The Collecting Digits Panel at Wits Digital Arts. From left to right, Franci Cronje, Warren Siebrits, Nathaniel Stern, and Clive Kellner.
The first Upgrade! Johannesburg panel discussion brought together an exciting group of speakers to deal with the topic of "Collecting Digits – the challenges and obstacles to curating and selling digital art in South Africa."
First to speak was Warren Siebrits – founder of one of Johannesburg’s most prestigious contemporary and modern commercial art galleries. Since he opened his gallery in 2002 with the landmark exhibition "States of Emergency", Warren has consistently exhibited artists who are pushing the envelope in terms of new content and challenging forms. He spoke about the impact made on his personal development as a curator and gallery owner by his friendship with pioneering South African video artist Conrad Welz.
Using video art as the framework for his presentation, he traced the impact of significant events such as the First Johannesburg Biennale in 1995 on the uptake of video art by a younger generation of South African artists in the post-Apartheid years. Focusing in particular on the influence (and rivalry) of video artists Kendal Gears and Candice Breitz he spoke with enthusiasm of the impact made on him recently by Breitz’s six-channel installations, Mother and Father, in the White Cube Gallery in London. He confessed that this level of technological display would be unaffordable at any South African commercial gallery. Even the limited projections required by his Konrad Welz exhibition in 2005 had, he revealed, been a severe strain and the exhibition had run at a loss. This was compounded by the lack of enthusiasm exhibited by private buyers in South Africa for video art. Local buyers are "risk adverse" and their reluctance to pay rands for new forms of art such as video (let alone new media) has been a brake on the ambitions of gallery owners such as himself.
Clive Kellner – Director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery – spoke from the perspective of institutional galleries. Here the situation is more encouraging although the cost of technology continues to be a major obstacle. Although the largest gallery on the sub-continent, with a collection larger than the National Gallery in Cape Town, the JAG struggles to find fund the exhibition requirements of contemporary artists who, Clive commented, are continually raising the ante in terms of their exhibition requirements. The recent William Kentridge retrospective exhibition, he revealed, cost the JAG more than R1.4 million just to set up. However they were able to purchase 14 projectors for the retrospective which are now part of the Gallery’s pool of equipment available for future exhibitions.
With Clive at the helm, the JAG has taken a leading role in the purchse of innovative and important South African art. Their recent purchase of "Step Inside" the interactive work by Nathaniel Stern; and the two channel video, "Snow White" by Berni Searl. are examples of their committment.
Nathaniel Stern spoke from the perspective of a practicing artist who is particularly concerned with the relationship between traditional and new media. He describes his work as a "series of provocations" which have explored this relationship in a range of media and are in several public and private collections. Since his interactive work, "Step Inside" has just been bought by the JAG has was able to describe the complexities of the sale to the Upgrade audience. Unlke the examples in the previous presentations, which had been dominated by the paradigm of video art, "Step Inside" is a digital work with a complex combination of installation requirements and computer-software. Nathaniel revealed that the sale had been delayed by the announcement of the new "Intel" Apple Macs. Originally written for the PowerMAc processor, the Step Inside package was held back until the new platform was available and the software could be adapted accordingly. According to Nathaniel there are various strategies the digital artist can take towards the inevitable obsolence of the platform originally used for the work. The work may be sold together with the hardware in a complete package. The problem with this approach is that hardware and software require maintainence – with the passage of time this becomes increasingly difficult. The other approach is to sell the concept ie to outline the logic of the work’s operation in pseudo code so that future programmers can replicate the process in whatever programming environment is then available. He demonstrated how the package which he had sold to the JAG utilitized both of these strategies. Nathaniel provided both locked and unlocked Max/MSP-Jitter patches and a pseudo-code version. In addition, Nathaniel’s agreement with the Gallery specified that the work would be updated at specified intervals. All attempts to keep the work functional into the future.
Finally, Franci Cronje, herself a video artist and curator of several collections & competitions, including Sasol New Signatures, spoke from the perspective also informed by her own academic research into the topic. As curator of the important Sasol competition, she revealed that 26 out of the 110 works on the final exhibition were new media. (By new media she meant works that went through electronic mediation at some stage in the production process, therefore included video and digital prints.) Despite the high-tech status of their sponsor, the New Signatures exhibition struggled with the cost of projection technology. In the end they had to build a "black box", essentially a small projection space, where the videos selected for the exhibition were shown in rotation. Artists who could afford to provide their own projectors were priviledged with their own displays. All in all this was not a satisfactory situation, Franci admitted, and in many ways this approach handicapped the disadvantaged artists on the competition. For future competitions, she hoped to find funding to support a wider range of projections. Franci ended by making an appeal to the younger generation of digital artists to find place in the system. Digits are flexible and can go anywhere. It is up to digital artists to find those ways.