For the past three weeks, digital artists Jepchumba, Kasia Molga, Ling Tan and Nathan Gates have been occupying the basement of the Wits Art Museum (WAM) as an open “Fak’ugesi Lab” – a central part of the larger Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival. Last night, their artworks were displayed for the first time, marking the beginning of the exhibition phase of their residency, in which people are invited to visit the museum and engage with their work. More information about the residency and exhibition can be found here.
As part of their individual creative processes, the four artist-residents were required to critically engage with the citizens of Johannesburg and imagine (or re-imagine) the future of Braamfontein. Each of them approached the assignment in a different way, and the resulting artworks range from the personal to the poetic, the playful to the poignant, and the socially conscious to the environmentally aware. Consequently, the exhibition as a whole addresses a number of present-day issues facing the people who live and work in Johannesburg, while remaining focused on their hopes and fears for the future.
Jepchumba, a Kenyan digital artist and futurist interested in creative technologies in Africa, constructed a booth for residents of the Gauteng city-region to record messages to themselves from the future. These time travellers could choose how far into the future they wanted to journey, and were filmed against a green screen onto which one of two impressionistic science fiction backgrounds was later composited. Set before either a surreal natural landscape (which reminded me of a scene in Pumzi (2009) where the title character fantasises about a large tree in the desert), or an aerial view of the Johannesburg CBD, participants left messages that were occasionally serious, at times humorous, and often intimately personal. According to Jepchumba, the goal of her #futureselfie project was to encourage people to think about themselves through time and to leave themselves messages that would inspire their present realities.
Fascinated by Johannesburg’s status as the most densely forested city in the world, UK-based media artist, hacktivist and creative coder Kasia Molga created two artworks focusing on the environment – Plandscapes and Framed Contemplations. In the first, Molga attached sensors to a small group of indigenous pot plants and designed software that would collect and interpret data from them, and then output this information as digital drawings. The resulting images contained abstract, oddly organic, black and white banded shapes, which I found reminiscent of prehistoric animals, tuberous root systems and delicate blossoms. In her second piece, Molga chose to explore how people perceive and sense different environments. She constructed a physical frame with two cameras mounted on it – one which would record an area in Johannesburg, and another which would record (in slow motion) the facial expressions of individuals gazing at the chosen scene. In the exhibition space, the two video recordings play out on screens which face each other, but are separated by the frame on a stand.
Ling Tan is interested in how technology affects the way people experience and navigate different spaces. Hoping to address the “invisible boundary of safety” between Braamfontein and Hillbrow, Tan invited Johannesburg residents to design wearable technology that could be used to collect data about safe and unsafe areas in the city. Tan later transformed these prototypes into pieces of jewellery, which, when tilted, covered or bent, would notify an app that the wearer felt vulnerable or frightened. Later, she had workshop participants walk through the city wearing these sensory devices and responding to their environment. The resulting data is represented in the exhibition space in a variety of ways, including a large paper map on which visitors can attach their comments, a digital map that compares secure and insecure areas by averaging the data drawn from all participants, and a video projection of interviews in which the participants discuss their experiences. Tan hopes to pass her findings on to government organisations – enabling citizens to influence the way safety issues in the city are addressed.
Nathan Gates, a South African digital technologist interested Johannesburg’s numerous informal networks, created two Exquisite Corpse Poetry Machines – one located at the basement entrance, and another within the basement itself. According to Gates, WiFi hotspots are ubiquitous throughout the city, but are difficult for most people to access. Adopting a playful approach to the obvious visibility and relative inaccessibility of WiFi in Johannesburg, Gates’s machines allow users to create WiFi hotspots with custom names, which, when viewed together, produce a kind of digital poetry.
Before the exhibition opened, I was lucky enough to record interviews with the four artist-residents about their work. You can watch the video in the exhibition space, or right here:
Ultimately, the best way to experience these artworks is to interact with them yourself. Why not visit WAM and let your inner cyborg come out to play, even if it’s just for the afternoon?