James Webb is a pioneer of sound art in South Africa. But his production extends far beyond that of gallery installations. Webb also works as a sound designer, curator and teacher. A keen collaborator, Webb is always involved in a number of projects where his expertise on sound as well as project coordination is invaluable.
Highlights of his career include the co-curation of the YDETAG and YDEsire events, participation in the 2002 Ars Electronica festival, his collaboration with James Sey for 'A Compendium of Imaginary Wavelengths', and his two-part solo exhibition 'Phonosynthesizer' at the US gallery in Stellenbosch and the NSA in Durban. His sense of pop and eroticism characterise many of his works, especially in two of my favourites, thesexworks, a telephone artwork, and Wa, an elaborate spoof on our celebrity-mad pop culture and our romance with all things Japanese.
It is, however, his ingenious conception of the way in which sound permeates our world and thinking that defines Webb's magical oeuvre. His work never simply revolves around the playback of sound files. Instead, there is always careful consideration of the physicality of context and media, whether this is the installation of large speakers, or almost invisible interventions in public spaces. Process is further of prime importance for this artist, as his manner of sourcing sound is invariably already part of the way in which meaning is generated through his work.
Webb's process has at least three stages. The first takes place mentally. He is an astute observer of the tangents within culture, whether of large political strifes or private conflicts. Through these observations, Webb is able to discern patterns. He then conceives of possible ways in which this pattern can find physical manifestation as artwork. Here, the idea is born.
The second part of his process involves extensive collection of material. By making use of contact microphones, picking up the hum of urban bustle through the window of his Cape Town flat for instance, Webb is tuning in to the sound of his environment. Sometimes the process involves a conscious journey of collecting, as for example, when he sourced the material for his multi-channel installation Prayer, and visited various places of worship. These sounds are then captured on his home PC, and the alchemy of ordering the mundane into the significant begins.
While most would be happy to have this idea, this pattern, exist as an object, or in this case, a soundtrack, Webb then enters into the third stage of his process. Finding the right mode of exhibition involves everything from choosing the correct kind of speaker for sound quality (or lack thereof) as well as aesthetic appearance, to ensuring that the diameter of the speaker cables and the way they are arranged contribute to the meaning of the work.
In its execution, Webb's process often reminds me of drawing. The structure is integral: the details form a purposeful map of his idea. In this structure, it is both the minute relationships between single aspects, as well as the overall pattern that count. One only has to regard 'Phonosynthesizer', or Prayer, or even Next to You I am Nothing to appreciate the way in which all three stages of his process find culmination in the exhibition.
'I seem to have two ways of working. The first, and most active way is to use art as the extension of my will. In these situations, I fashion works that are the manifestations of my feelings and desires. I seek to create in a divine sense, and breathe life into events, situations and possibilities. This is where I think first and my actions are the realisation of that thinking. Art becomes the science and magick of causing change to occur in conformity with will.
'The second way I have noticed I work is to be more passive. Here I design situations that play themselves out with my limited set of rules and selected intervention so that the audience/listener/public will work with that situation and thus create the artwork. They become participants and so do I. This is where I act first and my thinking is the realisation of those actions. Listening and doing nothing as creative artistic acts perhaps best describes this second method of working.' James Webb, 2004.
'James is really a sonic artist. I met him at the recent Red Bull academy in Cape Town, where he had the most delightful and slightly disconcerting installation in the toilets!', Mira Calix, Dazed & Confused,Volume 2 Issue 15, July 2004.
'On the other end of the spectrum (as Stratford-upon-Avon is different from Whittlesea), there was 'A Compendium of Imaginary Wavelengths' by James Webb and James Sey. Here, there are no lead singers and zero ego, with just two men in black sitting behind desks, dimly lit by the glow from their laptops' open faces, from which they play, control and manipulate the sounds and textures that make up their specific brand of electronica... Before you know it, an hour has passed and your thoughts have been drifting here and there in some weird dream-like state almost subconsciously guided by the delicate pulls and thrusts of the music. No encores when done though, just a synchronised slapping-shut of their laptops.' 'Best of the Fest: From culture to condoms' by Toast Coetzer, www.iafrica.com July 19, 2004.
'The piece acts as a sort of sonic, scientific, and erotic wunderkammer, that 17th century cabinet of eccentric wonders by which gentlemen could imagine their own alchemical science. Those collections, unlike the compendiums and scientific almanacs of today which systematize and normalise, instead sought out the wondrous and extraordinary: mermaid's tails, pieces of the skulls of wise men, two-tailed lizards, perpetual motion machines.' Julian Jonker, Art South Africa, Volume 2 Issue 3, Autumn 2004.
'James Webb's response to the idea of archiving is a postmodern affair, devoid of emotions that can be attached to particular meanings. An accidental meshing of sounds generated by asynchronous CD players, it takes randomness beyond the personal. Webb's work has lots in common with the computations inside a motherboard at NASA. Still searching, but digitally.' Alex Dodd, Art South Africa, Volume 2 Issue 1, Spring 2003.
'Interestingly what is produced is not, as might be expected, an alienating or irritating experience. Instead Webb's piece is curiously soothing. Apparently undirected, the work encourages free association. Not forced to find an intended meaning one is carried by one's own associative processes. Listening to the sonic hissing and stutter induced memories of the sound of rain in an African night filled with insects - perhaps an apposite evocation for a country caught between the First and Third Worlds. A highly satisfying experience.' Virginia MacKenny, Artthrob, June 2003.
'Iconoclastic cultural terrorist.' Alexander Sudheim, Mail & Guardian, June 6, 2003.
'After (him) Krushed & Sorted will probably sound like Westlife.' Nic Dawes, Mail & Guardian, February 21, 2003.
'James Webb is another artist from Cape Town whose work can be understood as a productive interplay with spatial and geographic determinations, though in a completely distinct way. His success story might be unique, yet for artists feeling underexposed or disconnected it can stand as an example of an artist who, while struggling with local conditions, remains true to his intentions and gets recognition from his peers.' Thomas Boutoux, Flash Art International no. 225, July- September 2002.
'Outre avant-garde', Lloyd Pollak, Cape Times, April 2000.
'It's the kind of landscape which, once experienced, one yearns to revisit.' Sue Williamson, Artthrob, November 1999.
Webb is preparing to take up his eight-month residency at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, Japan, in August. But he has plenty going on back home. He is finalising his album 'ZA 2004', due for release later in the year on the recently established Open Record label (www.openrecord.co.za).
He is representing South Africa on a project curated by Scanner featuring contributions from 7 sound artists around the world including Lawrence English (Australia), Robin Rimbaud (UK), Doan Huu Thang (Vietnam), Stephen Vitiello (USA) and Paulo Vivacqua (Brazil). The event will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
For this project, Webb had 12 people stationed in places of historical and social importance around Cape Town on July 15, to simultaneously record the Noon Day Gun. These recordings will be played back consecutively for the duration of one minute, as part of the 'listening to the world today' theme of the broadcast. His work Prayer is currently on view at the 'Decade of Democracy' exhibition, at the National Gallery in Cape Town, and his White Noise is part of a forthcoming show in Zaragoza, Spain, in September.
He has just returned from Grahamstown, where he performed 'A Compendium of Imaginary Wavelengths' with James Sey, and produced the soundtrack for Antigone directed by Sean Mathias.
Earlier in the year, Webb was involved in the 'Excogitations' event at the Pretoria Art Museum, organised by Abrie Fourie. With this event, a number of artists and musicians participated in a live sound performance. Webb's contribution consisted of jellyfish-like speakers and wires stuck on the wall next to nineteenth century landscape paintings in ornate golden frames. This installation, The most romantic of names used field-recordings of African landscapes that were digitally glitched to produce contemporary electronic soundscapes. Here, the old school European landscapes are subverted by the new school African soundscapes. Sadly, this event marked one of the last appearances by the tragically deceased Gito Baloi.
Last year, Webb co-curated the YDEsire exhibition at the Castle, Cape Town, with Kim Stern. The one night exhibition/event was of enormous proportions, and Webb and Stern procured a record amount in sponsorship. Webb's performative contribution to the YDEsire event was in the form of Wa. He had, apparently, invited a famous Japanese DJ called Wa to perform at the event, and she quickly gained a local following that eagerly anticipated her appearance.
Her performance shocked many, as she played what can only be described as noise at a very high volume. Unknown to many, this was actually Webb's artwork, as he asked a Korean girl called Elizabeth Han, to play the role of his fictitious DJ, and he, not her, was responsible for the sound.
2003 also saw Webb's participation in the launch of the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) with the Trinity Session. One of Webb's more humorous pieces, Chamber Music, was made for this event, and featured sounds including that of loud farting, lions roaring and bubbling water emanating from hidden speakers in the bathroom.
In 2002, Webb travelled to Linz, Austria to participate in the world-leading new media event, the Ars Electronica festival. Here he presented two works, Radiotopia(http://www.aec.at/radiotopia) and Search. One of his trademark works Prayer was first shown in 2002 at the US gallery in Stellenbosch on his debut solo exhibition 'Phonosynthesizer'. That year, Webb won a merit award at the 2002 ABSA Atelier exhibition for Next to you I am nothing.
Webb co-curated another Softserve event, YDETAG, at the National Gallery in Cape Town in 2001. During this time, Webb collaborated with the eminent sound art innovator Holger Czukay to produce 10 Steps to Heaven. This work can be heard on http://www.dignose.com
thesexworks, an interactive telephone work, was also produced in 2001. This piece consisted of six audio tracks that one could hear by phoning a cellphone number. One could also leave one's own (erotically inspired) sounds on the number's answering service. Because of the manic sexuality of the sounds, these tracks have a haunting sense of audio voyeurism, which is exacerbated by the fact that one heard it through telephone speaker.
From 1998 to 2000, Webb participated in a number of exhibitions, such as the '!Xoe Site-Specific' group exhibition and the 'Postcards from South Africa' exhibition in New York, with his 'From South Africa, with love, hope and a few cups of Rooibos tea' created with the electronic music group RAM.
The seminal event of this period was undoubtedly the master classes with Brian Eno at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, in February 1998. Webb attended these workshops, and struck up a connection with Eno, who subsequently wrote the catalogue essay to Webb's 'Plans for greener structures', again with RAM, for their show at the Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet in October 1999.
Webb prepared himself for his career and success in the diverse areas in which he works, in his studies from 1994-1997 at the University of Cape Town. He often jokes that since he has a degree in Drama as well as Comparative Religion, he is perhaps best suited to work as a televangelist.
Born June 20, 1975 in Kimberley. James Webb currently lives and works in Cape Town.
'A Decade of Democracy', The South African National Gallery.
'YDEsire', The Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, February 22, 2003.
'YDETAG', The South African National Gallery, Cape Town, September 7, 2001.
2004:'A Compendium of Imaginary Wavelengths', (With James Sey), Beethoven Room, Grahamstown and Bush Radio 89.5 FM
'Z?ppelin 2004 - Festival de Arte Sonor', Centre de Cultura Contempor?Onia de Barcelona,
'Excogitations', Pretoria Art Museum
'A Decade of Democracy', The South African National Gallery
2003: 'Space Repurposed', Red Bull Music Academy, Cape Town
'Phonosynthesizer 100603', NSA Gallery, Durban
'Music for Mooi Mark', Johannesburg
'YDEsire', The Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town
2002: 'Ars Electronica Festival', Linz, Austria
'Found Sound Space 01', Thelema Mountain Vineyards
'ABSA Atelier Awards Exhibition', ABSA Gallery, Johannesburg
'Phonosynthesizer 090402', US Art Gallery, Stellenbosch
'The New Media Underground Federation #2', The Valve, Cape Town
2001:'Home Port', V&A Waterfront
thesexworks, 083 010 1235 and http://www.artthrob.co.za/01nov/project.html
10 Steps To Heaven, (With Holger Czukay), www.dignose.com
'Improvised Pieces For Double Bass and Electronics', (With Brydon Bolton), The Independent Armchair Theatre
2000: 'True Stories', The Granary, Cape Town, One City Festival
'!Xoe2', National Arts Festival, Grahamstown
'!Xoe2' Site-specific group exhibition, Rubrige Barn, Nieu Bethesda
1999: 'Plans For Greener Structures', (With RAM), The Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet, Cape Town
'Postcards from South Africa', Axis Gallery, New York
'Committee's Choice exhibition', The Association for Visual Arts, Cape Town
2004: 'ZA 2004' (forthcoming)
2003: 'Chop Sui'
Open Records Sampler 1
2001: 'Improvised Pieces For Double Bass and Electronics' (with Brydon Bolton)
'Conference' (with Niklas Zimmer) 2001
'Linear City' (with Holger Czukay) 2001
'Infinite Coastline' (with Niklas Zimmer)
SELECTED THEATRE WORKS
2004: 'Antigone' (Directed by Sean Mathias, Grahamstown National Arts Festival and Baxter Theatre)
2002: 'Mamma Medea' (Directed by Marthinus Basson, Aardklop Festival)
'Cold Water, Thirsty Souls" (Directed by Mark Fleishman, choreography by Alfred Hinkel, Artscape Theatre)
2001: 'Aars!' (Directed by Marthinus Basson, Aardklop Festival and The Spier Summer Arts Festival, 2001 and 2002)
'T'angkupa' (Directed by Lanon Prigge, various venues)
'Bangalore Torpedo' (Directed by Jaco Bouwer, Grahamstown National Arts Festival and the Post Festival of Contemporary History, The Bijou)
1999: 'Mung' (Directed by Rob van Vuuren, various venues)
Chris Roper, 'A decade of contradictions', Mail & Guardian, April 9, 2004
Thomas Boutoux, 'Aperto South Africa', Flash Art International no 225, 2002
Melvyn Minnaar, 'SPITS JOU ORE VIR HOORBEELD SE AFVALKLANK', Die Burger April 25, 2002
Chris Roper, 'Phonosynthesizer at US Art Gallery, ArtThrob, April 2002
Kathryn Smith, 'Weighing up the competitions', Art South Africa, Vol 1 Issue 1, 2002
Lloyd Pollak, 'Voices from the city's blasts...', The Cape Times, April 23. 2001
2002 Absa L'Atelier Merit Award
South African National Gallery