“The idea goes back to the artist’s childhood in newly independent Zimbabwe, and his first wire car. A rough network of old, dull metal strands woven together to vaguely resemble a Citroën 2CV.”
STORY: LUKE CROMHOUT
PHOTOGRAPHY: JANSEN VAN STADEN (portrait)
PHOTOGRAPHY: GUTO BUSSAB (models)
The bird swivels its head. Its eyes drag streaks of red light across my retina while something in its body squawks. Wings move up and down, slightly, threatening flight. The skeleton, exposed, houses a system that governs inputs and outputs, making the grander form shake and sound. The man across from me tells me it’s struggling to be alive. The bird is trying to make itself.
The man in front of me is an artist, and we sit at opposite ends of a table blanketed in bits and bots. An intimidating stack of papers sits at my right shoulder and dominates an array: battery chargers, bubblewrap, numerous rolls of tape, wire, a wire chicken, batteries, and a three inch Optimus Prime. He, the man, studied Fine Art at the University of Cape Town’s art school, Michaelis, completed his Masters in Interactive Telecommunications at NYU, and holds a multi-disciplinary PhD from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Engineering. His name is Ralph Borland, and we’re about to discuss robots.
But first, the bird. My past experiences with birds can really be captured by three separate incidents. The scene of the first is the V&A Ocean Basket. My R38 hake and chips was kidnapped by a seagull during a visit to the bathroom. Number two: A pigeon pecks at my sandwich; I throw it away. The third incident involves an exam and two new hankies. The end of my first year at UCT was drawing to a close, and a politics exam stood between me and much TV-induced numbness. I had prepared well, neglecting to bother with the much talked of Past Paper. After an hour, I start regretting my hubris and from above I hear a squawk.
The bird itself is midnight blue, almost black, and as it leaves one of the beams overhead, flashes of burnt umber are visible beneath its wings. I return to my paper. The question in front of me is particularly difficult — something about Marx. I hear a squawk, and in quick succession, something wet ricochets off my chair and on to my back while another bullet of wet squares with the crown of my head. The room was still for what seemed like an age. Promptly, my new handkerchiefs were deployed to solve the crisis, but all they did was stain themselves, smudge me and leave a fertile brown streak across my answers. Later, sympathisers would tell me that being shat on by a bird was a sign of good luck, blessing on your head, a gift from the heavens — this only served to amplify my murderous thoughts towards this particular brand of bird. Now, after getting lost in the backstreets of Woodstock, I’m at the studio of a man who makes them.
“It’s a Starling,” Ralph begins, “1.2. The prototype, 1.0, is on exhibition.” Unlike the bird I’d come to know, this one is not an agent of humiliation. Rather, this strange, almost eerie automaton instantly seizes my attention. It has no skin or feathers and through it, I can see the opposite end of Ralph’s studio. This bird is made of wire, a circuit board, an old tape motor, and a battery. It is an African Robot, the first in a series of wire objects that have been fitted with cheap, easily obtainable electronics. But the Starling is more than just an aggregation of wires; it is an idea.
The idea goes back to the artist’s childhood in newly independent Zimbabwe, and his first wire car. A rough network of old, dull metal strands woven together to vaguely resemble a Citroën 2CV. Zimbabwe was commodity poor — stuff was difficult to get hold of. As a result, mass-produced toys were few and far between, so kids grew up learning how to make their own out of wire: cars, with wheels that turned and elongated steering columns, were ‘driven’ down the road. Friends would compete to see who had the coolest looking, most sophisticated piece of wirework, and talent meant being able to sell your constructions for a handsome fee. Fascinated, a young Ralph Borland tried making his own, admittedly rudimentary, version; the work was not commissioned. Years later Ralph left Zimbabwe for South Africa, and took with him his fascination with handicraft and wirework. At Michaelis he moved from craft to art, specialising in sculpture, which would later take him to New York and Dublin, and eventually back to Cape Town and his Woodstock studio where he now sits across from me. Between us is a table full of wires.
Wires at once separate and connect. Cities are complex, harsh manifestations of this dialectic where skylines are strapped with black lines while the streets are ringed with dividers, electric and barbed. Fences and gates keep people in and out, while Telkom and Eskom’s cables allow us to exercise almost supernatural powers on the world around us. However, people either without access to the black lines in the sky, or on the wrong side of the fence, are profoundly alienated. All too often, this means a lack of access to information and to a certain kind of agency.
Cape Town is a near perfect mess of connectivity and separation. The city can be imagined as a series of concentric circles emanating from the central business district. Each ring is separated by something that also connects. The “leafy southern suburbs” (see: Pam Golding brochure) are separated from the Cape Flats by the Liesbeek River, train lines and freeways, and as you move across these boundaries, access to resources becomes increasingly difficult. Many must then venture into the city centre to make their living. Starlings (the real, sometimes incontinent ones) play out this relationship by moving from Table Mountain’s trees and cliffs, and into the city where they compete with pigeons and seagulls for food. They are elements of nature that invade the urban space — they cross boundaries.
Part of this ability to cross boundaries has to do with agency and the will to move from one space to another, especially when this move is fraught with difficulty. The wire-workers of Cape Town are boundary crossers. Quite literally — many of these men and women are Zimbabwean immigrants, who had to cross their country’s border with ours in search of new prospects. Their work too crosses boundaries. For example, wire-work is an exercise in strategy, with the goal being to use one continuous piece of wire to create something new. They also have sophisticated micro-economies where some mostly make while others mostly sell, and pieces are traded and swopped in the hopes of increasing revenue. At markets, traffic lights and street corners, this community uses wire to fashion handicraft cattle, birds and sea creatures, which they sell to tourists and locals. These pieces are bought, and placed in homes, on bookshelves and mantelpieces and then relegated to ‘curio’ status. Interesting to look at, quaint, but not really of much use; probably little attention is given to the skill involved in their construction.
At markets, traffic lights and street corners, cheap electronics are also easily available — car phone chargers and electronic toys. Seldom do we think about the chips and circuit boards inside. Most of us know next to nothing about how they work, even though they are ubiquitous. We are alienated from the things we consume — we don’t know, or care, how they work. The world of AC/DC, circuits, currents and conductors is deemed a mystical realm accessible only to Bill Gates, repair guys and Telkom technicians. The pieces created by the wire-workers are thought by most to be of interest only to soft-touches and foreigners.
African Robots offers us a thought: what kind of future can we imagine by unpacking two commonplace notions (wire-work and electronics) and combining them? In order to ask this question, Ralph Borland works with wire-workers, particularly in Cape Town, but also in Harare, to combine wire-work with electronics hacked from cell phones to create animated artworks, artworks that appear to act of their own volition. The project is about sharing knowledge: wire-workers like Lewis and Farai teach Ralph about their creative and practical processes and in response, Ralph teaches them about basic electronics. Meanwhile a group of people from very different socio-economic circumstances interact when normally their relationship might be limited to an exchange from either side of a slightly open car window. African Robots is teaching the wire-workers more about their own practice by suggesting new ways of creating, while teaching Ralph more about his.
The project is about a lot more than just clever concepts and electrically powered birds. It is about agency and futurity. By working with a group of people to radically transform the way they work, the artist hopes that the knowledge will proliferate and evolve to help elevate the status of wire-work from craft to art, and offer a form of empowerment, arguing that African art forms are just as worthy of social capital as any Western form. African Robots suggests what a future can look like for people who are often disenfranchised — wire-workers from the streets of Cape Town and Zimbabwe now have their work on show at international galleries. The products of their thoughts and actions have reach and hold sway. Ralph and the wire-workers demystify technology in order to create their own visions of the future, their own automatons. If the future equals robots, by harnessing the basics of how those robots will work, the project is effectively giving people the ability to control their futures or make them.
While other robots have been put together (a gumboot dancer, a tractor, a frog, among others), the Starlings (1.0, 1.1, 1.2) are the flagships, and it’s easy to see why. As peri-urban travellers, vagabonds, and hustlers, they are capable of moving with ease between the harsh, urban cityscape and the now tamed wilderness. They are intelligent and symbolise agency, the ability to exercise will. Automatons have always been imagined as something from, or out of, the future, things that we have created to demonstrate our own power over life. African Robots imagines a future where people are made powerful through knowledge and takes the first steps at making that future now. We are trying to make ourselves.
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