A dispatch on the arts, technologies and cultures in the metropolitan community served by the Johannesburg airport.
"I know exactly what to call it," I said to Cobi van Tonder in a late-night, drunken brainstorming session for a new art collaboration-a romantic outdoor installation involving water and motion sensors-at some bar in Centurion (the New Jersey-circa 1985-of Johannesburg).
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"The Sea," I said.
"Perfect," she declared, and more drinking commenced.
Three years later, not only have we not found the budget to produce our doomed project, but Cobi has been overseas for more than a year, commissioned to make stunning work for ISEA and other residencies, even while remaining mostly unknown in her home country. There is undoubtedly some recognition and (much less) support for South African techno-art, but it mostly happens in this way-Out of Africa, so to speak.
Global and Local
There is a huge disconnect between the international and local "scenes" of Johannesburg's art and technology elite. New York-based Joshua Goldberg, the first digital artist-in-residence at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), once called Johannesburg "Moon-Base Alpha," implying our vast city of 19 million people was relatively isolated from "mainland" international art contexts. Marcus Neustetter <onair.co.za/mn>, the head of UNESCO's DigiArts Africa and an underappreciated artist in his own right, is continually invited to panels and lectures overseas, and van Tonder, a former UNESCO award-winner, is making a name for herself as an interactive composer in Europe and the Americas <www.otoplasma.com>. Such relationships, however, in which First World outreach programs swoop in to make an African superstar or two, can hardly represent all our city, country or continent's diverse work.
There are, rather, many local pockets of production. These come from design communities and arts departments, DIY performance artists and hackers, high-concept professionals and open-source gurus-and many combinations thereof.
Critical discussions within South Africa's art scene tend to waver between wonderfully (sometimes overly) complimentary engagements and all-out complaint sessions full of blame. Somewhere between the two, and with a twist of "Screw it; I'm just gonna make it happen," one will find small communities of utterly exhausted and mostly penniless artists doing amazingly interesting and beautiful art/tech interventions. These are our future-makers.
Programs, Blogs and Communities
Christo Doherty, the head of Digital Arts at Wits, holds regular Digital Soirees, public presentations by local or visiting creatives and scholars. Once a month, I help "upgrade" these to The Upgrade! Johannesburg <atjoburg.net/upgrade>, where we plug our artists into a local node of a global network. These upgrades have helped lead to visits by such luminaries as Hans "übermorgen" Bernhard and Turbulence.org, as well as to facilitate our now historic Unyazi Electronic Music Festival <www.newmusicsa.org.za/unyazi2005.html>.
Doherty's department, founded as a Master's program in the Wits School of Arts and growing into more, is housed in the "Digital Convent," a former nunnery. Its part-time lecturers, including myself, have gone on to give workshops at a half-dozen other South African institutions. The students, who annually exhibit performative installations at downtown sites, are regularly featured on our collaborative blog, Art & Technology, Johannesburg <atjoburg.net>.
Art blogs in general have caught on in the last year. Most use the medium to write about more traditional work (such as Sue Williamson's pre-blog diary and site-at-large, <artthrob.co.za>), but there are a few who push the boundaries. Aryan Kaganof, known for his cellphone-film and networked performances, has his overflowing Kagablog <www.kaganof.com/kagablog>, consisting [End Page 4] of local "great art daily." Such net. presence has helped wake up the global community to some of our homegrown stylings: Turbulence.org gave its first South African net.art commission last year, and Art Interactive (Boston) will exhibit an all-South African show in 2007.
Programs, sites and communities such as the above also facilitate cross-fertilization. Kaganof's blog began after a spat of guest...