Africa Remix Panel @ Joburg Art Gallery retrospect on CD Rom out now

The second Africa Remix panel discussion – Digital Africa - took place on Saturday, July 28 at the prestigious Johannesburg Art Gallery JAG in Johannesburg / South Africa. A special input for the discussion was provided by Keith Goddard in a live interview via cellphone from Sinazongwe in Zambia where he has attended the annual traditional Lwiindi ceremony and the opening of Sinazongwe Community Radio station. Keith explained the joint endeavour of the Tonga.Online and Tonga.Onair projects to use modern digital means for the promotion and development of Tonga music and cultural heritage. The summary report of this interesting and critical panel discussion is out now on CD Rom and online.

Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent’, was running at the JAG until September 30, featuring the work of more than 85 artists from 25 countries on the African continent and in the Diaspora. The exhibition has already visited Düsseldorf, London, Paris and Tokyo.

In partnership with The Trinity Session, the Digital Africa panel comprised two sessions focusing on technology and its uses in relation to the visual arts. The panel discussed how art advances in the technological world, how, in turn, technology influences artistic creation, and how technology is shaping contemporary African art.

The Digital Africa discussion explored a diversity of approaches to the debate on art and technology in Africa. Examining locally relevant and creative uses of technology across varied fields and disciplines, the panel focused on how this ultimately influences the production and definition of contemporary African art.

Chaired by Marcus Neustetter and Stephen Hobbs (The Trinity Session) the discussion panels comprised of Adam Haupt (Cape Town), Ismail Farouk (JHB), Mpheti Morojele (JHB), Lorna Abungu (Kenya), Bassam El-Baroni (Egypt), Pavlo Phitides (JHB), Jason Hobbs (JHB), Aryan Kaganof (JHB) and Christo Doherty (JHB), Stacy Hardy (CPT), Gerrard Foster (JHB), Lindiwe Nkutha (JHB) . Artist projects, online and mobile contributions and a live reports from Saki Mafundikwa (Zimbabwean School of Digital Art), Goddy Leye (Cameroon), Marion Louisgrand (Senegal), James Webb (CPT) and Keith Goddard from the Tonga.Online project (Sinazongwe, Zambia) were presented during the day. Interactive mobile phone question and answer opportunities were provided during the sessions.
Digital Africa: the Remix Reading by Stacy Hardy
From the start Digital Africa felt different. First there was its setting. Located in amongst the art at the Africa Remix Exhibition at the Jozi Art Gallery in the heart of the city’s CBD, getting there required us to first navigate the chaos of the down-town taxi rank. 9am and bizi-ness already in full swing: office-bound suits jostling against illegal immigrants; street vendors selling black pirate technology; a cardboard signing promising “Dr Abu solves all your problems. Brings luck in business matters. True & lasting love.” A place where worlds collide and the sounds come from outside –American gangsta rap mixing it up with kwaito beats and Soukous sounds; a polyglot of different rhymes and rhythms reconfiguring the notion of ethnicity and identity in a crazy stew of "anything goes”.
Entering into JAG offered little relief. Instead we were faced with Simon Njami’s sprawling Africa Remix: an explosive exhibition featuring 85 artists from 25 countries on the African continent and the Diaspora that aimed to reshuffle the cards, “to show that our present situation is hybrid in character and therefore a reflection of globalization.”
Then there was the conference’s structure. Instead of corralling speakers, practitioner and thinkers into their respective disciplines or framing sessions under neat headings, Digital Africa mixed it up. Session One set the tone: throwing together artists, curators, architects and urban geographers and interspersing them with art interventions and live link-ups to the rest of the continent.
Straight outa Egypt, curator Bassam El Baroni kicked things off. He started with a warning on the postcolonial drive to deploy technology as a social and political tool. Speaking out against what he termed “digital orientalism”, he called for artists to fly in the face of the rhetoric of education and business and to seek out a “new New Media language”, one cut free from the traps and tropes of old mean-and-manipulation systems.
Next up, urban geographer and artist Ismael Farouk presented examples of his own practice. Inhabiting the borderlands between commercial needs and urban activism, Farouk detailed his drive to find new artistic and technological methodologies to understand, map and explore the contemporary African urban environment and in so doing to challenge the forces of globalisation in their race to realign the city in the heirarchy of the global economy.
The live crossing to Saki Mafiundikwa at the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts further undermined the myth of the global economy. Breaking with the utopian belief that globalization automatically equals the “global village”, Mafiundikwa highlighted the imbalances of power that characterise contemporary Africa – quite literally by drawing attention to the unstable power supply that prohibits the use of technology in so many African cities. “Digital Africa,” suggested Mafiundikwa should be renamed “Africa Offline”.
Digital Africa,” vs “Africa Offline”; mobility vs memory; fixed lines vs commuter culture all came into play in architect Mpheti Morojele presentation on his provocative architectural practice that attempts to deal with legacies of the dislocated city, to accommodate rural habits in urban settings and to allow for the new lifestyles of a culture going through transition. In the light of his experiences, he called for artists and urban planners to rethink their concept of the 21st century city and to displace stereotypes with strategies that look at the “city as road”, account for commuter culture, address the lack of infrastructure and highlight the ongoing interplay between mobility and memory that characterise today’s migrant mobile populations.
Respondent Jason Hobbs advocated a similar from-the-ground-up approach. According to Hobbs, instead of falling victim to the “World Wide Wait” that comes with the delay in government delivery of infrastructure, African cities are “getting on with it” themselves, setting up informal internet cafes and switching over to cellular culture.
The final provocation from the panel was a hard hitting one, coming from artist, film maker and provocateur Aryan Kaganof who bit back at the Afro-digirati for playing into the hands of commerce in their preoccupation with mapping. Dismissing the practise as the “Emperors New Bytes”, a fashion trend that mindlessly follows corporate concerns he suggested that perhaps “New media is a good place not to be.”
Being and non-being? Wired vs weird? Kulcha and commerce? The contradictions didn’t stop there. In fact if anything, the second panel was more dizzying. Writer, academic and cultural producer Adam Haupt opened up with a paper addressing global capitalism, technology and intellectual property. He explored how the balance of power was upset in favour of the corporation and highlighted the need for new ways of approaching the creation, the production and the dissemination of knowledge.
From there it was a fast jump-cut to archaeologist and museologist Lorna Abungu, who took on the challenges of reconciling history and development, tradition and technology. Drawing on her experiences at institutes across the continent, she warned against global hi-tech hegemony and called for technology to be adapted to suit specific local contexts.
Similarly entrepreneur and businessman Pavlo Phitidis cruised the contradictions of Digital Africa, calling for a new definition of “upwardly mobile” that includes tech-savvy, lower-income urban dwellers and commuters who are creating a new, dynamic street-level high-tech economy based on mobility and the mobile phone.
Finally it was over to the respondents who were left to sum things up. An impossible task? Precisely! As both Christo Doherty (Head of Digital Arts at WITS) and story-teller Lindiwe Nkutha suggested: the discussions at Digital Africa left more questions than answers. It is, however, precisely this irresolution that constitutes a large measure of the discussion’s value. Rather than offer specific solutions, answers to all your problems, luck in business matters, true & lasting love, Digital Africa was a provocative remix that brought about sense of permanent uncertainty about the role of art and technology in our lives.
In this sense it was a true African Remix: an open system mash-up that invited us all to break with the utopian belief that globalization automatically equals the “global village” and that hi-tech solutions are smarter than low-tech interventions. Think a sometimes chaotic, even incoherent intellectual mixed tape that provoked us all to use technology to question both the silence of colonial domination and domination of post-colonial discourse: to excavate forbidden pasts; to express nonconformist desires; to create dis-census in the pursuit of “usable” solutions to present-day representational dilemmas - and to do so in a way that privileges the telling of a much more complex story of African life, one that reflects the myth of “post-colonialism” (where traditional colonial “mother” countries have simply been replaced by multinational corporations) and explores our cities as the archipelagos of cultural difference they truly are.
At the same time it was a call to remix, re-look, relocate and radicalise the very discourse and the language we use to explore and discuss these issues; to be aware of the relationship between technology and language and to acknowledge how language is used to dominate and control. And, yeah, call it over-optimistic or even jingoistic but, in so doing, to just possibly begin to create a new language, a multidisciplinary one that reflects that “difference determines differently” and speaks to the here and the now; a language that is our own and empowers us to explore and work in the continual slipstream between our memories of the past and our aspirations for the future.
read the full summary report on CD Rom out now:
Remix: Website, Panel Discussions and CD ROM
read more about Africa Remix on the new website: Art that gets to the heart of Africa