STORY JP2015

Drawing in the Margins: In Conversation with Roelof Petrus van Wyk about the Johannesburg Pavilion 2015

The Johannesburg Pavilion 2015 (JP2015) constitutes a group of Film and Performance artists who are investigating the possibilities and the implications of presenting and making work, by creating a site of production on the edges of a global art event like the Venice Biennale. ART AFRICA spoke to Roelof Petrus van Wyk about the JP2015’s collective intervention, being ‘African’ at the Venice Biennale and the upcoming screening of the documentary film about their experience, Capital, Conflict and Death in Venice, at the FNB JoburgArtFair.
 
This article appears in full in the inaugural issue of ART AFRICA, ‘Becoming African,’ which will be launched at the FNB JoburgArtFair! Come and visit us and pick up your copy!

 
STORY JP2015CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Work by Athi-Patra Ruga, Thenjiwe Nkosi & Arya Lalloo, Anthe Moys, Michael MacGarry, Bettina Malcomess and Senzeni Marasela.
 
Keeping equal distance from the banal and the eccentric, his gifts were made to win the fidelity of the masses and the adulating, demanding participation of the more discriminating at the same time. – Thomas Mann, Death in Venice.
 
The artists of the Johannesburg Pavilion developed new work in-situ and staged these narratives by placing their performing bodies directly in the ebb-and-flow of global capital. Feeding off its resultant resistance and conflict, they used Venice not only as a place of visual consumption, but also as a temporal and productive place of residence. The project was initiated by the 133 Arts Foundation and is supported as a special project by the FNB Joburg Art Fair.
 
ART AFRICA: Please tell us a bit more about the Johannesburg Pavilion (JP2015)? What were some of the most important aspects of your collective intervention as a ‘non-official pavilion’in Venice?
 
Roelof Petrus van Wyk: The first thing that’s important to understand is what these artists did; they sought to find ways to investigate a big event like the Venice Biennale from the ground up –to understand how to function on the fringes of something as big and important as the so-called “Art Olympics.”Operating outside of something as established as this, what do you do and what exactly are you are investigating?
 
The artists in this instance looked at how to create a certain artistic currency and capital. I use these words because the main exhibition (‘All the World’s Futures’) was primarily about Capitalism and the wreckage of neo-Liberal policies. The Johannesburg Pavilion (JP2015) functioned on the edges of this massive exercise, and the artists had to ask themselves, “How can we benefit from it, especially if we are not formally part of it? How can we learn from it? How can we use Venice as a site of creativity and production and not just as a site of consumption?”
 
The artists didn’t just go to Venice to absorb –which they do anyway because they are visual people –but to interrogate by creating new work in an unfamiliar space that comments, meditates and reflects on a number of relevant issues. Global crisis issues like migration, the one way flow of capital, economic inequality and the ongoing subjugation of black and female bodies. How does one transform this into positive energy and create new work?
 
What new works emerged from JP2015?
 
During all the performances, screenings and interactions with the city, its people and other local artists, five new film works have seen the light. For example, Bettina Malcomess started a film project here in South Africa, the memories of others, the production ofwhich she continued in Venice through a further performance and installation. She is continuing to develop that project and has been offered a space in Venice in September where she will install the work; a 35m stills film, a performance, some works on paper and a written text.
 
Anthea Moys made a single screen film installation piece, Marco Polo; Arya Lalloo and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi created a film work called Jetsam that reflects on the African migrants that drowned a week before we went to Venice and Michael MacGarry is completing a new film as part of his ongoing moving image investigation, called Sea of Ash.
 
You have also produced a documentary film about your experiences in Venice, titled Capital, Conflict and Death in Venice. What exactly does this film incorporate/cover?
 
The documentary film reflects on our experiences, incorporating footage of Senzeni Marasela’s performance, Jemma Kahn and Roberto Pombo’s We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants, Alberta Whittle and Farieda Nazier’s performance, Journey of Aspiration, as well as Athi-Patra Ruga’s contested and packed-out show, The Elders of Azania. There are also moments of conflict, moments of bliss, periods of meditation and the sun setting, boats moving in and out of view, trains and airplanes coming and leaving, the world in circulation.
 
The ‘Death in Venice’component is related to Thomas Mann’s novella and Luchino Visconti’s film, so it reflects on our experience through those lenses. We even stayed on the island of Lido while we were there, which is where Visconti shot the film.
 
The new films, as well as the first screening of the documentary, will be shown at the 2015 FNB Joburg Art Fair. Please tell us a bit more about the programme you have developed for the fair.
 
Our first ten days in Venice were spent making noise and making work. We then came back to Johannesburg where we worked on turning these films into artworks. These will show in September at the FNB Joburg Art Fair where we are presenting a small programme, enabling us to show South African audiences what we did while we were in Venice. Too often, South African artists go to the Biennale and come back and you hear nothing about their experiences. Of course, there are a few social media photos by the visiting artists, but that’s it; there’s not much else. However, doing it in this way –this kind of residency format, an experiential creative model – allows us to bring an experience back and show people what we did. The works return to Venice to two well-known and respected project spaces – Spazio Ridotto and Zuecca Project Space.
 
I see it as a conversation that Joburg and Venice have with one another through the bodies of their artists, through the work that they make, through them sharing their experiences. I think we are establishing a very interesting model of how one can engage with a big event like the Venice Biennale. Working on the fringes or, as I like to call it, drawing in the margins, you are not part of the big story but you can pull in quotes from other texts and that’s where the interesting bits come in.
 
What sort of coverage did JP2015 receive, and how important is it that these performances are documented?
 
We had a good mix of international–and local press –we had the extensive coverage from ARTsouthAFRICA and ContemporaryAnd supported us too. Even Vogue Italia did an article! Perception-wise we have had really positive feedback. I think people mostly understood what we were doing, but sometimes they only believed the storytelling of people who actually witnessed the fleeting and ephemeral performances; most of the performances were once off so you could easily miss it.
 
This is why the films are so important and why it’s so important to be able show them multiple times and distribute them wide and far. You realise that you can do something in isolation but, if you can use the media and mediums like film to record it, you can preserve the performances and make them work for you. These documents outlast the event – these are the things that people reference and talk about afterwards.
 
When one watches the films they can experience the performances again. It’s so important to document and record because that becomes the ‘memory’of that event.
 
What were the artists’individual experiences of Venice?
 
I think the individual artists who were there really pushed their own boundaries because they knew it was important –firstly for their own personal growth and secondly for their careers. The lasting perception of you as an artist, having inserted yourself into this kind of event, is incredibly important. The artists are speaking on their own behalf in a series of talks at 2015 JAF about their experience and how it has informed what they do, being able to perform on that level.
 
How important do you think it is to have a strong African presence at the Venice Biennale?
 
When I write about the artists who participated in JP2015, I see them as equal to any of the international artists. What they have to say and the value of their work is not important because they are African, but because they are exceptionally good artists.
 
It’s a big issue at the moment, and we tried to make sure that we weren’t framing our work as African or emphasising that we were representing Africa. Yes, of course we are African, but more important are the deeper conversations that are interesting and important on a global scale. We live in a globalised world –it’s not something we resist.  Its a global conversation on art making in which we actively engage.
 
Film work is an intangible product that it difficult to market and sell as ‘work.’How do artists who work primarily within a performance and/or film genre sustain themselves?
 
Artists should manage their art careers as businesses. They’re learning how to do it and they’re learning how to apply clear, logical, rational business thinking to the fringes of the art world. The art world is the business world these days!
 
The questions emerging from this kind of statement are: Who controls the art market? Who controls the process of art making? Who controls the artists? How does an artist create currency? When you are a performer or a film artist, how do you make stuff that’s going to help you pay the bills?
 
These are questions that resonate with all artists. I find the last question interesting because all these artists have to supplement their performance/film practice with more commercial endeavours, and one practice informs the other. Every artist these days has one foot in the art world and the other in the non-art world (i.e. teaching, directing films or some kind of creative ‘consulting’).
 
Some productive questions for artists could be: What exactly is your art practice? What ‘stuff’are you making? How do you cost effectively produce your work? What is your regular or irregular income? Do you have debt? Who sells your work –do you sell it yourself or do you have someone else managing it on your behalf? Who controls your production?
 
These are vital questions, expanding on a field of enquiry between issues of capital and the production of art in a commoditised world. JP2015 has been an exercise to smoke these answers out, to look for new ways to engage in answering these questions.
 
 
See The Johannesburg Pavilion programme on Saturday 12 September, from 15:30 – 17:00, at the FNB JoburgArtFair Theatre.
 
PERFORMANCE – Silindokuhle ‘Ibokwe” Khoza: I’M NOT ILOLO NOW THAT ITHONGO SELI VUMILE
Silindokuhle ‘Ibokwe” Khoza (born 1988, South Africa) describes his personal experience that informs his practice : “Forever being surrounded by people, yet I cannot find a connection to them. Until the spirit beings within stopped their silence and spoke with the different selves that coexist within me. My loneliness became a foreign concept as if it never existed.”
 
FILMS – Anthea Moys: Marco Polo (2015); Bettina Malcomess: The memories of others (2015); Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi & Arya Lalloo and Chris Wessels: Jetsam (2015); Michael MacGarry: Sea of Ash (2015).
 
TALK – Exploring New Possibilities for Production 
Zoe Whitley (Tate Modern) and Roelof van Wyk (133 Arts Foundation) are joined by Johannesburg Pavilion artists, Anthea Moys, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Michael MacGarry and Bettina Malcomess to reflect on the first iteration of the Johannesburg Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale.