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Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse | Ponte City book towers
Residency 9 January 2023–20 February 2024
Process: Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City book tower residency, January 9, 2023–February 20, 2024. Image courtesy of A4 Arts Foundation.
Title Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse | Ponte City book towers Dates 9 January 2023–20 February 2024 Location Reading Room Tagline Prototyping four book towers from the Ponte City archive. Credits

Mikhael Subotzsky
Patrick Waterhouse

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse are in the process of prototyping a set of four Ponte City book towers (working title). These contain archives of the books (those real and imagined) and associated materials that comprise the artists’ fifteen-year engagement with Ponte City – the ineluctable 54-storey apartment building that dominates Johannesburg’s skyline – offering multiple installation strategies for exhibitions, and pedagogical tools for storytelling and study. 

Four distinct book towers are in mind: modular, book-shelf-cum-cabinet units that interlock and interact with one another. Each corresponds to an era of bookmaking from the artists’ Ponte City project and contains materials relating to a period of the project’s making that can be used as resources for workshops and engagements. 

The first book tower relates to the period 2008–2012, or The Book to Begin, containing notebooks, dummies and prototypes of the artists’ earliest attempts at editing the Ponte photographs and associated printed-matter debris into a book. 

The Book That Never Was, the second book tower, contains the attempts towards a book that Waterhouse and Subotzky conceived of between 2012–2013 that was too unwieldy, ambitious, and complicated to ever publish.

The tower for The Book that Became a Box holds the story of making the book that would be published by Steidl as Ponte City (2014). At the time considered by the publisher to be a workable version of the artists’ ambitions, Ponte City (2014) is a box containing a book and seventeen booklets: text or visual essays compiled by Ivan Vladislavic, who edited the project, and the artists, together with commissioned essays, or a combination of approaches. Some of the booklets’ authors took an imaginative approach to the content, writing fiction or narrative responses. The artists and editor assembled these booklets into a timeline, with the cover image on each booklet corresponding to an image in the main book. 

The Box That Became A Book does as its title suggests: where the artists found themselves once again en route to bookmaking, anticipating the publication by Steidl of Ponte City Revisited: 54 Storeys that was delayed by Covid.   

The strategies the artists have employed for the book towers trace their provenance to the acquisition of the Ponte City archive by SFMOMA in 2018, and the installation of book dummies in a tower-like crate for display on Sean O’Toole’s research exhibition Photo book! Photo-book! Photobook!, at A4 Arts Foundation in 2021.  

The project presents a complex narrative about the social history of Johannesburg and a case study of the collision between modernist architecture and apartheid. Working with the material from the project prompts thinking about the relationship between buildings, imported ideologies and human movement in the Global South. The book towers’ modular design invites arrangement and use by the viewer. 

Waterhouse and Subotzky invite the curators visiting Cape Town during the Art Fair into a workshop environment to explore strategies of installation and use for a prototype of the Ponte Book set of book towers. Strategies for display/form can follow function, where thematic threads that are relevant across locations and ecologies are ‘unpacked’: Bookmaking; Narrative; Photography; Migration; Layering; Architecture; Community; Making; and How to Be an Artist; among others.

Prototyped here in cardboard, the four towers have a full-length lightbox on one face, and a series of removable boxes - printed with images on all 6 faces - on the other face.

In one configuration, the boxes collectively produce an image of the core of Ponte; removed and flipped they combine to create an image of the context of Ponte.

The boxes can also be taken out of the towers completely, and manipulated as blocks to puzzle unique combinations of images together. Once the boxes are removed from the towers, they expose layers of images on the shelves and present a framework for curation and engagement.

Creating 'scenes':

The individual boxes that can be removed from the towers contain book dummies, supplementary images, and props. These are used to create 'scenes'. A series of 'scenes' will be mapped by the artists for assemblage, and participants will be encouraged to build unique 'scenes' to support an idiosyncratic process or a thematic inquiry. In select cases, these new 'scenes' will be recorded and shared with the network of users.

The two 'scenes' prototyped here reflect imposed structural conditions (for example, the built environment, urban schemes, or apartheid) and the social fabrics (how people relate, live, and imagine).

A sample drawer from the book towers: