Hacking and hiding. On the recent works of James Webb was commissioned by curator Abdellah Karroum as one of the catalogue contributions for his exhibition A Proposal for Articulating Works and Places which was the 3rd AiM Festival Biennale exhibition in 2009, online publication. See online catalogue HERE

A call for prayer during an exhibition opening, a light blinking in Morse code in the elevator shaft of the world’s deepest gold mine, a group of 75 people blind folded in front of the Guernica in the Reina Sophia, a 15 minute DJ-set in a Japanese amusement park, an 8 second hack into the public address system of a library.*

James Webb’s works are for the most part un-announced, many happen outside of the gallery space and most often they can be experiences translated into rumours or anecdotes. His works are exceptions to the gallery space, in the sense that the gallery space is not really a necessity for him to continue to create. An exception in the everyday is usually associated to celebration and festivities, weekends and holidays, while Webb’s exceptions are firmly rooted in the places where people move through every day and are prone to both crisis as well as unexpected surprises. He creates stages and situations which are documented for further communication and discussion.

Webb is the opposite of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. He does not haste around the world without stopping to look around, but finds his sites and projects in a mix of tangled thoughts and observations. The thoughts and observations are untangled and placed so that they later can be detached from the site, and retold as short anecdotes or stories. Since so many cultures have lost the ability to retell long detailed stories, passing it on from one person to the next, the actions Webb conducts must be simple to have the right of life and survive as anecdotes. This way he caters to his audience in a very emphatic way, almost too emphatic, bordering on obliteration. Since the actions and his reality tweaks are miniscule, they can go by unnoticed, un-detected. If you do happen to experience them first hand, you most likely won’t even know.

During a period of rolling blackouts in 2005 in the Western Cape, the unannounced intervention titled The World Will Listen staged at an exhibition opening went by unnoticed. The subtle hint at this being part of the exhibition, or even a work of art, was the duration 4 minutes and 33 seconds, referencing of course the famous Cage-piece 4'33". Other than that it appeared as just another instance of load shedding. The result: a social wave of exhibition goers moving out of the gallery space to carry on with their conversations.

There is logic in the way Webb’s works hide around the world. The hallmark project being There’s no place called home, also included in the multi stage exhibition project A Proposal for Articulating Works and Places. This work is a series of variations on a theme, much like in many musical traditions. From trees around the world we can at different points in time hear bird calls. These bird calls do not naturally belong to the site, and is in actual fact manifested impossibilities.

Webb’s interference in trees has moved from the autobiographically linked intervention with South African summer birds in Japanese winter trees, during his yearlong stay in Japan, to more complex and charged situations. One version hosted non-migratory Nigerian birds in trees in Johannesburg. The trees from where the sounds were played were in a park with a high population of Nigerian refugees. The sound would be possible to recognise only for those with a memory of the birds, which in turn are memories linked to a place they might never be able to revisit. Much like the birds themselves, they have possibly become non-migratory. Somewhere in Marrakech, a city populated with foreigners, birds will call in vain for contact, in alarm, to mark territory in November 2009. Through a hidden, yet logical track of associations the sound and the location of the trees are linked together. Like so many of Webb’s works There’s no place called home can be moved, but it needs to be transformed, translated and made local. He works with dualities, much like in myths where you have oppositions like good and evil he takes advantage of the duality known – unknown. The birdcalls are completely alien to the situation, as is the audience to the bird calls. Just like with oral history, the parts which are not re-told are just as important as what actually is told. So when the documentation and stories of the different versions of There’s no place called home only address the facts of the piece, the not communicated implications of these facts becomes just as important. By not addressing the associations of the bird calls and the site in depth when retelling the works, they become ambiguous with a tint of secrecy.

There’s no place called home is one of many of Webb’s works which hack into our social reality. He works parallel to the hackers in the digital world. The hacker looks for obstacles in a variety of complex technological structures and solves any problem there might be, to make the structure run as smoothly as possible. No problem should have to be solved twice, at the same time as the hacker realises that there is not only one solution to any given problem. Thus the information about the hack has to be spread through word of mouth for it to possibly be altered and consequently improved. In a similar way Webb creates politically suggestive works without promoting one particular direction of interpretation, he aims for discussion to happen and spread.

Although many of his works require a quite numerous audience for the re-telling of the piece and subsequent discussion to happen and spread, some of his works are more modest in terms of audience numbers. Some of the works are even made for no public audience at all, like the eight second hack into the public address system of a Japanese amusement park titled Saturday Night Can Be the Loneliest Place on Earth from 2005. The audience counted eight of Webb’s closest friends from his year in Japan, a short term stay with a long term effect on his works. The piece was, as so many of Webb’s other projects, unannounced and lives on in the documentation made available by the artist. Another one of these projects are also presented in A Proposal for Articulating Works and Places: The video documentation of Le Marché Oriental from 2008. The building which housed the oriental plaza in Cape Town, a relic from the Apartheid era in South Africa built to house the Indian, coloured, cape malay merchants catering for the population ironically forced away from that same area, was due to be demolished. The gutted building was transformed into a performative space just by being broken into by the artist. The muezzin from the next door mosque was invited to sing the call of prayer, the adhan, in the open space.

Communication is a lead motif in Webb’s works, be it bird calls or calls for prayer, text works or Morse code. Much of his communication is sonic, thus he explores and plays with the actual space of communication, just as much as with communication itself. The sounds that come out of his experiments are not as much ornamental as narrative, and through his sounds the spaces of his works become scenes and stages to be documented and retold.

..........

* A construct made from the description of many of Webb’s projects:

- Le Marché Oriental, 2008: A call for prayer in an Apartheid-era shopping mall a few weeks prior to its demolition, to make way for luxury apartments.
- Scream, 2008: Members of museum staff at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía were invited to scream at Picasso’s Guernica.
- September 1st, 2007: A group of 75 people blind folded taken from their homes through the city to an undisclosed location and led through a series of lifts and passageways until they were seated in a room and a sound concert was performed by Francisco López.
- Untitled, 2006: an unadvertised intervention with light blinking an undisclosed message in Morse code.
- The Black Passage, 2006: a recording of the empty elevator cage descending and ascending the deepest twin-shaft goldmine in the world, broadcast from a wall of speakers installed at the end of a 20m deep, black tunnel.
- The World Will Listen, 2005: 4-minute 33-second power failure instigated at a gallery opening.
- Saturday Night Can Be the Loneliest Place on Earth, 2005: 8-second hack into the theme park Space World parking lot’s public address system.
- Homme Alone, 2005: Books about Morrissey smuggled into the Centre for Contemporary Art Kitakyushu’s library.
- WA, 2003: An imaginary Japanese DJ named Wa was booked to perform at a large Cape Town party where a performance of ear-splitting noise lasted 15 minutes in front of a crowd of over 1500 people.

Hacking and hiding. On the recent works of James Webb was commissioned by curator Abdellah Karroum as one of the catalogue contributions for his exhibition A Proposal for Articulating Works and Places which was the 3rd AiM Festival Biennale exhibition in 2009, online publication. See online catalogue HERE

A call for prayer during an exhibition opening, a light blinking in Morse code in the elevator shaft of the world’s deepest gold mine, a group of 75 people blind folded in front of the Guernica in the Reina Sophia, a 15 minute DJ-set in a Japanese amusement park, an 8 second hack into the public address system of a library.*

James Webb’s works are for the most part un-announced, many happen outside of the gallery space and most often they can be experiences translated into rumours or anecdotes. His works are exceptions to the gallery space, in the sense that the gallery space is not really a necessity for him to continue to create. An exception in the everyday is usually associated to celebration and festivities, weekends and holidays, while Webb’s exceptions are firmly rooted in the places where people move through every day and are prone to both crisis as well as unexpected surprises. He creates stages and situations which are documented for further communication and discussion.

Webb is the opposite of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. He does not haste around the world without stopping to look around, but finds his sites and projects in a mix of tangled thoughts and observations. The thoughts and observations are untangled and placed so that they later can be detached from the site, and retold as short anecdotes or stories. Since so many cultures have lost the ability to retell long detailed stories, passing it on from one person to the next, the actions Webb conducts must be simple to have the right of life and survive as anecdotes. This way he caters to his audience in a very emphatic way, almost too emphatic, bordering on obliteration. Since the actions and his reality tweaks are miniscule, they can go by unnoticed, un-detected. If you do happen to experience them first hand, you most likely won’t even know.

During a period of rolling blackouts in 2005 in the Western Cape, the unannounced intervention titled The World Will Listen staged at an exhibition opening went by unnoticed. The subtle hint at this being part of the exhibition, or even a work of art, was the duration 4 minutes and 33 seconds, referencing of course the famous Cage-piece 4'33". Other than that it appeared as just another instance of load shedding. The result: a social wave of exhibition goers moving out of the gallery space to carry on with their conversations.

There is logic in the way Webb’s works hide around the world. The hallmark project being There’s no place called home, also included in the multi stage exhibition project A Proposal for Articulating Works and Places. This work is a series of variations on a theme, much like in many musical traditions. From trees around the world we can at different points in time hear bird calls. These bird calls do not naturally belong to the site, and is in actual fact manifested impossibilities.

Webb’s interference in trees has moved from the autobiographically linked intervention with South African summer birds in Japanese winter trees, during his yearlong stay in Japan, to more complex and charged situations. One version hosted non-migratory Nigerian birds in trees in Johannesburg. The trees from where the sounds were played were in a park with a high population of Nigerian refugees. The sound would be possible to recognise only for those with a memory of the birds, which in turn are memories linked to a place they might never be able to revisit. Much like the birds themselves, they have possibly become non-migratory. Somewhere in Marrakech, a city populated with foreigners, birds will call in vain for contact, in alarm, to mark territory in November 2009. Through a hidden, yet logical track of associations the sound and the location of the trees are linked together. Like so many of Webb’s works There’s no place called home can be moved, but it needs to be transformed, translated and made local. He works with dualities, much like in myths where you have oppositions like good and evil he takes advantage of the duality known – unknown. The birdcalls are completely alien to the situation, as is the audience to the bird calls. Just like with oral history, the parts which are not re-told are just as important as what actually is told. So when the documentation and stories of the different versions of There’s no place called home only address the facts of the piece, the not communicated implications of these facts becomes just as important. By not addressing the associations of the bird calls and the site in depth when retelling the works, they become ambiguous with a tint of secrecy.

There’s no place called home is one of many of Webb’s works which hack into our social reality. He works parallel to the hackers in the digital world. The hacker looks for obstacles in a variety of complex technological structures and solves any problem there might be, to make the structure run as smoothly as possible. No problem should have to be solved twice, at the same time as the hacker realises that there is not only one solution to any given problem. Thus the information about the hack has to be spread through word of mouth for it to possibly be altered and consequently improved. In a similar way Webb creates politically suggestive works without promoting one particular direction of interpretation, he aims for discussion to happen and spread.

Although many of his works require a quite numerous audience for the re-telling of the piece and subsequent discussion to happen and spread, some of his works are more modest in terms of audience numbers. Some of the works are even made for no public audience at all, like the eight second hack into the public address system of a Japanese amusement park titled Saturday Night Can Be the Loneliest Place on Earth from 2005. The audience counted eight of Webb’s closest friends from his year in Japan, a short term stay with a long term effect on his works. The piece was, as so many of Webb’s other projects, unannounced and lives on in the documentation made available by the artist. Another one of these projects are also presented in A Proposal for Articulating Works and Places: The video documentation of Le Marché Oriental from 2008. The building which housed the oriental plaza in Cape Town, a relic from the Apartheid era in South Africa built to house the Indian, coloured, cape malay merchants catering for the population ironically forced away from that same area, was due to be demolished. The gutted building was transformed into a performative space just by being broken into by the artist. The muezzin from the next door mosque was invited to sing the call of prayer, the adhan, in the open space.

Communication is a lead motif in Webb’s works, be it bird calls or calls for prayer, text works or Morse code. Much of his communication is sonic, thus he explores and plays with the actual space of communication, just as much as with communication itself. The sounds that come out of his experiments are not as much ornamental as narrative, and through his sounds the spaces of his works become scenes and stages to be documented and retold.

..........

* A construct made from the description of many of Webb’s projects:

- Le Marché Oriental, 2008: A call for prayer in an Apartheid-era shopping mall a few weeks prior to its demolition, to make way for luxury apartments.
- Scream, 2008: Members of museum staff at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía were invited to scream at Picasso’s Guernica.
- September 1st, 2007: A group of 75 people blind folded taken from their homes through the city to an undisclosed location and led through a series of lifts and passageways until they were seated in a room and a sound concert was performed by Francisco López.
- Untitled, 2006: an unadvertised intervention with light blinking an undisclosed message in Morse code.
- The Black Passage, 2006: a recording of the empty elevator cage descending and ascending the deepest twin-shaft goldmine in the world, broadcast from a wall of speakers installed at the end of a 20m deep, black tunnel.
- The World Will Listen, 2005: 4-minute 33-second power failure instigated at a gallery opening.
- Saturday Night Can Be the Loneliest Place on Earth, 2005: 8-second hack into the theme park Space World parking lot’s public address system.
- Homme Alone, 2005: Books about Morrissey smuggled into the Centre for Contemporary Art Kitakyushu’s library.
- WA, 2003: An imaginary Japanese DJ named Wa was booked to perform at a large Cape Town party where a performance of ear-splitting noise lasted 15 minutes in front of a crowd of over 1500 people.