‘Change Agent’ is an exhibition of twelve works, that presents learnings from a series of arts-led, development focussed projects I participated in during 2016-17 in Bloemfontein, Manguang, South Africa. It is presented for ISEA 2018, Durban, South Africa, in the main curated program, at Durban Art Gallery. The festival's theme ‘Intersections’ positions creative technological innovation as an activist engagement into public space and public practice in African contexts. This exhibition of electronic sculptures, videos and interactive works examines the innovative cultural practices I witnessed and helped foster through media arts-thinking and action in the townships, showcasing the transformative power of cooperative, creative action for the festival’s local and international audiences.
1: Change Agent, Gallery 2, ISEA 2018, Intersections, curated main program "Other Realities', Durban Art Gallery, Durban, South Africa, June 25th–Aug 1st, 2018, Curated by Marcus Neustetter.
Keith Armstrong (Artistic director), Dr. Anita Venter (NGO collaborator, Qala Phelang Tala), Adriaan Du Pleiss (Production/Design assistance), Thabang Mofokeng, Re-Future Cultural Ambassador/HOT Rural Workers Collective, Botshabelo Township, South Africa.
PARTNERSHIPS: Programme for Innovation in Artform Development (PIAD) - Vrystaat Kunstefees/Arts Festival/Tsa-Botjhaba, Dr. Ricardo Peach, University Free State, Centre Development Support, Qala Phelang Tala, Dr. Anita Venter. Angela De Jesus and Miné Kleynhans, Johannes Stegmann Art Gallery, University of the Free State, South Africa, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Flanders Foundation, Durban Art Gallery (Thulani Makhaye), QUT Creative Lab, Change Agents Mokoena and Ellen Maphalane, Mary Mofana and Velili Phantsi, Michael Sebeso. The parent project, Re-Future was presented as part of the Programme for Innovation in Artform Development (PIAD), an initiative of the Vrystaat Art Festival and the University of the Free State. This project has been kindly assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body. Keith Armstrong is supported by a part time Associate directorship of QUT's Creative Lab Research Centre. Special thanks also to Prof. Greg Hearn, Prof. Terry Flew, Prof. Mandy Thomas, Prof. Gavin Sade, A/Prof. Bree Hadley, Prof. Gene Moyle and Stuart Taylor. Special thanks also to doctoral students Christine Scoggin and Pieter Odendaal who are also working on other aspects of Re-Future.
MORE: In 2016-17 I was invited to become a lead media artist for PIAD (The Program For Innovation in Artform Development). I made three funded visits to South Africa of around 6 months in total. During my first visit South African residents Mokoena and Ellen Maphalane invited me to become ‘embedded’ within a transdisciplinary team of South African township residents & international development workers, facilitated by Dr. Anita Venter, director of the South African NGO Qala Phelang Tala. Our task became to reimagine & facilitate Ellen and Mokoena to build a creative, no-cost house to replace their existing tin shack, located in the informal settlement (township) of Caleb Motshabi, on ‘waste’ ground in -5 to +40 degree temperature extremes. All materials should be recycled or scavenged.
Throughout this collaborative process the Maphalanes’ confidence grew as they were put in charge of design, project management, and skills training for a range of volunteers and selected unemployed youths residing locally and in Botshabelo (rural town 60 km from Bloemfontein). By the end of December 2016, the replacement house and roofing was completed. Roofing material was donated by international sponsors who had been following the Maphalanes’ journey on social media. The Maphalanes continued to improve their replacement house after the roof has been constructed. Imagery was recorded using drone and terrestrial photography and video. We then worked with the same change agents to instigate three celebratory community-run visual/performance festivals (‘merakas’) under the title ‘Seven Stage Futures’, designed to encourage and empower other township residents to initiate their own similarly life-changing projects.
Ultimately their completed home stands as a beacon of possibility in comparison with its neighbouring shacks. ‘Change agents’ Ellen and Mokoena have subsequently been hired to train others in building practices & also have earned much needed income from their creative skillsets. Flow on benefits include local funding support, land tenure, new arts-led initiatives and community empowerment.
The project taught me how I might ‘attach’ my practice temporarily to subjects & problems that normally belong to other disciplines. Slowly I began to see how to reinvent my media art practices to encourage & motivate powerful, strong, committed residents, and together we gained new insights from each other’s methods that allowed us to co-devise this new building processes we named ‘post-natural’.
The project was supported by the Program for Innovation in Artform Development and local community NGO Qala Phelang Tala (Start Living Green!) These two organisations, who have built significant trust within local communities, invited me to work with them as an ‘embedded creative’ within three local South African townships.
Change-Agent? is the fourth major outcome arising from the Re-Future project - which aims to initiate a series of transdisciplinary, intercultural collaborative works designed with, or inspired by the journeys of re-futuring, pioneered by the township residents of Bloemfontein/Manguang, South Africa. The project operates at the intersection of media art, sustainability, community development and creative action, reflecting how the legacies of apartheid, population pressure, economic and environmental decay, compounded by limited access to education, services, secure housing and policing services have routinely rendered so many in the majority world a 'lost cause'. Here lie very different leaders - pioneering 'change makers' creating their own images; of their own making.