Let’s talk about about project spaces: The Open Dialog Box

In an open lot on Buitenkant Street in Cape Town, opposite Rust en Vreugde and between Perseverance Tavern and the Kimberly Hotel Bar, a shipping container has seeming washed ashore. This incongruous ‘box’ is the site for a six-part temporal art project, Open Dialog Box. Beginning on the 17th October and taking place every Monday evening, the space plays host to a one night only exhibition by an artist-writer pair who use the container as a site for production and a hub for experimental presentation.

In South Africa non-commercial project spaces are few and far between, yet are an integral part of a thriving art eco-system. The Open Dialog Box project poses a temporary (deliberately so) response to this gap, bringing together artists and writers to explore, challenge and create in an open space. We caught up with Claire May van Blerck, the woman behind the project, to find out more.

Claire May van Blerck
Claire May van Blerck

Open Dialog Box brings together a number of concepts and elements. How did the idea for the project first come about?

In order to create an exhibition series that might be fresh enough to make an impact on the Cape Town scene, I tried to think of a ‘twist’ that would provide complexity and relevance and context to the potential in this city, while remaining simple and creatively unrestrictive. Twist is a bit of a gimmicky word maybe, but the action of twisting is what I want here – causing rotation around a stationary point. The point in question is independent spaces in Cape Town. And people are doing things, don’t get me wrong, it’s this need for more spaces to add to the momentum which I wanted to address.

One space can’t answer every opportunity, or the demand for space, so the focus of this project is therefore aimed at bringing people together in order to build at what we have, and subtly encourage more projects to be established.

Using the container itself came about through various ideas. Symbolically it’s the representative object of capitalism, of commodities. It moves effortlessly throughout the world without us knowing about it, contents hidden. Hundreds to thousands wash overboard every year, lost to the ocean floor. Their speed and efficiency of movement is vital. A container is a suitcase. It’s built on an incredibly satisfying and human scale. They have changed peoples’ lives for better and for worse. They are readymades. They are cargotecture. They are camouflage. They’re also inexpensive (at R19.50 ex VAT per day) and perfect for a space which needs to be temporary and iconic, but also anonymous.

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You mention in your interview with Artthrob that there perhaps aren’t enough opportunities for new or young arts writers to publish their work. What do you think the South African arts media/publishing landscape needs by way of nurturing the critical relationship between arts writing and arts making?

As an outsider (I don’t obviously consider myself a writer at all) I feel there is a need for writers to have more opportunities to work with creative freedom. But my interest is less in publications, and more in terms of thinking of new ways in which artists and writers can connect that enhances their work simultaneously.

Temporary projects, or more permanent spaces focused on the long-term, are great platforms to bring about an increasing amount of intellectual and creative writer-artist partnerships. We have great minds in this city and by collecting our talent within a framework (be it for however long, or however formal) we support each other. Writers and artists will also find their own ways to become stronger. With Open Dialog Box I found an idea that appealed to some people in that career path, and that’s enough for me to consider the attempt successful. I think that ultimately we need to make sure there are enough opportunities which allow for creative freedom, compensation and acknowledgement.

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Jaco van Schalkwyk inspects the lifting of the container for his collaboration with Sinazo Chiya
Jaco van Schalkwyk inspects the lifting of the container for his collaboration with Sinazo Chiya

Do you think there’s a need for more non-commercial projects and project spaces in South Africa? What role in the arts industry can spaces and projects like this fulfil?

Yes I do, and I don’t think that anyone would disagree with that. An ecosystem needs these components to thrive. And it’s not like we have a shortage of talented, or young, or unrepresented artists to fill those spaces. As with everything, it’s funding that’s lacking. But that can’t be the end of it, if you really want to do something. Entrepreneurial drive, support from each other, and healthy competition is needed. These kinds of spaces will encourage more growth.

What are the advantages/challenges of hosting one-night-only events?

The one advantage is having to only think about that evening – the next day you can move swiftly onto documentation, organising the next exhibition, or get back to your much-needed day job. I can’t afford to support a longer show either financially or time-wise. The space itself, a shipping container, also needs to move off-site within a reasonable period of time before it gets absorbed into the landscape and loses its freshness.

Challenges in the one-night approach haven’t been all that notable. I’d say that there’s a challenge for people to make it to that opening, which isn’t always useful, but otherwise that’s all I have experienced so far.

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One of the main components of this project is cross-disciplinary collaboration. Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?

Well, so far this project hasn’t been so much about me collaborating as the idea of collaboration between participants, and whether that could work. I chose a few people who I wanted to be involved (and there were a few artists and writers who I would have loved to have included as well), and I asked them to choose their collaborators. Some of the people involved were already interdisciplinary themselves. A constraint I tried to impose at the beginning was that I’d involve young or unrepresented artists only, but as the project developed a pace I realised that there had to be exceptions.

I’d like to work with someone to write collaboratively on the project post-November, once the site has been populated and starts its life as an archive. I also have a friend in Leeds who I’d like to work with on another Open Dialog Box, and who I’ve been discussing the project with for quite a few months. I’m interested in the feasibility also of handing over the role of organiser for future Open Dialog Boxes in SA, and to have a mandatory rotational organiser/facilitator/curator. Of course if that were to happen we’d have to formalise, and hopefully we’d secure funds as well.

The title of the project implies a two-way free flow of information. Can you tell us more about this concept and how you hope it might be realised in this project?

An ‘open dialog box’ is, in IT terms, a field from which information is drawn, and into which information can be inserted. The Open Dialog Box of this project is a physical realisation of the virtual structure, an architectural framework to facilitate collaborative engagement and communication between participants and audiences. Communication between the participants in their roles as artist or writer (or artist-writer), as well as exposing that partnership to the audience in a pure way, is at the heart of the ‘dialog’ in the project. The container, with the above-mentioned characteristics, is tied to the open dialog box on a computer screen, as a standardised vessel and a digital readymade.

Khanya Mashabela and Brett Charles Seiler preparing 'Lip Service' (performance below)
Khanya Mashabela and Brett Charles Seiler preparing ‘Lip Service’ (performance below)

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What level of curatorial role or engagement have you had in the project?

Very little. I haven’t really curated much to be honest. My role has been that of a facilitator, or interested space-lender. I’m not interested at this stage to impose my views more than sharing my ideas and actioning what needs to be done re: asking the landlord/supplier/etc. about x/y/z. The container itself is small – it’s an intimate space. The work being made is performance/installation/video and that was a response by each partnership, not a requirement from my side. Each show was proposed as ‘this is what we’re gonna do’ and each of my responses was ‘okay cool, so what do you need me to do?’.

Did you provide any parameters or framework to the participants? How have/are the collaborations developing? 

I can’t say I did, no. I mean, the container is quite a thing to respond to by itself, so other than giving such a specific space to the participants, within this city and this parking lot, there were no other parameters.

The collaborations have all come about it their own ways; some only as a result of this project, some were inevitable, and some were I’m sure pre-existing in a form. I’m confident about each show’s success, and that is a wonderful result by itself.

What do you hope will come out of this project?

More spaces really. And a bit of optimism. Perhaps funding to do this again next year. I want to see how this first edition goes and give some time to reflect on it before I make definite steps.

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Exhibition details and dates: 

17 October – Jaco van Schalkwyk & Sinazo Chiya

24 October – Khanya Mashabela & Brett Charles Seiler

03 November – Jemma Kahn & Chad Rossouw

07 November – Miranda Moss & Marc Ricard

14 November – Thuli Gamedze & Keren Setton

TBC – Roxy Kawitzky & Marianne Thesen Law

— Images by John Bekker

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