Bogosi Sekhukhuni, Using the Internet as Mothership Blueprint

Alice Inggs

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For Web 2.0 artist and 2017 Net Prize winner Bogosi Sekhukhuni, the “pre-technocratic” web offers an opportunity to redesign the interface between reality and virtual reality; individual and collective identity.

Sekhukhuni’s formative experience with what the Internet could offer was with an early South African free instant messaging service called Mxit, which allowed teens with access to a cell phone or computer to chat with their friends one-on-one, or make new friends in Mxit’s public chatrooms (a kind of proto group chat). It was here that Sekhukhuni first began to formulate his particular understanding of the Internet as multi-layered systems of connections, through which one is able to communicate with others at such speed that it becomes like telepathy.

Sekhukhuni has held onto this utopian conceptualization, despite a deeply personal online communication breakdown: at age eighteen, after connecting for the first time with his absent father over Facebook, his father blocked him. This interaction generated one of Sekhukhuni’s more well-known pieces:
Consciousness Engine 2 absentblackfather (2014), a series of “absent father bots,” software applications that run automated conversations—imagined by Sekhukhuni—between father and son avatars, similar to characters in video games. As well as touching on issues of abandonment, wish fulfilment, and South Africa’s history of failed social engineering through segregation and migrant labour, Sekhukhuni’s bots also address questions of consciousness and artificial intelligence.

Sekhukhuni is particularly interested in the discourse around AI and the ways “open” spaces on the Net might be co-opted through site buyouts or government involvement. His work reflects the idea of cyberspace as an almost transcendental realm where universal languages of code, human consciousness, and connection are spoken. For Sekhukhuni, cyberspace presents challenges to current notions of identity. After all, what happens when everyone’s appearance is all pixels, Pantone codes, and ones and zeroes? In this space, it would be possible to not only recode the rainbow, that is, rework the tired idea of South African multiculturalism, but also to rework conceptualizations of time and space: recode knowledge systems to better represent and connect all of human history and philosophy.

These kinds of questions and possibilities are central to Sekhukhuni’s practice. His work, which has what can be termed a “Tumblr aesthetic,” often presents as a millennial acid test: the multimedia and mixed metaphors; the quasi-spiritual slant; the multiple foci all challenge viewers. The medium, it turns out, is not the message. Into this steps Sekhukhuni who sees the artist’s job as that of a guide through the Net.

O.I.C Bath (2016), a video presented on Sekhukhuni’s collaborative Open Time Coven portal (a website described as “a visual culture bank and research space”), a camera pans across a could-be archaeological discovery. Sun visors printed with ruins top a mound of dirt inlaid with silver foil in the shape of an ankh cross. The video is low-quality and has a blue vignette edge, paralleling new age spiritual videos. “Close your eyes and forget about the world,” intones a voice. “Rise up and exit the bath.” Sekhukhuni’s explanation for the piece runs thus: “O.I.C Bath is an archaeological dig of an ‘Energy Bath’ created and used by scientists of the Order of Infinite Circles. The bath has been re-opened to the public and provides vibrational healing through a sound therapy recording based on a specific frequency that encourages calm, meditative states. This treatment is intended to promote Higher Self awareness.” One could mistake this as a parody, but Sekhukhuni’s work is, for the most part, absent of self-conscious millennial irony.

Rather, Sekhukhuni’s work favours self-actualization through collective knowledge and connection, which might seem odd at a time when disconnection, self-absorption, and “antisocial media” are buzzwords, despite all the ways humans are able to connect. It is perhaps this outlook that prompted European curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets to include Sekhukhuni in their 89plus project, which brings together artists born in or after 1989, the year the World Wide Web first emerged; won Sekhukhuni the Net Prize; and earned him a residency at Google where he worked on “uploading himself to the Net” via mapping his genome.

Sekhukhuni works to redefine reality, overcome death, and discover the meaning of life and consciousness, reimagining the divide between virtual and IRL as a two-way street. His
Open Time Coven investigates “emergent technologies and repressed African spiritual philosophies,” although Sekhukhuni does not see himself as an Afrofuturist. Where the Afrofuturist imperative is to recode, rework, and speculate, imagining possible futures, Sekhukhuni’s future is not some distant dot on a linear scale; it is right now, and he is already renting cyberspace in it.
—Alice Inggs

The Internet can be conceptualized as medium, performance space, platform, echo chamber, critical arena, space, place, sphere . . . How do you see the Internet with regards to artistic practice and praxis?

For a while I was interested in the analogy of the Internet as a body or grouping of bodies, moving through time. Now it’s mostly a source of extreme anxiety, even though I rely heavily on it for different kinds of information.

The Internet is often seen as limitless in possibility, but what, in your opinion, are the limitations of the Internet for an artist?

I think the Internet is more liberating than limiting for artists. There are structurally racist problems with the Internet relating to its ad revenue-based business model and how that influences search algorithms, and challenges over cultural capital, but as a visual and text-based technology, the artists, designers, and programmers are really at home on the Internet.

How do you understand materiality with regards to art online? Does materiality matter?

Materiality is very important. The idea that art that exists online rejects or consciously challenges materiality in art isn’t interesting. A lot of what we do online circles around representations of objects and figures of desire.

What tools do you use and what is your process for creating digital art?

I use computers, cell phones, cameras. My whole process is driven mainly by intuition; I try to encourage mental states where I’m able to quietly observe and act upon visions that make themselves apparent in my mind.

You have described the Open Time Coven as investigating “emergent technologies and repressed African spiritual philosophies.” Do you see yourself as an Afrofuturist?

No. I don’t endorse Afrofuturist principles even though, at first glance, it may look like there are similar concerns. I’ve begun to draw specifically from ideas that exist in my cultural heritage. There are philosophies in Bantu history and spiritual knowledge that can contribute greatly to understanding our present pre-technocratic world.

Is the conservation and recognition of digital art important to you, or does the constant “updating” of the digital space preclude conservation?

Everything on the Internet gets archived, so conservation is still a big part of the digital space. In general, there needs to be a shift from the web 2.0 etheric and emancipatory rhetoric about the Internet. There is much about Internet online protocols and consumer culture that reflects our IRL white reptilian capitalist systems.

In your opinion, should the traditional art world recognize digital work, or is recognition more important with regards to online views/hits, users, shares, etc.?

The traditional art world has recognized it; there’s a rise in museum shows focused on new digital practices, and more learning institutions recognize post-Internet practices in their curriculum. Maybe collectors are a little slow to acknowledge digital work, but the idea of digital or Internet-related art is now part of mainstream popular culture.

For you, is the Internet a homeland or a diaspora of the world?

It’s more of a mothership blueprint for any community to utilize for the preservation and proliferation of their culture and inter-communication.

The Internet provides endless material to cut and paste, but how does a digital artist produce meaning in this context? Is meaning the goal? Or is questioning more important?

Meaning is co-created with the audience. The artist might draw from an online lexicon of “inside jokes” and cultural references to produce novel meaning or to expand on a conversation. There is meaning in questioning as well. It doesn’t have to be self-conscious; sometimes the everyday navigating of a practitioner brings to light meaning and points out conditions that could be different.

Njabulo Ndebele, quoting T.T. Moyana, has noted the problematic relationship between art and objective reality in South Africa where “life itself is too fantastic to be outstripped by the creative imagination.” Do you agree with this statement? Or does the digital world provide ways to outstrip, or at least reimagine, the spectacle of reality?

The creative imagination is not there to outdo reality, but it does affect and drive it. Life is fantastic because of the imaginative innovations people make. The digital augments and expands what we accept as “real” reality by opening contexts for communication that we haven’t encountered before. Today we process and communicate in more expanded ways than before, because the channels increase in diversity with every new technological advancement; Skype feels different to WhatsApp, which feels different to Instagram direct messages . . . feels different to being in the same space with someone you’re talking to.

In the context of sampling and splicing that characterizes digital art, as well as the de-territorialized “non-place” of cyberspace, do arguments of authenticity, origin, and cultural ownership and representation hold any weight?

I’m interested in a Khoisan philosophy I came across that doesn’t acknowledge intellectual property and ownership as a worthwhile thing. To me, there is something radical or liberating about that thinking and, although it obviously isn’t compatible with our way of life, it’s an interesting challenge to me of what cultural and intellectual ownership can be. To sample shouldn’t automatically bring into doubt authenticity. It’s a legitimate artistic device and dialect that, to me, offers more complex opportunities for meaning and communication.

How does working digitally change the way you approach the creation of an artwork?

I don’t consider myself a “digital artist.” My choices of materials and format are informed by what I see around me.

My practice is driven by a need to address the present moments I find myself and many others in. I’m interested in the traditional role of artist as a spiritual guide or intermediary for the most valuable aspects of ourselves, our feelings, and our subconscious god-self.