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interviewed by Abongile Gwele

Marcus Neustetter of On Air on Collectivism and Curating

“We never entered into the whole thing saying we are artists and artists only. We entered into the space saying we are contemporary thinkers, we are doers, and we are just going to start something; we don’t know what it is.”
Marcus Neustetter

The Trinity Session was formed as a response to a changing South Africa. In its early years of democracy, South Africa made huge budget cuts to the Arts and Culture department. Stephen Hobbs, Marcus Neustetter, Kathryn Smith, and Jose Ferreira came together as like-minded individuals, to form the now fifteen-year-old art collective. The Trinity Session has functioned as artist, curator, and activist, while public art curating has been the collective’s main focus. Working very close with the JDA (Johannesburg Development Agency), The Trinity Session has been a part of many public art projects in the city of Johannesburg. And because of its relationship with the JDA, it has been a major role player in the policy making of public art. The collective now only comprises Neustetter and Hobbs, which tends to cause confusion between The Trinity Session as a collective and the Hobbs/Neustetter art collaboration. As stated by a few, such as Maria-Alina Asavei (2014, n), that “In a culture like the Western one, in which the acts of individual creation are highly cherished, histories of collective art production and reception would be chaotic, insufficiently documented and difficult to pinpoint” [1].

I sat down with Marcus Neustetter in the boardroom of their artist studios at the Maboneng Precinct, to better understand the distinction between The Trinity Session and the Hobbs/Neustetter collaboration, and to hear what The Trinity Session’s stance is on collectivism and questions of authorship and authenticity, as well as the relationship of artist and curator within a collective.

Neustetter explains that The Trinity Session has become an almost indefinable creature, which adapts and adopts as it progresses. When asked whether the vision they had as a collective at the time of its inception has been realized, he states that, “We never entered into the whole thing saying we are artists and artists only. We entered into the space saying we are contemporary thinkers, we are doers, and we are just going to start something; we don’t know what it is.”

AG: What is The Trinity Session?

MN: When the State theatre closed down and major galleries closed down, we came together to share our resources, our networks and abilities as creative people. We took on projects that required different skills. Some projects were semi-commercial experiments with some kind of business, and other projects were about art and technology and science. Others were about researching the arts and crafts industries in different African countries. We’ve gone through many bizarre things like curating art in the Big Brother house, where we questioned how do you curate art for live TV? How do you access public media, how do you break the boundary of art being in a museum or a gallery? That shifted more and more, and we got built a gallery by the Civic Theatre and the city of Johannesburg, which was called The Gallery Premises. It was a space we had for about five years and was more of an initiative from our side and not a profitable space. We were the gallery curators, so to speak, showing other artists’ works. The idea was to create a project space that didn’t exist in Johannesburg; only the commercial galleries existed. We needed a space that was creative, dynamic, and alternative to create platforms and profiles for artists who didn’t have the opportunity to do so. It was to a certain extent a curatorial experiment on managing a space. How do you curate a space to be active for a new audience, how do you develop new audiences, how do you deal with the audience that’s going into the Civic Theatre to watch the pantomime versus the audience that we have in Hilbrow or down the road that we are working within our public art projects? How do you manage this mix of people? More importantly how do you think about art in a society and in a context where it is actually an “imposed” notion?

AG: As a collective, how have you set up structures for your projects, if there are any structures at all?

MN: We analysed the fourteen countries of SADC looking at the visual arts and crafts industry, and realized not a single one of these countries has a successful value chain as far as the discipline goes. What was good for us in doing that exercise quite early on was to realize how our actions are part of filling the gap. We just then allowed our own actions to start filling the things we knew were a problem as artists. We realized, too, that we had to bring in many other artists for different projects.

Public art became a really important feature, and in public art developing into something that it is today, generating so much money that it supports artists. I think we’ve worked with over eight hundred artists in the last fifteen years in public art projects. With workshops that sometimes last for up to two years, showing artists how to work in the public space with engineers, architects, and project managers, developing concepts and then having competitions where they compete against each other as artists; then a committee comes in and selects a work, then we work with the artist to realize the project. We’re very involved in long, intense processes where we don’t decide who the artist is on a project.

AG: Are collective spaces such as The Trinity Sessions simply “business” strategic moves for better recognition to fund-givers? Is it then far easier for collectives to get funding as opposed to the individual artists?

MN: It depends what it is you’re doing. If you work, as a collective, to take inclusive measures to develop a project, then yes. In the year 2000, we formed as a business with the intention that we are not going to become a begging bowl arts group. The main objective was to say we need to be taken seriously, and we want to take industry seriously. We’ve survived for fifteen years without government grants, and have survived as a business and supported many artists. This means that we’ve got a model and a formula that seems to work somehow. Maybe it’s an attitude or an aptitude or business sensibility. We take the intellectual property we generate very seriously. We take the cultural and creative capital that people have very seriously.

AG: When working with a large group of artists, do they come in simply as manpower, and is there any loss for artists in such collaborations in terms of ownership and authorship? The young girl who wrote the poem that inspired the Diepsloot I love you/ I love you not (fig. 1-3) project, for example, is not mentioned by name in the writings about the project. Does she completely relinquish authorship of that poem?

The Trinity Session in partner with the Diepsloot Arts and Culture Network and Sticky Situations Commissioned by the Johannesburg Development Agency, Diepsloot I love you/ I love you not,  2013. Courtesy of The Trinity Session.

MN: Firstly, we don’t decide who the “artist” is; there is a democratic approach within the collective. In this particular instance, there was a workshop that was orchestrated, of which the young girl was a part, and she presented the poem. It was then collectively agreed upon that it would be her poem that would represent Diepsloot. Now we’re sharing ideas; this is where it gets tricky. Everyone is very willing to share in classic creative culture, we start to form a sense of communal practice where everyone sits around a table and says that we agree that we, together, are going to solve this problem. We’re going to help you as The Trinity Session, given our expertise and ten years of experience, because we know what we need at the end and you have a standard but you don’t quite see it. And step by step, the project is nothing like we expect, and that’s good.

The sense of authorship is an interesting one because on the one hand, you’ve got this whole process, and anyone can claim it. The little girl can claim it; the guy that did the steel welding can claim it, because at the end of the day they were all part of that collective process. Similarly, I think every person in the project has disappeared. There’s a question of authorship and ownership that needs to be quite flexible, when it comes to certain needs. We’re not claiming as The Trinity Session that it is purely our doing, we were appointed by the city as curator/coordinator of public art for the city of Johannesburg.

The twenty to thirty artists that are a part of it own it in their own right. So they can lay claim to it, they can say I was part of this. It’s just like any group exhibition, for example. You were a part of that instrumentally, but there was a framework under which you worked. So there is a clear curatorial strategy in that approach.

AG: Why is it necessary to involve local artists in commissioned works in spaces one would consider extremely foreign to you, such as the township?

MN: Let’s take the “Drop Sculptures,” such as the Eland (fig. 4) in Braamfontein for example, that could be anywhere, but the project in Diepsloot can only be in Diepsloot. The entire project in Diepsloot is made of steel, so in theory all that steel should be stolen by now but it is instead being taken care of. If the community takes such ownership then there is a respect for it. If you say this metal sculpture, in Soweto for example, tells the story of the 1976 uprising and reflects the people in the following way, and there were a hundred local artists who were part of workshops that developed it in concept, that then one artist went forward and made the work, there is a sense of ownership in that. This is where the model has changed in curating systems and processes that challenge the norms of how public art is commissioned.

The strategy is not about us. It’s about building the capacity of those places where people will be building public art. I can list twenty artists that have gone through our processes and are now doing these public art commissions by themselves or are trying to tender by themselves. So I think our strategy as a company or as an organization has been create the capacity within the place that we do the work and find a strategy that makes sure the work continues to have a life beyond the project being over such as it being vandalized or being stolen.

Clive van den Berg Commissioned by the Johannesburg Development Agency and the Braamfontein Improvement District, implemented by The Trinity Session, Eland, 2007. Courtesy of The Trinity Session.

AG: What was the main drive behind the collaboration of Hobbs/Neustetter outside of the Trinity Session?

MN: The collective is in several components, and this is where the branding and naming is so difficult. Stephen is an artist and he makes art, I am an artist and I make art. Stephen and Marcus come together and we like each other’s company and we’ve been friends for fifteen years and we work together, then suddenly we make art together, and our art looks very similar then there’s a collaboration that happens. And that’s where Hobbs/Neustetter started to evolve as a creative collective. Then there was The Trinity Session, which we keep quite defined. Now what’s happening is that our creative practice and The Trinity Session are almost merging into one. And that’s an interesting shift because we’re saying: we’re all doing the same stuff anyway. It all feeds into each other. We’re keeping our own separate practices, but Hobbs/Neustetter and Trinity Session is kind of becoming this creature that we ourselves can’t always control. When there are specific projects, for example working with Red Bull on the Social Entrepreneurial Academy, Trinity Session hosts the process, is the project manager of the process, and is the facilitator of these artists.

Many people will only see what it is we’re doing many years from now. It’s a dedication, because there is the temptation to spend every day in the studio and make art, and live there and just try and find a gallery that will sell all my work. This is the other dream. But the moment I do that, I know I’m going to lose my edge that relates to the rest of the world. And that’s why my collaborative projects with Stephen are so important, where we’re being invited to other parts of the world to practice what we are doing here but as artists. You start to look for the Johannesburg or the South Africa in other cities. We start realizing that we’ve got such a wealth of knowledge from our experiences here that we can relate and transfer those quite easily to any context because everyone struggles with similar things. So there’s the question of how to engage rather than disengage.

Art collectives shift the focus away from the artist as the “lone hero”. Apart from eroding the idea of the “hero artist”, the curator too is no longer a figure viewed with the gaze of the “divine.” Instead, what one may notice is a tending towards activism in the collaborative output of a collective work. “The development of discourse, not necessarily theoretical, but often socio-political, means that collectivism is frequently ‘grassroots’ and driven by the politics of a given community” (Laws, 2010: n) (2).  These two individuals, artist and curator, are often so inseparable in the collaboration they become one in the same.

In 2011, The Trinity Session, alongside three Mozambican artists, four Zimbabwean artists, and nine South African artists, initiated a short project that involved herding goats from the township of Alexandra to Sandton. “But for the M1 highway separating the two, the stark juxtaposition of Sandton Central and Alexandra Township is most demonstrative of the social, economic and racial inequalities in the city. By marching goats, an infinitely valuable commodity in the township, to the five-star Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton City, the performance provoked reflection on the origins of the xenophobic attacks of 2008” (The Trinity Session, 2014: n) (3).

AG: Within the art collective space where curator and artist birth projects together, such as the Borderless project (fig. 5-6), would you say the curator co-authors with the artist, as opposed to being a “post-production director”?

The Trinity Session in partnership with a network of Alexandra artists and visiting artists from Zimbabwe and Mozambique Supported by the SDC Program of Pro Helvetia Cape Town, Borderless, 2012. Courtesy of The Trinity Session.

MN: The main point about that project was to do it; to create awareness and create some sense of activist action. What I’m getting at with the role of the artist and the curator is: is it an artwork? I don’t know. Is it an awareness campaign, maybe? Is it a public service announcement, maybe? The beauty of it is that it gets a new form. What I’m getting at is that art can transcend those boundaries, curating can transcend those boundaries, to make a social difference.

AG: Are you curators?

MN: If you talk about curating art into a public space, I would then say yes. The role of contemporary artists very often falls into curatorial practice. It’s very much like art and design, they are crossovers; in today’s thinking there are so many crossovers. For the convention of curator in the museum space, there is a clear and defined role. There’s another avenue we should explore where we don’t have to define, too much, the curator in relation to the artist. Gabi Ngcobo, for example, is someone whom I consider more of an artist than a curator. However she’ll tell you that she’s a curator, and that’s her role. But the projects that you’re doing are of an interesting dynamic, and of boundary-pushing elements, which is so nice to see, that the artist comes out of the curator and so why can’t it work the other way around? Similarly, I’m an artist. I’ve thought about spatial practice for all my professional life. I’ve thought about how to design and organize my own creativity and other people’s creativity in a public space all my professional life. If I’ve gone through that process and I end up laying things out in a space using other artists’ talents, surely I’m a curator even though I’m not trained as a curator officially. Stephen had experience as a curator at the Market Theatre gallery, doing an incredible job putting together a post-apartheid program. So you can step back and say he is as much a curator as he is an artist.

For the sake of maintaining the discipline, it is necessary to have set boundaries between artist and curator. In my thinking, however, there should be a breaking down of those boundaries more and more. Similarly, a lot of artists will say we need higher profile artists to compete globally in the biennials. And art is art and we need to respect art. My thinking is, art in today’s society, where there is famine and environmental issues and crises, and we don’t have people that queue to go into museums to view art in Johannesburg and where other things are more important. Maybe artists shouldn’t be so quick to defend their positions as artists, but rather should be incorporating other disciplines into their practice. So my position will be very different to those already in that realm of protecting their position.

AG: How do you measure the success of a project, especially one that takes on an activist approach, and are there any strategies of sustainability in place after the completion of such projects? For example, the Borderless project and Diepsloot project.

 

MN: The measure is really difficult because it does not have a sustainability angle to it. One cannot see a one-hour project regardless of what it is, as an incident by itself. You need to spend enough time going back and nurturing that relationship. These projects are no different from one another; they are dealing with similar issues. For me, the success is to zoom out and say there are these interventions and this is how we learn from them. For example, we brought artists from Mamelodi for a project we are doing in Solly Mahlangu Freedom Square, artists from Soweto on a project we did on Vilakazi Street, from Alex and Diepsloot, together at a public art conference. This was in order for them to share their experiences and what it meant to work in a public space. This is an exposure to the other. So the success is not whether it happens for one hour or happens for three years, but you can zoom out and allow these things to interconnect, and you start seeing that ten years later Nkosana Ngubeze, who was part of our initial workshops in Wolmerand Street for example, is now running public art programmes in schools in Soweto. He’s developing major mosaics and is commissioned to make works in spaces such as Yeoville. You look at that and say that that’s not only because of that one workshop, but because he was there, then appeared in many other places, and developed his own projects, and the city has brought him on to be part of other projects. Then his capacity as a producer has shifted all these many boundaries. He’s become a project manager, he’s become a curator, he’s become a teacher, and he’s this multi-faceted and skilled individual who is rich with experience. And that for me is the success of one project. And it’s difficult to measure that.

Remark by AG: In an article titled “Collectivism—Facts and Curiosities”, Joanne Laws questions, “If the internet is the mode of distribution and communication for these groups how can a distinction be drawn between the overload of amateur or subversive collectives, and those with established reputations?” (2010: n) [2].

AG: Is it especially necessary for art collectives such as The Trinity Session to ensure engagement on social networks and very public spheres, and how have you as a collective penetrated these spaces?

MN: We haven’t. The main reason is, we believe in doing. Very often we use social media to gather people. We only very recently started to publicize what we do, to show what we’re doing, and the only reason is because we’re low on business. We realize that the clients that are out there that are spending the money, are not spending it on art. They have decided that art is no longer valuable and we’re trying to show them why it’s valuable. We are showing them that this is how we break new ground and innovate. And that design thinking, the catch phrase, is not something new but has existed for a long time; it’s just been positioned differently and is now finding its place. Social media has never grabbed us, almost for the trivial reason of social media. Things come and go so quickly. Social media created something called “slacktivism”, a term coined at some conference. There’s a Facebook group called Africa aid with over a million followers, which has managed to raise twenty thousand dollars to date, but if each of those followers gave a dollar, there would be a million dollars. I can be a part of a group and I can feel good about myself, but actually in today’s time being part of a group is no longer that good. You have to get up and make the difference at home, make a difference in your community, nationally and so forth. You actually need to take responsibility for yourself if you want to survive on this planet. I find social media has, in my opinion, for a long time been a conditioning tool. It is changing now. It has been a vehicle by big media machines to feed us stuff that keeps us complacent, happy and indifferent, and I’ve been very critical of it. We decided, do I want to be looking at my phone or do I want to be out there talking to people? And yes, I think we suffer. The reason why a lot of what I’m telling you sounds new, and it shouldn’t be is because we are not very good at packaging what we do for the public to understand in media. Instead we are reactionary, in that you come and ask and we answer. I know we should be publicizing more. Up until now, it has been the proof of what we’ve done that has fed us, it has not necessarily been our story to tell.

Neustetter closes our conversation by explaining how the name The Trinity Session came about.

MN: The name The Trinity Session comes from the name of the testing of the atom bomb in 1945 called the Manhattan Project. When they tested the atom bomb, the scientists said they saw the figure of Christ in the mushroom cloud. And so they called the site, the trinity site. What fascinated us wasn’t the religious aspect of it, but the vision that came out of something that’s so destructive. So within the destruction and the desolation came the visionary. There’s something about that desolation and feeling of lostness that came in the year 2000. Post-apartheid, budgets cut, artists like ourselves asking how do we fit into this system; how do other artists work now; how do you even build an artistic capital in the townships, never mind in those spaces where artists have been trained? If you’re going to cut all the budgets how do you manoeuvre that? So out of this trinity site, out of this desolation comes something you must envisage and imagine. So that’s how the name The Trinity Session came about; and session, like the gig. For us this is symbolic.

Marcus Neustetter
Johannesburg based artist, cultural activist and producer, Marcus Neustetter, reflects critically and playfully on his context through his art and collaborative projects. His strategy has been to pro-actively create, play and experiment to build opportunities and experiences that investigate, reflect and provoke. Mostly process driven, his production of art at the intersection of art, science and technology has led him to work in a multi-disciplinary approach from conventional drawings to permanent and temporary site specific installations, mobile and virtual interventions and socially engaged projects internationally.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the 14 November 1976, Marcus Neustetter attended the Deutsche Schule zu Johannesburg from 1982 to 1994. He read for his Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand, earning his Masters Degree in 2001. During this time he launched sanman (Southern African New Media Art Network). In the past 10 years Marcus Neustetter has been consistently producing and exhibiting art and, in partnership with Stephen Hobbs, has been active with The Gallery Premises (closed 2008), The Trinity Session and in their collaborative capacity as Hobbs/Neustetter.
Neustetter currently resides at the Maboneng Prescint in Johannesburg South Africa.

 

Abongile Gwele is a Bachelor of Technology in Fine Arts Graduate of the Tshwane University of Technology. She completed her studies in 2012. In 2010, Gwele volunteered at the Pretoria Arts Museum as an Education Assistant, as part of a team at the museum working with and under Mmutle Arthur Kgokong, who is the Education Officer for the museum. In her training at the museum, her focus was as a Junior Curator to the museum, and she underwent an extensive curating program alongside two other students from the University of Pretoria. They co-curated several exhibitions over their three years as Junior Curators of the Museum. In 2012, Gwele’s BTech year at TUT, she became a part-time arts and design lecturer at the British International College for a year and full time lecturer for the two years to follow. She is currently residing in Centurion South Africa.

 

1 Maria-Alina Asavei, “Collectivism,” in Michael Kelly ed., Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014.

2 Joanne Laws. 2010. “Collectivism- Facts and Curiosities.” Accessed 07. 07. 2015. http://joannelaws.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/13

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Issue 32

In this Context: Collaborations & Biennials

Nkule Mabaso

Editorial

by Ntone Edjabe, Chimurenga in Conversation with Valeria Geselev

Why you don’t see people collaborating on building hospitals and 4 other thoughts on collaboration

interviewed by Nancy Dantas

Justin Davy of the Burning Museum

interviewed by Nkule Mabaso

Gregory Sholette

Notes on Activist Art by Gregory G. Sholette

Counting On Your Collective Silence

Elvira Dyangani Ose

For Whom Are Biennials Organised?

interviewed by Nkule Mabaso

Smooth Nzewi

interviewed by Nkule Mabaso

Daudi Karungi Director Kampala Art Biennale

interviewed by Olga Speakes

Mishek Masamvu