Archive: Issue No. 99, November 2005

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Nathaniel Stern

Ralph Borland


Lets get physical
by Carine Zaayman

In the last couple of years, a number of South African artists have been exploring the possibilities of what is commonly referred to as "physical computing". This interactive genre involves the use of digital technology that receives input from physical sources, such as movement or sound (as opposed to the mouse or keyboard) to manipulate data, and give output in a variety of forms, including (but not restricted to) audio and video.

The use of this technology and these processes have been popularised locally by artists Ralph Borland and Nathaniel Stern, both of whom trained at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP).

On his physical computing website, Borland describes it as follows: "Physical computing involves the use of sensor devices and microcontrollers to capture information from the 'real' or physical world, and the use of that information to control other devices, including other computers" (

These two artists have been highly successful in drawing attention to the possibilities of interactive media of this kind. Nathaniel Stern has been awarded merit prizes at the 2003 and 2004 Brett Kebble Art Awards, and had a pioneering new media solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004/2005. Ralph Borland has recently finished installing his public sculpture at Jetty Square in Cape Town, and last month traveled to New York for the show "SAFE: Design takes on Risk" at the Museum of Modern Art. Moreover, they have also been instrumental in introducing the technique into university curricula, especially those of the WITS School of the Arts and the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town.

Interestingly, in both Stern and Borland's cases, the ideology behind their work is much more important than the technology. This is apparent from their respective websites especially ( and, which are both intent on demystifying the often-proclaimed totalitarianism of technology, by freely sharing information and knowledge. Moreover, the notions of user-orientated design and invention in the face of local restrictions, in other words, socially conscious work, are high on the agenda here. Borland's gives a good background account of the field in which he works, as well as useful links and information for anyone interested in the genre.

Stern's blog ( has in the last couple of months been undergoing change and rather radical expansion. It must be one of the most popular sites in the South African art world, and also has many followers abroad. Recently, Stern has invited a number of guest bloggers, including the likes of Aryan Kaganof and Franci Cronje. Stern's site is especially successful in integrating whatever technological skill and techniques are out there, with a strong sense of community and exchange.

Another site that is useful in this regard is, which was founded by Stern, Christo Doherty, and the WITS School of the Arts. Atjoburg describes themselves as follows "Online, is a free, open source (Creative Commons content) resource for anyone interested in supporting, engaging with, or learning about, art & technology. We write about, and review, events ranging from local artist talks, to international artist presentations, and multimedia party/events. Offline, we host our own art/tech workshops (3-4 times a year), open to the public (charging only enough to cover our costs), and regular, free presentations (during University time, every single Friday! - even tho sometimes we forget to blog about it ;)". Atjoburg also contains a physical computing section created by Daniel Hirschman (

While these are not the only people working locally within the genre (Matthew Hindley's recent public sculpture installation at the SANG being one notable example), they have been instrumental in helping to grow interest and production in this field.