Archive: Issue No. 115, March 2007

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OPINION

With issues around notions of a Johannesburg underground raised by December's opinion piece, and also by Rat Western's January response in the Feedback section, I though it appropriate to broaden the debate somewhat. I approached leading art educator David Andrew for his opinion on the status and potential of art education initiatives that sometimes escape mainstream attention. Hopefully this will be the first of numerous responses to pressing issues within the sphere of art education published in ArtThrob. Below are Rat Western's thoughts on the Johannesburg underground too, which reflect more on early professional practice than educational experience.
Michael Smith, Gauteng Editor

Below the Radar
by David Andrew

A recent article published in The Cape Argus ('Art Crisis Looms in Schools' by Sandiso Phaliso and Patrick Burnett, February 12, 2007) once again highlighted the less than satisfactory situation surrounding the teaching of arts in South African schools. Simply put, the lack of arts education in schools, particularly so-called 'township' schools, remains a largely unaddressed issue. This situation remains in spite of calls from leading educationalists such as Professor Jonathan Jansen (Dean of Education, University of Pretoria) and Professor Mary Metcalfe (Head, Wits School of Education), and many others, to recognise the arts as a vital part of each learner's education.

To some this will sound like an all too well-trodden path. But perhaps there is a need for the broader arts community, including tertiary institutions, to align itself more visibly and forcibly with the education sector in order to address this crisis.

There are projects, of course, that have attempted to do just this. While not an exhaustive list, the following examples give some idea of this terrain: in the Western Cape, the Frank Joubert Art Centre has continued to play an important role in the training of art educators. In Gauteng, the Advanced Certificate in Education (Arts and Culture) programmes offered jointly by the Curriculum Development Project and the Imbali Visual Literacy Project, in conjunction with the University of the Witwatersrand, during the period 2003 to 2005, provided a model that could be adapted in other provinces. In February 2007 this vision was realised with the adaptation of the model for a cohort of Mpumalanga Department of Education teachers. The Artists in Schools project directed by the Curriculum Development Project and the Wits School of Arts during the same 2003 - 5 period offered yet another alternative to meet the challenge of provision in schools and community centres. The Free State University's Fine Arts Department has offered an Advanced Certificate in Education (Arts and Culture) programme since the mid-90s, through their system of satellite campuses in the province. More recently, this same department has managed successful Artists in Schools programme in the Free State province.

Artists remain a key resource for arts and culture provision and a more ambitious imagining of their role in schools and community centres is necessary. Many of these projects are made possible through funding from both international and local donors. Some receive the support of national and provincial Departments of Arts and Culture and Education but not as part of a longer-term strategy aimed at addressing the greater challenge.

While there are these examples, and others, there is, as always, much to be done. Just as much as the kind of relationship mentioned above requires constant nurturing, is it not time for a more imaginative thinking? Is there a way in which the pedagogies emerging from organisations such as the Joubert Park Project at the Drill Hall in Johannesburg can be drawn on for this challenge? Is there value in seeking alliances with those committed to promoting multiliteracies and multimodality as central to teaching and learning?

The Documenta 12 Magazines programme hosted by the Goëthe Institute in Johannesburg on February 24 and 25 has as one of its leitmotifs, or guiding questions, 'What is to be done?' This question concerns education. Perhaps it is time to extend this question to that which might happen in a broader public sphere that includes schools and community centres.

David Andrew is a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art and Art Education at the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand

Thoughts on the notion of an artistic 'underground'
by Rat Western

I'm not too comfortable with the term 'underground', as it implies a gothic kind of darkness or subversiveness that is deliberately contrary to mainstream. It also romanticizes the projects which sometimes, as their nature dictates, need to function outside of a formal gallery space. I think it is limiting to see an alternative methodology of art presentation as necessarily a teenage tantrum demanding the equal attention of an experienced 'adult' mainstream.

But let us consider, for the sake of this conversation, that by the term 'underground' we mean all those projects happening outside of perceived mainstream commercial or established white cube galleries. Sometimes underground projects occur as a direct result of what is happening on a mainstream circuit but, for the most part I think they are the spaces of experimentation and expression where aspects such as saleability are not of primary concern.

I think these projects currently take two definite forms. The first is the project space, which is obviously not a new concept. Yet the availability of a physical space, with little or no rent, where one can experiment freely without having to worry that sales are necessary to offset the overheads is something that continues to have value for artists. It is of particular use to emerging or lesser-known artists who are not part of a large gallery stable or who do not have the financial backing to experiment. Once, as arts practitioners, we have left a place of study - if we are not part of a collective or artists' studios - we no longer have the comment and feedback so necessary for creative growth. Project rooms can supply this by allowing artists to experiment with something new and invite an audience to engage with and comment on the work.

I think the key to these spaces is experimentation. Abrie Fourie's Outlet, for example, housed in a small projector room on Tshwane University of Technology Arts campus, forces both the artist and the viewer to engage with the nature of the space by virtue of its size. Elsewhere, Simon Gush allowed the artists exhibiting in his Parking Gallery space to drill extensively into the walls and paint the floors and walls in a multitude of colours. This kind of practice incurs minimal cost for the artist, but unfortunately not necessarily for the curator of the space, who covers rent or maintenance of the space. So why do they do it? I could speculate about a mixture of altruism, a need to help in the experimentation and development of work, and an interest in the status accorded the provider of such a platform. Yet it may be best to ask them what their motivations are.

The other form of 'underground' project which is growing fast at the moment, takes place in cyber-space. Web space is considerably cheaper than physical space; it reaches a wider audience and is visible for longer periods of time than the project spaces which are often one night stands. Blogs are particularly popular because they have an informal nature and the space for short commentary by the readers/viewers. I think ArtThrob might benefit from having some kind of comments function rather than the Feedback section, which requires the commentator to first establish what s/he is referring to and then pursue her/his argument/feedback. I know this can be a problem as the comments function is often abused, or becomes a site for spam. It is possible to moderate these comments but it can be a logistical nightmare. However, I think it might be worth some kind of trial.

Websites are more a space of expression and less a space of experimentation than project rooms, though they are functions of both places. Artheat has their own project space, which, in my opinion, hasn't been too successful so far, but I think it is a step in an interesting direction.

As for whether the 'underground' becomes the orthodoxy of the future, it is not unlikely that those who gain experience as either artists or curators in these lesser known spaces will go on to work in bigger, better known spaces. It is the people rather than the projects that emerge.

And what is the function of the art critic in relation to these projects? In observing what happens and commenting on what works and doesn't work, the art critic not only documents this transient and ever-changing scene for the benefit of others who come after but also helps to provide a necessary commentary that can mold and shape. This is the sort of commentary which is very much needed for those looking to experiment and express something new.

Rat Western is a Johannesburg-based artist and writer. She also writes for and compiles the Bag Factory Newsletter


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