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Co-Operative | Part I
Khanya Mashabela The Objectives of Project Spaces in South Africa
Digital publication 26 February–17 May 2024
Title Co-Operative | Part I Dates 26 February–17 May 2024 Location Online Tagline The Objectives of Project Spaces in South Africa
Roundtable: Common curated by Khanya Mashabela, June 8, 2023. Image courtesy of A4 Arts Foundation.

Introduction

Much of the language with which we speak about art is ambiguous, and this ambiguity extends to the term “project space”. What we understand a project space to be is largely defined by what it is not: It is not a commercial gallery, in that the main focus is not to sell artworks, though a few of the examples included in this study have sold art. It is not a publicly-funded museum, though some have benefitted from government funding. And despite sharing this independence from the art market and the government, project spaces are unlike private art foundations which generally have much larger resource pools and more traditional workplace structures.

The definition of a project space within this four-part essay is not prescriptive but descriptive, in an attempt to make sense of a phenomenon in the art world that is under-articulated, but generally understood. Though Peter Osborne’s definition of a project space is limited to an institutional context, he notes that the word ‘project’ has very particular connotations.1 It suggests that something is in process, existing in a state of incompletion. This is in contrast to commercial galleries and museums where works of art are generally treated as being precious, complete versions of themselves. Alongside the sense of incompletion implied by ‘project’, there is a gesture towards the future. The ‘thing’ is unresolved, but there is a time when it will become resolved, and perhaps even conventional. Project spaces provide a platform for experimental or marginalised practices, making them visible to the broader art world where they are digested and absorbed or ignored.

In the mid- to late-twentieth century many community-focused art spaces were formed, with the intention of offering arts education to people of colour who were excluded from traditional art schools, and creating a visual culture for the resistance movement against apartheid. Organisations such as Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre, Polly Street Art Centre, Community Arts Project, and the Medu Art Ensemble sprung up throughout the country (with the exception of Medu which was based in Gaborone, Botswana but which included many South African exiles). Art was used as a tool rather than as the main outcome – to garner income for marginalised communities, to express feelings about life within a segregated police state, and to overthrow the government. They were more organised and more concerted in their efforts than the artist-run project spaces at the centre of this essay series – which is perhaps why they are also more thoroughly documented and archived. However, they remain influential to artists creating project spaces up to the present day.

Why do emerging artists and cultural workers, who are often living in a state of economic precarity, continue to create spaces for experimental artistic practice? There is little hope of any financial benefit particularly in the South African context. Beyond a lack of opportunity for profit-making, there is also little hope that these projects can sustain themselves for very long or even remain in the public memory beyond their contributors and relatively small audiences. I invited four project spaces to participate in a round-table discussion in June 2023, two of which were currently operating. Less than six months after the discussion, both had closed their physical spaces. Though many creators of project spaces hope to maintain them for as long as possible, they rarely seek permanence. By nature they are ephemeral. If they do live longer, they become something else – a commercial gallery, a more formalised non-profit institution, etc. The ‘reasons for being’ of project spaces are both personal and societal, and are continuously changing over time. In this first of four essays, I will explore the objectives of artist-run project spaces, through a selection of case studies.

FIG

In the beginning of 1990, anticipating apartheid’s inevitable end, FW De Klerk announced that the Group Areas Act would be replaced with new, non-discriminatory laws. People of colour who had been forced to rely on inadequate transport systems to travel long distances from their homes in under-served townships to their places of work in urban centres, would be able to resettle their families within these city centres. With the influx of black families into the Johannesburg city centre came ‘white flight’ – white people moved to Johannesburg’s suburbs, resulting in the lowering of housing prices in the inner city. The inner city had become South Africa’s experimental art world centre, with the Newtown Galleries, the Market Theatre Gallery, Carfax, and the Federated Union of Black Artists’ (FUBA) studios and their Saturday outdoor market all located in close proximity to each other. In addition to being attracted by the lowered rental prices and the various exhibition venues, young artists romanticised the urban landscape. Werner Vermeulen, at the time a young artist, recalls being convinced by Wayne Barker to relocate to Johannesburg from Cape Town.

You look at the people that were exhibiting and doing work in Johannesburg. There was a real hard edge to it. I always say that Johannesburg is like a boil. It gets on you and you’re completely freaked out by it, and then after a while you become completely fascinated and you can't leave it alone. There is a thing that grows on you with Joburg.

In 1989, FIG (an acronym of ‘Famous International Gallery’ or ‘Fringe Innovative Gallery’) opened in Troyeville. This neighbourhood was where creative workers in visual arts, music, theatre, and film would meet, listening to experimental music and attending exhibitions. Vermeulen notes that Bob’s Bar, founded by Robert Weinek, was one of the main hubs of the area and was often used as an exhibition venue, and describes the Troyeville Hotel as “the meeting spot or conference room” for the artists involved with FIG. Though the founding of the space is often attributed to Wayne Barker and Morris La Mantia, there were other artists – Barend de Wet, Robert Weinek, Karl Gietl, Vermeulen, Ian Waldeck and Günther Herbst – associated with the space’s beginnings and maintenance. Vermeulen lived and worked in the building before FIG’s founding. He recounts sitting with Ian Waldeck, Wayne Barker,

and a few others, talking about the lack of space to show the kind of work that they really wanted to show. There were places to show the work that sells but not what we really wanted to show. We wanted something like the White Cube in London at the time.2

Kathryn Smith offers an example of the limitations of the existing spaces for art at the time, citing an interview in which Barker describes his experience producing an experimental installation at the Market Theatre Gallery: “I insisted on using scaffolding to create a street environment. [...] Boards and blinds had to be moved to accommodate my installation, which created a lot of friction with the gallery”. This lack of capacity was not limited to the Market Theatre Gallery; as noted by Sue Williamson in her recounting of the South African art world in the 1990s, “installation art as a form was almost unknown.”3

For artists, FIG was intended to serve as a “white box, where you can go in and do whatever you want to do, and then when you leave, you leave it in the same state that you found it in.”4 It became an early bastion of conceptual art in South Africa, with an ad-hoc programme of non-traditional shows, including De Wet’s storied Art Disguised As Pasta exhibition in 1996, in which he wore chef’s whites and produced handmade pasta for visitors, teasing out the sculptural and performative qualities of food. Though FIG’s primary intent was to explore artistic ideas, which were not platformed at the more traditional institutions and the commercial galleries, there was also the hope of gaining the exposure needed to be able to participate in the broader art discourse. During apartheid, South African artists were able to see the developments happening in the global art metropolises but the cultural boycott limited their ability to engage. After the end of apartheid, the world’s imagination was captured by the idea of South Africa’s new democracy. During the 1st Johannesburg Biennale in 1995, Barker curated a fringe exhibition titled Laager. Recalling this time, Vermeulen said, “We looked up and Christian Boltanski was there, as well as some other really prominent artists. It made us feel like we had been accepted. We wanted to become part of the conversation.”5

FLAT

In October 1993, four flatmates – Ledelle Moe, Niël Jonker, Thomas Barry, and Siemon Allen – began FLAT, with the intention of hosting exhibitions in their lounge. Their flat was in Durban, on Mansfield Road (now Steve Biko Road), and walking distance from Technikon Natal (now the Durban University of Technology) where most of them studied Fine Art. Unlike many of the cultural organisations in Durban at the time, FLAT aimed to offer a platform for experimental art within a local community of practitioners. In 1999, Allen documented the history of FLAT in a book. Describing FLAT’s founding mission, he writes that they “began as a project to mount exhibitions without censure and to maintain a free space without the traditional selection system.”6 FLAT’s lifespan straddled the 1994 elections. “It was eight months before and eight months after. It was a dynamic, crazy time in South African history, and we felt like anything was possible: Yeah we’re gonna start a gallery!7 Like FIG, the artists involved with FLAT were also frustrated with the limitations of the existing institutions. However, while Johannesburg had limited options to exhibit conceptual art, the conservatism of Durban’s established gallery scene went further. In a letter sent to the Sunday Tribune in 1991, co-authored by Allen, Moe, together with Clive Kellner, and Greg Streak, they criticised the Durban Art Gallery for prioritising Victorian painting and largely ignoring contemporary South African art. This frustration extended to many of the regional cultural institutions at the time, including the Natal Society of Art (now known as KZNSA), and has been described as a battle between the old guard and young, emerging artists.

Even so, Allen believes that this frustration was not the main motivation of founding the space:

We realised in retrospect that we were in opposition, or an alternative to those spaces. But at the time, we were just doing our thing. Many of us were interested in the alternative music scene, for example. And there were organisations like the Community Arts Workshop which was more like an educational space. The phenomenon of doing an ad-hoc kind of thing wasn't unusual.

In the first eight months of FLAT’s life, exhibitions were largely made up of sculpture and painting, “traditional in media if not in content.” Further into FLAT’s life, artists began to explore more conceptual, performative, site-specific installations. This experimental attitude is demonstrated by their exhibition titled A Minor Retrospective (November 2, 1992). The co-founders photocopied catalogue images of Kendell Geers’ past works, mounted them on masonite boards, and announced a “faux retrospective” which deliberately coincided with Geers’ ‘real’ exhibition at the Natal Technikon’s art gallery. Seeing the FLAT’s advertisements posted in the streets, Geers believed that they were produced by Technikon Art Gallery for his exhibition. The Technikon Art Gallery curator Frances Van Melsen, believing that Geers was involved in the FLAT exhibition, announced at the opening that more of his work could be viewed across the street. Adding to the comedy of errors, the FLAT co-founders attempted to fix their damaged floor by giving it a fresh coat of black enamel paint with the optimistic hope that it would dry in the three hours before the exhibition opened. Visitors’ shoes stuck to the floor as they navigated the exhibition, which they thought was another of Geers’ witty, site-specific interventions. The illusion was sustained because Geers never disowned the exhibition.8

Likely because Durban is a smaller city than Johannesburg, FLAT received less international exposure than Vermeulen from FIG described experiencing at the 1st Johannesburg Biennale. Even so, FLAT served as a unique and impactful gathering space which encouraged artists to extend their practices beyond what was previously accepted at the institutional and commercial galleries in the region. Reflecting on the experience, Allen says, “There was an interview about the Durban art scene at the time, and there was a question about the idea that young artists think that the world owes them something: ‘If I talk to a curator or they see my work somehow, they're going to give me a show.’ It’s about realising that it doesn't work like that, that the world doesn't come to you. You have to make your own world first, and then hopefully others will come to you because you've made something that they want to see.” Allen continues, “we sometimes forget that we can make our own culture and our own community. And maybe if we start with that then it can become the building block of a career.”

YOUNG BLACKMAN

In an Artthrob article, Matthew Blackman described how YOUNG BLACKMAN was conceived: “Andrew Lamprecht, Linda Stupart, Jonathan Garnham, Ed Young and I discussed how we could achieve the miracle of viewing relevant art from the comfort of the Kimberly Hotel.”9 As suggested by the name, Young and Blackman collaborated in realising this objective. Kimberly Hotel was, at the time, the favourite bar of Cape Town’s art world and the project space’s close proximity demonstrates the social function of project spaces in general, and YOUNG BLACKMAN in particular. Located directly across the street from the Kimberly Hotel, YOUNG BLACKMAN (like FIG) benefited from a depressed rental market, as it opened in the midst of the global financial crisis. The poorly performing economy meant that they did not have to compete for the space with retail businesses, allowing them to have a perfectly placed shopfront on Roeland street, with access to the eyes of hundreds of passersby. In popular culture the period between 2006 and 2014 is referred to as the era of ‘Indie Sleaze’, a time of hard-partying in response to the economic downturn and a nostalgic revival of the insouciant attitude of the 1990s. The founders of YOUNG BLACKMAN – particularly Young – were perceived as the enfants terribles of Cape Town’s art scene at the time. In a 2011 interview published by VICE Magazine titled ‘YOUNG BLACKMAN has the biggest balls in Cape Town’, they played up this role by sarcastically pretending to not understand why their name is controversial (“We were quite keen on it because it's, you know, our surnames”) and recalling being evicted from their space by the landlord four times in one night.

Their rebelliousness was deliberately placed in contrast to the increasing professionalisation and commercialisation of South Africa’s art world. Despite their apparent cynicism, they showed a commitment to creating a space in which artists could produce boundary-pushing installations. Examples of this desire to platform work outside of the conventional are Belinda Blignaut’s installation of vaginally-shaped pieces of chewed up bubblegum, Stealing the Words, and Athi-Patra Ruga’s performance After He Left, in which he scaled the wall of an Evangelical church while dressed in a leotard, high heels, and a helmet. It is noteworthy that both of these artists are now considered part of South Africa’s ‘art historical canon’. YOUNG BLACKMAN had a consistent monthly exhibition programme, beginning in September 2009, primarily made up of solo exhibitions. The exhibited artists ranged from recent graduates (Linda Stupart, Safia Stodel, and Gerald Mashona) to more established artists (Kendell Geers, Sue Williamson, and John Nankin), with the final exhibition taking place in May 2011. With the space’s closing, Blackman demonstrated the sincerity which underlied the project in an essay published by Artthrob titled, ‘Reflections on the Closing of the Project Space YOUNG BLACKMAN – from the corpse’s mouth.’ Though he acknowledges the economic unsustainability of the project, he also points to a wider crisis of culture:

Why did one of the three project spaces in South Africa fail? The simple answer is because nobody was interested in sustaining it. A very small section of the arts community took an interest in us, but the broader media and public took little to no notice. [...] YBM was never a marketable product and, I suppose, few people showed an interest in it because there was little to gain financially out of funding a bottomless hole in the floor. Doing something for no financial gain simply does not seem to be part of our cultural inheritance.

Though this statement may have been coloured by Blackman’s grief at the loss of the project space, the period following its closure substantiated his dire assessment. Ed Young remembers that for many years afterwards, he was asked by young people, “when is YOUNG BLACKMAN coming back?”10, a question that frustrated him because he felt that it was their duty to create the next generation of project spaces. However, Mitchell Gilbert Messina points to YOUNG BLACKMAN as a crucial source of inspiration in the creation of Under Projects in 2023: “The hope was to be in the National Gallery by forty years old, and in the commercial galleries by thirty, but what was I supposed to do in my twenties? And here was this space. This is where you are supposed to be experimental. It was helpful to see that step, which is usually missing in the post-graduation narrative.”

Conclusion

Though there was an active art market in South Africa in the twentieth century, it was much smaller than the market today. There was less risk of experimental artistic practice being commodified and ideologically ‘neutralised’. However, art is not only a tool to attain political or cultural freedom but also a potential key to financial freedom for artists and cultural workers. Artists involved in project spaces may hope that by creating or contributing to a project space they could catch the attention of commercial galleries and collectors, leading to a financially-rewarding career. However, the belief is that they are gaining this attention on their own terms, making the art that they want to make rather than following the conventions of the existing art market. The balance of these intentions is visible in the aesthetic choices that they make, artistically and curatorially.

Artist-run project spaces are most significant for their contributions to the economy of ideas, rather than their capacity for profit-making. They often fundraise, but this is done with the intention of maintaining a programme which resists the imperatives of buying and selling art. This difference is illustrated by Blackman’s reasons for choosing to end YOUNG BLACKMAN, “Fundamentally, it ended because the question was ‘do you want to be a commercial gallerist?’ and the answer was absolutely not.” Project space organisers may be perceived as taking on many of the risks and challenges of creating a ‘business’ without any of the financial rewards. However, the work of commercial galleries is much different to that of project spaces. Most commercial galleries make a commitment to particular artists because they believe in the cultural value of the art they are making, but also because they believe that there is an audience of collectors who will want to buy their work. It becomes their responsibility to maintain an exhibition space, market the exhibitions widely, handle the administrative tasks incurred by selling art, and build relationships with collectors and museums who have the money to buy the art. Project spaces have to organise and produce shows, and seek funds and other resources but the required capital and commitment is lighter. This is what allows them to prioritise artistic experimentation over sales.

The economic conditions which breed or stifle project spaces, as well as the funding models used to navigate these conditions, will be explored in further depth in the second part of ‘Co-operative’.

1 Osborne, P., 2013. ‘Project Space’, Anywhere or Nowhere At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, pp. 301–309.
2 Vermeulen, W., May 2, 2024, ‘History of FIG’ interview conducted by Khanya Mashabela.
3 Williamson, S., February 2000, ‘South African Art in the Nineties: Part I, II, III, IV, V, VI & VII’, Artthrob, Iss. 30.
4 Vermeulen, May 2, 2024.
5 ibid.
6 Allen, S. 1999. ‘Introduction’, The FLAT (1993 – 1995), pp. 1–3. The FLAT International.
7 Allen, S. May 30, 2023. ‘Interview: History of FLAT Gallery’ conducted by Khanya Mashabela.
8 Allen, S. 1999. ‘The FLAT File’, The FLAT (1993 – 1995), p. 69. The FLAT International.
9 Blackman, M. November 7, 2011, ‘Reflections on the Closing of the Project Space YOUNG BLACKMAN – from the corpse’s mouth’, Artthrob.
10 Young, E., June 8, 2023, ‘Common: Roundtable Discussion’, convened by Khanya Mashabela, A4 Arts Foundation.
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