by Kim Gurney (December, 2005)
Ralph Borland is as an artist, designer, teacher and technologist. His practice is inter-disciplinary and often collaborative. This year he has completed a new public artwork on Cape Town's foreshore and exhibited as part of a group show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, while also teaching at UCT's Michaelis School of Fine Art.
Borland is at the forefront of an interactive genre new to South African artists, often called 'physical computing' or 'pcomp'. Carine Zaayman describes pcomp as 'digital technology that receives input from physical sources like 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'. Borland, along with contemporaries like Nathaniel Stern (a fellow graduate of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program [ ITP]), has helped to familiarise South Africans with pcomp. Borland often uses pcomp in his own work and he also teaches it to others.
The inter-disciplinary nature of Borland's practice frustrates easy categorisations but a few recurring traits are discernible. One is a knack for making visible what is often ignored, denied or taken for granted. He teases out the magic ink underlying actions, responses, or socio-political dynamics, for example making visible somatic responses (like an amplified heartbeat) or foregrounding repressed aspects of history in his public artwork. This tendency has manifested itself in new media works, found objects and straightforward sculpture. This penchant for drawing attention to something otherwise dismissed perhaps began in his early graduate years in his role as an event promoter and DJ. This advocacy streak is still evident and Borland continues to enjoy stirring ideas and passing on knowledge through forums that include the art world.
A socio-political consciousness recurs in his works but in a playful and witty manner. Borland's sharp sense of humour provides viewers with a light-hearted handle on serious issues. The resulting commentary is regularly ambiguous and unsettling: it both delights and disturbs.
The presence or participation of viewers often completes the meaning in his art-making and the audience is therefore implicated. Borland says: 'Something I am conscious of in both my ideas and teaching (concerns) a system of signs; you are choosing signs to communicate ideas to an audience... It also makes it more collaborative in the sense that you are sharing something with people.'
Furthermore, his works often have an interactive element that challenges the notion of a passive relationship between viewer and artwork. Borland says he has a troubled relationship with interactivity: 'On one hand, it offers some exciting opportunities to really engage with the work. But it is easy for it to be gimmicky - not just because of the intent of the person making it but because it is difficult to make really robust, sensitive and nuanced interactions.'
Borland regularly works in an inter-disciplinary manner straddling art, design, architecture and technology. He is usually busy on a number of projects at any given time, each benefiting from the cross-pollination process. And he likes working with other people, something which was deeply instilled during his Masters at NYU. Borland creates eloquent works that are immediately accessible yet layered enough to offer multiple meanings and accrue new interpretations in different contexts.
'Call it art, technology or simply a tongue-in-cheek memorial. Ralph Borland's latest unveiling sets a new precedent in interactive public sculpture. And like so many of his ideas, this one sounds crazy enough to work...'
- Dylan Culhane on Borland's Jetty Square public project in one small seed, Bell-Roberts Publishing: Issue 1, October-December, 2005: p. 7
'A speaker in the centre of the chest amplifies and projects the wearer's heartbeat... In a group action... one would hear heartbeats increasing as tension and excitement mount, like a natural soundtrack arousing the crowd. At the same time, the heartbeat exposes the vulnerability of the individual. The fragility of the human body is exploited as a tool, a shield, almost as a weapon, against police munitions.'
- Patricia Juncosa on Borland's Suited for Subversion in Safe: Design Takes On Risk, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2005: p. 84
'The artwork invites readings about race and culture, about threat and alarm, about death, jubilee, soccer and South Africa. They resonate from it in a field of overlapping associations; no singular or exact reading is offered.'
- Brett Kebble Art Awards catalogue, 2004: p.55
'Particularising its context, Ralph Borland's Vuvuzela, inserted into the wall at an angle, signals one of the major concerns of many of the entries - soccer. Co-opting the Shembe trumpet of the local soccer pitch to be the heraldic instrument of welcome to the exhibition, the piece is wired so as to be responsive to viewers. In effect, it proclaims a new era - a time when we look forward more than backwards.'
- Virginia MacKenny, 'Configuring culture - art is what you make of it' in the Brett Kebble Art Awards, 2004: p. 13
'The ideology behind their work is much more important than the technology. This is apparent from their respective websites especially, 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.'
- Carine Zaayman on Nathaniel Stern and Ralph Borland in ArtThrob Projects, November 2005: www.artthrob.co.za/05nov/project.html
Ralph Borland is teaching New Media and Physical Computing at Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town and has also run pcomp workshops at Wits University.
In September, Borland unveiled a new public artwork in Jetty Square on Cape Town's foreshore. The installation site used to be underwater before the land was reclaimed from the sea. Based partially on this historical aspect, Borland has created five aluminium skeletal sharks erected above patterned brickwork. The installation comprises both a sculptural and kinetic element. The sharks are designed to harness the power of the wind, which activates in-built flutes. They also respond to people passing below through sensors built into their snouts.
Borland is also currently exhibiting on a group show at New York's Museum of Modern Art called 'Safe - Design Takes on Risk'. Suited for Subversion is a protective suit that projects a wearer's heart-beat outside of their body. The suit draws on the protective-wear worn by activists at large-scale street demonstrations in Europe and the United States. It was also on show at South Africa's Klein Karoo National Arts Festival in 2005. The work grew out of his final semester project at New York University's ITP, where he completed his Master's degree in 2002.
Borland places Suited for Subversion at the intersection between design and art: 'It is both meant to perform a function but also to be read from the outside as being a commentary.' It drew inspiration from Borland's experiences as a street activist in New York during his four-year residence, punctuated mid-way by the politically galvanising events of September 11.
Borland says of this experience: 'It laid bare a lot of things. In America, it's quite easy to not really know what other people's politics are and to just float along... Something like that reveals all these schisms. I became involved in anti-war protest organisation and making media and artwork for anti-war organisations... Everybody felt an immediate need to express themselves in some way... This broadened into more general anti-capitalist groups suspicious of corporate globalisation.'
He adds: 'I started thinking about how to combine other things I was interested in, projects to do with technology and art-making. I was interested in the work people did that was clever and funny and engaged the media's attention... I was trying to work out ways to meet this challenge of how to protest and make it more than piling out and walking in the streets and going home again; it seemed very stage-managed.'
This interest led Borland to groups like the Ya Basta and their 'white overall' tactics, WOMBLES, or the Tutti bianche, who wear white protective-wear to protests. Borland says Suited for Subversion fuses white tactics with more playful, carnivalesque, or 'pink' tactics. He describes it on his website thus: 'As much as my suit is armour, it is also disarming; as much provocation as protection.' The work took on the quality of a commentary as Borland's choices further defined it: 'As I was making it, ideas seemed to emerge occupying an ambiguous territory.'
Making political art is part of his interest: 'I don�t know how practical [the suit] is but its function now seems more about spreading an idea to other people through the audience that goes to art galleries, the art world as a forum. Its function is more to be in the media and get people excited about what it suggests about humorous resistance or subversion, the possibility of changing the rules in protest.'
Alongside his teaching and taking on role as ArtThrob coder and designer, last year Borland exhibited as a finalist at the Brett Kebble Art Awards in Cape Town. His two works N.O.T. and Vuvuzela turned found objects into powerful objects of commentary. He was also selected for the 2005 Awards, which have recently been cancelled. Borland says the demise of the Kebbles is a pity: 'It had a feeling of the old salon-style galleries... the populace coming because of the buzz around it. There are pros and cons to that but I think democratisation of the arts has potential. [The Kebbles] was also well staged.'
He created FRONT, a collaborative project with Jessica Findley and Margot Jacobs. Two people are invited to don ceremonial conflict-suits that inflate in response to their shouts and growls. Both experience a distortion of body that affects themselves and the other simultaneously to establish a dialogue, with internal conflicts becoming external via body transmutation. Borland says: 'They felt they had appendages to their body so they could express themselves in a different way. And they also felt the suit constricting and impacting upon their bodies so it put them into a whole different state.' FRONT has been exhibited at various international venues including Berlin, Montreal, San Antonio and continues to travel.
Borland majored in sculpture in his undergraduate degree at UCT's Michaelis School of Fine Art. His interest in technology and computers was inspired shortly after graduating in 1997 while organising parties with a multi-media component. He saw computers as a powerful tool and he followed a suggestion to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.
Students from all over the world and a range of backgrounds - artists, teachers, social workers, architects, lawyers - attended the course. This approach was both influential and liberating for Borland's artistic approach - 'Part of the whole ethos of ITP is that it does not foreground the technological aspect; it's more a question of what you want to make happen and people will assist you to do that. The ethos is about sharing knowledge. ITP occupies an area outside of the art world.'
His NYU experience also extended ideas which had been gestating at Michaelis. Borland's final-year UCT work dealt with sensation and not with carrying a particular idea: 'One thing I wanted to do was make environments or situations where people could feel certain things but that wasn't very intellectual or narrative... ITP enabled me to continue those kind of ideas. A lot of what we learnt in physical computing is how to track someone's movements or take input from a person and create an experience for them.'
Borland is preparing for a March 2006 exhibition in Australia called 'New Wave' (www.nextwave.org.au) to coincide with the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. It is taking the original name of 'Empire Games' as its theme. Borland's work forms part of a project where artists are given shipping containers to transform into an artwork. Political art and provocative technology form the basis of his planned work, Side Show: 'I'm turning my container into a combination of clubhouse, hangout spot and gallery with furniture, music, magazines, books, artwork. My idea is to have people come together, connect, exchange ideas and get inspired.'
Borland is keen to be more involved in public art. He is preparing a proposal for a social sculpture grant in Manhattan regarding the destruction in the Lower East Side of a building about a decade ago. He wants to haunt the space with audio as a way of reconnecting to its history. He adds: 'History is a very political thing - what gets remembered. I'd like to remind people of particular things... revitalise what gets pushed away.'
Borland has enrolled for a PhD at Trinity College in Dublin starting April 2006 at the Electrical and Electronic Engineering department, working with a research team called Disruptive Design. Borland says he relates 'disruptive design' to provocative technology: '... this idea that you can design things and they might be useful, ameliorative, help to solve a problem but they might also be provocative or disruptive in the sense that they might not help the problem. They might antagonise people but in so doing raise awareness'. The working title of his proposal is Provocative Technology: Tools for Social Change.
2002: Interactive Telecommunications Program, New York University: Master of Professional Studies
1997: Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town: Honours Degree in Fine Art
2003 - present: Lecturer (part time), Michaelis School of Fine Art, University
of Cape Town
2004 - 5: Digital Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, Individual workshops
2000 - 3: Expository Writing Program, New York University
2005: Jetty Square, Cape Town, South Africa (www.ralphborland.net/jettysquare):
Public sculpture commission, Funded by the City of Cape Town
'Safe: Design takes on Risk', New York Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA (www.moma.org); group exhibition
'Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees', South Africa (www.kknk.co.za); group exhibition
'Htmlles07', Montreal (www.htmlles.net), Electronic art festival
2004: Finalist on 'Brett Kebble Art Awards 2004', South Africa (www.bkaa.co.za)
Gallery Neurotitan, Berlin, Germany (www.neurotitan.de), artwork selected for Interactive art exhibition
'ISEA2004 - Wearable Experience', Baltic Sea (www.isea2004.net), Project selected for Symposium
'Virtual Minds - Congress of Fictitious Figures', Thealit, Bremen, Germany (www.thealit.de/lab/virtualminds)
2003: 'V Salon de Arte Digitale', Havana, Cuba, Conference and art exhibition,
work displayed/ conference participant
'Q-ville Artist Collective Launch', New York, USA (www.qville.org)
2002: SIGGRAPH Art Gallery, San Antonio, USA (www.siggraph.org), conference
'Beyond the Gallery', Public art symposium, Cape Town, South Africa, (www.artthrob.co.za/02mar/news/public_feedback.html), conference speaker
2001: 'OpenMouse, Rhizome', New York, USA (www.rhizome.org), multimedia performance
'Digital DUMBO', Mastel+Mastel Gallery, Brooklyn, USA (www.digitaldumbo.com/home.html)
2000 - 2002 Graduate Assistanceship, New York University
1999 - 2000 Lew Wasserman Scholarship, New York University
1999 - 2000 Paulette Goddard Scholarship, New York University
1995 and 1996 Student Council Chairperson, University of Cape Town
1996 Student Parliament Representative, University of Cape Town
1994 - 1996 Entrance Merit Scholarship, University of Cape Town
1994, 95 and 97 Class Medals, University of Cape Town
1994 Irma Stern Scholarship