Volume 1: September 2014

ISSUE #3: The Art of Not Losing

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.

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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: thefuturewasgreat@gmail.com or message us on Facebook, even better write on our wall: www.facebook.com/artwolfezineIf you are squeamish or shy, pseudonyms are fine!

5 thoughts on “ISSUE #3: The Art of Not Losing

  1. Hello Nicola, I feel this piece you wrote was really thoughtful and deep. Hope the next will be same or even better. Competition is actually a means of survival for many artists….it pays the bills. Lucky the visual arts don’t seem as cut throat as fashion ;-). Looking forward to the next issue.

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    • Hi! Thanks so much for the comment… You are completely right about commpetition as a means for survival, not only for artists but for many professions. Interesting you mention fashion, we’re looking at that in our next issue! Thanks again for reading and hope you like the next issue. Love, the ARTWOLFE team

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  2. Oh, dear. More self-satisfied aerating of a septic tank under the guise of deeply philosophical conversation.
    If essays were photographs, this would be an embarrassing selfie.

    Drift off much during the speeches the guys and gals in the front of the room gave at Michaelis?
    Voicing your opinion publicly is like entering your art into a competition: it is wise to offer something of value, lest you end up looking like a fool.
    So it is we come to the subject of competitions. Art competitions, and the Bank Windhoek Triennial specifically. Last I checked, none of the participants that entered the competition was coerced to do so; in fact, I imagine they all willingly entered their artworks fully aware that there was a chance that they could win a prize. Or not.

    Did you bother to find out from any of them how much they really cared about winning? Did you ask any of the entrants why they had chosen to enter the Triennial? Did you chat to any of the winners about their work? If you had these discussions, how come you chose not to include them in your article?

    And is it not rather odd that once you started mingling with the actual participants and fellow viewers that you realised how positive the energy in the room was? So positive, in fact, it overrode your faux-outrage at how demeaning competitions are?

    I get that you may be trying to work some kind of dramatic arc into your storytelling. Nonetheless, the path you follow to describe your arc feels forced. Your conclusion assumes that each participant considers themselves a loser for not winning (or being selected), a feeling you admit to projecting at the beginning of your story. The piece all smacks of sour grapes and self-consolation. Any chance your work was not selected for the competition by the judges?

    What I am getting at here is that this particular article seems to perpetuate the very attitude within Namibia’s artistic community that your zine wishes to overcome. Your effort is commendable, but will run out of steam unless you respect the footsteps of those who walked before you.
    Ah, yes. You are not the first group of young people to attempt a make-over of the local art scene. Find those who preceded you and learn from them. Listen to the local artists and give their voice an unfiltered platform that is not dubbed down by the drone of your own opinions. Instead, trust your readers to form their own opinions, and to judge each artist and art work for themselves.

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    • Hi Arty Wolf! Thanks for the comment. Our zine is very much still in nappies and no one has come forward to invite us to walk in their footsteps but we’d be quite pleased if they did.

      I didn’t in fact submit anything into the Triennial because I’m not a visual artist nor a Namibian. I know, I’m neither of those things and still dared to air my foolish opinions. But your criticisms are both interesting and entertaining and I’ll keep them in mind for next time. Fortunately, I enjoy looking like a fool in the same way I enjoy a good selfie.

      We do trust our readers to form their opinions, which is why I’m so happy you commented on the article. If you’d like to, we’re doing an issue on the Triennial in the near future and we’re looking for various public opinions on the Triennial. You write really well so if you’re interested in writing a few lines on the Triennial, please email us: thefuturewasgreat@gmail.com

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  3. I entered the triennial, I was accepted, I didn’t win a prize. Nothing new in any of that… but to answer arty wolfe’s questions: No-one I know enters a competition without a tiny little bud of hope that they will be chosen as the winner. No of course we don’t expect to win – but we can imagine the wonderful feeling of being picked as best of the best, and yes… when we don’t win there is a an equally tiny little feeling of disapointment, a slightly resentful glare at the winner and a stab of extra self-criticsm. Ag thats the way it is. We enter the triannial because its the biggest and best advertised, funded and promoted art exhibition on the Namibian art calendar, but we often leave with slightly bitter taste in our mouths – and that is what competition is, for nearly all of the participants.
    Rock on, Artwolfezine…

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