A Breathing Space Project
In 2020 we saw many of our assumptions about society, culture and economy upturned or broken. We saw in equal measure the emergence of possibilities for rapid and transformative change, and the deepening of existing fractures and injustices. It is clear we are inside a period of disruption that neither began nor will end with the COVID-19 pandemic, and in which the larger social-economic-ecological crises of our time become vivid and present. Against this backdrop, the Breathing Space grant programme of Pro Helvetia’s Johannesburg office looked to enable modest relief, or ‘breathing space’, for arts practitioners, organisations and networks across the subcontinent to rethink ways of working, to experiment with new formats of production, exchange and collaboration and reimagine the shape and position of cultural and creative work.
Working within the constraints and possibilities of digital and analogue transmission, this collaborative project brings together a network of geographically dispersed sound practitioners, artists and researchers for a series of digital relays, passes and points of engagement. All the practitioners invited into the project have a sonic practice that is focussed on process, listening as a political act, and a sensibility for the sound ecologies of their environments. They share an interest in older technologies, analogue sound, and the question of the limits of listening and the right to sonic opacity.
The project takes its title from the relational terms for location in the body – proximal (close to) and distal (away from) – the elbow is distal to the shoulder, which is proximal to the hand, which is distal to the wrist and so on. Proximal/Distal plays with this shifting locus of distance and proximity as a way to think about positionality as senders and receivers in an increasingly oversubscribed flow of information, signals and noise. The shifting meaning of proximal – distal depending on the relation to a point of attachment allows the participants to explore unfixed and changing positions in a form of relation with no centre point: a network as series of flows and fluid arrangements.
The proximal group that forms the core of the collaboration is curated by Anne Historical (Bettina Malcomess, JHB/Berlin] who also participates as an artist along with Healer Oran (Andrei Van Wyk, JHB), Chad Cordeiro and Nathanial Sheppard (DGI studio, JHB), Simnikiwe Buhlungu (JHB, Amsterdam), Gretchen Blegen (Berlin), Nandele Maguni (Maputo) and Dion Monti (Basel/JHB). This group first formed for an earlier collaboration, Writing for the Eye, Writing for the Ear, at the Centre for the Less Good Idea (2018). Over a three-month period the proximal group will circulate material between each other and explore a collaborative creative process. This will range from sound samples, field recordings and new compositions to visual matter such as scores, drawings, notations, as well as found material sent by post. The output from this collaboration will be curated into a 40-minute vinyl record pressing ( limited to 25 copies) that will be shared amongst the participating artists.
The second phase of the project will include a series of sonic experiences in different listening contexts: Johannesburg, Maputo, Basel, Berlin. Each artist will construct a specific listening situation in their respective contexts for the live play of the record, unique to the social ecology in which the play takes place.
The distal group, curated by Bhavisha Panchia (Nothing to Commit records), will consist of artists/researchers based largely on the African continent that will be invited into the process at various points during the making and playing of the record to act as critical friends and points of contact and exchange.
The final phase of the project will involve the creation of an unconventional mixed-media publication by Francis Burger archiving aspects of the three-month exchange process. Both sonic and non-sonic material will be included – scores, letters, emails, images or plans for the listening station, objects, a transcription/notation of a conversation, a map, a mix tape etc. – to give a sense of the specificity of the unfolding of each artist’s process in context. Context here becomes a granular way to understand distance and proximity, a measure of the hand to the arm to the street to the signal from a cellular phone tower to an unseen friend on the other side of the city.
Founded and run by Bettina Malcomess, the joining room is a platform for experimental practices working across media. It is a conceptual ‘space’ that joins onto existing structures and sites. As such it becomes a platform for experimental practice that can situate itself anywhere, and is focused on intimate stagings of new work.
Anne Historical (JHB) is the artist name of Bettina Malcomess. A practice inhabiting multivocality and density, embodied research and material investigation, manifesting in various forms. Since 2015, Anne Historical has been working with analogue film and sound media to produce a series of works that inhabit the entanglement of memory, technology and history: an attempt to queer the signal.
Nothing to Commit Records (NTCR) is a research and publishing platform committed to the production and expansion of knowledge related to contemporary art, literature and music within and across the global South. Founded by Bhavisha Panchia, her curatorial practices focus on creating listening situations in museums and exhibition formats, exploring the social and ideological signification of sound and music.
Francis Burger (JHB) is an artist working in education and facilitation work, with a graphic design specialisation in publication. She has a unique approach to drawing, hand made publication and the book format, and has collaborated with Chimurenga and Keleketla! library, and run an exhibition about the history of Independent Publications in South Africa.
Dion Monti (Basel/JHB) is an artist and music producer based between Basel and Johannesburg. With his sonic origins in sound design and experimental composition he has worked with Gabrielle Goliath, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum on art installations, films and performances. Dion is co-founder of ‘Mushroom Hour-Half Hour’ record label, and runs a series of talks, called Chips&Etc.
Nandele Maguni (Maputo) is one of the most innovative beat makers, producers and DJs coming from Mozambique. A prolific producer and writer, Nandele has written music for contemporary dance performances, films and has a number of band projects.
Gretchen Blegen (Berlin) is an interdisciplinary artist navigating ways of perceiving space, light, sound and image. Working with audio, stage and light, putting an emphasis on the creation and intention behind transforming, occupying and sharing a space with all collaborators and with an audience. She is involved in several collective structures including ausland – an artistic venue and residency space and SissiFM radio.
Danger Gevaar Ingozi (DGI) (JHB) is an artist collective and printmaking studio founded by Nathanial Sheppard and Chad Cordeiro. Deeply embedded in the political histories of print making as a medium, the artists have also developed a sonic practice in the form of the Stateproof record series.
Simnikiwe Buhlungu (JHB) is a multidisciplinary artist, recently graduated from Wits School of Arts. Recent projects include Bergen Assembly: Actually, The Dead Are Not Dead, Bergen, Norway, 2019, and Collective Intimacies – Notes to Self: Intimate 1, mural project, The Showroom, London, UK, 2019. She is currently based in Amsterdam, Netherlands at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten (2020 – 2021). Interested in knowledge production, she enjoys listening to gospel music and has been thinking about combo organs.
Healer Oran (Andrei Van Wyk) (JHB) is a musician, composer and sound artist based in Johannesburg. His work focuses on hypertextuality, experimental composition, muzak and the relations between sound, noise and music within the context of human political and social experience. Through sound-collage, plunderphonics and free improvisation, van Wyk seeks to recreate and amplify significant aspects within basic human interaction and experience such as humour, boredom and loss, while placing them into broader historical.