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Interview with Sven Christian

Posted on February 2, 2018

In order to follow up on and assess the first iteration of Publishing Against the Grain, and to get more insight into how the project fit into the museum’s burgeoning plan and new mission, ICI’s Alaina Claire Feldman, Becky Nahom and Sven Christian (Adriane Iann Assistant Curator of Books and Works on Paper at Zeitz MOCAA) followed up by email to discuss the presentation on view at the museum from November 18, 2017 to January 29, 2018. Zeitz Ilze Wolff (Pumflet Editor) at the Publishing Against the Grain opening, Zeitz MOCAA, 2017. Photo courtesy of ICI and Zeitz MOCAA. ICI: While the museum will present an extensive collection of works from throughout the continent and abroad, how do you see international engagement through traveling exhibitions fitting into Zeitz MOCAA’s future? Sven Christian (SC): International engagement through traveling exhibitions will play an important role in the realization of Zeitz MOCAA’s mission to develop intercultural understanding. Another complimentary function of traveling exhibitions will be to help locate the collection within a global context, and to challenge the misconception that art from Africa is a homogenous, isolated entity. On a local level, traveling exhibitions are a great way for us to engage with parallel histories. They provide exposure to new material and offer alternate tools and approaches to problems similar to our own. Publishing Against the Grain was our first collaboration with Independent Curators International (ICI). It was also the first traveling exhibition to be held at Zeitz MOCAA. The importance of hosting traveling exhibitions like this was made evident through many of the interactions that we had with visitors over the course of the exhibition, and through the supplementary panel discussions that were held. Our attendance increased with each iteration and the large number of people who returned indicate that there is a demand for the types of discussions that the exhibition prompted. ICI: Publishing Against the Grain made its debut at the museum this fall. What about this exhibition did you and museum visitors find particularly interesting, and how can such publishing projects which disseminate alternative, progressive, and autonomous positions appeal to a Cape Town audience right now? SC: It was the scope of the exhibition and the prospect of new material that was most appealing. There were over twenty projects included in this exhibition, drawn from regions as far reaching as Peru, Uganda, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and the United States. All of the core initiatives are still active today while some of their nominations were produced during the 70s, and now exist as records. Because each of these initiatives are specific to a particular time and place, we tend to think about them as isolated entities. However, having them all together in one space revealed many of their similarities. It also provided a great opportunity for us to understand the various contexts that gave birth to them, and to reinterpret these concerns and methodologies. Over the past few years, the need for alternate spaces within South Africa has become increasingly apparent. This is not to say that such initiatives are by any means new—South Africa has a rich history of independent publishing—but that whenever a given framework is no longer able to support the needs of the voices it lays claim to, it is the unknown potential of new material that has the capacity to offer unseen solutions. In addition, the exhibition highlighted the amount of international visitors to the museum — especially during the December-January period, when there is an influx of tourists in Cape Town. Many of these visitors were delighted to find publications on exhibition from their own country that they did not know existed. Being able to discover something in South Africa that was produced in your own backyard is something that I think will be important for the museum going forward, as traveling exhibitions like Publishing Against the Grain help make visible the various undercurrents that both bind and separate us. ICI: We conceived of this exhibition, as part of the curatorial framework, to generate new content and propositions at every venue. We wanted discourse to adapt to a site and the project’s changing contexts. Similarly, this exhibition continues to grow and accumulate as it travels, when new publications are added at every museum. We wanted to continue to open up a platform for discourse by inviting the curators we work with to add materials they have found influential to their particular scene. Can you explain how you framed and expanded Publishing Against the Grain for a Cape Town context? SC: The two publications I invited to take part in the traveling exhibition were Adjective and Pumflet. Adjective is an arts publication that bridges the divide between critical essay writing, poetry, and the visual arts in South Africa. Pumflet, on the other hand, is a site-specific, collaborative periodical that began as a conversation between architect Ilze Wolff and artist Kemang wa-Lehulere. As a collective they explore the relationship between the built environment and the social imagination. Like many of the initial projects drawn from ICI’s international network, these publications were produced through collaborative, DIY means. They function as platforms for further research and the cross-pollination of ideas. This was something that we wanted to develop further, and became the framework for a series of supplementary panel discussions titled Alternate Voices. Alternate Voices provided visitors with a first-hand account into the origins, thought processes, and concerns behind some of the publications on exhibition. It also presented a platform for these ideas to be expanded upon within the context of artistic and critical production in South Africa. For each iteration we invited one of the core publications on exhibition to speak with one or two local practitioners. Due to their relevance—and because their concerns were common to many of the publications on exhibition—the four that we approached were Our Literal Speed (United States), Pages (Iran and the Netherlands), Makzhin (Lebanon and the United States), and Exhausted Geographies (Pakistan). The thematic focus of each panel was drawn directly from the ideas expressed in each of these publications. For the first iteration local artists Mitchell Messina (Adjective) and Emily Robertson spoke with Our Literal Speed founders Matthew Jesse Jackson and John Spelman about their own practices and the relationship between art, capital, and popular culture. For the second, Tazneem Wentzel (Burning Museum) and Ashley Walters spoke with Babak Affrassiabi (Pages) about whether or not art could rely on the archive as a historical premise. Inspired by Makhzin’s open call for their upcoming issue ‘Dictationship’, the third iteration with Palesa Motsumi (Sematsatsa Library), Nick Mulgrew (Prufrock and uHlanga), and Mirene Arsanios (Makhzin) focused on the material conditions that dictate the way we write ourselves into the world. The fourth iteration was a conversation between Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani (Exhausted Geographies), who spoke with Ilze Wolff (Pumflet) about the long-lasting effect of the colonial blueprint in the development of former British colonies, Karachi and Cape Town. I hope our discussions will be useful to future audiences as it offers fresh insight into the motivations that underpin some of the projects in the exhibition. I think our conversations also provided an interesting perspective into how these projects were interpreted by Cape Town audiences, and will give some background into the two publications invited by Zeitz MOCAA — Adjective and Pumflet which I’m very excited to see grow wings and continue on the tour.

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