Exploring the In Between

The Very Real Time art residency is an enquiry into the spaces between people in South African cities. Organiser Gregg Smith explains exactly what this means

Social responsibility is an awkward issue in every society and no less in South Africa. Here, confronted with the larger problems of crime, poor housing and HIV among others, there remains the parallel question of one’s own self-renewal: how to escape the mechanisms of guilt, prejudice, dependency and control which continue to define relationships across lines of generation, gender and race.
This conflict between social awareness and self-questioning contributes strongly, in my opinion, to defining the richness and dynamism of the South African contemporary art scene. But while public funding seems to generally place the emphasis on the artist as social worker for the larger community, Very Real Time (VRT) is a project that seeks to prioritise the artist and the individual, and to explore the interface between daily experience and the way we process it, emotionally and psychologically.
The first version of VRT took place in 2003, with a one-month residency in Cape Town, involving seven artists from South Africa and abroad. The second incarnation of this residency and exchange programme, VRT 2, was held in Cape Town last October. Discussion topics focused attention on how larger social problems become manifested in the intimate life of the individual and went on explore alternative interpretations for social engaged art. (See www.veryrealtime.co.za)
Six artists were invited onto VRT 2, based on their participation in the online discussion series: Sung Hwan Kim (South Korea/ Amsterdam), Jeannine Diego Medina and Conrado Tostado (Mexico), Jimmy Robert (Guadelupe/ Brussels), Mieke van de Voort (Netherlands) and Ed Young (Cape Town).
The strategy was simple: to create for the selected artists a temporary suspension from their regular distractions. This involved arranging a secure one-month period that was free of financial worries and without any major obligations — but for a commitment to spend some time together now and then. Visiting artists were housed with other artists and friends to quickly facilitate a sense of independence and a personal network. The main aim was to create the right conditions for the artists to spend a month at their own pace, exploring the city, making friends and acquaintances, reflecting and researching, and doing projects should the urge arise. Given these conditions, some chemical reactions would no doubt occur.
The residency kicked off with a one-week exhibition of Sung Hwan Kim’s video work at the Michaelis Art Gallery. The artist’s universe — of personal dramas, home crafted rituals and decors — was hereby introduced. Over the following month, Kim created a series of costumes in collaboration with local seamstresses, culminating in a workshop and filmed performance with students of the Frank Joubert Art Centre.
Jimmy Robert explored various areas of research around the idea of the body as object, beginning with the re-enactment of a silent march, in the spirit of 1960s happenings and later carrying out a series of minimal performances at the goth /rock club, Evol. A video of this intervention was later exhibited at Blank Projects, along with a series of collages using images from local newspapers.
Dutch photographer and performance artist Mieke van de Voort’s visit to Cape Town was strongly influenced by her experiences of living in Johannesburg as a student in the early 1990s. Her need to find a fresh understanding of this rapidly evolving society, untainted by memories of her earlier visit, led to a sometimes life-threatening search across the city and the Cape Flats for new dance partners.
What began for Jeannine Diego Medina and Conrado Tostado as research into the security systems in their quiet neighbourhood of Gardens soon led to a series of encounters with youth groups, police, gangsters and gang mediators in the township of Gugulethu. Ed Young wowed us all with a spectacular tailspin into personal paranoia and insecurity, publicised regularly through his blog. His project pointed the way to the next instalment of VRT, which will invite the insights of experts into some of these behavioural mechanisms. There were also lectures at Michaelis, film screenings and many improvised events — from dancing at LB’s to penguin watching, performance braais, late-night cruises and the ongoing quest for a good pair of jeans.