'Red Eye: Access Denied/Access Granted' in Durban
by Storm Janse van Rensburg
The quarterly 'Red Eye' art event, hosted by the Durban Art Gallery, is a seminal platform for contemporary art in Durban, and is the longest surviving 'art party'. 'Red Eye' pioneered this kind of gallery/museum event, combining performance, music, installations, and loads of alcohol.
Since its inception 'Red Eye' has evolved from a monthly event situated within the confines of the Durban Art Gallery, to a quarterly event spilling out into the streets of the city with events hosted in Smith Street, the adjacent Medwood Gardens Park and the City Hall, a move that increased the event's audience pulling power. Instrumental to this growth is access to funding, leveraged through strategic partnerships with the Durban inner city rejuvenation programme, iTrump, and other city sources.
Originally, content for the events was generated internally and through a committee system. However, this shifted in the last couple of years with the appointment of guest curators for events, with prominent figures in the larger creative industry contributing. Opening up the creative direction of 'Red Eye' to practitioners in other art forms has provided variety and fresh approaches. Integral to the event is the proposal and application system would-be participants undertake for the guest curator.
For the most recent 'Red Eye', iTrump Director Richard Dobson took the helm as curator. Dobson, an architect by training, set the event in the bowels of the City Hall building, which houses the Municipal offices, Library, Museum and Art Gallery. Titled 'Access Denied/Access Granted', the evening took place in two phases. For the first the audience congregated in the Durban Art Gallery, located on the second floor of the City Hall. Having arrived, everyone had to queue for a 'registration' process, an intervention by new media artist Roger Miller that saw each audience member providing their name and having their photo taken. This information was processed via a computer (which randomly classified you as either 'lower', 'middle' or 'upper' class) and individuals were assigned fictional 'access granted' or 'access denied' status, according to their designated class. Finally 'processed' and registered, each member received either a white, red or black hard-hat, whilst their citizenship information was randomly projected onto the gallery walls.
A number of events in the Gallery followed registration. Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre presented a lyrical work choreographed by Eric Shabalala, which was followed by a dubious effort by King Zorro. King Zorro is a well-known Durban personality, known for his camp outfits and good-natured banter at arty events. In his contribution, he appeared in a large nappy playing a big baby, sucking his thumb and making silly crying noises. A young woman, playing 'mother' nervously sang a song whilst King Zorro tried to get into a baby's shoes. Thankfully the performance did not last too long.
In the gallery next door, a video by Tessa Comrie, Miss Petite, was impressive. With a soundtrack by the original Miss Petite, Edith Piaf, the work consisted of a painstakingly crafted stop-frame animation in which a paper puppet is cut out, an outfit constructed from dress pattern paper, ironed, and finally consumed by an out of control sewing needle and red thread, whilst it danced to the tunes of the accompanying music.
At this point in the evening a level of frustration crept in as there was no indication of what was to be expected for the rest of the night. The registration process and hard-hats indicated that an exploration of sorts was to be expected. However, not much was communicated to the crowd inside the Gallery. Confusion reigned with Gallery staff running around, and no information filtering through to the crowd waiting. After a considerable wait people congregated downstairs in the lobby, where finally the audience were told to go outside and form rows according to the colour of their hard-hats.
The three colour-coded groups were then taken into previously restricted areas in the City Hall, which kicked off the second phase of the evening. These restricted spaces, essentially service alleys, cover large areas inside of the complex, running the length and width of the building. Once inside, one has the sense of being inside another city, which provided a heightened sense of place and space. The three groups entered the site from three separate entrances, and after a series of performances, met where the alleys converged. All along the alleys installations were presented by a number of artists including Vaughn Sadie, Rike Sitas, Dean Henning, Vega Imagination Lab and Linea Fashion Academy amongst others.
Due to inadequate programming and communication with the audience, a lot of the work unfortunately went unnoticed. Although an MC, Pinky Mtshali, was present and made an attempt to inform people of things as they were happening, it was inadequate. Many of the installations were simply lost in the chaos of the event - one example being Rike Sitas' work. Had it not been pointed out to me by the artist I would have missed it. Not signposted, nor marked on the programme flyer handed out, I also did not get to see the work by Vaughn Sadie, and also missed an apparently exciting collaborative performance by Ben Haskins, Caroline van Wyck and Justin Lagesse amongst others.
A performance installation one could not miss, by Mlu Zondi and Ntando Cele, occupied a service lift and shaft. The two have developed a reputation for their idiosyncratic performance language, and this piece had no real beginning or end. During the time I accessed the piece both artists were huddled inside the lift, dressed in multi-coloured plastic, their faces hidden from view. Zondi randomly painted words with the back of a sjambok, through the lift's trellis door, on a board outside, dipping it at intervals into bowls of brightly coloured paint. This awkward movement was interrupted by sudden lashings of the sjambok in the direction of Cele, who kept on huddling in a mock-frightened way. Their shenanigans continued as I moved to the next distraction.
The final performance of the evening was by Cape Town-based artists, Peter van Heerden and Andre Laubscher, who presented a piece based on a recent work, Bok. Before the performance started Laubscher was stationed at one of the entrances, behind a mobile counter wearing plastic overalls and clutching a hatchet. On the counter an assortment of offal and other pieces of meat were displayed, along with a tired bouquet of flowers, fished out earlier from a Municipal rubbish bin. Their tour de force started with Laubscher violently chopping up pieces of meat to be hung by a performer from a washing line, (who moments before had removed her panties under the gaze of Van Heerden). Playing on the stereotype of the sexed up, rugby watching, brandy-and-coke-heterosexual-male, a naked Van Heerden proceeded to simulate sex with a baby doll. A stunned and shocked audience watched as Laubscher started to beat Van Heerden with a leather strap whilst on top of the doll.
This outburst of real violence was followed by Van Heerden being dragged by Laubscher onto a chair, tied up, whilst screaming 'Every six minutes a child is molested in South Africa'. Laubscher then hit him in the chest with a bag of lime suspended from a wooden rig. The impact of the bag propelled Van Heerden backwards, and exploded the contents of bag, covering the audience in white powder. In a final torturous moment, Laubscher dragged Van Heerden down the alley towards the street exit, where he elicited help from audience members to hoist the beaten and bruised Van Heerden up by his feet, leaving him suspended whilst the audience moved on.
The Durban Art Gallery has overseen the growth of 'Red Eye' into a unique and rich meeting point for artists and the largest, most diverse audience for contemporary art practice in Durban. It is an event that takes considerable institutional will and drive to see through, and the gallery staff must be commended for staging this on a regular basis. At the same time, I would hope that more care is taken in future events with the logistical planning, programming and ushering of audience members, to ensure that all participants are given a proper showing in conditions that suit their work best. In turn, a more comfortable audience will also be more generous in the attention they pay to more subtle and ephemeral works.
As the event is subject to internal review, it might also be considered to invite black curators to shape content. Although black artists and audience members are well represented, criticism has emerged from interest groups that this area needs attention, and with a generation of exciting emerging talent in Durban it should not be difficult to find suitable candidates.
Former curator of the KZNSA Gallery, Storm Janse Van Resburg has initiated developmental programmes such as the Young Artist's Project, which provides an important platform for young and upcoming artists. He is also a trained artist and freelance curator.
'Red Eye' took place on May 26, 2006.
Durban Art Gallery
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