A chat with Anni Snyman, co-founder of Site_Specific, lead artist & project coordinator for the Karoo Geoglyph project, and artist focusing on collaborative practice.
What role does art play in your life?
Art is the discipline that provides a framework for my life. I interpret both art and love as verbs – art is a form of love-making, crucial to developing understanding of self, others and environment. Making art is not essentially different from making lunch for friends or playing with a kitten, but the medium has the wonderful added bonus of allowing reflection over time, and extending one’s understanding beyond language. I used to think that slipping beyond the boundaries of language was enough in itself, but over the last few months I have come to believe that it is essential to try to extend and transform language until it can actually translate art-discovered insights as well. So thank you for the opportunity to answer your questions – they have certainly forced me to verbalise many of the things I have been thinking about.
What are you currently working on?
I am always working on more than one aspect of several projects. At the moment ‘pure’ art making, such as creating sequences of water drawings for animations, are interspersed with administrative arrangements for the greater creative community of Site_Specific, and the planning phases of the Karoo Geoglyph Project. Eugenie Grobler, katty vandenberghe and I are working on a animated water drawing music video (view the work in progress); the Site_Specific ‘thank you’ lunches, letters, essays and catalogue processing in the aftermath of ‘Stories of Rain – The Global Nomadic Art Project’ will continue into the new year. We are planning the launch of the Riverine Rabbit thinking path for April 2017 and my brother PC Janse van Rensburg and I are planning the initial phases of two more Geoglyphs in 2017.
What motivates you?
The urgency of being alive now.
Why do so much of your work rely on collaboration or community involvement?
Art, like love, is more fun with someone else. The crux of environmentally concerned art is to direct culture towards a sense of interconnectedness between all things and beings, including people. There are many people who would like to influence the way the environmentally destructive dominant culture operates. Our collaborative art works provide them with a time and place to grow that impulse and to develop the kind of network that is in itself the seeds for a different kind of culture.
Lastly, in a culture that devalues everything that is not focused on generating money, it is necessary to cultivate participation and to create experiences that cannot be bought. Which might eventually lead to an educated audience, but more importantly, shift the current value systems.
Environmentally focused work is very important in our current climate. In what way do you think your work contribute the most to the future of our planet?
Art fulfils a myth-making role for the collective – creating the symbols and meanings that guide and connect humanity through space and over time. Artists have always done this through witnessing their time – in our case this might mean that our task is to mourn and grieve, to make meaning out of our experiences. Our time is extremely polarised and becoming more so every day. Such polarisation makes warriors out of nearly everyone – and makes it difficult as an artist to hold on to the knowledge that the work we do is not only valuable to us but extremely important for humanity. Like many others, artists are also swayed by immense feelings of desperation and rage when it seems as if joining one or another side of the warriors battling for this earth would be a more effective contribution, or at least offer a welcome respite from consciously maintaining response-ability. If not the artists, who will be able to make sense of the bewildering events that we are experiencing? How will the survivors of our time be able to find their way if there are no meaningful symbols to guide them? If we are good at what we do and very lucky, some of what we create will bring wisdom to those who come after us.
If you can change only one thing about the world, what would it be?
Probably myself? Of course there are countless cruelties and injustices to keep everyone busy for ever, but even in contemplating the faint possibility of changing only myself, I am faced with a hundred instances of ‘should’. (I ’should’ be fitter, more conscientious, kinder, more attentive, less self absorbed, more grateful, more graceful – all completely relative attributes that have very little to do with ‘me’ but more to how I appear to some imaginary me when compared to my idealistic perception of others). So I try to rid my thoughts of the word ‘should’. ‘Should’ functions as a dark magic disappearing cloak that makes it almost impossible to discern what IS, which is an essential aspect of living a creative life.
Which project or exhibition are you most proud of?
The Karoo Geoglyphs come closest to achieving the many layers of meaning and possibility that I imagine art can be.
Is there any other specific career highlight or achievement that comes to mind for you?
It was an honour to be involved with the Filmverse project, and I have loved being involved in the Global Nomadic Art Project – making a contribution on behalf of my fellow artists.
The 2006 Ampersand fellowship in New York was a watershed moment for me – the biggest gift I ever received as artist.
What’s the best thing about working as an environmentally-focused artist?
The sense of being part of it – the (animate and inanimate) community in collaboration.
Do you have any advice for other artists?
How would you describe your personal style?
I can’t see it yet. I have not yet spend enough time making art to feel that there is a style that permeates everything, even though it is probably quite obvious to others. Every new medium that I encounter excites me in its own way. I wish to keep/resurrect a certain beginner’s artlessness even after achieving competence in a medium, but that hasn’t happened yet.
What is hanging on the walls of your home?
Too many of my own things (slowly getting rid of those), and more and more much loved works from my friends.
Where do you think eco art fits into the South African art industry at the moment?
It makes sense to distinguish between meaningful art and the art industry. Sometimes there might be overlaps, but in essence the message of environmentally concerned art is not congruent with a financially driven art industry. Art is bought and sold for reasons unconnected to the work’s meaning or power. The making of an art work is in the first place an act of meaning making for the artist and his/her immediate circles and surroundings. Powerful art comments on and influences understanding of meaning in a greater society, maybe even the entire human world. On the other hand, art as a commodity is bought to enhance human spaces and sometimes to intimidate or baffle others (think of art as status symbol or the hallowed halls of church and commerce). Art objects are also exchanged as investment vehicles between the super rich, which is the ‘upper’ end of the art industry – but could just as well be, and is indeed exchanged, for any other kind of commodity such as gold, stocks or dot com ideas.
Eco art is at the very least criticising money as an exclusive value system and juxtaposing the concept that the natural environment is far more valuable and meaningful than the entire commodified world. The challenge for the eco artist is to survive in the commodified system while staying true to the work and delivering a meaningful service to his/her community. A very difficult task, but undoubtedly one of the most important tasks of our time.
What art medium or genre excites you the most?
Water in all its forms: Flow and pooling patterns, steam, condensation and icicles on windows, the difference in the marks caused by water evaporation on a buddha board / compacted clay / slate, viscosity in mud, reflections… I am very grateful for digital photography without which most of these fascinating forms would be beyond capture or interpretation.
What’s your favourite place in South Africa?
The West Coast National Park is imbued with a deep earth mythology for me – it is the place where I am constantly made aware of the stories woven into the land itself; before that there were a couple of rocks on the koppie where I grew up that cradled my childhood imagination, and nowadays when I approach the western rim of False Bay, I feel my insides tense with excited anticipation – like the tiny sounds a dog makes when the car rounds the last turns towards home.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Simonstown, South Africa
What music are you currently listening to?
The last week or so, a lot of Leonard Cohen’s final album.
What was the last great exhibition you went to?
Mona Hatoum’s retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Thank you, Anni, for your time and sharing your incredible vision & approaches with us!