ANALOGUE EYE

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© 2020/21 by ANALOGUE EYE, Brent Meistre

CONCEPT

Background & History

Analogue Eye: Mobile Drive-in & Pop-up Cinema was inspired by the work of the early South African film projectionist Solomon (Sol) Plaatjie (1876 -1932). Plaatjie was a writer, journalist, political figure, interpreter and intellectual who is best known for the making of the first translation of Shakespeare into an African language. He is also accredited for writing the first novel in the English language by an African writer, ‘Mhudi' (1930). He was a founding member of the New African Movement and the African National Congress (ANC), which later became the first democratically elected government voted into power in South Africa in 1994. The New African Movement was primarily focused on the‘modernization’ of Africans in Southern Africa. He first realised the political potential of film when visiting the UK and USA to seek financial support in opposition of the 1913 South African land act (prohibiting black Africans from owning land). On that trip, he encountered documentary films highlighting aspects of the achievements and daily lives of the ‘New Negros’ in America. He was given some of these films by Dr. Robert Russa Moton of the Tuskegee Institute and other African-American Institutions, and the motor car industrialist Henry Ford gifted him a movie projector. He also received a number of South African and English films and an electrical generator from the De Beers Mining Company, which enabled him to extend his projections from major cities to rural and remote parts of Southern Africa, screening films in diverse venues including outdoors in what he described in the mid 1920’s as “cattle kraals ”.

Plaatjies developed a unique program, which he called the “Travelogue and Coloured American Bioscopy”, which has also been referred to as the “The Plaatjie Bioscopy”. The focus was mostly on educational content, but he recognised the power of the medium as a means to politicise and inform people. To introduce film culture to Southern Africa, he developed a unique program that was both informative for the uneducated and illiterate, and entertaining. This was crucial to Plaatjies plight to 'modernise' and uplift the ideals of the ‘New African’. A critical reading of this endeavor was that it may have unwittingly contributed to the influences of mental colonialisation. Interestingly, the screenings were said to have drawn audiences of prominent Europeans at the time.

The films Plaatjie showed were all silent films, as are many on the Analogue Eye programs. Both the silence of the films and the social context of the outdoor screening create conditions to enable a different experience of the work to the quiet individualistic viewing of artworks which is common to many western gallery spaces, as audiences can have more communal conversations between and amongst themselves. In this manner, the silent film and outdoor viewing context encourages discourse and projections of reader-response, increasing the possibilities of lateral associations, re-readings or re- interpretations that can enrich the transaction of the filmic experience. Video artworks, in often critiquing the easy consumption and slickness of television and movie productions, can themselves be complex, opaque and challenging to endure, for even the most informed audience. The potential of accessing, debating and subverting the authorial intention of the film, which occurred with many propaganda films up till the 1940’s when films were still predominantly silent in Africa, is increased in the informal conditions of the outdoor cinema.

Curatorial Vision

It is in this tradition, and with these purposes in mind, that the video art works screened in Analogue Eye have been decontextualized and removed from the art gallery environment. The gallery system and context is largely a contested space in many parts of Africa, as it remains associated with particular social classes or privileged euro-centric, imperialist ideologies and the urbane. Due to this and other factors,

there is also a lack of a gallery culture in many parts of Africa, although this is slowly changing in some contexts and varies in others. For some, the white cube in particular is seen as an intimidating and alienating space associated with white or colonialist dominance, where the parameters and modes of engaging with and interpreting work seem opaque and rigid. The gallery spaces are thus often a site of social and cultural exclusion, creating a barrier to the works, even before they are given the platform for engaging with the viewer.

A significant aspect of the process of curating Analogue Eye is that the outdoor cinema viewing experience required a re-imaging of the ways in which the works operated as object, in a manner different to what they were often intended by the artist, as most were made for a gallery context. Video art itself questions the conventions of value due to its inherent replicable nature compared to the irrefutable ‘original’ in other mediums. The economic viability of each piece is an area for contention in the art market, in the ways in which money is earner for artists. In some African countries the selling or showing of video art remains outside of gallery and monetary systems because of the problematics it conjures for easy commodification, to the point where many

African artists show their works for free and remain unsupported in their production purposes. This is often exacerbated by the galleries themselves, who regulate what is exported as a brand out of Africa and as “African art’. Many of the works shown in Analogue Eye had never been seen outside of the individual countries of their production or in other African countries, as the financial and other incentives and support to do so are minimal compared to the ‘centres’ in other continents. To complicate this, many of the works of diasporic Africans in these programs have never been shown in Africa.

The screenings of Analogue Eye are contextualized into two formats. The pop-up cinema engages pedestrian traffic in unexpected public spaces, while the mobile drive-in is staged in larger, demarcated open-air spaces with viewers in the public/private world of their motor cars, listening to audio soundtrack on their car radios. The latter is modeled on the American version of the 1950’s, which was replicated in many African cities under American influenced during the Cold War. Both formats allow for social engagement amongst viewers. In South Africa, where the project began, this was a very

important consideration as the formats created the conditions for social interchange between viewers despite how they might be divided society along racial, ethnic or economic lines. When the drive-in was launched at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa in 2014, for instance, hand-held radios, cushions and small solar powered lights dotted the grass alongside the screens, so that a vehicle was not required for viewing the works, and interestingly many of those who arrived in cars chose to sit there.

  

In terms of the curated programmes, many of the screenings overlap and interconnect thematically. The complexities of living and creating work in the context of the African continent, while grappling with versions of ‘African’ identity and concerns, emerge in these works. At no other time in history has there been as much mobility, hybridity and flux between Africa and Europe in particular, and aspects within Africa itself, which is echoed in the threads that weave through and create a dialogue between the many programmes on Analogue Eye. However, with this is a growing sense of afrophobia and xenophobia, in the many complex ways in which ‘othering' occurs in the continent, sometimes influenced and other times justified by various constructions of history, race, gender, nationalism, ethnicity, socio-economic status and of course politics.

Analogue Eye was originally brought into being to find ways in which to
address some of the issues of access, by showing works across and beyond urban centres in southern Africa, to places where galleries themselves are not common. Moreover, the hope has always been to engage with rural arts communities who do not have access to formal arts education bringing them firstly into proximity with the work of other African video artists, and then to develop video editing skills, and to provide a platform through Analogue Eye to show their work to other artists and audiences, slowly building in this circularity informal networks and platforms between artists and curators locally and internationally.

As such, the works were not chosen to provide an overview or historical revision, but rather act as a starting point for conversations, with many interruptions, diversions, and questions arising, about video art on the continent and how artists utilize the medium to operate in radically different and innovative ways with what is embedded in Africa. The programs celebrate and complicate the way in which artists have worked with the language of the still and moving image in their own unique and complex ways. This conversation extends from belonging, to being in diaspora, to African ‘other’ roots and connections to the rest of the world, including Europe, the Middle East, America and the Far East.

About the title ‘Analogue Eye’

Analogue Eye not only pays homage to the tradition of screenings begun by Solomon Plaatjies in southern Africa, but also to a ‘hands-on’ aesthetic and type of process in art-making. The word ‘analogue’ also makes reference to the materiality of early film and the video tape cassette (VHS or Betamax) that for many video artists has the aura and magic of the ‘real’ and ‘original’. In this way the ‘analogue’ aspect of the title hints playfully at a nostalgic time in artist production but also at the deliberation and responsibility of the artist’s hand, as s/he negotiates the gaps, fissures and imperfections of narratives and representation, in a manner often different and critical of the seamlessness, homogenization of sophisticated mainstream film and the ways in which life is represented. “A way of seeing that unites us makers as artists”.

Video artists often recount how their early artistic production was fueled
by the use of the home video camera (usually borrowed) and captured
imagery through manipulating the functioning of the camera, often
leading to many inventive, creative and unexpected outcomes. Such
experimentation would have been undertaken with a ‘make it happen’
philosophy and drive, often under difficult political and socio-economic
circumstances. To a large extent the Betamax and VHS video cameras
democratized the medium and placed the medium directly in the hands of the artist. It was the beginning of major media revolution in Africa that spawned the video film industries in Nigeria and Ghana amongst others.

Technology has radically shifted the possibilities of production and exposure for artists, providing a platform for unheard voices and unseen visions. Beginning with the private camera to the home video camera to contemporary mobile phones with video camera and YouTube & Vimeo access, the medium of the still and then moving image has democratized ‘high art’ and expression. The power of how this may be manifested is

seen in a number of the works in the Analogue Eye programme,
particularly in how political change was facilitated in North Africa by the ability of technology and social media to unite and connect people. Animated footage has played a powerful role in how people have seen themselves and their communities represented, creating an accent of ethical responsibility in the role of the citizen journalist to negotiate political and social change.

Although most, if not all, of the artists in these programmes now work digitally, the Analogue Eye refers to an ethos and way of working which many artists on the continent subscribe to and identify with. It is the process that unifies us and that sets us apart, enabling creative, resourceful and exciting productions which complicates gazes which may homogenize or other. “Hence we negotiate the world through a diversity of aesthetics but with one analogue eye”.