Lets get physical
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 (nathanielstern.com and ralphborland.net), 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
physicalcomputing.co.za 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 (www.nathanielstern.com/blog/index.php) 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
Another site that is useful in this regard is www.atjoburg.net, which was
founded by Stern, Christo Doherty, and the WITS School of the Arts. Atjoburg
describes themselves as follows "Online, AT.joburg 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 (http://www.atjoburg.net/?page_id=34).
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.