Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Op-ed: Michael Elion and the willful manipulation of a flawed process

Op-ed: Michael Elion and the willful manipulation of a flawed process

Now that Michael Elion’s controversial sculpture ‘Perceiving Freedom’ is receiving criticism, questions are being raised about the process which enabled it to occupy public space in the first place. FARZANAH BADSHA sat on the art54 selection committee, and has some insights into her experience of the selection process, its limitations, and what might be done differently to make public art work for all.

In mid 2013, I was invited to sit on a selection committee convened by the City of Cape Town’s Arts and Culture Department and Councillor Beverly Schaffer. The brief was to help develop a new mechanism to select temporary public art. Ward 54 was proposed as a pilot for two reasons; firstly Councillor Shaffer was an enthusiastic supporter for piloting temporary public art in her ward and second, because she and the Arts and Culture Department needed a decision-making mechanism to funnel the large number of proposals her ward had already received for the placement of art on the Sea Point Promenade and the Camps Bay beachfront.

At our first meeting, we were informed that there was no budget to pay artists fees or towards the cost of producing artworks. The committee members immediately flagged this as a concern as a budget was crucial to enable artist without funds or patronage to be given a fair chance to participate. To their credit, Councillor Schaffer and the Department of Arts and Culture found funds (just under R200,000) for the the production of artworks.

The committee formulated a process – with a call for applications and a selection phase – and the project was christened art54. art54 made a selection of artworks from the applications received and tried to allocate the budget in a way that enabled as many works as possible to be produced. This resulted in some work which had independent funding being included as long as the work met our selection criteria and was judged on artistic merit, theme and appropriateness as temporary public art amongst other issues.

At this point, the role of the Committee was essentially over, and our understanding was that the selected work would be installed in 2014, and remain exhibited for three months to a year. It was, however, apparent that if we didn’t take an active role in supporting the selected artists and the Department of Arts and Culture, the implementation of the artworks would be in jeopardy. A few of us therefore remained active in an ad hoc and voluntary role, as we felt that it was important to see this process through to the installation of the selected artworks.

I remained involved, as I was one of the few people on the Committee with experience in project managing contemporary art installation. I also felt strongly that I wanted to be part of a process that could facilitate the creation of a transparent selection process for public art, which could eventually be implemented across the entire City. One that could balance the aesthetic and artistic with the technical/bureaucratic; that was not onerous to artists but supportive and sensitive to their concerns and that facilitated the creation of thoughtful temporary public art in the City. Most importantly, a process which was driven by a coherent curatorial policy rather than by technocrats.

What emerged next was that although the Department of Arts and Culture and Councilor Schaffer were supportive of the process that art54 had begun, the other arms of the City were not necessarily on board. Although we thought that as a City-driven process, the approval of artworks would be more of a rubber stamp with our recommendations taken seriously, it became clear that each artwork would still need to be ‘permitted’ through the normal systems applicable to any application for installing public art. Anyone who has attempted this will know that this process is far from easy; it is not particularly logical to the layperson and each department that the application has to be approved by has, often, competing agendas and technical requirements. The Department of Arts and Culture and Councilor Shaffer did what they could to lobby and facilitate the process on behalf of the artists selected, but it was still a slow and frustrating process.

As permits were slowly issued, another hurdle was reached. That was how to actually get the small budgets for artwork production to the artists. No mechanism was available other than to work with the City’s usual procurement processes. Which, if followed to the letter, would have needed the artists to tender to receive funds to make artworks, which had been selected by a Committee endorsed and constituted by the City of Cape Town! This was clearly an untenable situation, and once again highlighted the lack of thought that had been given to the actual implications of setting up a curatorial selection process. Again Councilor Shaffer and the team in the Department of Arts and Culture had to make a plan and work within the procurement regulations to find a mechanism to get the money to the artists. A Request for Quotation (RFQ) for a service provider to receive the funds, disburse them to the artists and manage the installation of the artworks was eventually issued and a third party service provider was selected.

At this point a list of the selected artworks and their specifications was passed onto this service provider to implement the decisions of art54, effectively ending any role for the Selection Committee – the mandate we had to select artworks having been completed. However, what was not taken into account was that this was not the end of the curatorial process. A continuing curatorial role for the Selection Committee or at least parts of it were needed to advise and guide decisions around how the implementation of artworks was to be driven, but instead the decision-making role was functionally handed over to the political and bureaucratic functions of the City.

After the handover of documents and information, my role ended and I was not consulted further. So it was with great surprise and dismay that I saw a Facebook announcement of the launch of a sculpture by Michael Elion on 6 November on the Sea Point Promenade entitled “Perceived Freedom”. Elion had submitted a number of proposals to the art54 process, one of which was selected, pending permit approval, but he was not allocated any budget and the selected artwork bore no resemblance to what has been installed on the Promenade.

The art54 committee approved a work which was an interactive water installation to be implemented on the beach in Camps Bay. A network of sprinklers were to create rainbows on the beach for people to interact with for an hour or two a day. Not my idea of profound art, but we were imagining a fun and interactive work on the beach in summer, and it was unashamedly kid friendly and popular. While still actively part of the project management process, I was consulted and asked to give my support to another work by Elion, for which he had corporate sponsorship. Eventually and with conditions, it was decided that to fund the water work, it was worth allowing the other sculpture. This was to be an over-scaled pair of sunglasses also located on the beach in Camps Bay. We indicated that it could not have any corporate branding on the work itself. The sponsor could use their own marketing strategy to leverage off its sponsorship of the artwork, but would only be acknowledged with a small logo on the A3 information panel to accompany the sculpture.

So yes, a sculpture by Michael Elion of sunglasses was included in the selection made by the art54 committee, but it was not the work that has been installed on the Sea Point Promenade.

Here, of course, is where the role of a Selection or Curatorial process broke down. When the sculpture was being evaluated by City of Cape Town officials without any curatorial guidance a decision was taken to move the work from the Camps Bay beachfront to Sea Point. Based on the officials’ notion of appropriateness. This seemingly inconsequential decision around the location of the sculpture is in fact an important curatorial factor. Moving the sculpture to a new space with a different context changes its reading from fun and frivolous in relation to people relaxing and playing on a beach.

Secondly, moving the location created the opportunity for the artist to (in my opinion, opportunistically and in an inappropriate way) to start adding layers of meaning that had not been part of his original proposal. It had not been described in any way as a homage to Nelson Mandela. It was described and selected on the basis that it was a fun work that created visual impact by playing with scale and its location on a beach, and if the association with Mandela had been made, the Selection Committee would have had a very different discussion about the appropriateness of the work.

Problematically, the artist changed his intent and started to embroider new meanings for the work, claiming that it “looks out in contemplation towards Robben Island and sets up an axis and dialogue with our country’s history” and to layer on the title “Perceiving Freedom” with its opportunistic use of Nelson Mandela to try and dress up a superficial but fun piece of art as something as which it was never originally represented. This was done without any consultation/notification by the artist of either the art54 Selection Committee or apparently City politicians or officials. He willfully manipulated an admittedly flawed process for his own gain.

If only this was the real artwork being made in this whole sorry situation. If only Elion were that sophisticated.

This is all leaving aside the blatant abuse of the memory of Nelson Mandela to try to make a slight artwork feel profound. These changes of location, title and the way that the artist describes his work are fundamental curatorial changes which would have been caught and challenged if there had been continuity in the function of a curatorial advisor and the shepherding and care of the artwork had not been handed over to technicians to manage.

I believe that this breakdown in the art54 process demonstrates the lack of understanding that exists in the City of Cape Town about the role of public art and how it needs to be managed. Until there is a proper policy and set of guidelines to inform City decision making processes about public art, there can be no effective role for a curatorial or selection committee as the agenda of technocrats and bureaucrats will always trump that of public art.

Now that issues are being raised about how the sculpture was given a permit, the City of Cape Town is trying to use the art54 process, which it endorsed and initiated, to pass the blame. It is trying to limit the damage to its reputation generated by the negative reaction to this artwork by trying to claim that it had nothing to do with the selection of the artwork. However, the sculpture, as it sits in Sea Point, went through each one of the hoops of the City of Cape Town to get a permit and at no point did the change of title or the language being used by the artist to talk about his work get raised as an issue.*. Neither was the art54 committee consulted with regards to these changes. Speaking for myself, I am more than willing to defend or answer questions about decisions, which were made with my active participation. This therefore includes the vast majority of decisions taken by the art54 selection committee. However, where officials have over ridden our role/decisions then I find them impossible to defend.

What is being obscured is that there is no coherent policy to guide the various departments that need to be consulted when an artist is applying for a public art permit. In fact, we might as well not talk about a public art permit, as it in effect does not exist. What an artwork goes through is much the same process as an event organiser would need to go through, or a temporary building, for that matter. No special consideration is given to how public art decisions are made. It is treated as a technical problem: is it a danger to the public, is it a traffic hazard, has an engineer signed off on its construction? Because of this, we land up with insensitive artworks placed in spaces which are inappropriate, and it is only the wealthy, privileged and frankly the doggedly stubborn who can afford to make public art.

We need to use the lessons learned during art54, but also the many previous flawed examples of implementation of public art in the City to help build a system which can balance the special requirements that art generates with the needs that the City has to protect citizens physical safety, the integrity of City property/infrastructure and follow the progressive guidelines that the Constitution of our country provides to protect expression. By its very nature, this process can’t be independent of the City. Any curatorial structure will need to be supported and informed by the City so there is not way for the City of Cape Town to abdicate responsibility for public art to another institution.

There are many (including myself) in the broader art world that are willing and able to offer advice and assistance to the City of Cape Town in developing these policies, guidelines and perhaps institutions, but this can only happen with strong political will and some human and financial resources being invested by the City to support public art in the City. DM

*There is also the possibility that he never disclosed this information in his permit application. I have begun the process to request this permit application through the City’s access to information protocol, as I believe that this information should be in the public domain.

Photo: People look at a stainless steel sculpture of a pair of spectacles titled ‘Perceiving Freedom’, a sculptural tribute to former South African president Nelson Mandela on the Sea Point promenade in Cape Town, South Africa, 11 November 2014. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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