Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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Johannes Gees

Johannes Gees
Hello Mr President
Laser installation in Davos, Switzerland

Is Cape Town saying goodbye to HELLOWORLD?

A public art project initiated by Swiss artist Johannes Gees in which enormous laser projected messages would be beamed onto Table Mountain for three days in December seems in danger of not happening this week, with a refusal from the Parks Board to allow the projections.

HELLOWORLD is a non-commercial public-art project fully funded by the Swiss government, commissioned for the United Nations Summit on the Information Society, which takes place this year in December in Geneva. The artist Johannes Gees chose Geneva, New York, Cape Town and Bombay as four sites around the world in which he would establish very large interactive text-projections on each city's most noted landmark. Members of the public can post messages worldwide on these projections using their cellphones or the internet. The city of Rio de Janeiro has also expressed great enthusiasm in participating, with images to be beamed on Sugarloaf Mountain, should Cape Town continue to say no.

This is not the first such project for Gees - in a highly successful project entitled Hello Mr President' in 2001, business leaders around the world gathered for the World Economic Summit in Davos Switzerland were able to read laser messages projected on the side of a mountain.

Co-ordinating the HELLOWORLD project in Cape Town on behalf of Public Eye, is artist Ralph Borland who has this to say: "As an artist and academic: I'm interested in how notions about medium play into the debate. Part of the difficulties we're experiencing getting permission for this project is due to the association our project has to the abortive millenium clock project in Cape Town, because both use laser projectors. Yet our project is entirely different in scope, content and intent to that project. I think it also reveals anxiety around creating relatively open forums for public expression - though public interaction is moderated in this case.

"The way things stand at present is that we have had a very frustrating time trying to secure permission for this project in Cape Town. We have spent months on this process, without success, and by next week the artist and funders will be forced to take the project to Rio de Janeiro instead. I have contacted numerous city agencies to ask for an opportunity to present the project plans, or to ask for permission, and have received no replies, or been moved from one department to another. The Swiss Consul-General took up our cause, and has spent the last several weeks being passed from one city department to another. He has at least a dozen names of officials who he has been passed through, including the mayor and the city manager, until this week, when he was passed full circle back to where we began months ago!

"What concerns me, as both the project manager and a Capetownian, is not just an excess of bureaucracy - it's the lack of responsiveness that public officials have had to a very worthy art-project that would involve the public of South Africa in a dialogue with people from around the world, and put South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, in the world media as part of 'the information society'; an image of South Africa I think our leaders are keen to present. As it is, the public may never get to know about the opportunity we were presented with.

"The only body to reply definitely to our requests so far has been the Parks Board, who responded from the very beginning in the negative. I've been walking on the mountain since I was a child, and I still do, so I'm glad we have people committed to protecting our mountain. Johannes Gees has grown up in the mountains of Switzerland, where he was invited to speak at the United Nations Year of the Mountain last year. We both feel that we share many of the concerns of the Park Board. But the fact is that the laser projectors used for this project pose no risk to plants or animals. I have on hand a report from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, testifying to this.

"The only explanation the Parks Board's representative, Mr. Paddy Gordon, has given to us for their refusal, is that a policy decision was taken 'after the Millenium' not to allow laser-projections on the mountain. I interpret this to mean that because of the failure of the millenium clock projections, they don't want to be made to lose face again. In fact, the events surrounding that projection would make a story all in themselves." Paddy Gordon also believes there would be a public outcry against the Board for allowing the mountain to be used in this way. Yet everyone who we have properly presented the project to supports the idea; it isn't a 'disney-fication' of the mountain - it's noncommercial and invites all kinds of people to participate. With the slogan 'A Park for all, forever', HELLOWORLD seems an excellent way to involve the whole of Cape Town in the mountain. People across a wide range of economic and social groups have access to cellphones, and for the cost of an SMS they can take part."