Catalogue | Interventions in Practice
Introduction by Chloë Reid
There is a set of terms that circle higher education in the creative arts, across disciplines. Common variations are: practice-based research, research-based practice and practice-led research, and may also include: practice as research or research as practice. They become increasingly prevalent as you work your way through institutional structures, as a student and, or, lecturer.
Though their use is relatively widespread, these terms (their order, relevance and definition) are disputed and inconsistently applied to the fields of Art, Design, Architecture and their various offshoots. Broadly understood, they refer to the development of new knowledge through creative processes and the interpretation of the outcomes of these processes. They exist as part of a system of measurement in creative practice, a way of validating innovative and subjective works and media in an institutional setting. This system of measurement and the terms that accompany it, attempt to answer a series of questions:
What does it mean to teach in a field that is constantly in flux and necessitates its own, regular overhaul? What does it mean to make and teach, and is the one conditional upon the other? What does it mean to practice and study something that absorbs and reflects its environment and is hinged on current social, political, economic and cultural movements as well as those predating its creation and to come? What is the relevance of measuring and rewarding the products of this mercurial labour? How can a system of assessment be standardised across and between disciplines?
In 2017, the Department of Higher Education (DHET) published its policy on the evaluation of creative research outputs, to be implemented from 2019. This has enabled the work of creative practitioners in South African institutions to be formally accredited and acknowledged as research, the outcome of years of lobbying by academics in the arts across the country.
Interventions in Practice features the work of eight academic staff members from the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture (FADA). These include, Eugene Hön (gallery director and curator of this exhibition), Alexander Opper, Bongani Khoza, Deirdre Pretorius, Khanya Mthethwa, Marc Edwards, Martin Bolton and Thato Radebe.
The exhibition showcases their work as artists and designers to the university community and broader public. It also provides an opportunity for them to have their work accredited as creative research outputs through a peer-review process. Beyond these aims, the gallery’s position within a learning institution performs a unique role. Free from the constraints of a gallery that responds or is accountable to the market, a university gallery prioritises exploration and study. It provides a formal environment in which students and staff can present new knowledge through the application and implementation of their work in a public setting. It is an index or catalogue of current practices within the university, with the practitioners on hand to illuminate the knowledge they have generated.
As is to be expected of a survey of work produced by artists and designers from a faculty with a uniquely interdisciplinary approach, Interventions in Practice has an eclectic character and doesn’t seek to unify or condense the practices on display. The various media include: photography, jewellery, industrial design tools and products, ceramic transferware, an artist’s book and installation. Each series of works is contextualised according to its respective demands, with detailed descriptions of components and fabrication processes, display cabinets, elaborate plinths and vitrines, simple labelling for photographic work that is better experienced than explicated, and a generous and comfortable bench.
The various installations offer moments of reflection and in some cases, theses, on practices that are accompanied and augmented by commitments to teaching, learning and the development of new knowledge.
Martin Bolton presents his research into small-scale manufacturing by leading the viewer end-to-end through his process of design development, prototyping, pattern making, tooling and production. The work is a proactive and outward-looking response to the limitations he has experienced as an industrial designer needing to produce and prototype cost-effectively on a small scale. Bolton models a way for designers and makers to develop their own agency within the manufacturing process through innovative, low-cost, custom-made machines and jigs, including a rotational casting machine. The latter, along with a small 3D printer has enabled him to side-step the practical and economic constraints of large-scale industrial production. Bolton’s presentation reflects an ethos that is especially relevant to students and recent graduates but has implications for the sustainability demanded of all contemporary designers, that is, not only to build the capacity to fabricate and produce independently, but to repair and reuse.
Thato Radebe and Khanya Mthethwa invite the viewer into their respective practices in contemporary jewellery, which deliberately blur distinctions between fine art and jewellery design. Referred to as ‘art jewellery’ or ‘author jewellery’, this way of working is distinct from jewellery design more generally in that each piece is made by an individual artist and encapsulates that artist’s particular expression. The scale of each piece, along with its intimate relation to the wearer, marks out these practices from the fine art discipline. Radebe’s work extends this approach further by creating pieces that operate both as jewellery and as delicate detachable sculptural pieces. As such, the works are multimodal and aim to challenge hierarchies that delimit jewellery as craft.
Mthethwa exhibits designs from her collection, Umswenko. Umswenko describes the confident presentation of identity and selfhood through cultural adornment. The 3D printed pieces combine woven elements and motifs drawn from a range of traditional South African material cultures. The artist’s work evades easy categorisation as it reflects on the nuanced role that adornment plays in the way that we perceive our bodies and project our personal narratives, across time.
Eugene Hön’s immersive installation conjures a world from his compulsive and intuitive drawing practice in ballpoint pen. Windstruck I & II exposes every aspect of his research and design process. Excerpts from Hön’s extensive and varied reference material, sketchbook samples, ceramic test pieces, original ballpoint pen drawings and a concertinaed publication are positioned in vitrines that glow in the dimly lit room, with equal intensity as his spotlit transferware. Driftwood, dandelions, caterpillars, butterflies and trees disfigured by unrelenting weather, hover and encircle the artist’s work, spinning their way into mandalas, only to be released again. Through these motifs, the installation invokes desolation, alienation and fragmentation as the starting point for renewal and repair. The impression is not one of optimism, but rather, inevitability.
Dead Living Things: A Cabinet of Curiosities in the Postcolony expands on Deidre Pretorius’s interest in the links between colonialism and the notion of the cabinet of curiosity. Her research encompasses three elements that exemplify what she terms ‘practice-led research’. These include: a physical cabinet of curiosities, an accompanying catalogue or inventory of the objects in the cabinet and a conference paper delivered at the South African Visual Arts Historian’s (SAVAH) Annual Conference at the end of September 2021. Pretorius draws on postcolonial theory and the history of the curiosity cabinet in order to unravel colonial narratives in a contemporary South African context. Popularised through early travel and trade, the curiosity cabinet served as a physical index of natural and man-made objects – a memory bank for a time when humans, minerals and land were categorised uniformly as resources to be claimed and exploited. Pretorius has manipulated this account by developing her own cabinet using objects bought, found or received as gifts. Dead Living Things reveals and reflects on the distortion of language and scientific logic to entrench discrimination and endorse exploitation.
Pareidolia is the tendency to see patterns or draw meaning from arbitrary stimuli and is central to Marc Edwards’ working process. Looking Around / Acts of Noticing chronicles Edwards’ ritual and material investigations that employ walking, observation and assemblage as generative devices. Through the mingling, mangling and reforming of debris, recycled and found objects, tools and paper pulp, the installation proposes a hybrid way of being in a world intent on destroying itself. Edwards reorders matter, allowing uncertainty to guide him as he develops and transforms the narratives embedded in objects and landscapes.
Two composite pieces by Alexander Opper are underpinned by a regular, reflective practice in photography. Opper, whose interdisciplinary work is concerned with spatial politics, uses the photographic mode to collect imagery. The images he collects represent immediate responses to his everyday environment and provide the material (both physical and conceptual) for critical and creative research. Figure/Ground is a grid of sixteen images of social distancing markers, though they are not immediately recognisable as such. The work catalogues a sudden and pervasive, yet seemingly minor intervention in the way space is navigated under the global pandemic. The significance of this in a city as spatially charged as Johannesburg, registers in the flattened, formal qualities of the images, which allows for a wider reading of the series. 20 seconds is a gridded choreography of soap in Opper’s bathroom, captured during the hard lockdown in Johannesburg. With obvious implications for the ways in which the COVID19 pandemic has charged mundane, overlooked activities like washing hands, the series of nine images more ambiguously suggests impending dissolution. Few things are so completely dissolved through their use, as soap.
The private and public spaces in Bongani Khoza’s photographs are, for the most part, sharply lit by harsh institutional lighting. Their use is evidenced through turnstiles, parking bays, marks on a blackboard and gold balls, but these spaces have been captured after hours and are eerily uninhabited. The cold indifference of the angular images suggests a city abandoned. A resplendent green lawn of a golf course, speckled with tiny white golf balls is claimed by a small red flag, upright and sure of itself in Vodacom Golf Village, Bedfordview. A helicopter sits idle on a hazy and infinite runway at twilight in Runway One, Rand Airport, Germiston, I. A bright blue chair commands an empty classroom in St Gemma’s Primary School, Tembisa. A knot of gridded turnstiles waits to permit or refuse access to commuters in Oakmoor Train Station, Tembisa, I. Lamppost is a photographic series that contemplates the ways in which power is expressed through basic structures and signs in urban space.
An exhibition that offers a window into the work of such a multidisciplinary staff contingent functions in several ways – each essential to the development of the institution, its staff and students. Interventions in Practice enables the review and accreditation of the work of faculty members, reinforcing the ground so recently gained in validating creative practice as a form of research. What is harder to quantify is how the modelling of this mutable research form by faculty, deepens the learning experience of students across disciplines. The faculty have made themselves vulnerable to their colleagues and students by exposing their research in an institutional gallery. This levelling serves not only to empower students to engage with staff as practitioners, but to encourage a sense of community as the students work their way through the institution towards independent practice. In the field of creative research, where formal endorsement is hard won, this community is invaluable.