Interview by Portia Malatjie




ArtThrob South Africa, Gauteng Reviews
March 2011

Alterating Conditions: Performing Performance Art in South Africa. Installation view, opening on Jan 13 2011, Bag Factory Artists' Studios, Johannesburg. Image by Mack Magagane.

Portia Malatjie: Can you please speak a bit about your curatorial residency at the Bag Factory?

Claudia Marion Stemberger: Internationally there are a small number of curatorial residencies. Residency programmes are usually targeted at artists. To organise a residency in an organisation for in-depth curatorial research in another country or even another continent can be quite challenging for independent curators. Only a few countries in Europe offer a funding programme for curatorial researchers to travel abroad. But Germany, Denmark and Switzerland provides financial support for (outgoing) curators. I am grateful that I was awarded a grant for curatorial research in South Africa and Mozambique by Goethe-Institute in Munich [headquarter].

The residency programme at the Bag Factory in Johannesburg was a chance for me to work closely with artists and theorists from South Africa. Furthermore, the opportunity to present an exhibition project at the end of my residency in the framework of a "Carte Blanche" was a generous offer. And I especially enjoyed facilitating curatorial workshops for emerging South African curators. I was warmly welcomed here by the artists. From my point of view as an art historian, the artist's studio is considered a space full of mythologies. At the Bag Factory I could encounter on the one hand iconic figures in the South African art scene like David Koloane and Kagiso Pat Mautloa who were working next door to my studio. On the other hand, I could meet emerging artists like Lerato Shadi. I especially enjoyed the critical discussion with the local resident artists and their feedback. The Bag Factory is a unique place in that sense.

PM: The exhibition Alterating Conditions: Performing Performance Art in South Africa was held at two difference venues (the Bag Factory Artists Studios and the GoetheonMain project space). It also opened two nights apart (11th and 13th January 2011). Why was that?

CMS: Many people have asked me that question. I assume that the Johannesburg audience is not so familiar with making use of different or various spaces for the same exhibition at the same time. Visual arts biennials tend to use that "model" where one engages with the locational context. Usually one could browse round town and let the different displays communicate. But for logistical reasons specific to Johannesburg, I avoided the two openings taking place at the same night. In fact, the two venues of Alterating Conditions resulted from the fortunate partnership I had with the Bag Factory as well as the Goethe-Institute Johannesburg.

PM: Can you explain your preferred methodology of conceptualising an exhibition as a curator?

CMS: For me as art historian it is important to look carefully at art works - again and again - to critically investigate and reflect contemporary art practices and to engage with its (art) historical cartography. The starting point for my reflection is the artist's practice, the art work, however processual it might be. What I am interested in is that the art work(s) and the curatorial concept enfold a dialogue in the form of a productive risk. Also if I curate a thematic show I do not throw my concept over the artists' art works.

PM: This is opposed to a curator having a concept, and then searching for works that would fit in with that concept. It sounds like you go and look at the work and try to find a concept from them.

CMS: Let me put it this way: Some exhibitions might develop as a result of proximity to artists. To be close to artists is essential for curatorship. The "Carte Blanche" of the Bag Factory provided an outside view on contemporary South African art practice. That enables an escape from a "friends and family syndrome" that is sometimes inherent to the art world - a local curator has to avoid this by all means to maintain her/his integrity. For me, coming to South Africa it was essential that I do not project pre-fabricated notions of this country without even being a local. But I have worked here for many months having left my comfort zone and therefore facing the same circumstances as any curator in Johannesburg.

Prior to my residency, I was researching shows that were held in the northern hemisphere, which were solely dedicated to contemporary art practice in South Africa. Those exhibitions had names like Black Brown White, or New Identities, or Liberated Voices, and so on. One can see from the titles that some overseas curators assumed a certain authoritative condition. On the contrary, I avoided a curatorial practice that results in ethnic marketing due to fixing "the others" (supposedly emerging) art practice by means of manifesting stereotypes - such as presuming art practice(s) as expression of a (post) post-Apartheid society for example. Accordingly, in Alterating Conditions the artists were not "performing their passports", nor was I.

PM: In your curatorial statement you have continued RoseLee Goldberg's and Brian O'Doherty's critique of the art gallery as a white cube and the fact that the spatial model of the White Cube is informed by 'post-war' Western ideas. How do you think that this has been negotiated in contemporary South African art?

CMS: I am interested in how to curate performance and performative works beyond the paradigms of the White Cube or the Black Box even. One might have to consider that the White Cube referred historically to notions of modernity. Additionally, if one is working in Africa, one should at least be aware that this is a westernised model of how to present (white-colonialist) art works. The fact that the White Cube it related to modernity has the tendency to re/affirm its universalist legacies. But there are heterogeneous forms of white cubes. I propose that one should be aware of the notions of space and develop an active strategy as curator. The white cube did not only emerge a hundred years ago only out of studio spaces in art academies - such as today's [white cubed] studio spaces at the Bag Factory - but later also as a spatial model for the presentation of artworks in exhibitions. When it comes to the Arts on Main area one can identify former industrialised spaces, which turned into allegedly neutral White Cubes. The developers and some gallerists seem to be satisfied with this non-innovative shabby chic - an all too common infrastructure model that can be found around the world.

And, to go further, what is important in South African born RoseLee Goldberg's early writing is that in the 1970's she had already emphasised how space is related to art practice. That raised the question about where and how performance art is presented, and how that evolved historically. The way conceptual art, land art or performance art negotiated space differently included aspects of institutional critique. One notices that the space and contextual framework of where you present performance art did matter - until today. 30 years later Goldberg is still aware of space and time, and of how to curate performance art. She critiques quite rightly that performance does not get the attention that it deserves. Its presentation still ends up as event-like side phenomenon at biennials or art fairs.

PM: From your point of view, what is the difference between performing and performance art? How has the Alterating Conditions exhibition challenged these two different aspects?

CMS: The Alterating Conditions exhibition is constituted as a medium-based curatorial approach, not a thematic or chronological one. I was interested in looking inside performance art in South Africa and exhibiting both emerging and established artists who work with the medium or the concept of performance. The show challenged on one side art historical classifications of performance as ephemeral, the notion of a live-event that includes the co-presence of artist and audience, and the institutionalised representation in media such as video or photography on the other side. Alterating Conditions included not only live-performances in the form of life-interventions, but also performance-related art works, such as performances produced for the camera, performative self-staging and performative installations and animations.

Apart from the undeniable differences in a historical or scholarly context, I was interested in investigating recent overlapping of performing and performance art. My curatorial strategy combines my professional experience in the (dance) performance field and my scholarly writing as an art historian. For me as a curator the artists' current practice forms my very point of reference and not entanglements of categorisation. I propose that an exhibition should highlight the current dynamics of permeable boundaries between disciplines rather than legitimising canonisation processes.

PM: I see that you are very interested in exploring how curators can curate performance art. Have you got a theory or a working model about how this has been done, and how it can be done?

CMS: I think that curating performance requires sensitivity to the specific character of the art practice, its historical and disciplinary contexts. I am quite proud with what the artists and I could achieve with the Alterating Conditions show in Johannesburg. I am pleased about the fact that the upcoming exhibition catalogue, kindly funded by Goethe-Institute Johannesburg, will be the first publication on performance art from and in South Africa.

Recent investigations on how to curate performance reflect not only the tendencies to musealise performance art today but also raise the question of how to frame performance in museums. The increasing interest of museums in performance is followed by investigating aspects of re-enactment and documentation. In Vienna for example, institutions like MUMOK or Fotogalerie Wien have successfully challenged those strategies during the last years. And when it comes to curating in performing arts, one might have to take into consideration that the transfer of the term curator from visual arts to performing arts has only recently happened. The performing arts previously used different titles and specifications such as programmer or artistic director.

PM: I was wondering if you could speak a bit about the differences between live performances, such as the interventions at the opening of the Alterating Conditions exhibition, and pre-recorded performances. How do you think that the two speak to each other in the context of the same exhibition, which do you prefer, and which do you think is more successful as a performance piece?

CMS: I have no preference nor would I presume that one is more effective than the other. They both challenge different notions of the medium and its representation. What Gabrielle Goliath and Molemo Moiloa each elaborated for the opening at GoetheonMain is something that I would consider as performative intervention that threatened the sanctity and elitism of some art spaces. Essentially, what both of them did was to subvert the situation of exhibition openings, which is a performance in itself.

Molemo Moiloa had planned for her piece Scoptophillia in such a way that when the Johannesburg art crowd was walking down the stairs, a mob of photographers was rendering the acts of seeing and being seen. Two seconds after being caught in a glare of camera flash, they would notice that they were part of the performative selling of the self while their images were immediately projected onto a big screen.

I also liked Gabrielle Goliath's Stumbling Block, which was working with the local context of Arts on Main and challenging notions of homeless people in Johannesburg's CBD. It was more or less obvious that there was an evidently human form lying blanketed on cardboard boxes, blocking the doorway of the gallery space. Quite some people hesitated to step over the displaced body.

PM: You are very interested in the collaboration between artists and curators. What exactly does that entail?

CMS: For me it is something important. I am interested in how a project is developed by means of negotiation between artist and curator. One might sometimes find that the curator would like to have things this particular way, but one ends up happily revising that because the artist has proposed another piece of art. It is about giving the artists the liberty to work.

PM: Well, in my view, it seems as though emerging artists in some cases don't place much thought into where their work is placed. It is a situation where they think, 'Take it, do with it as you please and bring it back when you're done, along with my artist's fee'. I also think that some artists, especially un-established ones, are usually excited about any curator's slight interest in their work. The ways in which their work is framed is tangential; as long as they get exhibited.

CMS: It is important that the artist is standing there when some things are decided upon. Some installational decisions will obviously make more sense than others, so one has to negotiate and restructure. The display of the exhibition is the very image of the show. With a weak display, one could almost ruin the concept.

PM: What is your opinion about the curator as a celebrity and having more prominence or importance than the artist in contemporary art practice?

CMS: Indeed, there were curators who have staged themselves as these power figures. But every curator works differently. I am not curating shows for the sake of my own PR campaign. I propose that a curatorial project provides a platform where you can reflect art practices and make them visible in public spaces.

PM: So, with you it is not a matter of questioning the importance of the curator because the curator is important. It is more a matter of the curator gaining more of a celebrity status that you say has become problematic.

CMS: As long as a curator is able to challenge my thinking and does not misunderstand curating as a fancy shopping tour, nor abuse her/his power, I would confirm that the curator has legibility in today's art system. And one might want to take into consideration that the curatorial discourse had addressed the unfortunate star curator phenomenon already some time ago. In the context of the so-called New Institutionalism the formulation of critique rather started from inside the institutions. It is the curators themselves who self-critically reflect and rework their roles and spaces.

In my own curatorial practice I engage with knowledge production, support emerging artists while also emphasising historical positions. I involve other cultural producers that I consider to be experts in their field, and elaborate a scholarly publication that accompanies my curatorial projects.


© — Claudia Marion Stemberger 2019