate agents on the sixth floor. The lifts weren't working, so I chose the stairwell. I must have been looking down while walking through the corridor, because I was completely breathtaken on looking up to get my bearings in the cylindrical maze of corridors. My neck was instantly thrown back by the circular repetition of floor upon floor, which finally opened out onto an elliptical framing of the sky. While clouds passed by, the light of the interior continually shifted; there was a strange updraft as debris and litter fell from the top floors, as cleaners scoured the rim of each floor with large brooms. As I watched the litter falling my eyes dropped to the large mass of rock outcrop at the basement of the building.

I looked forward to those monthly visits for about the next two years. In that time the Coca-Cola billboard was completed. During the filming of close-ups of discarded Coke cans on the basement floor for my first video about Ponte City (MS), I met the foreman in charge of the billboard installation. During my personalised tour of the Coke sign, we got onto a discussion of the legend of suicide incidents that had happened over the years (my motivation for shooting MS). He confirmed the legend, with his own story of an incident that had occurred during the installation. While he was telling me all this, I remember noticing his workers pissing off the very top of the sign (the billboard is approximately 15 metres high); they looked really small. I could just imagine the view. I was wondering how long it would take for their piss to hit the ground if at all.

So, based on these experiences, my fascination with the architecture of the place and all of its gangster, illegal immigrant and suicide mystique, I became a little obsessed.

Super 8 to VHS to the web is an interesting technology path to take. Was there a reason?

In terms of a basic evolution of technology I think this was a comfortable progression: low-tech - middle tech - high tech. More to the point, however, after making MS (which ended up being a kind of exploration of the decaying inner core of Ponte), I realised that I needed to make a more representational work, on suicide-by-jumping. At the time I had started collecting 8mm and 16mm Bolex cameras and I thought it would be great to load one of them with film and toss it over the edge into the core. I was looking forward to salvaging a completely destroyed camera with printable film inside. I also considered chucking my Hi 8 camcorder over the edge - that idea just seemed ridiculous. I eventually found a lightweight 8mm Canon Camera, 300 feet of film and a solution to a makeshift parachute - a wire coat hanger, plastic shopping bag and gaffer tape - the rest is self-explanatory.

I was fortunate to get the film processed and printed in Amsterdam for nothing (thanks to Renee Scheltema). The end result was a free fall that lasted about 15 seconds - spanning the 54 story "jump". VHS was the next logical format for conversion (I struggled too much with digital media), and now the web is thanks to ArtThrob.

Given that it is only 20 seconds (plus minus) in duration I have not found the best means for its display yet, so I view using the web for the debut of this film as an experiment. I would say however that after viewing numerous video and film clips on the net, particularly on death, suicide or assassination, there is a strange kind of voyeuristic intimacy - as one peers through the black screen into a window of death.

Why make something that has a very small, if any, following in South Africa?

In order to get a following you have to put stuff out there, in very specific and focused ways- this is one attempt in one particular medium. This film lends itself to various display approaches and it will run its course. I'm not in the least bit deluded about audiences in South Africa and I've also just got to do it!

In terms of content and approach I suspect this work has interest for some practitioners certainly in the experimental video/film realm and if this work is appropriately catalogued on the web somebody could surf into it.

Could this medium grow on public television?

While cinema has a mass appeal across the board in this country, the category of the short film occupies a fairly elite realm. And the length of my film (in terms of this category) borders on the ridiculous. I do believe that if these things could be marketed more in terms of their entertainment, spectacle or imaginative value they might convince a few people out their who are terrified of the "art speak" to spend a little time with them.

Quite recently I saw a short film shown on SABC3's Sunday night programme, Flux. The 7-min movie by Tim Green entitled The Light at Night came perfectly packaged - short, sharp, to the point and in the comfort of my own home.

You like to play with space and time continuity in your work. Why is that?

In the video Dusk till Dusk I experimented with the random-image-capturing facility of my video camera - an interval record mode which captures a second of video every minute. I set the camera on a tripod pointed at the intersection outside my flat and left the camera to roll for 24 hours. The end result - a time lapse film compressing sound and image into 12 minutes of jump cuts. After a few minutes of viewing the illogicality of the cuts, the video and audio track form a rhythm of their own.

Generally speaking I work mostly with photography and video. The photographic image for me serves to document place and space as a static fragment and video similar but as a moving fragment sometimes more effectively in a loop. Working between these two mediums affords me the scope to play with supposed "evidence" of past and present, inside/outside, experiences and memories.

Thanks to Renee Scheltema, Jo Ractliffe, Anton Leach and Inayet Motara

... MWeb

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