Interview with Petra Zemljič for Vecer, 29 November 2010, Slovenia:
PZ: The majority of your work has been created in public environments ranging from urban spaces, cities, public parks and so forth. You seem to be inspired by everyday life in South Africa. What is life like in South Africa? What is life like for artists in South Africa?
JT: I am interested in everyday life for a number of reasons. On one hand within the ordinary practices that shape everyday life there is a lot that should not be taken for granted at all. We can say there is invisible information – this includes larger ideological narratives that shape our lives but also how we use, transform and re-shape these narratives within the intimacies of our daily lives. So there is a form of tension that I like to explore.
Life in South Africa varies greatly: for some it is excellent, for most it is a struggle exactly because they are poor, have little education and/ or skills that are considered useful by our
contemporary (global) society.
It is the same for artists: a select few are very successful but most artists realize that we do not have institutional, state support for our work. And, even though there are a few good commercial galleries, they cannot really serve the needs of the entire art community. But South African artists are fairly pro-active. Perhaps this related to our recent turbulent political past: People realize that direct action can (still) make a difference. So despite the odds there is a strong contemporary art community where people constantly make their own opportunities to show work and/or engage with it critically.
PZ: How do you understand the concept of art? Could you tell us something about your approach to the kinds of questions and answers that artistic practice generates?
JT: Art is always about surplus value for me. In that sense it is non-representational activity where one investigates and even creates new possibilities. So it’s about the attempt to look beyond what is already in existence. This is not about making ‘progress’ in an old avante garde sense. Art is more about acknowledging that things are constantly changing and we do not know what they may become or what exactly they are doing.
PZ: A mixture between the personal and the societal seems characteristic of your work. How does the restless past mark your practice? How are personal, social and ideological considerations balanced and/or interwoven in your work?
JT: I have a difficult relationship with the past because I see how it is always changing too. As you suggest the past is ‘restless’. Despite the simple fact that we know that the past is always ideologically manipulated, there is a real sense in which it is a creative space too. For example, a less one-sided approach to the past may allow us to accept one another in the present – like we saw with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. Despite its many flaws the TRC created a space where the victims of political crime in South Africa could openly speak about their experiences under apartheid and come face to face with the perpetrators.
This was a creative moment in our country’s recent history, because in so doing, it changed our otherwise complacent relationship with time and space. Basically it suggested that things are never simply over and done with.
In this sense the past is like a ghost that haunts us. It seems out of place in the present, like it does not properly belong there. But in order to attend this ghost one must look not at what it was, but what it is now – how it enacts certain relationships between individuals, spaces and so on. What this ghost wants is not to belong to the world of the living again, but for the living to change their relationship with it. The immediate problem with this is that there is never only one ghost. Anyway, the real point is that these ghosts do not require being put to rest or even that they only complicate our lives, but more that they remind us to be creative and open-minded about other things and people we may not understand or take for granted.
In my own work I try to think not about the many ghosts that haunt it as much as I want to create a different experience of time and space. This always highly personal but by working with tactile elements that engage the bodily senses and by using fairly universal themes such as death, these experiences are opened up to a larger viewing audience.
PZ: In the year 2012, when Maribor is the European Capital of Culture, you will be cooperating with Slovenian artists to create a performance. Could you tell us more about this project? For example, who are the people you will be working with and what do you plan to do?
JT: At present I am busy conceptualizing the final work so it’s difficult to tell you exactly what it will be. But I do know that I want to produce a work in which a larger group of people form something like an organic, rhythmic machine: there will be a set series of actions involving approximately 10 people. These actions will be repeated in sequence over the course of a number of hours – so it will be a durational work involving precisely scripted actions. What interests me is how this cycle of events can slowly generate something else. For example, previously I worked with two people and through the course of four hours we moved a few hundred kilograms of broken glass by repeating some actions that appeared to be totally unrelated. In this way the body becomes a mechanism or even a conduit through which other forces are constantly moving.
As for the participants, I thought it would be great to work with younger artists, students and perhaps even members of the public that are interested in performance art. But its important that not all of them are visual artists – some will be musicians, others perhaps lawyers or even nurses. In this way it must be a little bit like a laboratory where different people are all working on their own ideas whilst something else is happening. This ‘something else’ is not bigger or more important than all of them but it is happening nonetheless.