Siemon Allen is possibly all of the following: artist, collector, archivist, audiophile, conceptualist hoarder, Durbanite, expatriate, prankster, rehabilitated Hardy Boys reader and REM fan, diligent correspondent, and – yes – nerd. He is also really tall and affable. No pretence whatsoever.
Currently based in Richmond, Virginia, where he is a visiting professor in the Department of Sculpture + Extended Media at Virginia Commonwealth University, Allen is one of three South African artists appearing on the South African pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. It is a major accolade, deserved too, notwithstanding the details surrounding the commissioning process that led to his selection, alongside fellow exhibitors Mary Sibande and Lyndi Sales.
Allen is presenting two projects, both of which reveal his profound interest in local music and audio. Some biography.
“I have been collecting records since high school,” Allen told me in an interview last year, shortly before his star turn at the Joburg Art Fair, “and think that I am drawn to both the music and what I would regard as the audio carrier/object – the discs, the packaging etc.”
“Some of my earliest memories of playing around with my records come from when I was about 15 or so. I would lay them all out in a series of grids across my bedroom floor, almost like an installation. The first time I made an ‘artwork’ with one of my CDs was in 1993 when I exhibited “Compact Disc” at the ICA in Johannesburg. The show featured a number of display works with artefacts culled from my own middle-class experience, including my childhood stamp collection, a set of Hardy Boys books, Doc Marten Shoes and an REM CD.”
Kendell Geers described this display as “a penetrating and incisive social critique comparable in contemporary terms with Hogarth”.
A continental change of address has not altered his interest in music or the habit of digging through second-hand record stacks in thrift stores. It was while rummaging through one of these piles that he one day unexpectedly found some records by Miriam Makeba and began listening to them.
Siemon Allen, His Master’s Voice, 2010, Epson HD ink on Hahnemühle Museum Etching Fine Art Paper on Sintra, 78″ x 78″, gordonschachatcollection
“There were a number of other South African artists that I had been listening to over the years – Philip Tabane, Malombo, Sipho Gumede, Kalahari Surfers, Lesego Rampolokeng – but with the Makeba records I was intrigued with how the liner notes often carried political, anti-apartheid messages. I became interested in how her music and image operated in creating a broader awareness of apartheid for an international audience.”
Drawing on his extensive collection of her recordings – 8 rpm discs, vinyl records, singles, 4-track reel-to-reel tapes, 8-track cartridges, cassette tapes, compact discs, and a number of other rare items such as a steel and acetate demo recording – he created a large installation, which he titled Makeba! (2007). This project in turn led Allen to expand his collection into other South African music, examples of which form the basis of his two works in Venice.
“My South African vinyl collection has grown to be quite extensive,” he told me. “I must have about 800 LP records, maybe 500 singles and at least 600 78 rpm shellac discs. It is the damaged and worn shellac discs that I have been most interested in recently.” He initially made three detailed scanned enlargements of individual records. Clive Kellner, an old friend from Durban and curator of collector Gordon Schachat’s art collection, liked what he saw. He asked Allen to expand the series, who then produced 12 large-scale reproductions of rare and damaged South African records for exhibition at the 2010 Joburg Art Fair. Five of these prints are currently on show in Venice. “Ironically most record collectors throw damaged records away but to me they were the most appealing.”
Siemon Allen, Zon-o-phone, 2010, Epson HD ink on Hahnemühle Museum Etching Fine Art Paper on Sintra, 78″ x 78″, gordonschachatcollection
Mahala: Which particular five ‘Records’ prints are you showing in Venice?
Siemon Allen: I will be showing Tempo, Better, Rave, His Master’s Voice, and Zonophone.
Will it be the same scale as seen at the Joburg Art Fair?
Yes, they will be the same scale: 200 cm x 200 cm x 5 cm. In fact they are from the same print edition, which is a limited edition of 2 + 1 artist proof. Gordon Schachat purchased the South African edition and those were the twelve prints on show at the Joburg Art Fair. I am showing five of the 12 from the artist’s proof edition in Venice.
When the work showed in Joburg last year, what sort of responses did you personally receive?
The response was very positive. Many viewers commented on the scale of the prints and were curious about how they were produced. Quite a few viewers assumed that they were three-dimensional objects and could not believe they were prints – hence the tendency to touch as if to confirm the nature of their surface. The images are printed in two sheets on an Epson 44” HDR inkjet printer and each is heat mounted onto a single sheet of Sintra. I also received many comments about how the scanning process produced such detail remarking on the scratches and wear. Often scanned dirt and scratches were mistaken for actual blemishes.
There were also many questions about the sources of the prints. As you know they are all scans from my collection of South African audio. And it was interesting to see how many people were unfamiliar with the artists, the labels and the general audio history the series refers to.
These conversations affirmed for me a related project that I was working on simultaneously – that is a non-profit visual archive of the South African record collection in the form of a searchable database and website. See www.flatinternational.org
Siemon Allen, Tempo, 2010, Epson HD ink on Hahnemühle Museum Etching Fine Art Paper on Sintra, 78″ x 78″, gordonschachatcollection
The ‘Records’ work has no audio component, as I understand and encountered it. Have you ever considered incorporating an audio element?
Good question! I go back and forth on this. It is odd that the ‘Records’ prints and many of the works that developed out of the record collection do not include sound. Considering that I have over the years made audio works and that I am very invested in the sound from this archive whether that be music or speeches or other audio material.
Like the woven videotape that contains information that is inaccessible, the Records prints do refer to sound, but essentially are silent images. In some ways the sound is many times removed from its ‘original’ utterance. First in the recording studio where the artist is framed by the engineer, turning the ‘single voice’ into a mass-produced, commodity object. Then in the art studio where that object is re-framed and turned into an image. The image now sits in an odd position referring not only to the artist, their music, the records that they produced, that were consumed, collected and moved all over the world; but also to the loss of that history and the ‘original’ sound.
I have original in quotes because there is much debate on what constitutes original in recording theory. Some advocate that there is no such thing as an “original sound”. In other words all generations of the sound are themselves ‘new’ individual sounds. That a recording bares some resemblance to an earlier utterance is an illusion constructed by the recording industry – remember “audio fidelity”, etc. By further re-framing the sound object in the prints, in some ways, I hoped to allude to this philosophical debate.
Siemon Allen, Rave, 2010, Epson HD ink on Hahnemühle Museum Etching Fine Art Paper on Sintra, 78″ x 78″, gordonschachatcollection
But still I am ambivalent about the non-inclusion of the sound in the actual installation and so have made some of it available at the flatinternational website where it can be accessed in a research context.
I have also explored the idea of including sound with the ‘Makeba!’ (2007) installation in the form of a user-accessible iPod that acts like a jukebox in the gallery space. For the most part though, I have been interested in the images and text that accompanies the audio material. Much of my work developed from the collection deals with the audio commodity as carrier of information that operates as supporting document or subtest to the sound. Finally, there is something really important to me about the silence of the prints.
Aside from ‘Records’ what else will you be showing in Venice?
A new installation piece. It is an opportunity for me to work with the particulars of the space, which is essentially a tower with extreme verticality that has an open wooden staircase. The building itself – the Torre di Porta Nuova at the Arsenale Nuovissimo – is an incredible site and was built in 1811, and for that reason does pose some logistical challenges
The ‘Labels’ installation is a 13.5-meter high, 3.8-meter wide semi-transparent curtain supporting a staggered grid of over 2500 digital prints (125 x 125 mm each) of scanned record labels. From afar the work will appear as a tapestry conversing with the extreme verticality of the space and partially masking the original, now-unused wooden staircase. Up close the curtain will reveal itself as a configuration of scanned labels. The work functions as a historical record, a chronological discography of select labels from the entire archive of South African audio. As one looks up or “back in time” the textual information on the labels will begin to go out of focus and recede, only to be replaced by the colour-field pattern.
This work is a revisit of an earlier installation that consisted of Makeba labels and was exhibited at Bank Gallery in Durban in 2009.
Siemon Allen looking at his work Tempo, 2009, Epson K3 archival ink on Epson Velvet Fine Art Paper, archival tape, 80″ x 80″, gordonschachatcollection
You will be showing alongside two other artists, Mary Sibande and Lyndi Sales, which does change the display dynamic. To what extent do you involve yourself in, or stipulate criteria for the display of your work?
I did not stipulate so much as think about possibilities and offer these as options to the curator, Thembinkosi Goniwe. The space is not a typical white box and the unique architecture with multiple spaces has presented the participating artists with some interesting opportunities to converse with the site. I made a number of proposals but was also aware of the other artists’ potential three-dimensional needs and so proposed concepts that tended to engage the walls.
When you were first asked to appear on the show, how did you feel? Happy, elated, went on a drunken binge – everyone seems to handle good news differently.
I am totally superstitious about getting too high (or low) over things! Good luck becomes bad luck, bad luck becomes good luck, you know! I was of course humbled to be asked to represent South Africa in this way. I have for sometime been doing work about the image of South Africa as constructed through various artefacts and so I was honoured to have the opportunity to present that work in this context. Work that I felt was specifically about an aspect of the country – in this case artefacts from South Africa’s audio history.
With regards to the press coverage of the appointment of Monna Mokoena as commissioner, I’m curious, have you followed any of the coverage?
I had been made aware of some of the press by friends and don’t know where to start to comment in a concise and sensitive manner. I understand much of the anger and suspicion of course and respect that everyone has the right to his or her opinion and feelings. It is a highly charged situation. Like all controversies this one becomes a site for all kinds of emoting about issues that are deeper and more complex than the situation that catalysed it all in the first place. There are valid questions out there but there is also quite a bit of misinformation. I do not presume to know anyone’s personal motives and it seems as if the commercial and curatorial worlds are in a complex dance in any venue. All I can do at this point is to do my best to contribute to a great exhibition and to represent South Africa to the best of ability.
Siemon Allen, Better and Tempo, 2009, Epson K3 archival ink on Epson Velvet Fine Art Paper, archival tape, 80″ x 80″, gordonschachatcollection