Archive: Issue No. 117, May 2007

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Armed response II
by Michael Smith

Traditionally, art criticism places great emphasis on artists and their works, often neglecting the activities of curators and their 'bigger picture' concerns. Thus, in place of a review of 'Armed Response II', I chose to interview the two artist/curators responsible for facilitating the event; Juliana Smith of the USA and Switzerland, and Anthea Moys of Johannesburg. We met at one of Newtown's hippest hangouts, Fuel Café late in April, where they spoke to me of live art and the importance of playfulness.

Michael Smith: Tell me how you got involved in curating 'Armed Response II'.
Juliana Smith: We first worked together as curators on 2006's 'Kazoo - it's a live art thing!' an event that happened out of the Premises Gallery in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
Anthea Moys: Then the Goëthe Institute approached us and asked us to co-curate the second installment of 'Armed Response' along with them.
MS: Crime and the attendant paranoia about safety and security are such fraught topics in contemporary South African life. How did you go about avoiding perpetuating stereotypes while dealing with these issues?
JS:Working from our beginnings in 'Kazoo...', which was about interaction and using public space. We were interested in adding a twist of irony to a loaded topic.
AM: We encouraged artists to approach it playfully, and also to consider using the space around the Goë:the Institute, not just the traditional gallery spaces. We wanted to explore using public space, facilitating audience participation and instigating a new type of action.
JS: One of my favourite events at 'Kazoo..' was this kind of scavenger hunt...
AM: The Miss Yucki Trolley Trash Treasure Hunt. We had about 40 kids dashing around Braamfontein in search of hidden yucky treasures and competing against each other for the prize...
JS...yes! It's the sort of thing people get interested in, they get excited, and we're excited about trying something new.
MS: Which works on 'Armed Response II' stand out for you?
AM:Well, it was important to us that artists did utilize space and audience participation.
JS: Yes, like Suzanne du Preez, whose work I'm sure everyone wishes they'd thought of first; it's so simple yet so powerful. She put ladders on either side of the wall, for people to climb up (if they could brave the electric fence). It's an intervention that needs an audience to consider it, maybe participate in it.
AM: I love that it's a suggestion of something, a possibility, asking 'why not?'. It brings up those kinds of questions that need to be asked around the issues of safety and security.
JS: Also, Jacques Coetzer has created a range of 'survival vests' that one can order in all sorts of colours and designs. You can order a floral one if you're a woman...
AM: Again, this kind of practice highlights a possibility of what could be. When we spoke to Jacques during preparations for the exhibition, he told us he was simply going to be himself, chat to people, show them how to use the vests, etc. So the vests become a catalyst for interaction between people, between artist and audience/public.
MS:What about dealing with contingencies, situations that may arise as live art unfolds? How do you as curators plan for these, or deal with them?
JS: You have to be flexible, and forego total control - otherwise live art becomes a play, too scripted. The element of spontaneity is crucial for what we want to achieve, and so the reactions of the audience, which we can't predict, are very important.
AM: The audiences one interacts with are very interesting. We enjoy having 'determined' and 'non-determined' audiences being part of the live events. Last year, Juliana did a performance in Gandhi Square, where there were people who came specifically to see the piece. Then there were a whole lot of other people who just happened to be in the space at the same time. So some parts of the audience knew she was operating as a live artist, but there were others that didn't. It's a very productive meeting of two groups of people.
JS: Of course, with live art you have to decide whether or not to let people in on the fact that you're an artist working in public space. I prefer to let people know, or let them find it out as the live work is happening, but other artists may choose not to.
AM: I did a live art work where I participated in the 94.7 Cycle Challenge, except that I rode a stationary gym bike, not moving. It was a really strange experience, having all these people rushing past you while you're staying in one place being filmed. The public inevitably ends up interacting. People kept whizzing past with all sorts of comments. But that's what I like about public art: you're extending your network to create another kind of dynamic, essentially pushing the boundaries of what art is for you and an audience.
MS: How do you see your practice as curators and practitioners of live art along a tradition of South African performance/live art? I'm thinking of artists like Steven Cohen, Peet Piennaar, Johan Thom etc?
JS: Well, of course we entirely validate the work those artists produced; it was so important. Cohen especially is one of the founders of performance or live art in SA. Yet, Cohen and to an extent Piennaar, utilised shock as part of their methods, and we specifically wanted to move away from that. We wanted to try something new, something that was more playful, and also something that included more participation from the public.
AM: It's our preference. We prefer to work more with irony. Moving away from that history is also a challenge, because we believe it's sometimes harder to be positive in the tone of what one does than negative or shocking.
JS: Positively toned work opens up more possibilities for exchange and dialogue.
AM: You put something out there, and the extension of that action, i.e. audience participation, becomes as important as the initial action itself.
JS: And we find one can surprise without the work needing to be shocking. Or draining.
AM: I also think about the part of Dorothee Kreutzfeldt's show this year at the Drill Hall, where an interaction initiated by her and Simon Gush involved a driver making a three-point-turn in the incredibly busy street outside the gallery. Difficult, confrontational, but still playful.
MS: Like the performance Marcel Waldeck produced at the Premises Gallery last year with the bikers creating those 'burn outs' on the gallery floor.
JS: Yes. We remember Stephen (Hobbs) and Marcus (Neustetter) looking around at all the bikers at the opening, saying that this wasn't their normal crowd...
MS: ...which is great!
AM: The kind of live art we enjoy is energizing. There was a work facilitated by Gustavo Artigas on the border of Tijuana and San Diego, where illegal border crossing and general border conflict are issues. In this work, he pitted a basketball team from San Diego up against a soccer team from Tijuana, playing on the same court, and dealing in an engaging way with issues of difference, the importance of learning to work together. At the end, everyone was given an award, as a way of diffusing competition. It's also about displacing where art can be, finding new spaces for it to happen in... Artigas actually came to SA, and was involved at the Bag Factory a while ago.
MS:Juliana, as a person from outside of SA, what issues are paramount in your mind when working here?
JS: Well, when you work in a context as loaded the one in as SA, you have to be very careful. You want to make critical work, work with observations, but you want to avoid as far as possible weighing it all down with too much foreign 'baggage'. Yet it seems that people here are so receptive to this kind of practice. In Europe one has a sense that so much has already been done, there isn't the same vitality and excitement around live art I've found here. Ultimately, what we're interested in doing is asking new questions, ones that haven't been posed so many times before.
AM: The process and outcomes of live art evoke so many questions; it's fantastic because there are more questions than answers... and questions can really lead somewhere...

Opens: April 28
Closes: May 13

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