Jenna Burchell creates interactive installations that immerse viewers, or in this case, participants in evocative environments. This year Jenna has been selected as one of the Gallery Solo Project artists presented by Sulger-Buel Lovell at the FNB JoburgArtFair. Her new work, The Narrators, is a series of sculptural instruments that play with the notion of storytelling. Standing silent and monolithic, they hold a weight of potential in their copper strings, but with a touch, or by running one’s fingers through the strings, they reveal audial hints of shared South African oral histories; tales of places lost, ballads to home, love and land. The instruments represent an exploration into how archives are formed and look enquiringly into how they might function in the future.
Please tell us about the work you’ll be showing at the FNB JoburgArtFair and how it relates to your wider practice?
As an artist I work in creating experiences. These often take on the form of interactive sculptures, performances and large-scale immersive installations that look to creating meaningful connections between people, places and countries. At FNB JoburgArtFair I will be showcasing two large interactive sculptures that extend from this practice. These will form part of a larger series of artworks called The Narrators.
The Narrators are a series of sculptural instruments that play with the container of storytelling. They are an exploration into how archives are formed and look enquiringly into how they might function in the future. Standing silent and monolithic, The Narrators hold a weight of potential within their structures. With a simple touch they reveal audial glimpses of oral history, especially those on the brink of disappearing. By preserving these ephemeral moments and allowing their interpretation to be fluid, I hope to decentralise the hegemony of history recording and place it in the hands of the viewer’s multiple perspectives.
How has your work changed since you first started out? How have you grown as an artist?
In 2006 the beginning of interactive installation was taking root in Europe but it was still greatly unknown in South Africa, especially the kind of technological-sculptural style that I was experimenting in. When I graduated specializing in interactive installations in 2007, I found that the battle I had fought to get my medium accepted academically was suddenly going to begin all over again in the practical art world. It has taken years of hard work, constant exhibiting, growing my audience and myself, to reach a point where I am delivering work consistently with quality, mechatronic stability, and conceptual growth that is steadily gaining the trust of galleries, museums and a growing audience.
Over the years my art practice has moved away from the singular framework of interactive installation into a more mature practice that crosses mediums and industries while still adhering to an overarching brand of what I mean both as an artist and a person. This has grown alongside my partnership with Tamzin Lovell who has been an incredible mentor.
I have also been very fortunate to embark on an international career alongside Tamzin and her co-director, Chrisitan Sulger-Buel, as a stable artist in Sulger-Buel Lovell Gallery. My experience of living and working in the UK has expanded my worldview and opened me up to finding new ways to create universal dialogues without loosing my unique sense of South African context.
What has driven these developments?
After months of research and development, social engagement, engineering, logistics and installation of a new experiential artwork, not only do I feel like I’m a hungry and broken heap of dirty clothes that has an art addiction worthy of family intervention, but I always seem to encounter a glamorous painter swooping in to hang up a digestible painting in 5 minutes. Those moments can be quite defeating. I have found from experiencing this scenario time and time again, that my love affair with my practice is an inseparable bond of understanding. I have never feared challenging the conventions of art practice, philosophically or logistically. Sometimes I seem to be running four parallel careers in art, mechatronics, psychological anthropology and sound composing. Yet I know that despite the long hours and complicated hard work, there is an exciting path before me that I feel compelled to discover and create.
Do you feel that artists have a responsibility to make work that ‘says something’?
Art’s power lies in the fact that it is not contained by defined parameters.
What do you believe your work’s purpose is?
To use an analogy, it could be explained like a set of Russian dolls soaked in water overnight. At the simplest core, the smallest and most solid doll is who I am and how I define my experiences and meaning in life. This microcosm gets placed inside a larger doll that represents a diverse audience. These both are placed into the next doll that represents the artworks I create. In turn the largest doll, representing the technological context of our times, contains all the dolls. If you soaked this Russian doll in water over night, water will fill the in-between spaces allowing the layers to anatomically connect to each other. I would say that the purpose of my work could be likened to this water.
For centuries different industries have been very insulated from each other, yet over the last decade there have been some incredible advances that have emerged from cross-disciplinary practice in industry. The same applies to art. I believe that in combining art with cross-industry practice we have the potential to change the way we engage with each other and our world. In particular my work looks to bring art, technology and people together in meaningful ways.
Please tell us a little about your interest in interactive installations, or as you call them, “environments”.
If interactivity does not serve a function in creating meaning in a work then I won’t include it. It is not a primary focus in my work. When I speak of technology I use the word quite broadly to include a variety of industry practices.
That being said, my artistic language of working with technology is derived from my personal life experience of living in a diasporic family. The relationship and emotional experiences that I had with my family during this time were formed through technologies, such as phones, internet, social media and airplanes, that allowed us to connect despite the real world divide between us. It was natural for me then, in turn, to artistically express myself through technologies in my art. At first this helped me deal with my own world. In time, I found that my practice had a place in a boarder narrative that was, and still is, being experienced globally.
What themes recur in your work and what inspires these?
Through my art language I unpack themes of home, land and cultural belonging to create ephemeral platforms of familiarity and connectivity between viewers in the real world. These themes stem from this same personal experience, especially the extreme otherness I experienced in a foreign land with a strange new home and a strong cultural alienation from the local population.
Considering the rapid incline of globalization, our encounter with otherness is going to become more and more acute. Physical, real world differences are going to be the springboard for intangible emotional responses, like the ones I experienced. Digital platforms, like social media, do offer a space for negotiating these differences through a common medium. Yet they can only extend as far as virtual nature will allow. What I’m looking for is a way to elegantly bring this platform into an analogue world where, with a simple touch, a whole intangible digital world of life, experience, connectivity, and possibility, can suddenly become grounded in reality.
In particular I favour sound and touch as a medium in which to do this. I’ve found that by removing the visuals connected to a theme like ‘home’, and instead representing it through sound, viewers naturally relate to something deeply personal and unique to themselves. Yet the trigger to these powerful, memory based connections are surprisingly universal. This allows me to create commonalities between seemingly very disparate people. In addition, touch, especially coupled with an unexpected response, creates a feeling of child-like wonder within the audience. Most people remember playing together as children on the playground and how they felt about the world and the people around them from that vantage point. Child-like wonder opens up a space with diminished personal barriers allowing new embodied behaviors to form as one comes to terms with the new experience.
In my touring project, Homing, various critics have engaged with these elements through their own experience;
“Homing is an evolutive ‘memory harp’ that plays sounds taken from our everyday environments, allowing the visitors to create their own tune. And, as the artist regularly adds new strings and sounds from the cities where the piece is shown, Homing also appears as a living organism, a universal creature, building delicates links between people and cultures from various countries.”
– Valerie Douniaux, Be Art Magazine, Homing at Art15, London, 2015.
“Visitors can ‘play’ or ‘conduct’ the dissonant notes of an urban orchestra. Burchell invites us to reflect on how these sounds evoke notions of home, but they also allow aural exploration of places unknown.”
– Chris Thurman, Business Day Live. Homing at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 2014.
“The room becomes a musical playroom, in which an audience reduced to childlike wonder can strum, pluck and arrange the multitude of nostalgic voices to create tiny sonic symphonies. It is in the seemingly endless permutations of sound that each lucky participant can find their own resonance.
– Jaroslav Kalac, SA Arts Diary, Homing at Lovell Conceptual Gallery, Capetown, 2014.
“With a simple touch of a copper wire or running your fingers though a set of wires you can discover sounds that might remind you of home, or awaken a memory so vivid it’s almost chilling.”
– Diane de Beer, The Star. Homing at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 2014.
Homing in Lovell Gallery, Cape Town, 2014. Photograph courtesy of Robert Burchell and Sulger-Buel Lovell Gallery.
When conceptualising and creating an immersive environment, how do you imagine the role that the viewer, or participant, will pay?
An artwork is often something that comes to me while watching seemingly simple, everyday things. It could be a pot plant trying to grow towards the light (this later became my work Lilies), a forest of birch trees at a Finish residency (this later become Homing), or a field of barley blowing in the wind (which will become part of a new piece I’m working on).
I start by unpacking the reasons why I find these moments fascinating and inevitably my line of thinking evolves into creating an experience where an audience contributes to the creation of meaning. Without their engagement the conceived artwork feels incomplete and even obsolete. From conception to exhibition, the audience is in my mind as co-creators of meaning. In this way, as in life, meaning is in constant recreation of multiple perceptions.
Can you please tell us about your creative process?
I find endless fascination with the functional needs of my conceptual language and the process of creation that this entails. My studio often looks to be inhabited by multiple personalities ranging from an engineer, to a mechanic, to an adventurer planning their next expedition. The artist in me is the binding agent that overseas these explorations and gives them direction and meaning.
A lot of the time I work in research and development. Often I find myself inside factories learning about their production or sitting with electronic engineers and software programmers discussing systems. What I love about this is the passion that these people bring to a project even though it may be so different to what they normally produce.
In the case of sound based work, my process also involves months of connecting with communities and individuals to record their stories. I focus on creating honest and engaging connections with others so that I can capture very real moments of sound. I don’t believe I could ever portray everything about a place or person, but rather I aim to offer glimpses. To manage the potentially massive scope of recordings, I follow an aleatoric method. Aleatoric refers to the element of chance especially as it relates to the use of technologies. I allow this to guide me through an expanding network of people and locations within a defined scope of time.
What do you hope people will take away from your art?
I believe art should be accessible and engaging to a diverse audience. As such I pack various layers of meaning into my work.
At the simplest layer of my art, audience engagement generates child-like wonder. Some audience members don’t progress past this phase… they want instant gratification, touch = response. I have a very simple set of strings programmed on Homing that satisfy this scope of people. They smile and move on.
If they get hooked, the second layer is largely subconscious. This is where the majority of audience members find themselves. These audience members negotiate their interactions with each other and often share their experience with others. Children most commonly are the greatest teachers to the adults at this layer.
The third layer is when an audience member steps back from this and observes the unfolding experience of others. This observer starts to unpack the reason of the artworks existence. I have always been surprised by the array and quantity of people who get down to this level of understanding.
Through touring Homing over the last two years, I’ve been fortunate to learn a lot through observing diverse human behaviour. There are no hard and fast rules, however there are definitely some fascinating patterns that emerge. I realise that I created this project, but sometimes I think it is recreating me. Even after witnessing thousands of people interacting, I’m still learning and finding some incredibly surprising results.
What’s next for you?
2015 has been a very jam-packed year with project commissions and the continued touring of my project Homing in the UK. For the remainder of the year I’m really looking forwards to some rest and some time to play around with the new mechatronics I’ve been developing. My recent public art commission in Wales called Songsmith has enticed me to experiment with a series of medium sized sound sculptures back here in South Africa.
In 2016 I’ll definitely be playing around with my on-going performance character Nelly and I hope Homing will continue to tour to the new countries that it has been invited to. However, my main focus for 2016 is going to be in R&D for a new room sized installation, I’ve kept this one close to my heart for a while now and I think its time to make it happen.
Research and development sketches for The Narrators. Courtesy of the artist.
Early maquette of The Narrators during research and development. Photograph courtesy of artist.
Interact with Jenna Burchell’s The Narrators at the FNB JoburgArtFair from 11 – 13 September at the Sandton Convention Centre.
Friday 11 September from 11am – 8pm
Saturday 12 September from 10am – 6pm
Sunday 13 September from 10am – 5pm
R500 for Thursday night’s Opening Preview Party
R100 on Friday
R130 on Saturday / Sunday
R260 for a Weekend Pass
Buy tickets online or at the door.