BLOU STEEN/BLUE STONE (2018): REFLECTIONS

It’s just over a week since I dismantled my performance installation in Pretoria , and 4 weeks on from the actual performance of the work informed by my Master’s dissertation. Both were immense tasks of endurance, physically and mentally. The rising of the frosty new stubble on my head marks the passing of this time, these 4 weeks. The entire process, commencing with my insular waxing performance on January 1st, , and including a 10 month, 286 day fast, and culminating in the huge physical task of dismantling my installation on November 2nd, laid waste to me. In part this explains why I have not written about my experiences as yet. I find myself still trying to get to know the creation I have become. The best example, or metaphor?, I can offer to give you an insight into my lived experience is this: in 2012 I performed a shaving ritual (Gaze) removing the hair from my head and body, since then I have grown my hair, rarely even trimming it so that it became this thick, heavy, protective and insulating mass on my head. During the Blou Steen/Blue Stone performance I again shaved my head, planning it, much like the military barbers did, as if it were a piece of wood. In an early evening thunder storm (the High Veld in South Africa is known for these) that followed my performance, the shock of feeling rain on my bare, nude, sensitive head was both truly unsettling and otherworldly. The sensitivity, vulnerability and dislocation I was feeling internally after the performance was exemplified by this physical moment of experiencing the weather in direct contact with the flesh of my newly-exposed scalp.

In performance art the blood is real. My scalp bleeds minutes after the performance.

On the 7 hour drive back to Durban the next morning, I had plenty of time to reflect on the performance experience, and the past months leading up to it. And yet I have still not put it into actual words what it was all actually like. The fact is life and people do not give a damn (about art and sacrifies) and remain demanding. And bills have to be paid, so that Monday I was back in the factory working. As the King (Elvis) said, I was TCB-ing, taking care of business. And before I knew it, 3 weeks had passed and I had to return to Pretoria and the gallery to dismantle my performance installation. This was an endurance performance all on its own. I began at 9 in the morning and only finished at 3:30 in the afternoon. It involved shovelling up 1.3 tons of sea salt, putting it in bags, carrying them some 50 metres and then loading them into a van. After that I still had to load my metal structure and all my relics. When I climbed into that behemoth of a van which I had hired to carry my work back down to Durban my right knee and my back were aching like rotten teeth. A further 7 hours later, after driving through the night, (and being pulled over in a massive police roadblock, a story for another time) I arrived back in Durban, and 4 hours later I was back in the factory working. TCB!

TCB indeed, because as I write this on this Sunday morning I am in the factory, working. TCfreakingB! It’s a little less hectic today being a Sunday so I am taking the opportunity to reflect while it’s still relatively fresh in my memory. I remember that the actual installation process went quite smoothly and within 3 days (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) my performance space was ready. By Friday, the day before the opening of the exhibition, even the dying of my hair to the correct colour I wanted (electric blue; after many attempts and using a number of different products) had successfully been concluded. But of course, then along came gallery politics and academic constraints/dictates. Firstly, I was informed that my performance (at an estimated 40 minutes) was way too long. This was a valid point though, people having miniscule attention spans these days as a result of social media and the internet. I was told that I would need to keep it under 20 minutes. This is all very fine and well, but this is like 2 days before a performance I have been planning and working up to for over 3 years. But!  I didn’t panic because I allowed for these worst-case-scenario events, and so I spent the entire Friday coming up with a new soundtrack for my performance and was still ready by Saturday. Or so I believed!

What do they say about the best-laid plans? Or about learning that God has a sense of humour by proclaiming your plans out loud?  For a performance I do my best to control everything I can, and for me, key is being in my space long before the performance so that I can mentally prepare. Some 600+ kilometres from home and being locked out of the gallery until minutes before my performance is not ideal, to say the least! Nor is having to rush in, check the sound, lights and video, and then don my uniform, only to find out that the order of events of the programme have been changed. Spending 30 minutes behind a screen and having to urinate into a box is definitely not conducive to getting one’s mind centred and prepared. But performance art is kind of like jumping from a plane, once you are out there, there is no turning back, and what will happen, will happen; you have very little control or choice. This is the adrenaline-pumping rush and beauty of performance art. The combination of chance and the interaction of artist and audience/viewer result in a totally unique, temporal, ephemeral artwork.

My performance, I felt was almost-frantic, with me, at one stage, hacking at my bleeding head with the razor. As always, I felt exposed and vulnerable, and yet barely aware of the audience (some 40 people).  I was aware of really only my soundtrack and its cadence, dictating when my various rituals should take place and their rhythm. I was also acutely aware of the sea salt crunching firstly beneath my army boots and then later under my bare feet. Its aroma permeated the entire gallery space, enveloping my senses, rising from the luminescent white mounds on the floor. Afterwards, although there was a sense of cathartic resolution, I was, as always, shy, withdrawn and reflective, perhaps even shameful. But, as always, I am forced out, because people want to speak to me, whether it is for me to acknowledge their presence or for them to acknowledge mine I’m never certain. This is a good thing. Men wanted to talk to me about their military experience, one even burst into emotional tears. This is very good and something I strove for! Activism: art as a tool for change!

Blou Steen performance: I’m wearing my Mask of Masculinities headpiece.

So what happened then? Well, after arriving home and TCB-ing I sorted out the documentation of my performance. I am pleased to say that despite all the problems on the day I got some really amazing video and photographs. These I sent to the postgraduate examinations department thereby meeting all my requirements for my Master’s degree. Now it’s all about the work and dissertation being assessed by the university, and me waiting to hear my grade. In the meantime I will be working on editing the video for an exhibition at the Durban Art Gallery. This will include my installation and a new performance informed by the old. The work does not stay static or final, it grows, transforms, spreads… This is good. This is very good!

Let Slip The Dogs Of War (Part 6: Before I Was A Soldier)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memories are like those eccentric relatives everybody has in their family. You know the one. Like the uncle who asks children to pull his finger and promptly farts loudly enough to chase the dog into the yard and set teacups and windows rattling. Or the granny who has the disconcerting habit of leaving her dentures in the strangest places. Like in the loo or next to the mashed potatoes on the dinner table. You’re fond of them and they’re family, so you tend to overlook the embarrassment of their eccentricities. Nevertheless, you still only introduce them to your closest friends or loved ones. Memories have the distinction of having the ability to make us both happy and sad at the same time. Melancholy. Just like a family member. By their nature they are very personal, and have feelings and bonds attached that are almost impossible to convey or share with another. They say that the older you get the more you remember of your more distant past. It is normally implied that this is a bad thing. I say that it is like the cream rising to the top. All the best coming to the surface. Although. I have never really had a problem recalling anything, anything after my father’s death, that is. Also excluding those howling-at-the-moon, drinking-dancing-fighting-singing-rutting kind of evenings of total abuse, that, thank God, end with blackouts. As I was saying though, because of the observer in my nature, that part of me that stands back and chronicles details of events, I am able to recall things with remarkable clarity. I like to say that I have a resonance with the past. An ability to slip back at will and with relative ease. This one of my memories:

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“Andy? “

I heard my mother calling for me as I closed the front gate. I reached down to touch my toes, sweat dripping from my fringe onto the baking garden path. I had just been for a long run, as was my habit when I was bored or had things on my mind. I did some of my best thinking on the road. It cleared my head.

“Andrew Peter Swanepoel! Is that you?” she shouted, irritation creeping into her voice. My mother calling me by my full names was a sure sign that she was displeased with me.

“Yes, Mother?” I shouted, wishing I had stayed out on the road longer.

“Telephone for you!” she called as she stuck her head out of the lounge window.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know! I think its Andre. Are you coming?”

“Yes! Tell him to hold on!”

My mother and I had not been getting on well lately. The only getting we had been doing was getting on each other’s nerves, irritating each other. It had been a long, hot, excellent summer, but now it was drawing to an end. Add to that the fact that in a week I would be leaving for the Army to start my National Service, and it was understandable. We were both very sensitive at the moment. Unsure of what to say or do, terribly aware of the impending separation looming ahead, as well as the reality of my going off to war. The acts of terrorism such as car bombs and ambushes in our streets suddenly became a far more personal thing than they had been before. It also seemed as if everybody had some story, or every article or news broadcast was about Border clashes, training incidents or the merciless, ferocious stupidity of the enemy. It, they, were everywhere.  SWAPO, ANC, the garden boy raking the yard next door. I, we, were sick of hearing about it!

And so I ran. And swam. And pushed weights. But eventually the fear always returned, the debilitating knowledge that I was going. Our embryonic, insulated little world was coming to an end. The wolf was at the door and his knock could no longer be ignored. “Let me in! Or I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow the house down!”

What aggravated matters was the fact that although my mother and I had great love for each other, we could not and did not talk about sensitive and personal, potentially upsetting,matters. This was true of our family: we were each afraid that the other would breakdown, and that we would be helpless to make things better, to protect. The early death of my father had entrenched behaviour patterns in us that would never be altered.

And so we tiptoed around each other; an emotionally constipated, yet loving family.

“Andrew Peter!”

“I said that I’m coming, Mother!” I yelled, sliding my wet teeshirt off. Purdy, our totally devoted as well as totally insane German Shepherd, barked a welcome as I headed around to the back door, which was actually our front door. Nobody used the front door except my brother David and his buds. “Hello, Purdy! How are you, girl?” I ran my hands through the gloriously thick mane around her neck. She whined her approval. “Where’s Gambit and Steed?” Gambit was a cat and Steed a Border Collie, and yes, we were huge fans of the television series, The New Avengers. In fact, it was a trend in our neighbourhood. Family pets could be dated by their names, much the same way that trees were by the number of circles in their wood. There was a Boxer named Manilito from Bonanza, a Poodle named Falconetti from Rich Man, Poor Man, and a Pom named Bobby from Dallas, and so on.

I jogged up the stairs, Purdy bounding alongside me, doing her best to trip me. At the door I held her back with my legs as she tried to squirm past me into the kitchen. She grunted, looked at me with disappointment and curled up on the top step. I closed and latched the bottom half of the back door, all the while apologising to Purdy.

“Hello?” I said, answering the phone in the lounge.

“Hello yourself! Do you always take so long to answer the phone, pal?”

“Howzit, man?” it was Andre.

“What are you doing tonight?”

“Dunno, haven’t got anything planned. You?”

“Let’s go for a wave and then we can go to the LA. Ladies Night! Should be a jol! We can change and eat at my place. Whaddaya say?”

“Yeah, that sounds cool,” I said, trying to think of how I was going to tell my mother that on one of the last nights left before the Army, I was going partying with my buds. “I’ll pick you up in fifteen minutes. Wait outside with your board, okay? Oh, have you got some Dr. Zogs? You know, Sex Wax? My board’s like a bar of soap at the moment. I need to wax up.”

“Ja, sure. See you in a few, bud.”

“Wait outside!”

I put down the phone, braced myself and turned to face the accusing eyes of my mother.

“And so, where are you gallivanting off to now?” I knew what was coming next. “My boy, in a few days time you’re going to the Army and you’re not going to see us for a long time. The least you can do is spend some time with your family.”

“Aw, Ma. Don’t start with me. You think I don’t know that I’m going to the Army? Give me a break! I’ve just finished Matric and now I’m off to the Army for two years! I’d like to be able to have some fun with my friends before I go! Is that alright?” I regretted my tone and choice of words immediately but I just couldn’t help myself. I hated feeling guilty and she was so good at making me feel exactly that. My voice softened with genuine regret as I saw the gleam of tears in her eyes. “C’mon, Mom. We’ll do something tomorrow, promise. Let’s go to the Wimpy for dinner tomorrow night, okay?”

I gave her a big hug as she nodded, a weary smile lighting her strained face. “Yes, okay. But this is a definite, Andy. Don’t let me down!” A pause, and then she said, “Behave yourself tonight and tell Andre he owes me one. Oh, and no drinking and driving!”

“You know me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[17 year old me: a couple of months later I was in a uniform with a rifle being taught how to kill]

 

An hour later Andre and I were out shredding the surf at Cave Rock, our favourite break. Cave Rock was situated south of Durban, on the Bluff. It is famous for it’s huge thick tubes, generated from the same swells that exist at Jeffrey’s Bay. However, it is notorious for the shallow reef that keeps those who surf there honest. There was not one of us, the locals, who did not carry at least one scar as a reminder of its caress. When we got out beyond the break there was a horde of locals there already. The break was going off, so everybody was in a good mood and we were greeted cheerily and with much gusto. Howard Bisset alias Howie Biscuit, Brad Jones alias Jonesy, Terry Smith alias Lobster and Manuel Chaves alias Gummy were all there. Incidentally, I was known as Swany and Andre as Jap. The morphed surnames were Biscuit, Jonesy and Swany. Lobster because Terry was perpetually red and peeling never tanned. Gummy because Manuel had had his front teeth knocked out playing the surf local rules ticket with some Boksberg bikers down at Brighton Beach. Jap because of the Oriental cast to Andre’s eyes.

We were soon shredding and ripping with the rest of them, whooping it up. We were amped, totally stoked! Biscuit scoops the first wave and proceeds to take it apart: two hooks, hits the lip, floats, drops and then down the face of the wave with speed to burn. That set the afternoon afire. We were amped, feeding off each other’s energy. Two hours and many waves later found the six of us sitting out beyond the backline, mellowing out. The slapping of the water on our boards, the odd seagull call and the voices and music from the beach were the soundtrack to our moment. While we enjoyed the companionship of our group we watched the sun paint the ocean with its fiery brush as it blazed defiance at the approaching night. The topic of discussion, naturally, was that five of us were off to the Army on Sunday afternoon. Andre had decided to go to Varsity first so he was silent, feeling slightly isolated from the posse.

Biscuit was saying, “Fuck, man, if I were in the States I’d be heading for Mexico, bro! I swear! Permanent Force don’t’ surf, bro. PF don’t surf!”

“You know BC, old Brain Cell? Well, he’s ducked to Johannesburg. He says as long as he keeps moving they can’t send him his call-up papers,” Gummy interjected.

“What’s he doing up there?” I asked, slipping off my board to cool off.

“Dig this! He’s acting in porno movies!”

“No ways!”

“Na ha!”

“You swear?”

“Swear to God!”

“I always said that wiener of his needed its own set of lungs and heart. Good grief, when he got in the shower everybody else had to leave.”

“Ja true, bru. There was no space left except for BC and his prick.”

“Ja, he registered it at the police station as a lethal weapon.”

We all laughed, and as I looked from face to face I was suddenly acutely aware of the beauty of our youth … and its fleetingness and vulnerability. For a moment I could barely breathe as the premonition passed through me. I pounded a beat on my board in an attempt to shake the feeling of dread.

“Bloody gut-sliders and grommets!” Body surfers and pre-teen surfers. “Look at them!” I cursed. “Ja well, what can you do? Anyway, I’m kicking. Let’s duck, Andre. So we’ll see you guys at the LA tonight for a couple of frosties?”

“Spot ya later, Swany. You too, Jap.” “Bye girls.” “Ya faders.” “Try and kill a couple of groms on the way in.”

To much heckling, Andre and I paddled forward and then caught our last waves of the day, riding the foamy right to the beach. We jogged up the sand to the showers to rinse the sand and salt from our bodies and boards, sniffing together the entire time. Seawater is the laxative of the nasal cavity. Our noses would be dripping water and mucous for hours now. We duly tried to get rid of most of it while showering, much to the disgust of an enormous, fat woman in a flowery pink costume. She blanched and stormed off muttering. Andre and I laughed like hyenas, of course, and continued trying to empty the entire contents of our heads through our noses. With renewed vigour, now that we had an audience.

“Swany, have you ever thought of just ducking out of the country or becoming a Conscientious Objector?” Andre asked me when we were in the car on the way to his place.

“Ag, look, I don’t want to spend five years in a military jail. Plus my family and friends are here. The surf. Rugby. I’d miss everything. It won’t be that bad though. I’m going to SA Intelligence Corp in Kimberley. Who knows? I could become double-“O” Swany, secret agent for the Volk. Anyway Biscuit will be with me and Gummy will be just up the road in the Maintenance unit. They say its what you make of it.”

“Ja, I suppose so.”

“Anyway, why are you worried? You’re going to Varsity to take drugs, molest women and become a Communist!”

“Hey, fuck joo, Carlos, and the horse you rode in on!” and with that the angst of the moment passed. We cranked up the music and prepared to party.

 

 

 

 

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better

In my post today I thought I would share some wise and sage advice and guidance received from an academic mentor. I thought it was really awesome and seriously applicable in any of the life-situations we are often faced with, be it heartbreak, buying a house, doing your taxes or being a stay-at-home parent. But for all you artists out there, this is how you do it: hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I did.

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Being enrolled in a parttime, distance learning art programme is extremely challenging at the best of times. One has to proceed without the constant support, guidance and the infrastructure that full-time students have. We, instead, have a tutor whom we see once a month, and have two, one week workshops/assessment blocks.

These often leave you feeling a bit lost, overwhelmed or terrified. Being in my third year now I now realize that it is perfectly normal to be feeling lost and overwhelmed, as well as terrified; anxious ALL the time! Doubt: not going to get through this year wondering why you are doing this degree when it feels like such torture? Suffering from insomnia, eating / smoking / sleeping more than usual to ease the terror, engaging in serious work avoidance behaviour such as:
– watching anything on TV
– running out to movies
– fixing that crack in the wall that has been in the house for over 5 years
– running to the fridge every 5 minutes
– phoning all your friends to catch up
etc
etc
etc

This is work avoidance behaviour!!!

This is a result of anxiety and uncertainty of how to proceed.

It is totally normal and part of the creative process.

The first thing to do (YAY) is:

get some rest: take this coming weekend off to rest and recover. It is essential to take time to recover, so take a break, spend time with your family, catch up on your life etc all without feeling guilty. Keep a leash on it though, set a specific time as I have: one weekend!

THEN

Take a big deep breath
Draw up an action plan
Go over all the notes and lecture information sent to you from the workshop
Highlight any dates to diarise
Highlight leads / artists / books / sources to follow up on
Go over your workshop notes and follow up on those leads
Go over the assessment feedback as well as the notes that were taken on your behalf during your assessment:
Be honest with yourself regarding the effort you put in and the progress you have made
Make decisions on which suggestions from the feedback resonate with you / excite you. This is the path you need to follow.
Do lots of research on contemporary artists suggested (and others) as this will help you get ideas for your own work and help you understand the process of conceptualisation.
Do some brainstorming while you are research other visual artists
Sketch some ideas / possible solutions for your own work

At this stage, you have only been working in your workbook. This work takes at least one week if you are really engaged with the process.

So lets call this stage:

One: REGROUPING– (back to the drawing board) and requires you to step away from the actual work and reflect where you are at this specific time.

Moving to the next stage is going to provoke further anxiety and procrastination I warn you. This is normal. What is needed is that you get involved in the making to see if your ideas will actually work.

How do you this without being overwhelmed or without getting lost? I find that consciously going through process of conceptualisation helps me:

a) investigate the problem by collecting and selecting: visual and theoretical research and data.

b) analyse the data: follow this by speculation and incubation, which lead to you-

• Digesting  the information

• Thinking

c) llumination: Ideas will come to you

Now comes the crux of this stage, decision making.

Break the task into smaller  ones, beginning with preliminary tests: trial and error. Most importantly though there must be making coupled with critical thinking; ongoing investigation and questioning right the through the process.

As a mentor said:

Remember, that all your answers lie in the making, in the actual process of trouble-shooting and testing your ideas. You can wonder, speculate, sit and think, run to the fridge etc etc, but until you actually get down to it and stuck into the PROCESS of creativity, you will not find answers.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE:
As soon as you start doing real, engaged work, your anxiety will disappear and you will start to feel excited and alive, even if you do not know all the answers and how this work will eventually turn out.

So lets call stage two:

Two: Conceptualizing and Making
 

How do you keep moving forward during this time of doubt?

Simple things like staying focused on the actual stages of the creative process and conceptualization will remind you of how to move forward during those times when you feel lost and anxious in the middle of making. Inspirational quotes, as cliche and trite as this might sound, around your house / in your car / bathroom / on your cell phone / on your computer screen help as well to lift your spirits.

Some of my favourites and most motivating are:

 Aristotle quotes: 

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honour.

I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self.

Then quotes inspired by Eric Maisel’s teachings: 

Brave the anxiety (this is directly outside my studio door, sitting there to remind me not to run away from my desk but to move through the anxiety by doing the necessary work)

Work in the middle of things

One step at a time

Big deep breath: CENTER

I am equal to this challenge. I can do this. 

 

Then one of my all time favourites by Samuel Beckett:

 

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Learn to embrace your mistakes and all the opportunities they give you to learn and improve

Release any expectations of expected outcomes / marks etc and embrace the learning process

Have fun with your work

Get excited about your research

Work from the heart / work with your passion

Work from your own experience

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In this process it is important that you, as a student-artist, learn how to make your own decisions and most importantly, to find your way through the muddle when you feel lost (not only is this inevitable, as it is part of the creative process, but this will happen many many more times ahead). Ideas and suggestions need to be tested through visual exploration to see if they will actually work practically…. Sometimes they don’t. Again this is the nature of the creative process.

Creativity is HARD WORK: it takes lots of time and sacrifice

Creativity involves TRIAL AND ERROR: make the necessary mistakes and learn from them

Creativity provokes ANXIETY: it requires you to take risks, explore the unknown, search deep within. This can all be very scary.

 

BUT:

 

ALL YOUR ANSWERS LIE IN THE PROCESS OF DOING.

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I love this: ALL YOUR ANSWERS LIE IN THE PROCESS OF DOING.

SWANY