BY Sean O'Toole in Opinion | 21 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 173

Screen Presence

Is technology geographically neutral?

BY Sean O'Toole in Opinion | 21 AUG 15

Jean Katambayi Mukendi, Migration, 2015. Courtesy: Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to square debates around post-internet art, mostly gleaned via a New York Times subscription on my iPhone, with a growing sense of dread about the unpaid writing I do on Facebook and stubborn thickets of grey erupting from my jaw. At what point does a critic become wholly obsolete? Can our last flicker of relevance be sustained by post-internet criticism, by which I mean hunting ‘likes’ online with free impressions of cultural events for a tenuous community of ‘friends’? Then, in June, interactive digital artist and researcher Tegan Bristow invited me to view her first attempt at exhibition-making. It proved to be a tonic for my glumness, for strange reasons.

Hosted by Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, ‘Post African Futures’ surveyed a group of metropolitan artists from Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi and elsewhere using digital technology in interesting ways. Mindful of the fact that Bristow’s guest-curated show was focused on ‘technology art’ made in Africa since the advent of the internet and smartphones, I wondered if I could view the exhibition remotely. After all, as New Yorker Brian Droitcour said of the gimcrack practices being hyped as a new avant-garde in his neighbourhood, post-internet art is about ‘creating objects that look good online’.

‘Um, no,’ demurred the gallery staff in a follow-up call. This prompted a first insight: despite the arrival of artist-curated YouTube channels, algorithmic-inspired discoveries on Artsy and the pretend-you-were-there experience of Vernissage tv, most new art still, unavoidably, relies on a physical encounter in a bricks-and-mortar space. That this meeting is partly forced has to do with the fact that commercial galleries, as much as museums, seek out the cool (performance, street art, design, internet stuff) to stave off sick-building syndrome: cool aerates closed ecosystems, notionally at least. Walking through the display of eye tingling videos, mute installations, maths-inspired sculptures and prints made by, amongst others, South African Dineo Seshee Bopape, Nigerian Emeka Ogboh and Congolese Jean Katambayi Mukendi, a second insight vested: retail galleries domesticate generational moods. Actually, it’s not that simple.

Sol LeWitt was a balding 45-year-old when he published his Sentences on Conceptual Art in 1967. ‘Ideas’, he proposed, ‘can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.’ It is a common-sense wisdom, one I understand to mean that not every notion has to be a jazzy thingamajig for projection, or enclosed in a frame. Case in point: multi-media artist Brooklyn J. Pakathi’s series of works on paper showing iPhone screenshots, their familiar default backdrops and content formatting interrupted by cute messages. Pakathi – who, like his countryman Bogosi Sekhukhuni, uses the internet to showcase his melancholic, ideas-in-progress short films – is more interesting than his framed print series suggests.

For starters, there is his worldly biography. Similar to many ‘Post African Futures’ participants, including invited speaker Jepchumba – a digital evangelist and publisher of the website AfricanDigitalArt born in the us to Kenyan parents – Johannesburg-based Pakathi is the progeny of South African parents living in Canada. Like Jepchumba, his compass is also future-directed and his technological literacy a given. Still, in a 2013 interview, Pakathi spoke of how his interests in experimental film and indie music are modulated, in Johannesburg, by his identity as ‘a black youth from a first-world country with no culture or tradition as expected in South African terms’. It is pointedly this troublesome interface, between the apparently neutral world of technology, which looks the same everywhere, and the idiosyncratic world of geographically located cultures, that Bristow’s exhibition set out to explore.

What expectations are post-internet artists from Africa saddled with? Is it even feasible to propose such a category when, as Bristow’s ongoing doctoral research is showing, cultures of technology vary greatly between the cities of Johannesburg, Lagos and Nairobi? Bristow’s uneven exhibition didn’t answer all these questions, but it certainly succeeded in highlighting the interwoven nature of culture, technology and the self. In spotlighting the punkish new practices presently surfacing across the continent, it also made clear the limitations of current discourses. There is a burgeoning category of practice happening that, in the words of anthropologist Bryan Pfaffenberger – a long-time agitator for deeper thinking around the meaning of technology – is compellingly, and sometimes not, marrying, ‘the material, the social and the symbolic in a complex web of association’.

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.