I was sitting at the opening of the Windhoek Triennial the other night and this guy was introducing the people who were going to introduce the people who were going to win the prizes. I tend to drift off during speeches, and as I did so, I began to think about the concept of art that wins and art that loses.
As I thought about ‘art’ and ‘competition’, I started to feel deeply glum. The prizes were handed out and it was great to see the winners win. However thinking about the losers and even the artists whose work was not accepted into the Triennial, reminded me of the ways in which my own work has been denounced, ‘objectively’, by some jury or panel as a failure. I have lost the art game before (many times) and it’s not a nice feeling. Particularly when the reason you started playing in the first place, was not really to win.
It has always been an idea that I’ve never been comfortable with. I have always wondered how one can objectively judge something so personal, whilst maintaining some sort of external standard of ‘winner’ or ‘loser’. To select prize-winners is to make a deliberate decision to draw attention to some contributions and to side-line others. It allows judges to communicate how they want the audience to approach and appreciate the exhibition at hand.
Once the prizes were handed out and the drinks and snacks started rolling around, I marched off to go look at the art, still feeling rather morose and mildly outraged that we can even give prizes to art. As I began to look around, the competitive element of the evening slowly melted away and I had a grand old time looking at things I found beautiful, dull, fascinating, disturbing, amusing. Talking about things and in turn, thinking about them I couldn’t help but be caught up with the energy in the room, which didn’t leave me much space to idealistically bemoan the flaws of competitive art-making. The evening simply became too much fun.
You know what kind of energy I’m referring to – it’s that special tingle when art-makers and art-lovers gather, a frenzied sort of recognition, the realization that you’re not alone in thinking art is worthwhile. I felt exactly the same energy at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. This year, I was lucky enough to attend the festival for the first time. It was a little bit amazing. I have never seen such a concentrated amount of people making and interacting with art. I was there for an entire week and came away feeling very exhausted, very small and very inspired.
The National Arts Festival in Grahmstown happens once a year in winter, it lasts for two weeks and takes over the entire student town. It’s big. I mean really big. It’s so big it has tiny festivals, in the festival. Aside from the Fringe Festival, there is the ThinkFest, WordFest, SpiritFest, The National Youth Jazz Festival AND a Children’s Festival. All in one.
It’s just madness, really. In fact, it’s so big, that you don’t even notice the prize-winners. Obviously The Bank Windhoek Arts Festival is not the only arts festival that has a competitive element to it. In fact, most festivals do. Partly because it is a really effective way in which to build an institution that can fund, support and promote good quality art and projects that can reach people. And partly because, let’s face it, when more than one human is gathered – competition is there. It’s part of what makes us so charmingly complicated.
In most festivals you’ll find a few winners, a ‘Best of the Fest’, an artist that walks away with prize money, sponsorship or even an instant career in their chosen field. And yet, festivals give us so much more than prizes, they give artistic communities a platform, a space to connect, to discuss and to inspire each other. Festivals, such as the Bank Windhoek Triennial, Grahamstown Arts Festival and countless others create something that is more than an event, they create an experience that can change you or challenge you. They create an environment of contrast and comparison that allows everyone in attendance to make their own judgements and listen to others.
At the end of the day, your ‘Best of the Fest’ will probably be completely different to the decision of those nebulous judging juries. Because art is as diverse as people are. The fact remains that festivals continue to nourish entire communities and although not everyone can win, this can mean that nobody loses either.
Written by Nicola van Straaten, a dance artist who thinks dance is pretty much related to everything.
The Bank Windhoek Triennial will be on show at NAGN until the 31st October 2014. Since it only happens every three years we thought we would make a big deal of it. Before the exhibition comes down we want to publsh a whole zine dedicated to it. For that we need you! Please send us your opinion, long or short, positive or negative. Send it to: email@example.com or message us on Facebook, even better write on our wall: www.facebook.com/artwolfezine. If you are squeamish or shy, pseudonyms are fine!