Making Space
Published in

Making Space

For Immersive Media in Africa

By Ingrid Kopp, Electric South

“There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.”

- Octavia Butler, Parable of the Trickster

Processes and Values

Electric South happened by accident. I was asked to curate a virtual reality exhibition for the African Futures festival at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg in 2015. I had just moved back to South Africa from New York and was really struggling to find VR work made by artists based in Africa. We ran a VR workshop for African artists during African Futures and during the workshop and exhibition it became very clear that something was needed to be done to make sure that in the future there would be more immersive work by African artists. Goethe supported the first projects that came out of the workshop and we decided to create Electric South as a non-profit organisation. We knew the market for VR and immersive media was small and unstable and we wanted the space to nurture brave, experimental work by first time creators (this was necessarily the case most of the time in Africa) that might not necessarily lend itself to this nascent VR market.

Our model right now involves running an annual residential lab for artists from across Africa, with advisors from Africa and the rest of the world. We then produce or co-produce projects coming out of the lab. Now that there are more immersive production companies in Africa we are hoping that we can pass on much of this work to them so that we can focus on the incubation and mentorship. Once the projects are completed we do the distribution — both for international festivals and for Africa-based festivals and exhibitions. Since there are not a lot of organisations supporting immersive work in Africa we realised that to start with we would need to join all the dots from training >development>production>distribution and audience building.

The immersive media world can be extractive much like the film industry, with many people working for low-pay or for free. This is most harmful to people who are not already in a position of privilege to be able to do this which means that you end up excluding a lot of people. We all lose out when this happens because we are not hearing from the full spectrum of voices and talent. I think this is very clear in immersive work right now because so much of the work feels and looks very similar. Having a focus on the Global South is at least a start but I would like to find ways to avoid replicating this extractive model in the work we are doing with Electric South but we are relying on already existing networks and our budgets are small so there is a lot of work to be done in this area. Models like the Detroit Narrative Agency are really interesting in this regard. There are also some great resources in adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy.

Questions:

How can we ensure that African voices are part of immersive media going forward — both in terms of what gets created and in terms of how the hardware and software functions?

How can we build bridges between what’s happening across Africa and in the rest of the world?

How can we collaborate better across Africa — we have a loose consortium of organisations and individuals working on this challenge called Immersive Africa?

How can we cultivate audiences for this work in Africa?

How can we connect our work to different communities?

How do we ensure that we are doing this work with a focus on equity and inclusion?

Shifts in Approach

“Those who can be clear about supporting the arts not as means to some other end but as ends in themselves, those who can shape the support in response to the gift-economy that lies a the heart of the practice, those who have the wit and power and vision to build beyond their own day: for artists, those will be the good ancestors for the generations of practitioners who will follow when we are gone.”

- Lewis Hyde, The Gift

I was very struck by a talk that games designer Alex Fleetwood gave in 2014 about how to support new kinds of culture. He talks about how games as culture emerged after the founding of buildings and institutions and that you can’t necessarily fit new stuff into old buildings. More is spent on changing an existing building than building it in the first place so we need new buildings and new institutions, and new funders to support them. This resonated with me. There are some institutions that are doing incredible work thinking about new cultural forms and how to respond to them — the work that Sarah Ellis is doing at the Royal Shakespeare Company for example. However, I think we also need to think about what is missing and what requires new thinking, new funders, new buildings.

At first I was just focused on getting Electric South up and running but now I am thinking more deeply about making sure that we are building an inclusive future. I have been very inspired by two recent pieces of research: Making a New Reality by Kamal Sinclair and Collective Wisdom by Katerina Cizek and William Uricchio. Being based in Cape Town, a deeply unequal city in a deeply unequal country, has highlighted how vital the challenges described in these reports are. I feel like I have more focus now on responding to challenges around leadership, blind-spots and how we work with others. Addressing these concerns gives me some ideas about how to more fully participate in civic and social life but I still feel a bit like we are skirting the edges of full engagement. There is also the ever-present climate crisis so I am reading more about ideas around circular economies and trying to figure out how to build a more sustainable strategy going forward. Many of the ideas around co-creation tap into this too, particularly around paying attention to indigenous methodologies.

“Co-creation carries with it a profound respect for each person’s unique expertise, and also the knowledge that we must share both the burden and the liberation of determining our future collectively. There is an urgency to the challenges we face in this moment in history, and no one person, organization, or discipline can determine all the answers alone.”

- Katerina Cizek and William Uricchio, Collective Wisdom

I have always been very interested in how things are valued and how we need to preserve a space for value outside of the market. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift was a big influence in my 20s and I am reading it again now. On a related note, public media is becoming more of a concern to me as so much of it is eroded and as the internet becomes more of a walled garden. It is heartening to see some initiatives to address this, like Matt Locke’s recent Public Media Stack Summit in New York.

Some shifts that I have been thinking about:

Funding process over product: there is so much important work to be done that doesn’t necessarily have a concrete “thing” as an outcome and it would be amazing if more funders would be brave enough to fund this work.

Operational funding: I know I’m not the first to mention this one but much like the point above, it would be so great to have funders trust us to do the work that we do and not have to shoehorn everything into programmatic funding.

Building new institutions for new kinds of culture: I haven’t thought enough about what these institutions might be but I think it is time for new kinds of funders, new kinds of art spaces.

Building climate resilience into all strategies.

Listening: I think a lot of gatekeepers talk more than they listen. I know I do.

Being responsive and iterative: sometimes we get very attached to our five year plans, even when they are not working. It is good to have a strategy, essential in fact, but you have to be willing to let things go if they aren’t working.

Embracing change: this work is about climbing one mountain and then climbing the next. There are no plateaus and each mountain is different. That’s ok.

Solidarity is a verb: this has been on my mind recently as I try to constantly do the work rather than just talk about it.

Interdependence: we need each other to make great things happen. We need to figure out ways to collaborate fairly and openly.

Working across disciplines: sometimes silos make sense but often they just stop us from collaborating better.

Space for unexpected things to happen: you don’t need to plan EVERYTHING. I’ve been lucky that in all my recent roles I have been given the freedom to do little experiments and make space for the unexpected. I think we need more of this.

Accessibility: too many people are excluded from cultural spaces and practice for a variety of reasons. It would be great to see more people tackling this. Making sure that artists get paid properly for the work they do, making sure that calls for submissions go beyond the usual suspects, creating welcoming spaces with relevant programming in different kinds of places, not charging huge entrance fees that exclude people from participating.

Being comfortable being uncomfortable: right now there is a lot of focus on the ways that white people and men have moved through the world making other people bend to their privilege. The conversations that come up around white supremacy and toxic masculinity can be very uncomfortable but I think those of us in positions of privilege have to lean into the discomfort and listen and learn.

Money: I am astounded by the huge amounts that get spent on certain projects and still the artists are often not paid properly. Make budgets to pay speakers and advisors and artists for their work. Don’t spend money on nonsense. In South Africa I have seen much needed cultural money spent on step-and-repeats, dumb award ceremonies and delegations to boat parties in Cannes. It’s a huge waste of money. There is marketing and promotion and there is wasting tax-payers’ money and I think we can tell the difference.

Designing a New Cultural Space

There is something freeing about not having a brick-and-mortar space, it does allow for a degree of flexibility but there are also great things that we could do with a permanent space. I’m thinking about this right now on a very small scale because I want to do things that now require a physical space/studio. I love the idea of having something like Gray Area in South Africa — with space for exhibitions, residencies and classes. I’m also very interested in what William Kentridge is doing with the Centre for the Less Good Idea in Johannesburg, creating a space for artists across disciplines to incubate work and experiment. One of the things that we are really struggling with right now is not having enough space, time or money for people to experiment and push the form. We are fundraising for a creative technologist in residence to help with this but a permanent space with equipment and funding for residencies and other programmes would really change things.

I’m ashamed that I often look outside of Africa for models of the kinds of spaces I would like to see here. There are lots of incredible cultural spaces in Africa but I am really hungry for something that would cover art and technology and be truly rooted in community. A space that would feel as open and democratic as a library and not like something only certain types of people would go to. ArtBuilt Mobile Studios in New York is an interesting model that does not rely on a permanent space but has, as the name suggests, mobile studios that can move around the city. Their community programming is really impressive. Sunshine Cinema in South Africa also have a very interesting model that reaches communities that might not otherwise get to see the films and builds out entrepreneurial opportunities along the way.

Right now we are designing an exhibition strategy for immersive work in Africa that partners with existing spaces. We will tour both our work and work curated from elsewhere to these spaces and in some cases we will leave behind an exhibition kit so that they can continue to run their own VR and AR exhibitions. It is really important to us that we cultivate African audiences for this work — there are so few opportunities to see VR/AR work here — and we know that out-of-home exhibitions are the only real distribution opportunities for headset-based work on the continent. It also gives us the chance to partner with diverse spaces across Africa who already have their own communities and audiences.

I am nearly four years in to my work with Electric South and many years in to working in media and with non-profits and I feel like I still have so much to learn. I struggle sometimes with how to turn values into workable and sustainable strategies and am very keen to hear how other people and organisations are addressing this.

*Making Space essays were commissioned and written in 2019

About Ingrid Kopp

Ingrid Kopp is a co-founder of Electric South, a non-profit initiative to develop virtual reality and other new forms of storytelling across Africa. She produces and facilitates an annual residential lab and is an executive producer on VR projects created across the continent. She also curates the Tribeca Storyscapes programme for interactive and immersive work at the Tribeca Film Festival. Along with MIT’s Open DocLab and Dot Connector Studio, she produces Immerse, a publication for Medium on emerging storytelling. Ingrid started her career in the Documentaries department at Channel 4 Television in London before moving to NYC in 2004 and has been based in Cape Town since 2015. Until the end of 2017, Ingrid was a senior consultant in the Interactive Department at the Tribeca Film Institute. She was director of the department from 2011 to 2015, creating and running programmes like the TFI New Media Fund, Tribeca Hacks and TFI Interactive.

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