The art of pushing buttons

There is always place in the city for a new, exciting and challenging festival. Let’s face it if you want another safe, boring experience you can stay home and watch television — the biggest challenge is getting up to switch it off or to hit the remote quick enough when the adverts come on.

Exhibiting at Museum Africa, the Playtime Festival’s video art component definitely provides a challenge. I can’t encounter this particular medium without having all my critical buttons pushed.

Video art is so often too easy, which in turn makes it too boring. Artist gets idea, points camera at something, cuts it together (if you’re lucky) and you’re subjected to endless minutes of talking heads repeating profound inanities, random images, and not so fascinating explorations of said artist’s self obsession. Or it is often performance art that has been documented. Is that video art or is it a mini-documentary? To have real impact it has to have something extra special. It is, after all, packaged as “art” and therefore competes with so many other mediums. And God forbid there’s a power failure!

Another thing about video art is that you need the time. Unlike a painting you can’t take a glance, maybe linger, and then move on. It demands that you stop, hopefully sit, and watch. If you’ve got the time Playtime’s Video Art festival has got the goods.

The impressive line up includes local artists Kay Hassen and Tracey Rose as well as Mozambican Goncalo Mabunda. On the foreign front there are Unglee and Lydie Jean-Dit-Pannel from France and Maike Freess from Germany. Closer to home are Goddy Leye from Cameroon and Mounir Fatmi from Morocco.

Of the foreign artists it is always exciting to see work from other African countries. A trademark of the French Institute’s activities in Newtown has been providing Johannesburg with a rich cross-cultural pollination of African art. This is an especially valuable contribution, breaking pre-conceived notions and stereotypes. The works by Leye and Fatmi live up to this, opening a window on the contemporary art scene of Cameroon and Morocco.

At its best Fatmi’s work is a lyrical combination of words and images, often semi-biographical and bordering on documentary, giving you an idea of his life in Tangiers. At its worst it is humourless and takes its self too seriously.

Leye’s video is intriguing and mysterious, maybe a bit too mysterious, wearing the intrigue thin. Among the more playful, entertaining and sometimes disturbing works is Jean-Dit-Pannel’s Le concierge de la Tour de Babel. One hundred formally presented images are juxtaposed, presenting a visual Tower of Babel of information overload — a bit like a bad night with the remote control.

It would be an added bonus if the exhibition included walk-abouts with the artists explaining their work because I think that it is often the lack of context that mystifies and obscures, making the work difficult to appreciate. Then again maybe it’s an age thing. This is one exhibition that you can take the kids to; I’ve no doubt that cyber kids could teach me a thing or two about video art.

Like I said, it pushes all my critical buttons. But one thing is certain, Playtime’s line-up is challenging, exciting and new. So leave the remote at home, take a break from the television and video shop, get down to Newtown for some video art and decide for yourself.

Booking: French Institute of south Africa. Tel: 011 836 0561 fax: 011 836 5850 e-mail:

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