Tegan Bristow is an interactive media artist and lecturer at the Digital Arts Division of the Wits School of the Arts. Lines of computer code are to her what a golden sunset is to a landscape painter – the stuff of inspiration and the spark of creative potential. Tegan is most interested in the space that digital art affords interaction and engagement, the place where she believes meaning is made.
In July, Tegan collaborated with musician Joao Orecchia on a 14 day Floating Reverie online digital arts residency. “Draw a straight line and follow it”, a quote by La Mont Young, formed the premise of her project Code Lines. Along with being involved in Africa’s first digital festival to be held in Joburg next month, creating art and lecturing, she is also working towards her PhD and regularly writes and presents papers at interactive technology forums around the world. Tegan is a self-proclaimed geek at heart, curious about how the world around her works, and believes that creative people should challenge technology and how it is used, every day.
For those not familiar with interactive media and digital art, can you please tell us a bit about this field…
Interactive Digital Art is really the place where public participation with art, creative expression and digital development come together. You can find interactive media everywhere these days, on your phone, websites, museums, even marketing events. My particular entry point is mostly orientated towards art making and creativity in this realm, and not at all with trying to sell things ;). Art making within interactive media, means creating immersive, interactive and digital experiences for audiences. A lot of the time these are large-scale installations in which I use devices like the Xbox Kinect as the primary sensor to capture the audience’s actions, these actions then become part of how the artwork responds, evolving graphically or with audio feedback and loops. The audience then participate rather than just view the artworks, making it fully interactive and immersive.
What appeals to you about the creative connection of technology and art?
I suppose I’m an artist who has always been a geek at heart. I love maths and programming, technology for me is a medium. It is the place where I get my hands dirty, experiment and have fun. In addition I think that it is vital to look critically as well as creatively at the medium that really has become an everyday event for most of us. We take too much of what is given to us in technology at face value, I believe that creative people should be challenging technology and how we use it, every day.
Is there an active local tech art scene? Is it informed by international trends and practices?
There is a local tech art scene! It is small but on the rise. The reason for its smallness is that artists working with technology are often lumped into playing out their creativity in ad agencies or development companies. This is because they are good and really smart, but also because the South African art scene is slow in acknowledging anything digital as sellable art. Some galleries like the Goodman Gallery for instance with financial flexibility and younger curators are beginning to show and support this type of work, but we are definitely behind Europe, North and South America in this regard. The scene in SA is however being fuelled by an incredible youth culture (particularly in Joburg) that just eats up digital media. We also have a growing hacker and maker culture, people re-inventing the role that the technological plays in their cultural and creative lives. This is really exciting to me, as we are getting to make it up for ourselves as we go. We have a particular “culture of technology” in Africa, which is our own; so though we may be looking at tech developments overseas, we are developing our own culture and forms in extension to them.
With tech art, how much is innovation and how much creation? Is this distinction even a relevant one?
Yes it is relevant, the official distinction is that innovation will become product and creativity is exploratory, but they most certainly go together. This is something that is actually really pertinent to the technology scene locally, as we are at a point where things are so new and the possibilities so wide open that creativity really should be feeding innovation, and I don’t think this is happening enough as our ‘apartheid era’ tech developers have still to understand how creativity and particularly South African cultural engagement intersect and expand with technology.
Afrofuturism is being widely referenced across a range of different creative mediums. Please tell us a little about what you think Afrofuturism is actually all about…
I have to be careful not to give a history lesson on this topic, but here goes. “Afrofuturism” was a term coined by a guy called Mark Dery in the early 1990s in USA. Afrofuturism defined shifts in African American literature and music that were addressing science fiction and technology as far back as the early 70s. It was a movement about consciousness and identity that used these metaphors to shift people’s perspectives on what it meant to be black in the USA at that time, a necessary re-identification outside of the dominant racial stereotypes. It started with 70s rock and funk bands like Parliament Funkadelic, the space man / black man in space, the ‘mother ship’ and work of prophet poets like Sun Ra exploring in true funkadelic and new-age style issues of race, identity and consciousness.
It heavily influenced thinking in Africa too, particularly Nigeria and West African new cultures, think Fela Kuti. In the 90s these themes were taken up in African American literature and music in the growth of the beats and hip hop scene. It is a powerful movement that influenced generations of artists and musicians. Okay but let me get to the here and now. In the South, with the growing urban youth cultures and access to technology, young Africans started looking at Afrofuturism as inspiration for communicating about themselves to the world, an experimental and exploratory way to identify a new generation of ‘global’ Africans and what it meant to be African. Think Spoek Mathambo’s early work, an act of breaking from traditions and stereotypes, but also looking at the past (the mythical and the spiritual) as a way to look to the future. Unfortunately Afrofuturism has become a slap-on term for anything that puts technology and Africa together, really watering down the essence and thinking behind African American Afrofuturism. In South Africa we have moved passed this because of its loose usage and are looking for new ways to speak about what is happening around the way we identify ourselves.
What is more important for you, the creative process or the final ‘product’?
Creative processes, without that the final product would be dull and boring.
What is the value of interaction for you in art?
I see South African culture as participatory culture; interaction allows people to create meaning with actions, body and voice. Interaction is the true form of embodied meaning.
What’s your PhD topic, and how does your academic work influence and complement your creative work?
I’m writing my PhD on aesthetic and cultural practice in technology use in Southern and East Africa. My focus is mostly Kenya and South Africa and the rise of communication technology and the practices around it. My academic work is central to my creative practice, understanding why and how things happen helps me understand my own practice in a particular cultural context and also the unique “culture of technology” we are all a part of.
How can people find out more about interactive media and digital art?
Well in a formal capacity, I run the interactive media programme at Wits University in the Digital Arts department, so if you want to get an Honours or a Master’s in the field, look no further. Less formally, we are hosting a first Digital Africa Festival in Joburg this year called the Fak’ugesi Festival from mid August through to the end of September. At Fak’ugesi there will be loads of events and workshops from game design, interactive sound to social media. Or else join a hack group or maker space in your area.
How would you define your digital art aesthetic? Is this applicable?
Yes I think so, aesthetic is mostly about approach, and my approach is mostly medium orientated. I experiment with the technology to see what I can do with it. Apart from that I have a strong tendency to look at how technology and digital media is used in Africa, so this could be considered a particular aesthetic approach too.
What first sparked your interest in tech as artistic medium, and what do you enjoy about creating in this way?
At art school at Rhodes I went to a Software Engineering 101 class by mistake instead of my African History 3 class; I loved it. It blew my mind a little bit, nobody had ever told me you could make things with computers and code, I guess it just appealed to the geek in me.
Did your interests as you were growing up hint at what you do now?
Yes, I always painted and drew and made things with paper and glue, moving into computers was just a natural progression of a bored mind looking for more ways to be creative (weirdly, I got really bad maths marks at school. My teacher Mrs Wood would laugh to hear me talk like this now, maybe I was being too creative with it even back then).
What traits do you have that lend themselves to this form of creativity?
I’m really inquisitive about how stuff works; I need to understand things inside and out. I also love logic and processes.
Which female creative inspires you and why?
This is a hard one because there are so many. One of my most favourite creative people is Jepchumba Thomas who runs African Digital Art Network. She is a great designer, super creative and also really gutsy about promoting African Digital Culture. The other would be one of the smartest woman I know, Ziva Ljubec who has just written a theory on the Polyphibian as a form understanding the world, basically a way to “hack” reality through new perspectives. And of course my grandmother and my close women friends are the most important women in my life, inspiring me with strength and love, like only they can.
What are you busy with now, and what’s next?
My PhD in a really big way, it’s due next year and I have a lot to write. I will be presenting a paper in Brazil in a few weeks at the Computer Arts Congress conference looking at some of the topics dealt with in my PhD. Going forward into September I’m helping steer the Fak’ugesi Festival in which we will be working with some amazing local and international artist technologists, I’m really looking forward to this.
Find out more about Tegan and her interactive media art on her site.