Finding Your Edge, an Interview with Kathryn Smith by Karen Wong
South African artist and curator Kathryn Smith engages with technology from both a political and philosophicalperspective. In 2000, she co-founded the Trinity Session with Marcus Neustetter and Stephen Hobbs "in direct response to a radical change in how the local artworld was structured." Assuming the form and economy of a flexible socially-engaged consultancy, they produce public art projects, curate exhibitions, arrange video screenings, carry out research and devote themselves to critical writing. Their work focuses chiefly on urban development, criticism, technology and the body, and new media art.
1. Could you describe the general technological environment within which you work in Johannesburg - internet access, bandwidth availablity,
Johannesburg is often referred to as the information capital of South Africa. It has always been and, I suspect, will remain the economic powerhouse of the country and possibly the continent (its only competitor being perhaps Nigeria). It is a gateway city to the rest of Africa and, conversely, many Africans escaping conflict in their home countries or seeking better opportunities come to Johannesburg. This is not to say that they necessarily find what they are looking for. It's usually quite the opposite. But that's a whole other political and social issue.
Generally speaking, urban areas are "plugged in" - access to the web, email and mobile technology is readily available, with internet cafes popping up on street corners in the inner city, perhaps even right alongside someone selling live chickens! Privately-run portable public phone units, using cellular technology, are a common sight, which contribute to the micro-enterprise economy. You can get access to the full range of high-end information and wireless technology if you can afford it. But the bandwidth is truly pathetic. If you are on a regular phone line, downloading large files and surfing the web can be like watching paint dry. ADSL and ISDN are a faster, but very costly alternative. As an individual the cost doesn't justify itself, but obviously for business it is common practice.
The issue of the digital divide becomes really apparent in rural areas where basic access to running water and electricity must be addressed before talking about access to technology. And of course there is the issue of language (we have 11 official languages) and literacy - a large sector of the population is illiterate.
2. You have advocated lo-tech as a strategy to advance practice concerning issues of technology. Do you see specific activities and tendencies that populations are adopting through the technology available to them? And how does this affect the kinds of practice and regard that you as an artist can have upon your environment?
Mobile technology is a very interesting platform to consider - everybody has a cell phone, whether you're a business executive or a street vendor. Cell phones are very desirable, especially to thieves. I've been mugged twice for my phone. But that aside, it really is a communication tool to which the majority of people have access. One of my Trinity Session partners, Marcus Neustetter, makes downloadable artworks for mobile phones. It also partly bypasses the language/illiteracy issue, but obviously not completely.
A good example of how mobile technology is working on a community level is a situation in Alexandra township, where local women who trade all sorts of goods in informal street markets and stalls act as the eyes and ears of the community. Referred to as the "Mamas" of Alexandra, they keep an eye on petty theft and other similar activities and if there's an issue, they SMS a call centre networked to the police and private security firms, who then react to the call. It's a very effective call and response system, managed by women who really understand community dynamics and whose daily lives happen on street level. This particular group is supported by major mobile network MTN as a social responsibility programme making effective use of their product to fight crime.
Outdoor video screenings are becoming increasingly popular. Historically, where formal theatres or cinemas didn't exist, like in townships, outdoor screenings would take place where a bedsheet would do for a screen and all one needed was a 35mm projector and a couple of movies. In a similar spirit, experimental films and video art is screened in local parks, and festivals like Playtime (annual international video and new media festival organised by IFAS - the French Institute of South Africa) organise screenings in areas outside of the central gallery exhibitions, in public spaces and Kliptown (Soweto).
3. How would you describe the dynamics of technological development within the existing geo-political and economic relations between 1st and 3rd worlds?
I would say it goes back to language and literacy primarily, but of course people are bound by what they can afford. This for me is where it gets interesting, where one experiments with lo-tech solutions to bridge the digital divide. Policy makers make a big noise about the issue of access when information is made available online, or if a gallery or institution chooses to send out communications electronically (more economical) rather than print cards or flyers (which is really expensive). But the truth of the matter is that people are making plans to get online. A local studio residence program, the Bag Factory, which is part of an international partnership (Triangle workshops) focusing on peripheral or marginal artistic communities has said that email has been the one thing that's kept the international network of participating artists in contact with one another beyond the time spent together.
4. Would you say that cultural practices are explicitly different, given the differences in resources and socio-political infrastructures?
This is a huge question as it could be tackled from many different angles. I'll try and answer from the point of view of a visual artist. The issue of cultural difference is what has made South Africa so fashionable over the last couple of years. There was a massive interest in curating "survey" exhibitions of South Africa art abroad in the mid 1990's. These shows simplified a very complex context of production and the criticism levelled at them was very serious. A main complaint being that such exhibitions operated under neo-colonial principles. Some young artists were immediately drawn into an international scene in which interest in their work was more a result of what "previously disadvantaged" cultural group they represented. As such, they were expected to produce in a particular way and respond to particular issues and many have suffered as a result - their development has been stunted and they have not been given time to reflect - and the demand for their work is too great. Following on from this, but on a more localised level, the one thing that's been pushed as a priority is the issue of equal opportunities for all artists. This to my mind goes without saying, but when it comes to public funding the quota system is very much in place, though unacknowledged. It's the same for business. Affirmative action is a policy that is geared towards equal opportunities but can be very abused. In terms of culture, curators often find their choices questioned and even vetoed if funders don't feel that artists from the right mix of backgrounds are included - whether they're appropriate to the exhibition or not. So it can be very tricky, a kind of political bargaining chip, which can also make artists who are invited to projects question whether they have been included for the "right" reasons.
5. Could you list what the Trinity Sessions hope to develop in terms of cultural practice and critique, particularly being based in Johannesburg but also positioned within a larger networked and media based community?
. Developing audiences for art
. Better opportunities for critical and creative engagement with social issues
. A platform for new artists to present work, and for established artists to show new and experimental pieces.
. An active and dynamic network that self-replicates in a really productive and symbiotic way, expanding the bases for production and getting people outside South Africa interested in what's happening there for reasons other than simply being a post-Apartheid curiosity.
. Researching digital and new media art activity on the African Continent and in so doing building good resources for research and training.
. Using our professional training and skills as artists to introduce new ways of problem-solving and thinking to business and corporate entities, and encourage professionalism and growth in the creative industries.
Not becoming glorified social workers - artists often find themselves managing training projects as a means to earn income, but so often the intentions and outcomes of these projects get confused with social work, which is not fair to those participating in the programmes.
6. Could you elaborate the issue of gender as you have encountered it in your work in Johannesburg and within a larger African context?
For me it's not an issue at all. I have never encountered any bias or prejudice - actually it has been quite the opposite. Going back to what I was saying earlier about affirmative action and equal opportunity policies, South Africa has adopted one of the most free-thinking and inclusive constitutions in the world. While good ideas on paper are often enacted very differently in real-life situations, the issue of human rights is so paramount, given the kind of history we've experienced, that people are hypersensitive to issues of prejudice. In my experience it's simply not tolerated. Having said that, I am part of a privileged minority in the sense that I am middle-class, I've worked my way through two degrees with the support of my parents and have just registered for my doctorate. It would have been easy to get a job in the academy and just keep doing that, but I don't feel I would have challenged anything, or created anything new. But I don't tolerate the idea of disempowerment - having a substantial amount of personal agency to act on it in any situation is paramount - it's something that I protect and encourage other people to find their edge to do the same. Culturally-speaking, it's interesting to note that there are not many black women artists practising professionally, and very few artists of colour working in the digital or electronic arts field. Black women dominate the crafts sector but it's a matter of cultural conditioning that the idea of "artist" is not something women aspire to, or are traditionally encouraged to pursue. It's not even as simple as the kinds of romantic stereotypes that do the rounds about "male genius" - Pollock, Picasso etc. - the ubiquitous pale male of the modern and contemporary art world. The fact that not many black women artists exist means that they are the most sought-after minority to include in major exhibitions. I don't mean to sound totally cynical about the power plays at stake, as there is a lot to be said for the developmental aspects of mentorship and experience, which should be happening. But the issue of gender is a complex one - it's about a lot more than that - all sorts of socio-cultural and historical factors come into play.
A multidisciplinary practitioner, Kathryn Smith lives and works in Johannesburg. She completed a Masters in Fine Art at Wits University and is currently reading for a PhD in Fine Arts. A co-founder of The Trinity Session art collective and The Premises Gallery, she recently decided to pursue independent projects after nearly four years of active research, project management and production in the field of social and public arts projects. Now represented by the Goodman Gallery, her work will be featured at this year's Art Basel Miami Beach festival in the US after which she takes up a two-month residency in New York with partner Christian Nerf as part of a joint fellowship awarded by the Ampersand Foundation.
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