Old Ideas for New Media at the BKAA
South Africa's beleaguered art world has seen some commotion with the inaugural Brett Kebble Art Awards (BKAA) exhibition this month. Much has been said about the rewards, some of it useful, but not a lot. Lloyd Pollak's scathing review in This Day (October 13, 2003) for instance, essentially provided a platform for the reviewer to call whatever he did not like "inferior" (award winning entries by Abrie Fourie and Hanneke Benade, among others), while praising the works he liked for no more specific reason than a pursuit of "aesthetic excellence".
Pollak insisted that some works, such as Peter Schutes' (sic), were "far better" than that of category winner, Josephine Ghesa. No reasons are given for his preference, but he posits that the judges were conned into overlooking the fact that Ghesa's sculpture was "poorly modelled", because "three of the judges were women", and their "feminist sympathies" must have gotten the better of their aesthetic judgement.
Honestly, in the face of insistent calls for real critical engagement with South African art, such unfounded tirades are not welcome, especially when there are some real issues that need to be addressed.
Right, cards on the table? The production, reception and theorisation of new media work in the South African art context are particularly close to my heart. Thus, my declared concern in relation to the BKAA is the representation of new media as an 'area', as are the choices of specific works and winners for this competition/ exhibition.
Clearly, the issue of whether setting up categories is in fact necessary, or more specifically, useful in a competition of this kind, is an important one, but not something that I am really concerned with here. Suffice it to say that artists and judges have frequently suggested that it is impossible to judge artworks in extremely dissimilar media on an equal basis. Perhaps the BKAA decided for this reason that it necessary to invite works in categories from craft to printmaking. And, in a sense, this did help to provide space for the recognition of works from the rural context to the space age.
But let us not be fooled into thinking that the field of new media was really present in the awards. (The only actual new media piece was, I believe, Nathaniel Stern's work in the form of interactive software, entitled Stuttering.) Let me be clear, we cannot allow ourselves at this point to limit our conception of new media to video, however cleverly extended into projections onto sand and other material.
Of course, an art competition exhibition is determined in part by what artists enter. In addition, Stern told me that his equipment requirements were reasonably well fulfilled. It would appear thus, that the BKAA did its part. So why were there not more 'real' new media works?
I believe the reason for the lack of real new media work at the BKAA lies deeper. Undeniably, the show foregrounded object-based artworks, and this is something that fundamentally excludes conceptual work, for one, and also truly non-materially based work, such as the kind that new media often offers. A website, for instance, which needs to exist virtually, an audio-visual performance, a site-specific installation, or even an interactive exchange via telecommunication, cannot really be presented inside the physical and conceptual parameters of the BKAA. (And to say nothing of the dreadful space given to the works at the CTICC.)
Perhaps this is the reason that Mark Hipper's (admittedly stunning) entry seems so out of place. His forms might emotively evoke a technological world, but its sculptural nature emphasises the pedantic object-based logic of the show. Moreover, by awarding the new media prize to the very painterly work of Anne McIlleron, the BKAA raised deep suspicions in my mind regarding the extent to which new media is understood by the competition.
But it is not only the premise around which the BKAA was conceived that created problems. Sue Williamson remarked in the previous edition of ArtThrob (3 October, 2003) that her projections were not exhibited correctly. This, I learn later, is not an isolated incident. Nathaniel Stern says that his computer requirements were ignored at first, and he had to liase with the staff at the time of the exhibition to obtain the right equipment.
Johan Thom tells me with much distress, that the wrong video from his DVD was shown, in spite of him having taken every opportunity to indicate which video he intended submitting. The mistake is obvious when one considers that the image of his work in the catalogue does not represent the image on the screen in the exhibition. Moreover, unlike the piece he wanted to enter, the exhibited video was in fact a documentation of a performance, and not an autonomous work.
Abrie Fourie also complained that his triptych, Swallowed, was incorrectly displayed. The day of the opening, Fourie found that instead of three monitors showing three different videos, there were three monitors showing the same work. Both Fourie and Thom expressed concern at the influence this incompetence on the part of the exhibition organisers might have had on the judging process.
Of course, one thing that the BKAA can learn from their first attempt is that having the money to get the equipment is not enough, they also need to have someone with adequate expertise in technology at hand. However, the fact that this was not already the case compounds the sense that there was a lack of understanding of new media.
I also propose that it is imperative that the BKAA revisits the object-based conception of the show. As Kebble the man remarked on the opening night, the BKAA is intended to help build the brand of his business. But perhaps he should realise that if the BKAA could include artworks in truly extended and contemporary modes, the competition would have much more credence with the art world, and this branding will be far more successful.
Cape Town International Convention Centre