A Thursday in October. I touch down in Amsterdam to catch up with the World Wide Video Festival, and head straight for the Baby media lounge where my work Can't Forget, Can't Remember is one of a large programme of videos and CD-Roms being shown.
Baby is housed in an old church bordering a canal, a great space with high ceilings. Low grey wooden cubes conceal the computers, leaving only hi-tech flat screens on view on the surface, and are surrounded by bean bag chairs making for comfy viewing. This cool decor is set off by a tall, rectangular fish tank in the middle of the room, mounted on scaffolding. Two solitary goldfish swim around, their lazy perambulations triggering off the soft ambient sounds which fill the space.
I can't wait to come back and sit down for some serious watching, but this evening fellow Capetonian Matt Hindley is giving a presentation at De Melkweg, a 10-minute walk away, and the centre for the 'Meet the Artist' programme. For the first three days of the festival, a whole series of screenings have been planned. Matt's piece is called Allow Me to Observe, and is being shown in a theatre in which viewers can sit at small tables and drink and chat while watching, cabaret style. Except this evening there are disappointingly few patrons. There are three theatre spaces in De Melkweg, and visitors must make constant choices as to what to watch.
Matt's piece looks great, though. A camera is attached to a person's head and linked to sensitisers on his/her finger and thumb. A rising level of excitement turns the camera on. We never see the protagonist, only the world as seen through the camera lens. In tonight's episode, the camera is making love, and a girl's soft face and body swim in and out of view. Reality TV with a twist.
Much later in the same space, cyberpunk rock band 386dx give a brilliant performance under the leadership of Russian artist Alexei Shulgin, a lanky figure with John Lennon late-Sixties-style brown hair constantly flopping over his face, tie-dyed T-shirt and black leather pants. Shulgin's instrument is an old computer keyboard strung around his neck in electric guitar mode and played frenetically with all the rock star flourishes, and his "band" consists of assorted outdated computer hardware and a dry ice machine which periodically sends up clouds of smoke. At the beginning of each number, a computer screen appears on the large screen behind Shulgin's head, the artist stops playing to programme in his selections for the next song - all Sixties and Seventies hits - and then starts again, with bursts of colour and lighting effects now filling the screen behind him.
Shulgin says later that he uses only computer technology over which he has absolute control, and his interest is to see how far he can push it.
Many of the artists have been booked into the Museum Hotel, very conveniently placed in the museum district. The easiest way to connect with the others in the hotel is in the breakfast room, at 9.45am. With 15 minutes to go before breakfast closes at 10am, most of the artists decide free food is more important than another hour of sleep, and make an appearance. Matt reports that he attached his camera to the head of the hotel receptionist yesterday - in her episode the camera moves rapidly from one new guest to another as the receptionist goes about her daily task. Later, the camera accompanied someone on a drug-buying mission.
Rodney Place reports back on the opening night of the video festival, which I missed. For this event, Rodney Place restaged the parade which was part of last year's 'unSUNg City' in Johannesburg. To his great disappointment, the eight pantsula dancers who were to have been part of the parade, all of whom had obtained passports in preparation, did not receive the anticipated funding from the National Arts Council for their air fares. Workshops planned around their visit in Amsterdam also had to be cancelled. So instead of dancers, performers and sundry hangers-on cavorting through downtown Johannesburg, the "parade" was a boat trip of arty types to the parking garage where videos by such major names as Jane Alexander, William Kentridge and Brett Murray were shown on two floors.
The ubiquitous Candice Breitz is showing with German artist Thomas Demand at De Appel. In Me, Myself, I (2001) Breitz, known for her pieces which dissect and edit popular culture, for the first time turns the camera on herself. In a darkened room, three adjacent screens show different moments in a long sequence in which Breitz, face almost totally hidden behind her video camera, the setting probably the toilet of a train, films her own reflection in the window. Lights, other trains, towns slip by in the background behind the image. The piece is simultaneously narcissistic yet reveals nothing except perhaps a comment on the life of the contemporary artist who, going to the loo while on a train from one art date to another, finds her own reflection, backed by the sliding night landscape, interesting enough to make a self portrait of. The artist as nomad, veiled with a camera.
Back to De Melkwag at 3pm to catch the ferry which has been organised to take festival goers from one venue to the next, free of charge, for the first three days. By the time I get to where I was planning to go - Veemvloer, where Angolan artist Antonio Ole has a retrospective - it is many canals later, and if I wish to see Tracey Rose's presentation at Melkweg, there is no time for Ole now. The 'Meet the Artist' programme is intended to expose an audience to something of the artist's work and be followed by an interview by a presenter and a question and answer session. Tracey's piece, commissioned by the WWVF, is a three-screen presentation, on at Arti et Amicitiaie. Not suitable for a flat screen presentation perhaps, but couldn't a segment have been shown? The audience, which can hardly be expected to have already viewed the work of all the artists in all the venues on the programme, is disgruntled at not having anything of Rose's work to view as a starting point for a discussion. One felt that there should have been more communication between Rose and the organisers on this point beforehand.
My own 'Meet the Artist' session is tomorrow, and when a two-screen presentation by Colombian artist Fernando Arias on the theme of the viciousness of the drug trade in his country breaks down twice before the end, I get extremely anxious about the next day. Tracking down the technician, I make a noon date for a runthrough. Dinner tonight is a very pleasant and casual affair at Els van der Plas of the Prince Claus Foundation. Brit curator Debbie Smith is here, and Jose Ferreira, who has presented not only his own work but a whole programme of videos entitled 'Africa in Focus: Sulsouth'.
Most of the day is spent planning the evening and sorting out technical glitches, but there is time to finally view Tracey Rose's and Minnette Vári's work. Very different pieces, but both successful. Rose pays tribute to Johannesburg drag dancer Leones, who recently committed suicide. A fellow dancer, dressed in a feathered cloak which constantly changes colour, creeps and dances between three screens. Unpretentiously shot, the camera lingers on details like a lace curtain backdrop, or a goldfish bowl set outside. Vári continues her exploration of her own implication in the history of South Africa, basing this piece, Chimera, on the Great Trek frieze of humans and animals figures from the Heroes Hall in the Voortrekker Monument, near Pretoria. In Vári's presentation, imaged on four diaphanous screens suspended from the ceiling and hanging at angles to each other, the frieze figures have been reanimated with additional footage, constantly morphing into strange dreamlike images.
That evening, my presentation of Can't forget, can't remember goes off without a hitch. There are a respectable number of questions from the audience - and it's over!