On wealth, colonial pasts and private security: Carla Busuttil’s ‘Choice.Click.Bait’

The shrill sound of broken glass pierces the silence as floodlights spill into the garden and something ominous goes bump in the night. It’s the soundtrack to suburban South Africa’s worst nightmare and the starting point for Carla Busuttil’s latest body of work Choice. Click. Bait. 

Platforming and interrogating the parallel themes of growing economic inequality and information abundance, Carla makes use of a number of mediums including painted, video and sculpture works to look at increased isolation and its subsequent effects via accumulated technology and wealth. Situated in Johannesburg’s expansive Goodman gallery, the artist’s exhibition sees sprawling canvasses hung over electric green wallpaper, while distorted helmets stand guard atop strategically placed plinths, all replete with a private security hut and security boom. Outside the venue, Mosquito Lightning stickers line stop signs and electricity boxes advertising the fabricated security company.   

Working with fellow artists Chris Saunders and Gary Charles also sees Carla give life to a series of photographic works and an overzealous, but oh-so incisive promotional video for Mosquito Lightning which uses middle class terror as a marketing tool. “Are you scared? Do you have nice things?” booms the voice in the video. “Look around. You’re surrounded by danger.” As bodies roam around the gallery, sipping wine and discussing the works, Goodman security personal situated outside carry out their duties guarding the venue.

We caught up with Carla for an in-depth interview on her recent exhibition, how art imitates life, and the power and wealth dynamics in contemporary South Africa. 

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When did you first begin investigating the politics of power in your work and what sparked your interest? 

I have always been interested in how power structures work – possibly due to growing up in South Africa where power struggles shaped people’s lives in such a direct way. I started painting images of recognisable figures of power, such as Margaret Thatcher, Jacob Zuma and Angela Merkel. More recently however my work has evolved into looking at broader social issues. These can be more challenging, or complicated – Mosquito Lightning is an example of this.

Click. Bait takes its name from the constant bombardment of media in the ‘information age’. How does art differ as a tool for information dissemination?

I see art as occupying the spaces that are not easily occupied by fact-based or ‘fact-illusioned’ forms of information dissemination. I think art thrives in the spaces of ambiguity, uncertainty and contradiction – and is strongest when it is difficult to explain. In a sense, I see art as disseminating anti-information. For me personally, art is an escape from the mediated universe. The act of painting, by its very nature, slows down the process of information gathering, and information dissemination. At my laptop, imagery is conjured by the click of a button – links appear, pathways open, more new imagery conjured. Painting, on the other hand, is a process – one that requires a commitment of time and attention to the image. 

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The exhibition also focuses on private security and policing in the modern age. How does this topic serve as a springboard for discussions on socio- economic inequalities? 

The private security company is interesting because it can be seen as a symptom of a wider issue, that of wealth inequality. This issue is topical globally and has been methodically documented by economists such as Thomas Piketty in his book ‘Capital in the twentieth century’. In South Africa, this wealth gap is even more visible than in most places, and the private security industry can be seen as the gatekeepers of this divide. And while the reasons for this development may or may not be valid, I think it is worth assessing the state in which we find ourselves. Gated communities, armed guards, reaction teams – these are seen as part of normality in South Africa. The Mosquito Lightning project invites people to look at this differently. The industry employs more than the police and army together, and this raises profound questions about private vs public ownership, and about equality before law. Whereas a public police force serves to protect all citizens, private companies exist only to protect those who can afford to pay. With the work shown as part of the project, the intention is not to make a specific political statement, but rather to hold a mirror to society and perhaps challenge widely held ‘truths’.  It is important that the work remains vibrant, and is not weighed down by the subject. While we are dealing with a serious real-life issue, the intention is for the work to retain a theatrical, absurd, even humorous spirit. Hopefully, this allows the audience to enter the world of Mosquito Lightning, and to reflect on, and re-consider, its real-life counterpart.

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On the opening night, a uniformed character patrolled the gallery wagging a warning finger and nightstick at viewers. What was the intention here?

The guard is a figure that is often taken for granted or filtered out, especially in South Africa – and I guess with the performance we wanted to make a work that directly confronted our routine understanding of this relationship. Throughout the project we wanted the artwork to retain a physicality of form – most of the props have been painted on and reworked. We also moved into the architecture of the gallery, occupying the walls and the floors of the space. I guess the performance seemed like a natural progression in keeping with this approach. I liked the way the performer moved awkwardly through the gallery – mainly due to being inhibited by the lack of sight from wearing the clumsily made mask. This added to the strangeness of the guard.  The performance is one more theatrical layer to the project. I feel this work should be uncontained. We also have a website for Mosquito Lightning – so the project has an existence and presence in virtual spaces too. The website is filled with small quirks and asides that hopefully contribute to the essence of the project.

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Likewise, real life security guards sat outside Goodman, policing the area. This is reflected in one particular photograph in the exhibition, where a Mosquito Lightning guard sits outside the gallery. Had you planned this specific piece or did it come to you later? 

The idea originally was to pretend that Mosquito Lightning Security Company had been contracted by the Goodman Gallery to protect the premises and its contents throughout the period of the show. I guess we thought it would make sense for the gallery to employ a company that was owned by one of its artists. This is how we came to take the photograph of the guard sitting outside of the gallery. In reviewing the results, I felt this image stood as an artwork in its own right. I like the circular ambiguity of this piece. It is a comment on a specific social issue, but could also be seen as a reflection on art’s own accessibility – it’s role as an exclusive asset, worthy of protection. 

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You work in painting, sculpture, film, print and more. How do you navigate each medium and bring them together coherently in an exhibition?

It was important that the different spaces in the gallery spoke to one another.  There are links between objects and figures throughout the exhibition and I would like to think that the audience would go from one space to the other to find these details and markers. While the spirit of this show allows for an over-abundance of visual information, my intention is that the body of work as a whole retains a common language, regardless of the medium or thematic content of each individual piece. Typically, across the various strands of practice, my painted style finds its way into most of the objects or images. This helps to draw the works together. Subject matter, style, repetition and colour are all tools which I have sought to utilise in order to retain a coherence throughout the show. 

AP_160315_079Despite all these mediums, your painting still shines through the most in Click. Bait. Can you tell us a bit about your style and how it relates to your choice of subject matter?

I tend to look at historically charged subject matter, and seem to deal with a somewhat direct and crude method when rendering work on canvas. I remove (or leave out) what I see as unnecessary detail, and really try to focus on the figures – usually with particular emphasis on a particular ‘atmosphere’ that reflects my emotional response to the subject matter. There is minimal decoration or fuss in my paintings. The figure is key, yet even they are abstracted and diminished, reduced to my most basic sense of their presence. Often the most time-consuming part of the process is in simplifying and removing detail – this is really the opposite of much figurative painting where time is spent building up detail. I am interested in basic levels of composition, colour, shape and movement that bring an image together. I think what this does to the subject matter is provide it breathing space. Placing figures in an abstract field of colour is my preferred method of neutralizing that space. I like to think that it creates a more democratic surface, unfettered by decoration or frivolity. Hopefully this encourages direct engagement with the figure, and the illustration of my ideas in relation to that figure. 

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In some ways, you really made Goodman your own with works such as the security guard hut instillation and by applying wallpaper to one of the main walls on which your work sat. How do you go about conceptually configuring a gallery space and how did Goodman mould to suit this exhibition?

I felt for this body of work it was important that the sanctity of the gallery space was slightly abused. I really wanted the show to be all-consuming, perhaps even over-whelming – in the way the internet can be. An impossible task I would say, but something to aim for creatively. The gallery itself is a clean white space, ideal for hanging paintings. However, this body of work seemed to be aching to move into the space, to occupy more of it. It was my first experience of using a digital 3D mock-up for planning and curating. This really allowed me to experiment beforehand, and I think helped embolden my ideas of using the space. The wallpaper, in particular, proved to be an effective medium for creating a more encompassed environment, particularly as an accompaniment or backdrop to my painting. This is something I had planned for some time, but leading up to the show the wallpaper became more prevalent and important in my conception of the final presentation. The wallpaper itself also neatly captures the tension between the analogue, expressive painted world and the digital, reproduced elements of the show. Also, within the Mosquito Lightning installation space, the turfed floor seemed to create a pleasing threshold – creating a tangible sense and acknowledgement of the point at which you step into the artwork. Along with the decision to allow the video’s sound component to be amplified into the space, there seemed to be a real feeling of occupation. This approach to using and abusing space is something I would like to push further in my work. It is exciting new territory for me.

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The exhibition also touches on British colonialism in South Africa. How does this tie in with the commentary on wealth distribution, suburban security and everything else in your work?

I think fairly direct lines can be drawn between past colonial action and current wealth inequalities. We only have to look at the recent Panama Paper leaks to see where wealth extracted from colonised countries finds itself today. Information capabilities play a role here too. Panama is but a speck on the map of tax haven wealth, so with increased digital capabilities we can expect more and larger leaks. This information serves to illustrate the extent to which wealth divisions have grown, and while this issue is global, poorer developing countries are most negatively impacted. While political colonialism could arguably be seen as a thing of the past, I think financial and cultural colonialism persist. And it is important that we continue to revisit and redress these issues. There is a call for it. I think Britain (and other European powers) have a blindspot when it comes to their colonial histories. In a recent poll in the UK, 59% of those polled said they were proud of the nation’s colonial past. This public blindspot encourages and enables the elite to retain and promote a view of Africa as a playground for plunder. In the show, two works contain a quote taken from Simon Mann’s account of the failed attempt by a band of old private school ‘chums’ to initiate a coup in Equatorial Guinea, using a private army of PMC’s (Private Military Contractors, or mercenaries). The quote refers to Mark Thatcher, who has become somewhat of a laughing stock. Yet the story reveals the still prevalent attitude towards poorer nations, particularly nations across Africa. The rise of youth-driven social movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter are part of this same reality. That there is a call to discredit and pull down past colonial figures I think is overdue, and this call is warranted. A work that directly addresses this issue in the show is The Credo, which is a fictional re-enactment of the writing of Lord Milner’s personal credo. Milner is re-imagined as a clumsy, grotesque masked character – as if extracted from one of my paintings. The film was made in 2014 before #RhodesMustFall had gained momentum. Milner could be seen as an ideological heir to Cecil Rhodes’ vision of British imperialism and racial superiority. After researching Milner’s career, views and actions, we were surprised there was not more of a backlash against these historical figures. To me, the representation of these figures, whether in name or statue, represents a history of subjugation in the pursuit of economic gain and race or nation-based dominance. Is this something to celebrate? We should all be questioning their place in history, and in contemporary society.

The Credo Vdieo Still

How and why did you come to work with Chris Saunders and Gary Charles for Click. Bait?

Chris and Gary both bring their own set of skills, ideas and imagination to the Mosquito Lightning project. Initially, we each had distinct roles, but as the project evolved our work started overlapping and integrating, so it quickly became a real collaboration on all fronts. And I think we will work together on projects in the future, too. Gary and I have been working together for a few years now on various projects, mostly video-based – despite neither of us being filmmakers or video artists. Moving into video is something I feel I could not have easily achieved on my own, so it has been a fruitful partnership. We were invited to do a residency in Johannesburg and decided to get in touch with local artists to work with. We came across Chris’ work through his music videos and photography.  In particular, we were drawn to his work on the Nozinja music video. It kind of blew my mind the first time I watched it.

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In closing, what do you think the relationship between art and informational media is? Will one always oppose or relieve the other?

I think it depends on the nature of the artwork, as well as the intention of the media platform. I think both fields are so broad that certain parts will clash at times and others will be working additively. Informational media serves to present information about the world we live in, with the intended result of leaving the reader more informed. Yet, I feel like this idea of extracting objective truth from informational media – or even historical texts – to be increasingly elusive. And greater access to information has not necessarily led to people being better informed. In fact, faced with the deluge of often conflicting information, it seems the opposite may even be true. Adam Curtis talks about this response as ‘Oh-Dearism’ – a kind of apathetic shrug when faced with an overload of news. I think artists are free from the pretence of having to present work as representational of provable truth. This does not, however, relieve artists of all responsibility. We should be able to justify our actions and our output, no matter how abstracted these may be.

Find Carla’s previous works on her website and be sure to check out the Mosquito Lightning website too. 

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