In this episode, artist Stephen Hobbs and writer Jacqueline Flint have a conversation about Stephen’s latest exhibition at David Krut Projects titled Body Parts (July – August 2019). The conversation took place at the David Krut Gallery – 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg. The two talk about where Hobbs draws his inspiration from – structures, buildings and the city of Johannesburg. Jacqueline interrogates how this exhibition – Body Parts – differs from his previous showcases as it is the first exhibition to include a personal narrative related to the artist complicated medical history. They then discuss the wider themes surrounding this body of work in this new context. Jacqueline and Stephen have had a long term working relationship, whereby the shifts throughout his career have been observed and understood on both a personal and professional level. Enjoy!
Chapters: 0:40 Jacqueline’s Disclaimer 2:31 The Body, the built environment and engineering vis-à-vis the structural stress response of the body 12:50 The theatre of war, the operating theatre and the spectacle of making in relation to the politics of urban space and the physicality of lived experience 23:27 War Room, Surveillance and Augmented Surgery
Edited by Hagen Gersie, introduction by Britt Lawton, artist Stephen Hobbs writer Jacqueline Flint
Jacqueline Flint: Stephen, I’m going to preface our discussion a little bit. You can call it a disclaimer if you want to, the reason being that after having worked with you for many years on various projects, when I came into this exhibition and then was faced with the task of preparing a shortlist of things I’d like to address, I found it very difficult. Mainly, because in this room, most of the visual languages that I have experienced in working with you have been pulled together, but on top of that, there is a personal aspect to this show, which I haven’t seen before. So to isolate one thing or another becomes then very difficult, because as you stand and look around, your eye bounces from work to work, from wall to wall, from corner to corner. They all make sense in relation to each other and so that is my disclaimer.
What I have done, is prepared three sets of things, that are at first not necessarily immediately associated, but which in the context of the show and in the context of the video (Height, Weight & Age) do hang together if you will – and I’d like you to respond to.
The first one is the body, the built environment, and engineering, vis-à-vis the structural impact of the stress response. So, I am going to break away for a moment to explain briefly the structural impact of the stress response – not the physiological impact of the stress response because, to a certain extent, we all have some understanding of that at this stage because most of us have overworked, most of us are in a constant stage of fight or flight. So, we kind of understand what that does to our hormones. The structural response is also quite specific in terms of what that flight or fright moment does to the spine – on a body, the first thing that happens is the toes curl because it’s very important at that moment to grip onto the earth. Your calf muscles and hamstrings become taught because at that moment you prepare yourself to fight or to flee, your spine does the following – your tail bone tucks, because that’s how you are standing your head comes down because if you lose your head you’re dead. As a result of that, the atlas bone shifts forward, and so the normal curvature of your spine – which is like an S – becomes contracted. If you stay like that mode for long enough, you will develop digestive issues and so on. So, you dealt with quite a lot of that in your video [Height, Weight& Age]. What it made me think of immediately is the relationship between that spine over there [referencing Occulus Spine] and the work next to it which is the building [referencing Common Side Effects] and the work you made many years ago which is the video where you threw the camera down the core of Ponte Tower.
Stephen Hobbs: It should be said in Jacqueline’s description that perhaps how “Cro-Magnon man/woman” might have been in flight or fright mode – the whole toe grabbing thing is very primal – like you’re going to grab the nearest cliff or rock and hold on tight to see how you’re going to take this bear on; which [Jacqueline] stood up and demonstrated which you have deprived us of tonight, and was very fun and very elegant in an odd sort of way. My first thought while you’re coalescing all of these inputs and forces is that the challenges around translation, like how do you describe for a viewer the experience when you’re trying to think about ways of talking about abject dysfunctional urban conditions that are directly linked to the psyche and how particular types of design are really bad for the body. So, to be specific about the suicide film that I made in 1998, throwing the 8mm film camera down Ponte city on a Parachute made out of string, a coat hanger, a plastic packet, and some gaffer tape to prevent the chamber from potentially breaking and exposing the film when it hit the ground – The reason for doing that piece of work was in part a response to the fact that Ponte city was so notorious for being a place from which people could quite conveniently jump, whether you were base-jumping off it or jumping into the inner core where there is a bizarre kind of privacy as opposed to jumping off the outside and straight into the sports field below or something like that. But it is the way in which a design forces us to misbehave. So when we are on deadlines and we’re sitting behind the computer and the pain accrues behind the neck, but I am always interested in the fact that in the modernist project in architecture, there’s an international school of thought in modernism around a style, a form, a way of looking at a material and creating boxes that are both suggestive of a functionalism and a minimalism and they all have kinds of semi-functional, comfortable furniture in it or not; and this is a kind of a lifestyle proposition. Walter Gropius, one of the Bauhaus movements architects, may not be the first person to admit it but in his grave he probably has to acknowledge that his buildings are freezing cold in the winter and super-hot in the summer, so therein lies the predicament around the aspiration for a particular vision for how we craft cities linked to design and we’re not really thinking about the people who occupy the spaces in the first place. So, to that end, Ponte City is a perfect example if we look at design from a socio-cultural point of view, because Ponte’s initial vision like with many big mega-projects that were intended to captivate a new idea around living and urbanism and lifestyle, is that it is a self-contained space that you can live in, get your laundry done, go to the movies, there are supermarkets, all this kind of stuff
JF: You can die…
SH: Well we’re getting to the dying part in a minute… but it is a self-contained living experience and if you want to be part of that new generation of occupants, you’re going to benefit from this eco-system of convenience, when in actual fact we know for a fact that the moment you start living too far off the ground and you happen to be an unhappy person or life is not going so well, there is a bonafide connection between being detached from the ground, unconsciously or consciously thinking about your state of mind and then potentially thinking about how this building could be a tool towards your own end. And so the point is, I used to pay my rent at Ponte City. For seven years, I’d write out a cheque and go to Ponte city. So there was something bizarre about going there to do something as practical as write a cheque, pay your rent, get in the car, go to the Market Theatre and get back to work (which was where I worked at that time) and the lifts where stuck and on that occasion I had to go into the inner core which I didn’t know existed. Many of us don’t know that about Ponte city it has become super famous today due to many artists’ work on the building but at that time it was something of an unknown thing and in the 90’s it was also known as “Little Zaire”. A space of angst and anxiety about Africa colonising Hillbrow. And to experience that volume and that concentric floor design and then to pause back and see the clouds moving through the open circle and getting this feeling of vertigo, made me start contemplating a range of ideas and thoughts around how does one experience the shock of the core coupled with the fact that there is such tremendous urban legend around suicide and that the building now – 20 or 30 years on from its original intention – could be conceived as a kind of death machine if not a facilitator of alienation and death, if not little deaths on a daily basis – which aesthetically, conceptually, intellectually is stunning because we all want cool things, that don’t hurt us.
JF: So you’ve brought me very beautifully to my next set of things – concepts, I suppose. But before I get there in fact, I’d like to just draw attention to this work which we moved around the corner here [Fish hooks behind the radio], which you can come and look at just now. And that work on the table as well. Which is a bone made out of paper which is concealed in a section which indicates immediately, unconsciously, I suppose, that there’s work going on that bone; something is wrong with it, something’s happened to it. It’s broken in some way and some form of engineering will be able to fix it. What impact that will have, we are not quite sure but that space is concealed, similarly to that paper bone around the corner there. It has been created by drilling holes through the paper which in itself is quite a violent thing to do to a piece of paper. Actually, Mr. Hobbs drilled through it with a drill bit. It’s quite hectic. But it works.
And the next set of concepts that I wanted to bring together are the Theatre of War, the operating theatre and the spectacle of making, specifically in relation to bringing an understanding of the built environment and the politics of the urban landscape to the physicality of a lived experience. And I’d like to move from those works to those works now [first referencing the works on the left side, then the series of prints on the right]. Because in my mind those works which are much more abstract speak very much to this pulling experience through form in a particular way with a particular language that you’ve developed a lot over the last couple of decades.
SH: So, my company that I co-direct with Marcus Neustetter called the Trinity Sessions, that was founded in 2001 along with Catherine Smith and Jose Ferreira, was initially just a collective to survive the bleak landscape of the art world in those days. We have an art economy today. It might be on its knees but we have one. In those days, it didn’t have knees, I don’t know what it was. It was just a corpse.
JF: Maybe it was a paper bone.
SH: Look, the irony of that piece of work of course is that it’s not a bone. It’s paper, right, being attended to, triage in a war zone. So, those are important things to assert in the way that the object is formed and one hopes that when viewers of an art object – yourselves included, of course – look at this thing there’s enough elements there for you to conclude that this is about something that is in a state of becoming, is unnaturally contained or whatever. So it’s a surgery of sorts that’s taking place there. But to the point about starting the Trinity Session in 2001; within about three years of practicing we soon moved into a lot of urban realm stuff: urban design, architecture, specifically through public arts programs and commissioning small, medium and very large scale sculptural installations.
And what shook me as an artist who knows pretty much what he’s doing… I mean, I can bullshit you to think otherwise but I kind of have an idea of my purpose, every day. I don’t overly question myself. I’m confident in that way and that’s a lucky thing. But there is nothing more astonishing and interesting [than] to be thrown into a boardroom with the professional team responsible for building a building or doing a piece or urban upgrade, public realm, urban design. Everyone has one attendant to be at that table, ourselves included. So you have the project manager, who is a consultant, you have the clients development manager who is responsible for making sure the project runs on behalf of the city and the client. You have a quantity surveyor, a series of engineers, typically structural and civil. You have electrical engineers. You have the contractor, the guy who’s responsible for putting the bricks and mortar down. And then you get introduced at the table: “This is Stephen Hobbs. He will be running the artworks program.” And instantly you are laughed at; but literally laughed out of the room. So you have to fight your way back in overtime by speaking their language, civils engineering language, structural engineering language, the language of project management which has a whole lot of shitty terminology about milestones and goals and all this kind of stuff about convincing them that you actually know how to project a timeline with a cash flow projection against it, with an understanding of the materiality and, most importantly, a defence for how this stuff will be built in a maintainable way. Because all they want to prove is that you are not competent in this field because you are an artist, because all you have is a fine arts degree.
So this is the hard end of an artist’s job when working way outside of the comfort zone of these precious little spaces. And of course, it’s in this context that one publishes and, tonight, we are producing knowledge and meaning and we’re consuming in a particular way but in the public realm – and being Joburgers and traversing our city – the kind of decision-making that is linked to budgets and municipal kind of dysfunctionality is so intense and in some instances so chronically dysfunctional, that one, if you are artistically inclined and inclined toward on one hand doing things in a professional way and conforming to how the professional teams require information and now you deliver a project, versus how you deliver an exhibition or an artwork. For me, these things sit in parallel with one another but this is a much safer space than perhaps the levels of risk and accountability that are found there in that world of building things because the risk factor’s so high. But that’s not to say that the risk factor in this context isn’t as high, too. It’s measured against a different understanding of what the outcomes really are and what the intentions are.
JF: Because you are at war here, too. And the spectacle is possibly bigger here.
JF: You really do have that theatre of war, spectacle of making thing at play here as much as you do out there because you are experimenting more.
SH: Well, I’d like to think so. But there’s nothing more compelling – I mean the entire world was captivated by the collapse of the world trade centre the twin towers. And even more so the spectacle of the clean-up and the spectacle of the site under construction because it’s all embalmed in the tragedy and the loss of life and the act of terrorism but on closer scrutiny – and this is not a popular opinion – you might find that the entire thing was completely orchestrated. And if you go into forensic thing you would understand that those buildings were tactically struck and collapsed in a very specific way.
Their collapse speaks to the anatomy of their design and the efficiency or inefficiency of their materiality to outlive their original live span or… and I mean here is the irony, so it’s to the point of the pathos of the work. The Japanese architect of the twin towers way before the creation of the twin towers in the 70’s produced a residential complex in St. Louis in the Midwest, called Pruitt-Igoe. And it was in the spirit of Le Corbusier’s sort of like density solutions for Americans saw and it was flat lands and landscape and public space and it started out with the [???] same vision as Ponte City but within a short space of time it devolved into gang land. And if you visit Pruitt-Igoe and St. Louis today, it’s an urban forest and the only thing that remains are the sub stations that powered the place. So there’s something quite evocative about the spectacle of the creation of the building, equally the spectacle of the demolition of the building, not specifically airplanes crashing into buildings.
I think our natural state of curiosity around those things is kind of like a mirror on our lives. This is properly artificial stuff but the life and death of the building is directly related to the lived experience of the occupants of that building. So the intention to humanize things off the back of what feels like a zone of conflict a propos the war condition, the battlefield, literally the battlefield, but also a construction site as a place of extreme animosity because everyone typically fights with everyone.
And Warren Siebrits has a wonderful phrase – it may not literally be his but I always cite him with it – saying a war zone always looks peaceful from above. And it’s interesting when you start getting distance and perspective like alternative perspective on extreme spectacle that the way it performs and presents is not necessarily how it appears to be on the ground and so, for me, the relationship of working in the built environment and then working in this way with so many visual language systems – and I do acknowledge at this moment in time because it’s such an important moment in helping to translate some of the physiological, internal, external public thing – the guys are sitting there: Hermann edited the video tonight. He’s sitting over there. Gary with the beard, beautiful beard, beautiful Gary, and Rickmeister right over there. That’s part of the Eden Labs crew over there and these guys are very interested in problem-solving with artists in this way: that how we look at interiority, exteriority and finding tools to express that in highly hyper-poetic evocative ways and, dare I say, there is a utopian vision that comes out of the Eden Labs project. How can we use art and technology to provoke really beautiful scenarios around rethinking the physical, the virtual? And they are really intangible at a kind of heightened level, a kind of operating theatre of sorts.
JF: And that brings me to my next group of concepts which is: war room a la Churchill’s Bunker, which I can’t believe you haven’t seen but you will, surveillance – and here I am not thinking about drones, I am thinking about the kind of surveillance that caught the guy putting the sticks into the electric fence. It’s that kind of surveillance that you can sit at your MacBook and watch the 16 cameras around your house and the one on the street. So, war room, surveillance, and augmented surgery; and this, specifically, in the context of generating different storytelling opportunities. The ones that you are already so versed in are the very visual ones; the printmaking is more experiential to me because it was produced in that kind of a space. I think, Jill can attest to the fact that a print workshop also looks very peaceful from above. It’s not always the case. So that’s what you see in this room, those kinds of journeys.
But what you start engaging with in the theatre piece, not more so, but in a different way is engaging materiality in a different way. I would be very interested to see how those kinds of journeys affect these kinds of journeys, particularly because you are a collaborator.
SH: So, to the war room thing; so, in corporate world, a war room is a highly plugged-in boardroom with a tremendous amount of technology that makes it possible for you to connect to other offices where you want to have a conversation around global domination and you’ve got the table mounted-PA system and cameras everywhere and you can have in real time across multiple time zones all the relevant directors in the room making big decisions whether we should do Americana again. It’s as cynical as that. But it’s also powerful because it’s about how technology connects and facilitates and enables. The war room of Churchill is not dissimilar. But the war room of the Second World War in London is a series of underground bunkers with a lot of maps, plotting the various theatres that were going to be played out on the western front, particularly the D-Day landing which was a global effort by the allies to take over the Atlantic wall.
JF: And I mean, sorry to interrupt you, but they are very beautiful things. If you look at that very large work made up of lots of different proofs that you’ve worked on top of and you’ve drawn lines and you’ve mapped a course on there. They look not dissimilar to that when you’re standing on the other side of the glass. You know, you stand and there’s a long table and the one wall is just completely covered with things that look like that. And it’s interesting, sorry, now I’m sort of going off on a small tangent, but I have to say it.
What’s most interesting to me about that work in that context is how your complex medical history which you’ve never dealt with before – I’ve been waiting a long time to see when and how it will come into this kind of work. You know, how you’ve mapped that which is very personal, how you’ve chosen to deal with that, what material choices you have chosen in relation to that stuff, too. Because living in a compromised body structure is also being at war, to a certain extent.
SH: So, I can still answer some of your earlier questions off the back of what you were just saying here now. So, to pick up on the David Krut Workshop and working with Jill and her team of printers and David: to get to make an exhibition like this is the result of seven or eight shows with David Krut Projects. We’ve done many projects in many different places but many of them return to this room and the conversation always kind of begins somehow with paper and evolves to printmaking and then David will see something and say: “Well, why don’t you try that and why don’t you do this?” It’s his curiosity around the making process that he doesn’t get into it an intense way. He doesn’t spend all day long guiding you through a process. He just simply says: “That’s interesting. Why don’t you do that big?” It’s as simple as that.
And then we talk, the team, Ame, Britt, Jill, the rest of the troops aren’t here tonight; and then we start to understand how to do that and in some instances I solve a lot of those problems in the studio myself and other times they happen in the workshop. But to those three very invisible images and their etching plates that sit on this table here to the issue of violence or to the issue of how to make marks that involve a kind of intensive interaction with the material that will produce the mark. I’m talking literally about putting copper plates into an acid bath. Those etching plates, some of them, have been sitting in the acid for up to eight hours and that was intentional. I wanted to understand how I could work with etching plates and really corrupt them, corrode them. I wasn’t concerned about making perfect suite of prints. I was concerned about making sculpture. I was interested in the two millimetres or one and a half millimetres thickness of the plate, the softness of the metal and, of course, copper is corporeal in a way. It is a conductor, it’s a soft metal. It is the sinew and the kind of conductive tissue of buildings and electrical systems and all that kind of stuff. So, in a way it has a biological quality if you will, if you’re going to make those analogies. But to etch them, etch them, etch them ’til it almost collapses is the act of violence in pursuit of a very poetic image that requires a lot of effort to see. So, we do damage on the plate in order to produce a situation that makes the looking complex, pleasurable or not.
And that’s why, in the use of a very reductive form of razzle-dazzle camouflage circa World War 1, the etching plates appear there in that composition. Each plate is there one-to-one scale. They’ve been traced onto the paper. The paper is deliberately dissected and off-kilter to speak to an incomplete construction of something that could be body-like.
And I’m probably not answering your questions and your points anymore but I do just want to reflect on what this exhibition does for me when I look at it. I have to say, that, I suppose, many of us as artists, for those of us who are not entirely dependent on a buying market, we have the luxury to make what we want to make and I more or less have that luxury, I suppose. My interest in a situation like tonight or in any given situation is to create enough moment for the viewer to have to just immerse themselves in their own questions, not have any answers. Just: “Wow, that’s interesting. Uh, I’m attracted to that. Uh, let’s go over there.” And before you know it, your eye is doing work you’re not even conscious it’s doing. I hope I’m literally making the muscles of your eye work. Seeing is an active thing but it’s more than seeing: it’s unravelling and revealing and peeling and all of this and – if you think about what happens on the surface of paper and the surface on the eye and the space between – that’s what we do all day long and I believe really interesting art aims to achieve that where it’s non-verbal; it’s entirely intuitive but there’s enough happening at a cognitive level that you might be able to find your own sense of conflict and therefore come to Hobbs’ mind, Hobbs’ war room, Hobbs’ complex space of trying to resolve issues. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t really want to make it easy. I just want to make it layered and pleasurable, in a perhaps contradictory way sometimes.
JF: You’ve actually spoken to my set of things perfectly in that. Because it really was – when I put those together – I really was thinking about ways of seeing. Which is really the great challenge but also the great pull factor of the visual arts, or really any art form but visual arts specifically, because you do have to use your eye muscles in order to do this stuff. That the artist’s way of seeing, the artist’s mode of seeing will influence the viewer in such a way that not necessarily the way in which you think, not necessarily the way in which they think and all the decisions that are made between the conception of the artwork in the mind’s eye and what the actual eye sees on the wall are important for the artist but equally important for the viewer, whether they know that or not. To true Hobbesian form some of it is about concealment.
There’s one last thing which you said to me in a conversation over the last couple of weeks. It’s just one thing. You mentioned to me that you would like to move forward and at this point, I must say, I do consider you in quite an interesting space, in that you’re in motion. You’re about to move physically yourself and your family to another place. A lot of the work you made in the last 20 years has been about Johannesburg. You now are going to find yourself in another place all together. You’re going to have to figure a way of seeing that place that makes sense to you. You’re going to have to figure out a way of dealing with the material of that place in a way that makes sense to you. And something that you said to me recently which stuck in relation to all of that is that you’d like to assert the fragment. Is there anything you can say about that?
SH: Well, if I was a cow, the move to Ireland is like a no-brainer, right, ’cause it’s green grass and wet. This is an ideal world for a cow, I think.
JF: I’m sorry, let me just remind you of the moment that I understood that you were not actually as hard-core as you like to think you are was a moment on a walk in the Newlands Forest. You were very, very cross about that. You didn’t like to be there. There were trees. You didn’t like that. There was moss growing. It was gross to you. And at one point….
SH: And it was very wet.
JF: It was wet. And at one point, we crossed over what I considered to be quite a lovely, tranquil brook, you know, trickling down the mountain side, and you made a very lame joke about a river running through it and stormed off. It was a generative moment because it was the beginning of our project but I did realize in this moment that you weren’t as invulnerable as you’d like to think you are. You did also call me this Christmas to complain about the fact that you were really enjoying creating a grass roof for Ruby’s tree house.
You are joking about it but it’s an interesting movement to a less urban right-angled space.
SH: Well, to the point about the fragment: I think that what makes Johannesburg attractive. It’s just a constant reshaping of fragments. There was a moment in which there was nothing. It was Savannah. Of course, there was an Iron Age in Johannesburg, there was human settlement way before the discovery of gold but in any substantive form, the original iteration of the city may have existed in some rudimentary plan, but with every evolution of technology to extract more gold out of the ground the vision for building Johannesburg just happened in real time. It’s not like it was a twenty or thirty or forty year master plan like we deal with today with our cities. It was just constantly putting it all together in a somewhat fragmented way. Certainly our policies of exclusion of most and inclusion of some was a perfect example of fragmentation.
I don’t really know what to do with the fragmentary thing in Ireland other than the idea in some parts about a very substantive sort of archaeological site, the site of ruin of thousands of years of history compared to Johannesburg which history is literally kind of unwritten pre-1850s or something like that. So that sense of depth that Europe possesses, perhaps even the United States to some extent, is something to mine in a whole other way.
And I’m not really sure how to do that yet except I have this fantasy about thinking with better clarity and less noise about what’s fragmentary about Johannesburg ’cause we’re not on the other side yet; we are on this side. We haven’t made the move yet. Literally, the fragment is, what do you leave behind and what fragments do you take with you and then, when those things are there and you are creating a new life and a new home, how do you assemble those parts to constitute some notion of whole when in actual fact time is the only thing that will help you construct a bridge that softens the pain of leaving behind something so intense, in order to pursue something with equal intensity, but perhaps a lot of difference.
JF: Time and the ways of seeing, maybe.
SH: Ja. I do want to say that this body of work is so exciting to me that it’s really just a question of trying to find the tools and the correct mechanisms for the move abroad to sustain the relationship with the material such that one can continue to contribute to this language, to this war room. So, a new war room will be built in wherever we live abroad. And Bonny and Ruby and Julian will come in with battle axes and helmets and armor and chain mail and we’ll work out a new path in one shape or form. But whatever it is, it’ll be a building project and it’ll be a project centred around construction and making of and reshaping the landscape as we like to do as men.
JF: Thank you, Hobbs. I don’t have any more questions for you.
SH: It should be said that over the years I have been supported, and I say it every time, but I’m supported by some really phenomenal women in this company, the David Krut Projects space. And many of them are here tonight: Ame, Britt, Jill, Jacqueline. Jacqueline and I have done a lot of special things together. And you can never underestimate how important it is in your creative process to have people you can work with and trust who help show you the way at times when you couldn’t see it at all. And that’s a kind of common logical thing to say but because the environment in which we produce and the things that we make for these spaces are linked to the workshop and our studio spaces. There’s something unique about making exhibitions for a David Krut Projects environment because it’s always informed by so much knowledge and interest and enthusiasm and passion for you as the artist, so I always feel helped. And to have you back here and be next to you and to have the conversation is deeply meaningful because you know we’re constantly trying to make sense of all of these things. So, thank you, David, as always, and thank you, Jacqueline, and thanks to everybody in the room tonight. Thank you!