From June 23-30 in Durban, South Africa, the digital festival Digifest welcomed the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA). With a lot of discussions on the future of makerspaces.
Durban (South Africa), special envoy
It is an interesting fact that television was banned in apartheid South Africa until nearly 1976, according to director of Fak’ugesi digital festival Tegan Bristow, in an attempt to cut out the outside world. It took the worldwide coverage of the Apollo 11 moon launch to create pressure for the medium to be introduced. She says: “This instigated feeling amongst white South Africans that they were being excluded from a scientific rite of passage that threatened their racial superiority.” Television, of course, arrived in time to chart the monumental changes taking place in South Africa on the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president.
It’s the fifth edition of Digifest (Durban University of Technology Digital Festival), directed by René Alicia Smith in this bustling, dynamic seaside town in South Africa and we have moved a long way from a television-free past with the arrival this year of the international art and technology festival and conference, ISEA2018, from June 23-30, with themes and discussions ranging from artificial life to the future of makerlabs in Africa. In a sprawling exhibition literally built from the ground up in a series of “Life Hacking” workshops at the KZNSA Gallery, ISEA2018 director Marcus Neustatter asks: “What does it mean to be a life hacker? Makers, recyclers, hackers, inventors and survivalists manipulate not only materials and media but systems.” Solar-panelled robots are the order of the day here and invention and innovation is arriving here at a breathtaking pace.
Africa now is a place where, despite the everyday problems of survival for many people and where climate change is beginning to hit hard—witness the recent arrival of snow for the first time in Capetown following a severe drought—we are beginning to see radical innovations such as Morris Mbetsa’s flying taxi. Cited by opening speaker Mugendi M’Rithaa, Mbetsa is a young unschooled Kenyan inventor who at the age of eighteen invented an app to prevent car-jacking, and is now testing Africa’s first passenger drone.
There is a lot of discussion on the future of makerlabs here. In the panel at Durban University of Technology, The Dark Side of Making, which looked at the ethics of makerlabs many of the problems facing the making community were addressed, including the appropriation of the maker ethic by big corporations and Hollywood in films like Mr Robot. Steve Gray, founder of TheMakerSpace in Durban reflected on the ethical problems of trying to survive through enthusiasm for simply sharing maker technologies and practices and concluded that a hybrid model between an idealistic makerspace and business or funded partnership was needed. Needless to say the notion of the “hackathon” was soundly derided by this panel.
Another lab well represented here is the project African Robots—a collaboration between Ralph Borland, Lewis Kaluzi, Dube Chicangura and Henrik Nieratschker—to intervene in street “wire art” production in Southern Africa (particularly South Africa and Zimbabwe). Here, informal sector artists make largely ornamental goods from galvanised steel fencing wire and other cheap materials, which they sell in the street. African Robots brings DIY electronics knowhow and cheap components to produce interactive and kinetic forms of work—African automatons such as birds, animals and insects.
Recalling the history of a televisionless society in the townships and “informal settlements” (the term here for squatter camps), performance artist Nhlanhla Mahlangu in Chant reanacted his childhood in such a camp in the powerful opening performance, wrapping himself in the tubes of a replica of his grandmother’s vacuum cleaner. He used the techniques of performance art to transport us to a moment when the police an army violently raided his camp as a child, setting his home and his dogs on fire. He distributed police whistles to the audience to create an immersive experience of these terrible times. “Chant presents my challenged traditions in the hope to speak to new truths. Chant challenges the manipulation of nature, the use of technology, religion, tradition, politics and power to the point where our only space and time are crippled and unable to accommodate us.”
His work was one of several brought to Digifest by the interdisciplinary incubator space from Johannesburg: The Centre for the Less Good Idea, founded by artist William Kentridge, inspired by a Tswana proverb: “If the good doctor can’t cure you, find the less good doctor.”
The good ideas…and the less good
Kentridge explains: “Often, you start with a good idea. It might seem crystal clear at first, but when you take it to the proverbial drawing board, cracks and fissures emerge in its surface, and they cannot be ignored. (In) those less good ideas coined to address the first idea’s cracks…in the act of playing with an idea, you can recognise those things you didn’t know in advance but knew somewhere inside of you.”
The centre is also showing the augmented-reality Invisible Exhibition at Durban Art Gallery, alongside Change Agent, a long-term project by Australian “embodied media” artist Keith Armstrong and a group of residents of an “informal settlement” which focussed on “shack replacement” strategies for residents whose “futures were routinely compromised by poor living conditions, poverty, inequality, unjust laws and lack of stable tenancy.” Significant outcomes were unique low-cost creative buildings build principally of mud and waste materials and media-art infused public community gathering events called “Merakas.”
There is also a strong representation by Gambiologia from Brazil, which adopts that country’s tradition of gambiarra, a kind of “life hacking or hechizos” exploring the concept of “industrial coincidence” in which two industrial objects with distinctive origins fit perfectly with each other.
Finally, Eskin 4 the Visually Impaired, a performance inspired by current research in neuroscience and wearable computing using the latest version of E-Skin—a project developed by the Australian artist Jill Scott—, young visually challenged dancers from the Mason Lincoln special school in Umlazi, near Durban, danced/told their own ecological stories.
As I write, Digifest is continuing and I am touring the venues on an old Dutch bike lent to me by ISEA2018 Cultural Programme Director Gabrielle Peppas, also founder of Durban Bicycle Kitchen—motto “DIY your Bike”. A few years back, the city of Amsterdam sent a container-load of old abandoned bikes found on the streets to South Africa and the “cooks” at the Bicycle Kitchen set to work fixing them up. Peppas: “We want to expose people who have never ridden a bike before to it, but also empower them with skills to fix their own bikes. This is why we have this space now where anyone can come and get their hands greasy fixing up old bikes that we can donate.” As well as distributing these bikes to the bikeless in the less-privileged townships, they also run women-only bike repair workshops so that once donated, they can be kept running.
More about ISEA2018/Digifest05