A short while ago we happened upon a series of videos, completely by chance, that left us with that feeling that we’d just witnessed something truly remarkable. In these videos, dispossessed zoomorphic trash creatures lumber through different urban settings seeking out a friendly face in the unsuspecting crowd, who leap out of the way in fright or pose to take a quick selfie. We tracked the artist down because we had to know more about this project. This is how we met Francois Knoetze, a young Grahamstown born artist now completing his MFA at Michaelis, who creates art that seeks to engage with the South Africa of right here and now in an intelligent and sensitive way.
The videos that we chanced upon had in fact been uploaded for a seminar for his MFA, and are currently no longer available to watch. However, Francois has shared images and screenshots from the videos, and more significantly, his thoughts and intentions for the project, which provide insights into his concerns as an artist, and how he feels about being young and creative in South Africa right now. We’re thrilled to include Francois in our Young South Africa series this year, and look forward to following his artistic journey.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist?
No, but I always knew I wanted make things. I just never quite decided exactly what they would be. The idea of deciding on one thing and then having to stick with it wasn’t for me. It’s something I knew I didn’t want. Becoming ‘an artist’ seemed to suit this combination of indecisiveness and certainty.
Please tell us a little about yourself growing up, and how that played a part in where you are today…
I like to believe I’m still growing up. It’s a dangerous thing to think that you’ve reached a state of completion or maturity. What I remember most from when I was younger is having more time to do things for the sake of doing them, or in other words: playing. So ya, lots of Lego, computer games, elaborate action-figure base building, and dressing up as wrestlers, animals and old women. I guess that’s kind of what I’m still doing now, except sometimes I get paid for it. Mostly not. But I consider myself lucky that the line between work and play is a blurred one.
I also remember spending a lot of time watching my father and grandfather fix broken things. My grandfather sometimes even goes as far as buying broken things at auctions just so he can fix them up (even though he could probably buy the same thing new for less). I suspect this sparked my interest in exploring the intricate processes veiled behind the often banal outer appearance of the objects we surround ourselves with.
What attracted you to the medium of sculpture?
In a way, at least initially, sculpture seemed to reacquaint me with a childlikeness I let slip away during high school (somewhere between singing hymns, Saturday rugby matches, tying eighty thousand ties, and the punitive atmosphere in general). Sculpture allows one to intimately engage with the world by bringing together, in the objects produced effectively through play, materials of widely differing kinds and finding new, intuitive relationships between them. That… and the fact that I’m pretty rubbish at drawing.
You work almost exclusively with found objects, both in your sculpture (trash) and video (footage) work. What appeals to you about these materials?
Trash speaks volumes about us, and it does so without pretentions. While the factory assembly-lines and sweat-shops produce uniformity and homogenized ‘newness’, I think that used and reclaimed objects provide a testimony to the endless diversity of contexts and conditions which govern our lives. I like to believe that ‘trash’ isn’t trash until one calls it that, but rather a socially and culturally negotiated concept that helps lubricate the act of consumption. The act of intervening in the void-like cycles of consumer culture and recovering objects from the dissolution to which they are destined, involves a type of political dimension. I am drawn toward interacting with the so-called grittiness of discarded materials that have been deemed worthless, and imagining journeys these things may have taken before crossing my path.
My use of found video footage also links to this idea of exploring the infinite variety of ways in which the homogenized manufactured object, in this case a video camera, webcam or cell phone, can be used. My approach to the archive or cultural dumpsite known as YouTube is similar to the act of rummaging through piles of discarded objects at local municipal waste disposal site and recycling centers.
By highlighting the diversity, fluidity and intersectionality of both the material and the social world of things, my work attempts to generate a discussion. I like to think it makes a visual argument against our propensity toward imposing fixed categories and stereotypes onto the world of living creatures. By taking ‘trash’ and showing that it can so easily be something else (both in the forms I construct and in the open-endedness of the videos I create) I hope to emphasize the subjectivity of interpretation and multiplicity of meaning.
Narrative is an integral part of your practice. Please tell us a bit about your conceptual process and how these overarching stories come into being…
It is difficult to say, since it is usually a very scattered process and rarely the same from project to project. The most productive thinking sessions usually occur during the moments (which sometimes turn into hours) before falling asleep, or during those long drives through the Karoo. I also like to freely apply narrative aspects of epic and grandiose genres, such as Greek tragedies, biblical parables and classical operas, to my work. I find the interplay between the monumental and the neglected, overlooked or intentionally hidden aspects of the everyday to be an interesting one.
Your 2012 work, ‘Refus’, seems to prelude your current project, Cape Mongo (2013-2014). Please can you tell us about the themes and ideas that you’re exploring in this series of videos…
Cape Mongo (Mongo n. slang. object thrown away and then recovered.), part of my MFA at Michaelis School of Fine Art (UCT), is a reflection on some aspects of the social situation of Cape Town; both historically and in the present day. The project attempts to provide a form of social commentary on the city’s current spatial, economic, and political conditions, through its interrogation of commodity and consumer culture. It also looks at my personal entanglement within these conditions, and how my own identity is wrapped up in the commodities I consume and discard. The project presents consumer packaging as vessels of interconnectedness between me and the spaces these objects inhabit.
By sculpturally appropriating objects deemed useless, obsolete or out of date, into performative enactment – a form that itself originates within the fleeting present – the work aims at redramatising the acceleration in the willingness to discard unwanted matter. This trend is often mirrored in the hurriedness with which human beings are marginalised and rendered as waste in South Africa. Colonialism and Apartheid’s residual boundaries of socio-spatial exclusion, between a populace treated as surplus and an affluent consumer class, are (arguably) nowhere more noticeable and geographically defined than in Cape Town. The growing gap between rich and poor – exemplified by the heights of skyrocketing property value and depths of the city’s longdrops – is paralleled by the growing mounds of garbage that lie scattered around the peripheries of the city. Cape Mongo is an attempt at retrieving life from the growing dumps of consumer culture by rendering permeable the rigidly constructed margins that separate and classify spaces, objects, people and animals.
The project consists of five films; VHS, Glass, Paper, Plastic, Metal, each of which is the culmination of sculptural and performative processes. Through the medium of film, performance and sculpture, I follow the journeys of these characters as they retrace the journey from trash to raw material. The project’s exploration of these objects as cumulative products of a long series of hidden processes provides a reverse look at the disavowal and un-remembering inherent to the act of throwing something in the bin. It also attempts to draw parallels between the journeys these objects take, and the City of Cape Town’s history of dispossession, exploitation, and segregation as a reaction to the current trends of active forgetfulness and the rebranding of the past into a consumable form. My exploration of the lives of pieces of recyclable packaging is a frame that offers an alternative imagining of the city, one that attempts to look below the glossy and sanitised re-packaging of the landscape of human waste.
How do you go about creating these trash costumes?
I begin by sourcing and sorting the materials. I then start to assemble the materials according to a vague mental image of the desired final product, with the help of various visual references. I generally use wire, glue, and melted plastic to stick the objects together. The suits usually consist of a number of separate pieces which are made to fit parts of my body through laborious processes of moulding, sticking, fitting and adjusting.
Going back to the idea of narrative in your work: How scripted are your videos and how much do you leave open to chance? Where does the editing process fit in with this?
There are generally two types of shooting styles that are employed. The first is focused on capturing the interaction between the sculptural suit and a specific space. These shoots are done under more controlled, cinematic conditions. The second is focused on public performance and capturing the candid interactions of people with the characters of Cape Mongo. These are entirely unscripted, so the cameraman, Anton Scholtz, has the difficult task of making rapid-fire decisions about what to look out for and how to frame the action. The unpredictability, which arises from catching an audience unawares, not only provides more interesting and sincere responses, it also allows one to film in places that are restricted to the public. Many of the performances in places such as factories and warehouses were executed without permission from the proper authorities, and therefore, while trespassing illegally. Fortunately for Anton and me, the security personnel would often be too distracted taking videos on their cell phones to think of apprehending us.
Editing obviously plays a big role in ordering and framing these interactions. The process of editing the films involves finding a balance between cinematically arranged shots which frame the figures within various landscapes, and frenetic montage scenes that make use of short clips of found footage and footage documenting the performances. The interplay between these two styles invites the viewer to make connections between the narrative and interactions of the character, and the content of the interspersed found footage.
Your work incorporates a strong element of performance. What do you intend for this to add?
It goes without saying that the performances – as sequences of flashing or disappearing images – appear different depending on which side of the mask one is looking from, or through. For the viewer, the performance appears within the dramatic distance created by the mask. For me as performer and mask wearer, the performance is situated within interactions with viewers. This divergence requires me to be reflexive and attempt to imagine the performance from the audience’s perspective. So, while wearing a mask can be a powerful and liberating experience, as it hides one’s identity and emotions; by reflecting on the performance through the eyes of the viewer, the mask wearer is forced to recognize this power as artificially constructed.
The range of personas I adopt through this process of self-reflexive performance, coupled with the physical restrictions of the suits (some of them are very uncomfortable to move in), produce the characters of Cape Mongo. Performing these characters is a process of acquiescing contradictions. The characters are the embodiment of forces of both movement and restraint; they are at once superhero-like agents of power, and instruments for revealing the constructedness of power. They simultaneously bring me into closer proximity with the places and people associated with the production processes of the commodities I consume, while simultaneously reproducing this distance through the surface of the mask.
There’s something very poignant about each of the trash creatures – Is this anthropomorphism intended as metaphoric?
Firstly, I think that the anthropomorphic qualities of the figures speak of the incompleteness of being a human-being. We are unlike other animals not only in the advancement of our societies and ways of life, but also in the new forms of malevolence we have devised and practiced since the dawn of agriculture, and the novelty of surplus, waste and insatiable greed which accompanied it.
Each of the sculptural suits is modelled to resemble a different animal. The relatively intuitive process of conceptualising and constructing the zoomorphic characters relates to my childhood, since I used to spend much of my time drawing animals and watching television programs that featured animals that could walk and talk like humans. I see the animal-like forms of the suits as representative of a loss of innocence, a realisation of the dystopian circumstances that surrounded my growing up; that Captain Planet was probably nothing more than an environmental impact assessor for a multi-national corporation, that Maya the Bee collected pollen overtime to produce honey which she never got to taste, and that the cat that worked in Mina Moo’s milk factory probably didn’t earn enough to buy his kittens new school shoes.
How would you describe the current local ‘creative scene’?
While there are obviously great exceptions to this, and while I would hate to come across as prescriptive, I think the current trend in Cape Town is an overwhelmingly introspective focus on medium, process and lifestyle design. I admit that this perspective is limited to the creative scene’s to which I have exposed myself to during the past year and a half. Nevertheless, I think that in general there is a disturbingly pervasive acceptance of Cape Town as some sort of modern African utopia of tourism and conspicuous consumption; where creativity is defined by commoditising notions of reconciliation and producing beautiful objects, rather than finding ways of critically engaging with the mess that lies below this facade. I believe that there is a lot to be done in terms of finding innovative ways of engaging with the pressing social and political crises we face.
What do you think is the best thing about being young and creative in SA now?
The best part about what I do is the rare moments when I feel like my art opens up dialogue or makes someone critically reevaluate something which they initially believed to be fundamentally true. South African artists are fortunate enough to be able to create work without having to worry too much about being lawfully persecuted by the government, as was the case not so long ago, and is still the case in many parts of the world. However, efforts to censor the work of artists such as Zanele Muholi, Ayanda Mabulu, Steven Cohen and Brett Murray, to name but a few, have shown how tenuous this freedom is. While the local situation is by no means ideal, if one considers the restrictions of the past, being creative in SA today means having a huge amount of room to maneuver. It’s something I am only just beginning to come to grips with.
What are your goals for the next ten years?
In the short term, I think I’ll focus on distributing the films as widely as possible. I would like to extend this distribution beyond the containment of gallery spaces, such as organising screenings at schools and community theatres etc. Considering that my work doesn’t fit into a neat category of fine art and can’t be sold as decorative objects for someone’s house, being resourceful and finding ways to support my practice outside of university is also something I will need to pay more attention to in the future.