Roundtable session

*College of Arts Association 2012, Los Angeles*

Friday 24 February at 5:30

What is the What: Time and Variability in African Art

Chair: Karen E. Milbourne, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian

African artists are increasingly working in digital, time-based and variable formats. This panel invites consideration from artists, curators, academics and conservators around a range of practical and theoretical new media based issues including: What is “the object” if it is constantly changing or ephemeral? What are best strategies for preserving and understanding artworks created in short-lived or variable formats? How is time used as an aesthetic strategy, like color? How are artists employing new technologies to combat post- colonial ideologies? Do transient, mobile images transcend place and geographically-based descriptors, like “African?” Panelists will make 10-minute presentations and audience is invited to join discussions.


Karen E. Milbourne, Chair
Curator, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Much like paint, time is a medium that is layered and manipulated consciously by artists. This introduction to the panel will show case time-based media in the collection of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution and address the challenges inherent to acquiring and displaying digital and variable works of art while also considering the broader conceptual implications of the media.

Jeffrey Martin
Independent Media Arts Preservation Specialist
Challenges in Conserving Time-Based Artworks

The complex nature of time-based art introduces a host of difficult issues into the realm of art conservation. How does a museum care for a work that by necessity will have to be continually copied and remade to stay alive? How much control can an artist assert over the future migration of a technological artwork? Can museums ethically allow an artwork to “die” for technical reasons? My presentation will propose some answers to these questions—answers still very much up for debate.

Katherine Bull
South Africa

I am interested in focusing on the use of performance practice in combination with time-based media in visual art as a means to explore multiple embodiments in the work of selected contemporary South African artists. My own creative practice and the artist’s work presented here are not bound by national identification yet combine the local with the global. I will look at how time-based media is used as a means to visualize and explore multiple aspects of self, altered states of consciousness and ritual practices. The artists mentioned here create spaces for the body to perform locally while simultaneously, through interactions with time-based media, create a multiplicity of embodied representations to collapse a sense time and space within the global web of information systems. The performative embodiment of technology has the potential to create a space for the artist to be a medium between the world of the seen and unseen and manifest messages that are multiple and mutable.

John Peffer
Associate Professor, Ramapo College

This paper considers “African Metropole—Sonic City, Lagos” by Mendi and Keith Obadike, a continuous-sound piece triggered by the moving locations of visitors in the gallery. The Obadikes work with sound collage to engage the multiple voices and senses of place and history found in urban Africa and black America today. They seek to reframe discourses on the location of culture and the place of the artwork, by referencing the cosmopolitan push-pull of diasporic connections and by shifting visual worlds into audio experiences in the gallery context. The Obadikes’ inter-media art raises wider questions regarding the definition of Africa: about diaspora and urbanity, and about cultural site versus locality of “the work.” Through this work the time and place of audience experience vis-a-vis notions of the time and space of African cultures may usefully be reconsidered.

Amy Powell
PhD Candidate, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Waiting and other Critical Strategies of Time in Contemporary Art

In the study and exhibition of contemporary African art, analytical models that privilege spatial and geographical movements miss the significant ways that artworks employ time to negotiate modernism and postmodernism, the modern and the contemporary, the colonial and the postcolonial. Artists and filmmakers use such time-based techniques as duration, synchronization, seriality, repetition, and syncopation to strategically manipulate the viewer’s sense of time. Approaching time as an artistic strategy and as a mode of critical analysis for artists and filmmakers who address postcoloniality as a conscious thematic in their work pushes the categorization of time in “time-based media.” This paper analyzes Waiting, a 2007short film by Zarina Bhimji as a case study. Through its soundtrack and careful attention to the relationship between moving and still images, Waiting deeply affects our sense of time and subjectivity, positing the role of time in contemporary art as an open and weighted question whose answer has not been determined.