Sunday, February 16, 2020

Talking clouds: Monique Pelser Q&A

--Cape Town, 16 February 2020--Monique Pelser and Kim Gurney sat down recently to discuss Monique's Cloud Series, a public space intervention that last year played out at various Cape Town city transit interchanges, in collaboration with guerilla gallery, a nomadic art platform. The discussion offers a coda to the project, providing some contextual information about its conceptual roots and earlier manifestations as well as future plans.

Kim Gurney: I was thinking back to our first meeting, in my studio in Salt River in the back yard of set builders, and the synchronicities of various topics and interests. All of which was neatly reflected by the photograph of a cloud on my wall, which fell down as we were speaking about your project, Cloud Series. That was a funny moment. To what extent does synchronicity guide you in your work? To put this another way, how do you hold the tension between the deliberate work of research and the chance moments and surprise of being practice-led?

Monique Pelser: Yes, I think that is a good way of phrasing it: practice-led. So, what I do is, I come up with a concept or respond to a circumstance and then I will frame a question and start the work from there allowing things to unfold. For example: I was an artist in-residence at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2012. As I arrive, I realise that the school is right next door to the 21st Street precinct for the NYPD. Synchronously I was busy making work on my father and my grandfather as police. And that was the very precinct my father had visited in America. And then I was – Okay, well, I am going to take that as a cue and I went from that point onwards.

KG: And the work unfolded from there.

MP: Yes in the end I spent four months with the police officers and finally made portrait video studies of them. [You can see an example of the work here.] Sometimes, however, doors shut. And then I have to listen. I can push. I’ll push and push and push. Although that was six or seven years ago now. I was more stubborn at this stage of my practice. When it’s not working out and door are closing, I stop. I just pause until they open again or something happens.

KG: If a door closes that can even be a sign in itself, you can take a detour and go in a new direction or indicate another way.

MP: Exactly.

KG: And how would you describe your mode of artistic practice?

MP: I’m a photographer, a photographic artist and a performative researcher. So my practice falls into the realm of conceptual photography and performance. The performative research points back to the previous question about when I’m researching -- a problem. For example, a year ago eight of my original prints got thrown away. So right now I am responding to that incident and the performative element is the attempt to make a work that disappears, a photograph that vanishes. And instead of doing the obvious, like putting it into a basin full of fixative or nonfixative or whatever, I am working with a more complicated process. I am in the process of figuring that out and that grappling becomes the performance, which I extend out to an audience or a viewer. A lot of my recent work is audience participatory.

KG: And it fits into artistic research, where the artistic practice is a mode of inquiry itself.

MP: Exactly, very process oriented and I really like to question the value system and the system of authority established in photography.

KG: Your interest generally in public space - what do you think of the nature of public space in Cape Town specifically and its hospitality or lack thereof?

MP: For me Cape Town has very obvious pockets of consciousness, pockets of economy, and really economies – because the people that trade in one pocket are not the people who trade in another. Quite simply put there is no Mr Price [mass market retail] anywhere near Kloof Street or Tamboerskloof. But there is a Mr Price everywhere else, likewise with Pep stores. I wanted to cut through that, which is why I started [Cloud Series] on the promenade because, to me, the promenade is a place that really exhibits those pockets of consciousness and pockets of economy.

KG: So you don’t see the Sea Point promenade as a place of mixity?

MP: Yes I do. I think there is a lot of variety but people function in their various bubbles or pockets and we don’t always see each other. On the promenade you can observe tourists ‘not see’ the poverty or somebody who is affluent not seeing someone digging in the bin. Very specifically I wanted to move out of the gallery and the ‘right places to exhibit’ for the Cloud Series.

KG: So tell me about that first manifestation - just recap that one on the promenade.

MP: In 2016, I applied to the City of Cape Town Arts and Culture department – Arts, Culture and Tourism at the time, now Sports & Tourism - for a public permit to install the work. Because I’d worked at VANSA [Visual Arts Network of South Africa] and I’d watched how really strange noncritical artworks had been put up all over the city, I wanted to engage with that. It was a very complicated and difficult process to get a conceptual artwork out into the public domain. I am still struggling with that. Eventually I got permission months later after having to do a couple of presentations at ward councilor meetings, which I realised mid presentation were actually performances. Reflecting on the performative research element; the process of applying for the permit was the work. Which again points back to the research process. During these meetings I discovered that the people writing policy have absolutely no idea and often no interest in understanding what contemporary art is. They don’t understand the metaphor or allegory in the project but are making policy decisions about art. One person said “I don’t understand what you are trying to say but that is not my job”. That is in fact their job. Eventually I got the permit, made the work and 24 hours later the work was taken down. I went to Media 24, they ran an article on it and I reinstalled the work. I had permission to run it for a month; however it didn’t get taken down for six months. Both instances did the work a favour because clouds by their nature vanish. And the ones that stayed up for six months started to disintegrate on their own.

KG: Did the City take the work down the first time, after 24 hours?

MP: Yes, the security of CCID [Central City Improvement District].

KG: The origin story for Cloud Series goes back to when you were on the highway spotting cloud formations and not being able to stop and take high resolution photos so you captured them on your phone instead. Can you just take me back. What captivated you in that moment and initially with this series, the original inspiration.

MP: The original inspiration goes back to the body of work tracing the Johannesburg Station Panels.

KG: The [JH] Pierneef Panels.*

MP: Yes Pierneef. His cloud formations are completely off the charts. They have got this reputation of being so biblical and I thought [at the time] that they were a pretty ridiculous exaggeration. Then I was driving on the N1, between somewhere and somewhere, like Colesberg and Beaufort West, and I spotted those incredibly elaborate, insane, cloud formations! And I was like…. Woah. I was on the highway and there’s this romantic idea that you stop and jack up a tripod like Ansel Adams. But the reality is that you can’t stop. You just actually can’t stop your car. There is nowhere to pull over … So I just pulled out a cellphone like a little Nokia 5200 and started photographing the clouds. And then I was stuck with a problem. I was photographing the Johannesburg Station Panels with a medium format high resolution beautiful camera and had the clouds as these 62k tiny little files. And I’m thinking - what am I going to do with these?

KG: So the panels you were photographing as well before that.

MP: Yes I have been to almost all of the 28 sites.

KG: Are they quite accessible?

MP: No it took me years to find everything. I first saw the Joburg station panels in Graaff-Reinet at the Pierneef Museum [in 2007]. I knew immediately that I was going to do that work. I had all these idealistic plans. I set myself a question. I thought I shall start with the Tweelingskoppe in Stellenbosch because I was in Cape Town. I was so literal in the beginning of the project – doing a then and now comparison of the spaces, square format camera, because they are square format paintings. And said to myself: “I am just going to go there – easy”. Oh. My. God. At that stage of the game, just to find digital copies of the Joburg station panels – they weren’t on the internet – was close on impossible. I went to the African Studies Library at UCT and found a hand-typed document of someone who had been to the sites but had not taken photographs, rather typed out instructions. Eventually Alan Crump gave me a copy of NJ Coetzee’s Pierneef, land and landscape: The Johannesburg Station Panels. I photocopied the images and used them as references when I was on the road. And what I discovered, which there was no writing about before, is that Pierneef was the very first photoshopper! What he would do is go into the environment and paint pleinair, then go in the studio and compose the panel. 

Not all of panels actually exist. Some of them are radical fabrications. Some of them are spot-on exact, where reality and fantasy meet, or reality and perfect composition and idealisation meet. The Swartberg pass is literally spot on. But in Namibia, he has moved the Spitskoppe to Karabib because the actual site was not dramatic. Actually that was where I started to have to work instinctively – because I had all these idealised plans of what I was going to do and then I was met with reality. A, you can’t pull over on the side of the road. B, the mountain and the foreground are in different locations so how do you capture that perspective? I spent hours on the road and days in the space. When I realised he had gathered information -- it was at the Premier Mine in Cullinan where I was generously shown the vault and saw his preparatory water colour sketches of the site -- I thought: how am I going to photograph this? So I broke the image up into three cameras. For some of the sites I sat in the space for 16 hours and mapped the shifting light. I did what I call pleinair photography.  

And then everyone was saying to me – go into Photoshop. But it was too obvious. In the end I did the opposite of what he did by making composite images and I broke down the form of the composition and by extension examined the concept and the ideology. It was then that I was starting to think for myself. Where there was a tree, I used a pylon. And the work started to become my own. Then Transnet threatened to sue for copyright infringement. But Pierneef’s work is in the public domain and various people in the art world stepped in to help me. 
I am interested in how deeply politicised the work is – Ivan Vladislavic wrote a story in a catalogue about the panels [available here: pp. 30-31] and I realised along the way that they were not intentionally political. They became political. This is where the clouds and public art crossover is, which took 10 years to resolve. Those works, the Joburg Station Panels were commissions, a commercial commission by a railway company. Spoornet were trying to incite rail travel so they paid Pierneef to go to those places and represent them as travel locations. They were travel ads, which is why they were so stylised and unrealistic.

KG: They were infamously unpeopled.

MP: Yes. They were utopian. They became seen as political ideology and I am not doubting that it represents that but what I am saying is that was not their initial intention. So then I started to think about advertising as public art making and the crossovers between popular culture, photography and advertising. I am really interested in how commercial photography and images made for daily media consumption reflect our society but are not made from a critical, visual arts standpoint. And that is where the investigation of the clouds and moving them out the gallery and into public space came from.

KG: That makes for interesting origins. With the Cloud Series, you created these interventions last year in collaboration with guerilla gallery at four very specific transit nodes in Cape Town. How did you come about selecting those sites?

MP: I was looking for council space, concrete walls, and concrete walls that would drop below the horizon. That came from installing the work at the promenade on that sea wall. The clouds below the horizon – there is something quite beautiful about it. So it was a strategic and aesthetic choice. And then the intersections became – as we spoke about at the beginning  – [KG: they are nodal points] yes where somebody from one area comes into another area. Like the taxis arriving into Tamboerskloof, everybody working in town and coming in at the station, De Waal Drive where people drive into the city from the Southern Suburbs.Despite the connection to the Pierneef work as advertising and public art, the clouds then started to take on their own lives. Quite often in my working process the work will start somewhere and then I will realise it’s not speaking about what I initially intended and it becomes a project in its own right.

KG: It’s kind of left its referents behind and it has its own meaning.

MP: Exactly, and that’s part of working instinctively – give it its own life and let it be. And the clouds have, as technology and cellular telephone technology has developed, become increasingly about the build-up and movement of information, which points to advertising and the dissemination of information. But ultimately for me about pixels and particles that move.

KG: And that is very much also to do with the materiality about the way you created those images. You created lowfi images, images that were pixellated and composite with a granular edge to it, effected in this quick way that was meant to be ephemeral. So that’s speaking to this bigger theme of pixelation and information, and also that it’s going to pass, that it’s a temporary intervention.

MP: I’m interested in self reflexivity, where the process is reflective of the medium. So I worked with A4 white office paper and made large composite images. I used a Canon desktop printer, or Lexmar laser printer. Because I’m talking about the aesthetic of this - like the kind of paper you have printed your questions out on right here.

When we worked together there was something quite nice about when security arrived [at Salt River] and we had to make a decision. Do we stay or go. And we just stood there and had a conversation. Security moved on. And we went ahead and made the work anyway. There was something about that – the immediacy and the speed of it. And if it was going to get taken down, it was going to get taken down. Clouds evaporate.

I had an audience. There was one guy who stood there the entire time. You were there, I was there, Jansen [van Staaden] the photographer – that was enough. A taxi drove past. That work has existed. I get a real kick out of that, providing work for an audience that does not obviously participate in the discourse of art, galleries and fairs.

KG: How long did [Cloud Series] stay up in public space for before getting erased or fading away?

MP: The promenade was 24 hours and then six months. The one in Tamboerskloof I think was a week. Salt River I don’t know but within a week it was down which I was expecting because it’s a real fa├žade [the station]. The De Waal Drive one peeled off because it was rainy – I think it took two or three weeks to do so. It had a good life. I loved the way it started coming off the wall. It looked a little shit, a little shoddy. I had a moment when the perfectionist in me reared up and I wanted to re-do it. I was like – no, leave it. Just leave it. And then the one we did under the bridges in Strand stayed and is still there. Someone has moved in there with a mattress right underneath it.

KG: You eventually chose to circumvent the permission route and self-declare instead. What are the risks in all sense of the word you care to address in making art that way. And what does that bring to the work, to just go ahead and do it without official sanction?

MP: My process in applying for permission was blocked. However there was a street artist who came from Belgium who started a company making street art around the city who was immediately given permission to self-permit. And I was being blocked left, right and centre as a South African local artist. So I thought …. I’m going to do the work myself then. I’m not doing any damage. It’s an impermanent installation. I walk on edge sometimes with my work intentionally and there are always risks involved. I appropriated an Omer Fast screenplay. I rewrote it and recontextualised it. I’ve never sold it. I wrote to him and his gallery and told them I had appropriated it. I’ve used it as my own work but always referenced that I’ve appropriated his work.

I have these visual literacy and feedback sessions on Tuesday nights where artists and photographers come to my house. We were speaking a bit about it last night. When you get to the point in your career as an artist that you can use your position to make a statement. It has to be conscious and intentional.  I understand that by putting myself in front of a camera and reading something is enough to be a subversive act. So it’s working with that and questioning the permission procedure – and by extension questioning authority. That’s why I call it performative research. I’m performing the questioning of policy. I’m questioning public art policy in Cape Town, and so therefore I am breaking the rules. I asked for permission. I responded to an ad published by the CCID ‘so you think you’re an artist’ threatening a R5000 fine if you are caught making public interferences. I didn’t get permission. And yes, I do think I’m an artist. So I made the work in defiance.

KG: And what kind of responses did it get – while manifesting the work, afterwards, distributing the fliers of the work. And did any of those responses surprise you at all?

MP: I have no idea how people responded because it is so difficult to gauge. I love the follow-up with the fliers. So often I get to my car and find a flyer advertising printing and flyer distribution under my windscreen wiper – it is such an obsolete mode of advertising. So I thought I’d use that as a medium for public art and I can’t get fined for it.

My ideal situation, which I am currently working on, would be that I get permission to be an artist in residence at Joburg Station and I get to work with the intersection between advertising outlets and art making. I hope to work with the re-worked Joburg station panels and at the same time distribute the clouds so that they go out like moving cloud formations across the landscape on passenger train lines.
What would be really amazing is if Airport Company South Africa (ACSA) would let me do a flash show at all the carousels around the country and the work goes out in magazines and newspapers around the country. I think that’s a project that is going to take years to get permission to do because it costs gazillions for airtime on advertising space.

KG: You’ve been interested in different ways artistic work is valued. This work also deals with this – giving artworks for free, ephemeral work. It raises the deeper question.

MP: Yes.  

KG: Another way of cutting into this topic is that Pierneef’s works are also highly financialised at auction, politically it has its issues, there are all these weird anomalies, there are a lot of different value vectors going on there.

MP: So true. I never thought of that.

KG: What are you busy with now?

MP: I’ve been working on the Conversations with my Father work for a decade. There is a deadline coming up now I want to meet. [Shows folder.] This part is a three-way conversation happening with information. The information is my grandfather’s documents, photographs and images; and my father’s documents and images. And I am interfering with them. These are old confidential police documents.

KG: What date are these?

MP: 1950s to 80s. So I’m taking photographs – this is a found photograph of my grandfather, which was defaced when I found it.

KG: Do you know by whom?

MP: I don’t know. And I have printed over the document.  The print is an image of him with the landscape in the background – this was just a test.
This one is my raptor. [Shows page with figure of raptor.] And what happened by sheer serendipity is that on the last page it ended up printing on to the actual strategic tactical drawing, circling the enemy in war which reflects the same strategy the raptor takes when hunting prey. I quite love this printing over the documents but I have one chance to do it - they are one of one original documents. It’s just figuring out how it’s going to work. So I’m working on those as one more section of that conversation.  

And I’m making an installation for a show in Stockholm. The theme is Heat Energy, and I’m working with flashes. When a flash triggers, and you look at it, it imprints an image in your retina. That impression is the photograph.


*JH Pierneef (1886 - 1957) was commissioned by the SA Railways in 1929 to paint 32 works, which were hung in the Johannesburg Station. They were intended to depict “places of historical interest or natural beauty” and intended to encourage tourism and rail travel.

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