Jenna Burchell is an artist working primarily in interactive installation, as well as sculpture and performance. Through the meticulously hand-built environments of works such as Homing and Urban Wetlands, she explores the impact of technologies on the relationship between home, culture and land. The performance piece she is working on currently, called The Return, tells the story of a white South African woman searching for what she calls home.
We had the opportunity to ask Jenna about the overarching themes in her work, how collaboration factors into her practise and what’s to come:
Growing up, was there ever any indication that you’d be doing what you are now?
Creating my work is like being addicted to the best kind of drug, there is an insatiable drive behind it and I can never go long without creating. My language of art is a direct manifestation of my context and journey in life and I don’t believe I had much of a choice in this, it chose me instinctively from day one and it was a welcomed compulsion I could never stray far from.
One of my earliest memories is of looking up at my mother who was writing a note while talking on the home telephone, the movement of her hand was so fascinating to me that I ran off to recreate that motion on the inside my cupboard with my Koki pens (I’m sure to her horror). A bit later on in my memory my father came home from work with a pencil drawing that he did, a lily balanced on a glass, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I was henceforth sold on the idea of art forever.
During preschool they thought I was ‘different’ because I would stand in front of the easels and just paint with the action of painting, refusing to listen to anyone telling me to stop because I loved it so much. Electronics came in a bit later in high school. I was as interested in science and math as I was in art.
I was very inquisitive into physics and how things worked. I loved logic and problem solving as well as creating things with my hands. When it came to choosing a direction in varsity, there was no other way it could have panned out.
Tell us more about your journey so far.
I started out failing my forth year of studies. I was enthralled by a medium that the institution didn’t know anything about. I had some very strong reactions for and against my work, in fact at one point a lecturer actually stormed out of my crit proclaiming ‘this is not art!’ Which resulted in a very heated debate between the lecturers. It was only at my final exam that an international examiner argued for my pass with distinction and I got it.
Very early on I found that by working in Interactive Installation Art (IIA) I could not follow the values and standards of the traditional art world, I had to continuously create my own path and value. As soon as I accepted that, things started working out. In 2011 I was awarded the Thambi Mnyele Fine Arts Award for my interactive installation ‘Lilies’, a really audacious move on the adjudicator’s part. I believe it was one of the first times IIA won an art award in South Africa. I was really very shocked and did a horrifically unprepared winning speech. Nothing compares to that feeling of elation.
IIA is definitely growing, these days it is a strong emerging language of art making on the South African scene. I find myself working across borders of industries, moving between art, commercial art, marketing and various joint adventures with techies, devs, engineers, actors, photographers, musicians, architects and hack enthusiasts, who all genuinely ‘get it’ and love it as much as I do.
The last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind. In March last year I was awarded the Ithuba Arts Fund to create a new work based on a proposal I wrote for a project called Homing. This really opened up the possibility to create something out of my book that I normally couldn’t afford. It was during the first exhibition of Homing that I found out the project was selected for this year’s main program at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown. Then, right off the back of that, Lovell Gallery offered me a solo exhibition in their Cape Town Space. It’s going to be an incredible journey!
How does your background influence the work you now create?
I was very fortunate to have a beautiful childhood that reigned until I matriculated in 2003. Later that year, dispelled by the shift in social economics in South Africa, my parents moved to Doha for work while I remained behind to study art. Although I was very excited to be on my own, my understanding of the world, which was the totality of Pietermaritzburg, was suddenly displaced by a global village. My idea of home was displaced by distance and my attempts at family interaction were now mediated through technology. Our very identity as a family was displaced, drawing into question what was familiar and what was foreign. This spring boarded a lot of new emotions to deal with, especially as an angsty teenager trying to find her way in the world.
Over the years we visited various countries together and it was during a trip to London in 2006 that I became seriously inspired by IIA and the language it offered me to communicate in. Today my installations, sculptural objects and performances create playful relationships with their users that expose this tension between the intimacy of home and the diasporic forces of the global technosphere.
I hope that through my work I can connect with others like me and help mediate some of those emotions that we all experience at one point or the other about leaving home, losing track of where home is and then eventually finding the home within the chaos of yourself.
What else are you influenced and inspired by?
I am incredibly inspired by individuals who break from the traditional mould of ‘being’ in the world. Take a look at Olafur Eliasson, you are likely to find him in an Icelandic desert doing his own thing, but back in London two million people went to view his Weather Project, a giant illusion of a sun created in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, London. When asked to extend the show, Olafur declined, he later explained, “the media attention was very flattering (…) but it was also becoming very brutal. There was a danger that the project might slip from an artistic experience to mindless entertainment.”
Artists like this transgress boundaries shamelessly, never looking back, because their drive to create with integrity is more important than art politics, grandeur, entertainment and financial gain.
The process of making things also endlessly fascinates me. This is really my love. When I was designing Homing I visited five different copper manufactories, mesmerized by their production systems and machinery. I spent months drawing up Homing’s specifications to be as simple and functionally pure as possible. At lot of the technical knowhow of this comes from my duel career in the museum and exhibition production industry. My work there definitely influenced my methodology to include cross-industry dialogue and collaboration.
I am also inspired by career chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Marco Pierre White for their intensive processes and motto of ‘perfection is doing a lot of little things right’. Their ethic is something I completely relate to and besides I love contemporary cuisine, making it and eating it.
Other inspirations are generative design, programming language, circuitry, product design, architecture, engineering and winter landscapes. Especially the open, coppery grass fields in the Highveld, the dry burnt wattle forests after the fire season and the way weavers build their nests so instinctively, tearing them apart until they are just right.
How would you describe your style or aesthetic, and how has this developed over the years?
I favor a very minimalistic style that tends to follow a Bauhaus-like philosophy of form follows function. I like working with only what is necessary, staying very honest to my materials and avoiding waste. I don’t like to hide my systems or functional mechanics; I prefer to make them stand as a part of the whole, justified in their own beauty.
Over time these systems have become more complex in behavior but much cleaner and simpler in execution. The experience of them should be accessible and sincere which means I tend to avoid heavy art-speak and signifiers, rather favoring cross-pollination between art, life and people.
I’m very interested, going forward, with how this form of art making can integrate with everyday experiences. I’m looking at how to activate the banal spaces we encounter, recreating them into moments of excitement, engagement and conversation.
Part of your artist’s statement reads: “Through meticulously hand-built interactive environments I explore the impact of technologies on the relationship between home, culture and land.” Could you expand on this, particularly the ways in which technology comes into play?
To give you an example: when I was a little girl, the world was literally just my backyard and that was the land I belonged to. Home was a big house and culture was what my neighbors cooked for dinner. Now I can jet set to anywhere in the world in a day, I live in the global village and honestly I have no idea which culture I belong to. Just my accent alone has me confused.
Technology has rapidly expanded my worldview, especially as I find myself in a diasporic family whose entire relationship floats halfway across the world in the ether of Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp. It is the century of the displaced person and technological progress is both the reason and the savior of that.
Have you always been interested in cultivating an immersive environment through your artworks?
Yes, even as a kid my friend Mary and I would build massive sheet forts and book mazes that filled a whole room. At the heart of it is the idea of creating a safe space, a space that represents my inner landscape but actualizes it into something that I can walk through, be immersed in, and feel at home in.
Tell us about your interactive installation, Homing.
Imagine walking through a forest of hundreds of glimmering copper strings, strung from floor to ceiling. Touch, listen and play these strings to reveal memories of home. Dogs barking, laughter, thunder, traffic, a piano – wherever you may be today, wherever you may live, each string triggers familiar sounds that take you back to that place, real or imagined, where you know you belong, feel safe, breathe easily.
The travelling project Homing encourages audiences to talk about what home means to them in the context of diaspora. It is an opportunity to move diverse people to interact and exchange stories, embracing the differences and similarities that unite South Africans. It is a meticulously hand-built interactive environment, designed to be an accessible and exciting meeting of contemporary art, sound and live interactive participation.
The soundscapes presented at each exhibition are uniquely recorded and collected with the local communities prior to a show. Some of these memories, conversations and ambient sounds are heard raw, others processed into intricate musical tones. The current soundscape is often played along side the pervious exhibition’s soundscape allowing the audience to move and play between the two.
For example the exhibition at Lovell Gallery, which opens 31 July 2014, includes three unique soundscapes. They are of; Cape Town from the harbor’s melting pot, to its windy mountaintops to the local ambient; National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, bringing it freshly from this year’s festival to Capetown allowing viewers can catch a glimpse of its experience; and finally, Pretoria, reveling its wide-open spaces, local farms, crackling veld fires and Church Square.
Homing was first conceived a year ago in the isolated, birch forests of Hämeenkyrö, Finland where I spent a month in residence at Arteles Creative Centre. Since then Homing has been developed through generous sponsorships, pro-bono work and in-kind exchanges. I would really like to point out the amazing team around it, namely; Leinster Grimes who works on the electronic engineering, Daniel and Jarryd from Bushveldlabs who are working on the new software and ‘black box’, CF and Werner from A Skyline on Fire for the Pretoria audio processing, Sebastian Jamieson who will be working on the Grahamstown audio processing, Jaydon Meidlinger for assistance with the structural plan and Schalk Erasmus for assistance with building the structure.
I really also what to thank The Ithuba Arts Fund and Grahamstown National Arts Festival for allowing an artist to dream, Peter Willers from Walro Flex for the Copper Pigtail, Astro Aluminium for the aluminium ceiling, Maldwyn Greenwood for the audio equipment, Morné Barnardt for photography, Tamith Hattingh and Dominic Karayiannis for their assistance and lastly to Granger Sholtz for his videography.
Yes it takes that many people to make this kind of thing a reality.
Aside from the Cape Town exhibition at Lovell Gallery 31 July – 13 September, Homing is also going to be at National Arts Festival, Grahamstown this year 3 – 13 July and a portion of it will be at the Turbine Art Fair in Johannesburg 18 – 20 July. Please come and experience it for yourself!
Before Homing, you created a customisable installation titled Urban Wetlands. What does this entail?
Urban Wetlands is a fun experiment. It plays with your presence in an artificial field of reeds. Each reed is crafted from aluminum and tipped with a resin light node. These lights fade up when you draw near and dim down as you move away. In this way you can weave an illuminated path through the installation.
Urban Wetlands can be formed to fit different spaces and configures to suite corporate spaces, exhibitions and events. It inspires an audience to stop, smile and think. This high-tech reed field provides an experience that plays with how the urban replaces the natural. It questions how this foreseeable change from the natural to the urban will create changes to the ways we live in the future. The larger vision is to create this on a large outdoor scale covering a field.
When it comes to your process, how important is collaboration?
I strongly believe that the stereotype of the loner studio artist needs to be put to bed. Art naturally evolves with the times and right now we no longer exist in a closed vacuum. Even when at home, alone, we are constantly updating, interacting, networking, socially liaising and adjusting our public perceptions.
IIA attunes to this zeitgeist by allowing the creation of meaning to shift from a singular embedded meaning ‘gifted’ from an ‘artistic genius’, to a dynamic flux of meaning creation. The creative subject now becomes the collaboration between myself, as an artist, the local community, the industry specialists I consult and the audience that interact with a piece. There is no finality in IIA – it is in constant creation, constant collaboration.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans going forward?
As mentioned earlier over the next few months I am touring with the project Homing as it moves across the country collecting and archiving new audioscapes. I have some plans to create an online platform for this where I can input these archived sounds to create ‘soundclouds’ of the cities and places we have visited. I’m looking for collaborators on that one, so heads up programmers, web devs and generative designers, give me a shout if you up for a collab.
I am also working on a new performance piece called The Return. It looks at the space in-between home and somewhere else. It follows the story of a character searching for a place to belong but she exists only in this no-man’s-land. She wears a black Victorian dress, Xhosa beads, a Zulu spear, Dutch clogs, a South Africa war metal and a crown of roots, to name a few things. It pulls from my experience as a 3rd generation, white female South African feeling the exclusion from social, economic life in South Africa following BEE but also the exclusion from other countries that my grandparents immigrated from because of World War Two. I think it is something that a lot of South Africans are going through and can relate to.
You’ve really got to keep your eyes out for the art video of this one! It is done in collaboration with Dave De Gasperi, who brought you the new ISO video Heaven, and the musical duo from A Hollow In The Land, Jacob van der Westhuizen and Ola Kobak. It is a visual treat. It hasn’t’ been on show yet, but I’ll give you a sneak peak at some of it here…
And lastly in the near future I’m starting up my own company – Creative Strategic Studios, which looks at working with a core collective of independent professionals to produce corporate interactive installations, viral marketing campaigns and exhibition/museum displays.
It is one hell of a ride and a very exciting one to be on. The last while I definitely feel like I’m living the dream and hope that this momentum carries forward. I have a big book of environments I’m just dying to create next.