Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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Art as Usual

'art as usual'
Installation view

Much ado about nothing

A war of words recently broke out at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. As a result an exhibition was cancelled, or - more accurately - presented other than as advertised. 'art as usual' was to be the highlight of Christian Nerf's '24.7' residency programme at the JAG; instead audiences were presented with a list of framed accusations.

Curator Christian Nerf principally aimed his barbs at JAG exhibitions curator Brenton Maart. Responding to the core allegation that he reneged on his promises and commitments, Maart submitted the following text, which is republished largely unedited. Christian Nerf responds. (See also Reviews)

Brenton Maart: An informal internal review of the '24.7' Residency Programme at the Johannesburg Art Gallery

Brenton Maart is the JAG's exhibition curator. He writes here in his personal capacity.

1. My rather puerile contribution to Christian Nerf's '24.7' residency programme was a red 'f' alongside his 'art as usual'. Fairly retrospectively (chalked in during the last week of his 'exhibition of evidence'; weeks after deadline) and definitely reactionary (in response to his ill-treatment of the JAG), my artwork action had at least one function: it gave a focus to this first paragraph and also to the second.

Traditionally, in academic circles, the red 'f' denotes 'fail'. In the case of my artwork, however, it functions to form the word 'fart'. Defined as to emit wind from the anus, fart also means to behave foolishly and waste time. We know also that farts are warm (not hot), so I'll add that: a fart is warm wind emitted from the anus.

As with all processes (and farts can be considered Process art), farts also move from one place to another. Sometimes the farter tries to blame someone else in the nearby vicinity; the elevator operator, for example. This category of farter is thus demonstrating the physical and psychoanalytic technique of projection.

2. Briefly, this is what seems to have happened with '24.7' at the JAG:

The Johannesburg Art Gallery is a creative, productive space where exciting things happen. Thus, Christian Nerf's proposal for the gallery to host his '24.7' residency programme seemed like a neat case study at mapping the creative possibilities of interdisciplinary practice. The Gallery accepted Nerf's proposal, and with much vinyl lettering the studio was set up in a temporary exhibition space.

A lack of process management, linked to a significant lack of support from a large part of the Jo'burg based artist community, led to the initial burst of enthusiasm giving way to a kinda dwindling, with artists (including myself) promising and not pitching nor delivering. Towards the end of the seven-week residency programme, not much was happening aside from the kids at the Nintendo game cube.

After a brief rest, during which time Nerf was meant to be compiling the catalogue the JAG promised to fund and also prepare the work for show, in an "exhibition of evidence". The exhibition - the gallery and participating artists' were led to believe - would show work created during the residency programme. This was an important consideration for the young artists participating.

In the meanwhile, a debate ensued about how many copies of the catalogue Nerf could have for free. JAG liberally offered him half the print-run of the publication; Nerf said no. Was he making a strategic statement, or did he not have his shit together (the fart metaphor extends)? Whatever the reason, this is unacceptable to participating artists.

Back to the exhibition at the JAG, which under Nerf's direction, was not an exhibition of work generated during the programme. Instead of the products and process evidence promised to the JAG and participants, the '24.7' exhibition at the JAG turns out to be minimal. Not a participant's work in sight as far as I can make out (except for Kim Lieberman, Katherine (sic) Smith and Barend de Wet). Instead, on the walls are a nasty framed letter signed in baby-blue pencil crayon slating (mainly) myself and Rochelle [Keene, the director of the JAG], a black cross in the now-overused el Greco frame (almost definitely a black cross against our names?), some framed packing material (the work that was meant to be on show has packed up and fucked off?), and other bits including an ashtray overflowing with butts and a black blob of charcoal below that.

Instead, the exhibition was held on September 27, at Carfax.

Whether this statement was effective or not, or whether or not it carried some inherent agency, again the bottom line is this: A personal or professional gripe is not an acceptable substitution for the agreed-upon exhibition. I am sure this holds as much for participating artists as it does for the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

3. Nerf's self-styling as hijack artist does have some appeal, especially when strategically applied to an organization like the JAG. The method of transformation of a gallery steeped in historical baggage needs to be sharp and furious. And as with all campaigns (guerrilla and otherwise), this is best done strategically and communally.

Over the past four years, the working methodology of the JAG has been one of constructive creativity. Delimitations are used as opportunities for problem solving. Dead wood is ignored, hopefully to be consumed by the growth around it. The inner workings are used to help blow up the place from the inside. This is the operating policy we will continue with, and any assistance towards this would be welcomed.

Christian Nerf: The Facilitator responds to Brenton Maart's internal review of the '24.7' Residency Programme at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Christian Nerf is an artist. He writes here in his official capacity as invited facilitator.

Sean O'Toole phoned me last Thursday and said that he had received Brenton Maart's commentary on the '24.7' / 'art as usual' project. It contained "sweeping statements" and I was given the opportunity to respond.

City+Suburban studios offered the long end of the stick by initiating the '24.7' Residency Programme at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Brenton Maart obviously did not get it.

In Maart's opinion there was "a lack of process management"'. To this I would like to respond that I was 'soft curating' the process but in fact I was merely facilitating an opportunity. Maart claims "a significant lack of support from a large part of the Jo'burg-based artist community"; fact is the '24.7' studio attracted over 50 participants.

Maart states "with artists (including myself) promising and not pitching nor delivering". Ok, so some people are slackers. Maart was one of those artists that came with a new idea every week, setting himself a deadline, not pitching and on occasion not informing his collaborators (who did pitch).

"Towards the end of the seven-week residency programme, not much was happening aside from the kids at the Nintendo game cube." Is this part of what Sean O'Toole referred to as "sweeping statements"? Towards the end we had active participation from Ed Young and his large team of players including Andrew Lamprecht and Cameron Platter (who all flew up from Cape Town), Razak Awofeso, Alexis Fotiadis, Rowan John, Justice Mokoena, Nicholas Hlobo, Christo Doherty, Elmi Badenhorst, Thando Mama, Ronan Coyle, Barend de Wet, Kim Lieberman, Daniel Hirshmann, Milo, Jamil X.T. Qubeka, Daron Chatz, Franci Cronje, Rupert England, Margo Saffer, Des Fletcher, Daniel Moruthane, Y'oas Tshifhiwa Nyambeni and Kathryn Smith (with several collaborators) amongst others.

Perhaps these participants were on site during one of Maart's many days off? Ok, perhaps Maart is talking about what was happening on the surface? Process is not always visible as many of the passive participants came to learn, an artist's studio is not always active. Is an 'empty' studio any less engaging?

"The exhibition, the gallery and participating artists were led to believe, would show work created during the residency programme". 'art as usual' was proposed as an "exhibition of evidence" providing clues of what occurred in the '24.7' space over seven weeks. This was not "an important consideration for the young artists participating" as they were all aware that that their artwork would not be exhibited, on the contrary artists were simply offered the opportunity to work in public, they were not obliged to complete an artwork although some may have chosen this time and space to do so.

Ironically, midway through the project, which according to Maart was "kinda dwindling", the gallery approached me with an offer to publish a catalogue. In discussion with Maart we agreed that our studio would "design" the content (as we were originating it) and the JAG and City+Suburban studios would be co-publishers. Furthermore it was agreed, on my insistence, that City+Suburban would receive half of the edition. It is an outright lie that "JAG liberally offered him [Nerf] half the print run of the publication".

This is how the story went: Working with the gallery's "preferred print supplier" I presented numerous options, these were all over budget. At that point I was given a defined budget to work with and set out to find another supplier. Then, contrary to our agreement, I was told that a designer would be coming onboard, I was told that he is the "preferred supplier" yet it turns out to be Maart's friend who just happens to design the majority of the JAG publications (quite well I must add). Once this "misunderstanding" was resolved I negotiated with a printer who not only came in on budget but also offered various freebies for this "art" publication. Throughout this process various JAG staff members constantly reminded me that Maart deals with catalogues and they will not interfere.

Next I submitted the quote and requested that the gallery contact the printer to give the go-ahead. It was at this point that Maart denied that he was responsible for publications and did it because "there was no one else to do it" and Rochelle Keene took over. This was all very late in the game and it was at this point that Keene expected me to renegotiate with the printer and consider accepting less copies. As it turned out the gallery had offered me money that was not theirs and was now expecting me to devise a plan to recoup the costs even though they admitted that the costs for catalogues were usually written off.

All things considered I had lost all faith in both Keene and Maart, they had reneged on the deal and there were no assurances that if I succeeded in renegotiating with the printer (at such a late point) that there would not be a repeat performance. With regards to Maart's statement on behalf of active participants that "this is unacceptable to participating artists" I will point out that I had not mentioned the possibility of a catalogue to all the participants and it was never part of the initial offer. I will take this opportunity to apologise to participants that were prematurely informed of the publication; at that stage I had no reason to distrust Keene.

Maart points out correctly that "the exhibition at the JAG, which, under Nerf's direction, was not, an exhibition of work generated during the programme". As I pointed out earlier in this response that participants in the live act/ performance were aware that their artwork would not be exhibited. Did Maart not notice, over seven weeks, that the majority of participants did not create finished artworks and that the intent was never to accumulate a body of finished artworks. Perhaps Maart should have interrogated the notion of evidence further or he could have just asked.

Maart again points out correctly that "the '24.7' exhibition at the JAG turns out to be minimal. Not a participant's work in sight as far as I can make out". Going on he claims that there are three works - Kim Liebermann, Katherine [sic] Smith and Barend de Wet - but these were not finished artworks per se. Liebermann's 'work' is leftover materials; Smith's is an item taken from her project; and de Wet's is an element of his Art Disguised As Pasta performance. These artists may present these objects as works of art at a later stage but I included them as examples of what went down.

Maart is responsible for uncomplicated matters such as preparing the space for exhibition. Two weeks prior to the opening of 'art as usual' I requested that the space be painted white. This was simply ignored. Maart relinquished responsibility to a co-worker days prior to the opening. His co-worker was already busy on another show scheduled to open the same day and this simple task was not achieved. The "letter signed in baby-blue pencil crayon slating (mainly) myself [Maart]" referred to this and numerous other requests that were blocked. His co-worker subsequently asked me to write a letter to the gallery with regards to the incident, perhaps this will deal with the matter.

Maart has conveniently left out other clues provided by the exhibition such as a broken gallery chair, videocassettes 'taped over' during '24.7' such as The Borrowers and Risky Business, the Nintendo Game Cube (with the notice Game Over stuck to the screen), painter Razak Awofeso who remained working live in the space, DJ+27's custom tracks played on a loop, an isolated section of the original Taxi icon painted on the wall, 14 sets of "500 originals", a restored see-saw, a Microsoft Project plan, a list of definitions, a print of Matt Hindley at work, a grand piano (Wayne Barker's First Movement), a page from my diary noting LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS, TAKE NOTHING BUT PHOTOGRAPHS and a silhouette sculpture made up mostly of lost property from participants.

Maart then goes on to state that: "Instead, the exhibition was held on September 27 at Carfax". This was not instead but rather as well, the installation at Carfax was integrated into a Dj gig called 'Time' where I chose to show video documentation, the same video evidence that was shown every day during the '24.7' project. Maart goes on further, based on his previous statement: "A personal or professional gripe is not an acceptable substitution for the agreed-upon exhibition". The original '24.7' flyer publicised an exhibition of evidence and this is what was presented at the JAG. Is "minimal" bad?

There were alterations in the overall project as the process developed, for example daily insights via were publicised; this did not happen, although 6000+ words were published over seven weeks. We also publicised weekly reviews and previews on and this was not realized.

Q: What is the difference between an "old fart" and a young fart?

Finally I would like to comment on Maart's confession to "My [Maart's] rather puerile contribution to Christian Nerf's '24.7' residency programme was a red 'f' alongside his 'art as usual'". Is this act acceptable for a person in his position? A curator's role includes conserving, protecting and maintaining art and the exhibiting of art. Can the JAG be trusted to curate exhibitions after this incident? Brenton Maart has demonstrated that he is not fit to hold this position of responsibility. I am not the first, and certainly will not be the last, to call for the removal of a JAG staff member.