South African artist Rebecca van Beeck talks with our Editor about her migration online during lockdown and her participation in the experimental exhibition: THE PLOT. 

Interviewer Francesca Gransden  |  Ed YoungMi Lamine  | 25th July 2020

A guest speaker on our talk, Immersive Atmospheres: A digital approach to spatial practice, scenographer, architect, artist and educator Rebecca van Beeck explores how her practice rejects precision, labeling and pigeonholing. Reflecting on her own experiences and the rise of digital art in lockdown, this interview with Francesca Gransden discusses the exciting array of possibilities that can occur when technology intersects with art. 

© Courtesy of the artist and The PLOT Gallery.

Patterns of Failure

Patterns of Failure, Rebecca’s latest online exhibition (22-26 June), explores costume design as an online participatory performance. The final piece in her Scenography Masters degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Patterns of Failure is a culmination of her ample experience spanning across various disciplines. Created on Zoom whilst stuck in her London apartment, these videos work to absorb, confront and reject the pressures to perform – all while performing.

Exploring an “improvisation with the self,” You’re Invited to My Room asked viewers to participate in an improvised costume design performance, using fabric offcuts and other residues of the creative process. We witness her room – come stage, come atelier, come living space – moving through transitions of spatial changes. As with all art that has been created in reaction to the global lockdown, these records map her “immediate history over time and expose private details that are outside of the webcam’s usual frame.” We delve deeper into the process behind this exhibition, what inspired her migration online and how technology might take up a permanent space in her practice: let’s take a look at what we discussed.

© Courtesy of the artist and The PLOT Gallery.

Your background is in architecture, so how and why did you make the move into scenography?

My initial decision to study architecture wasn’t because I was extremely interested in the field. In South Africa, there aren’t many options for degrees that are slightly atypical. I saw it as an opportunity to learn about design and to think about space in a different way. But I think in studying architecture, even from the beginning, I was always looking for what I self-termed as “making space,” I didn’t really know how to define it. I knew that there was something I was interested in, but architecture was my way of getting there. After that, I spent about six years looking for what that other thing is, working in more performative spaces, creating self-made events and running theatre productions. I think my practice has always looked for alternative applications for architecture; although it dictates how I look at the world I’ve always rebelled against the profession. 

With all these different inputs, it’s quite difficult understanding how to use different words to describe the same things, depending on who I’m talking to. I find that my work cuts across these different fields. Each field, for example, architecture and theatre, requires different vocabulary to describe what is ultimately the same thing really. Now I’m starting to reject that, I’m articulating that it’s in the overlaps and the grey areas – breaking out of the boxes – that interests me most. This has all led me to the course I’m completing in the UK right now, and my production of Patterns of Failure.

In your opinion, how does costume design and scenography compare with more traditional visual media? Do you think it’s as powerful as visual art? Is it as accessible and do you feel like it’s quite authentic to you?

It’s interesting, that’s something I’ve found some of my advisors and tutors speaking about, how I am now a costume designer; I don’t quite consider myself as such. Again, mirroring what I was saying earlier, even how to talk about my costumes, becomes field-specific, discipline-specific. So if I try to frame it around the idea of a costume rather than say a work of performance art, I would maybe describe things differently. 

© Courtesy of the artist.

Moving away from pigeon-holing and distinctive labels…

Yes, because one of the things I was doing with the costumes was addressing this obsession with needing to craft something perfectly, which I think holds a lot of artists and makers back from actually doing anything. I don’t consider myself a very skilled sewer, I barely know how to make a pattern, but I understand the basics, and I think that I’ve been rejecting precision so that I could do something rather than do nothing. I think it’s actually very interesting when I look at it, through the lens of digital art and digital media, often computer-based interfaces require a certain level of precision. I can relate this also to my own experience having studied architecture when you draw and draft on a program like Autocad you can zoom into the millimeter. But in reality, if you’re on a drawing board with a pen and a pencil, you can’t. You’re ultimately then looking at something with far more detail than it needs to have. In my costumes and costume performances, I am saying that the flawlessness of digital media needs to be confronted –  maybe even rejected. There’s also a question of accessibility, which is really interesting to me, even relating to this idea of skills. I’ve actually noticed during lockdown, there’s been this resurgence of lower aesthetic values. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Vimeo Staff Picks: (https://vimeo.com/channels/staffpicks) but they’re really fun. There was a period in lockdown where they were promoting a lot of home videos, videos that had been made on people’s cell phones with a low-quality output; it was something so needed in the industry. With this, people who don’t necessarily have access to the same tools or equipment can actually compete. 

© Courtesy of the artist.

It also humanises it quite a lot, rather than alienating us from the human to the digital. It’s finding that space in between that we can all navigate and participate in… 

Exactly, and that authenticity is very important to me, even just trying to understand what that is and how it relates to my work. It means different things to different people. I don’t think I’ve quite overcome the challenge of being pigeon-holed yet, I’m in the process of becoming more confident with acknowledging the fact that my work does overlap between various boxes. 

© Courtesy of the artist.

Coming back to lockdown and the way that it accelerated different thoughts and modes of expressing oneself. During this time you set up participatory zoom calls –  do you think this is something that will permanently become part of your work? Or do you think this is just an immediate reaction to the unprecedented situation we were all thrown into?

Initially, it definitely was. We were forced to work online and I was frustrated by that. I think there was an element of disappointment because I had planned to do something quite different. At first, I was stubborn and resistant to the idea of suddenly having to rework all the initial plans –  limited through online expression. But now in hindsight, I look back on that process and the platforms I decided to experiment with and I actually really enjoyed them. I used three platforms: Zoom, Twitch and a VR space called Mozilla Hubs. I pushed myself to experiment with all three because I had no idea what any of the outcomes would be like. Now that I have engaged with these platforms, I understand the opportunities that online media presents and see myself integrating these processes in my work as I move forward.

© Courtesy of the artist.

I think a lot of different work has come out of lockdown which otherwise we would have never been created or seen. It’s such a history-defining moment and because art is a way to express and reflect history, it’s fascinating to see what was produced.

It has certainly been a process. It provided me intimate access to places and people that would never normally be possible. During the Patterns of Failure exhibition, I did an experimental Zoom performance with two of my friends from South Africa which you can see as a GIF on my website. In this Zoom call, we collaborated to make a costume together. I didn’t know what’d happen or what’d come out of it, but it was so much fun – one friend said it almost felt like therapy. It ended up being a very important moment for me. From it, I had this physical artifact in my room – the basic beginnings of a wearable form – and I kept it hanging up for a whole month as a poetic reminder of the world of new possibilities. That experience was a surprising turning point; it opened my eyes to the opportunity of online experimentation. That has opened up Pandora’s box. I thought: why do we resist engaging with online audiences, or why had I resisted it? Revisiting this idea of having a vocabulary for different fields, considering an audience and a strong narrative in my work is something that has been hugely influenced by my theatre background. Crossing over into the performance and theatre industry, I feel there’s a lot of potential for online experimentation and I’m just scratching the surface.

© Courtesy of the artist.

Speaking of experimenting online, do you think any galleries completed the migration online well? In the Immersive Atmosphere Talk, you expressed that creating an online space requires a completely different mode of thinking. Are there any galleries or artists that did this particularly well in lockdown and what do you think is the biggest challenge that traditional institutions face when navigating the online space?

That’s a tough one. I was being confronted by so many interesting reactions to lockdown – mostly via social media platforms. There’s a South African based theatre company called The Centre for the Less Good Idea, (which is also just a wonderful name) run by William Kentridge, the South African illustrator and artist, and they had a really wonderful campaign called The Long Minute. They asked people who had already collaborated with the space to make simple, one-minute videos that exposed a small part of their artistic process in lockdown. They shared these via their Instagram account every couple of days: just one-minute clips sent to them by South African based artists. They had responded to lockdown with such elegant and immediate simplicity. They are a theatre platform but they work with a lot of artists, who were then able to show this really intimate side of themselves; it inspired others to do the same. Online attention spans are fast and I think they demonstrated a way to embrace that. On the other hand, it’s also interesting to challenge and subvert it – to expose the really boring sides of the creative process. That’s what I was trying to do ‘In my room ~ live stream’, I streamed live from my bedroom for a full day. It was a rejection of that short attention span because I was there from 10.30 am to 8 pm and people could either join for the whole day or pop in and out. It was a confronting piece and probably my personal highlight from my week of performances as I, too, had room to relax and enjoy.

© Courtesy of the artist.

It’s also the rejection of glamourising every aspect of the creative process. It’s interesting to get an insight into the journey towards whatever the end product may be, to absorb that creative process as it happens. 

Exactly right, I think that the sorts of media that an online audience engages with is different from that which would be enjoyed in a gallery – a physical space. It’s quite a challenging thing to seek out new work rather than digging back through the archives and re-representing old art online. It requires a careful curation of suitable material that works well in that world. And if it doesn’t work, then there needs to be a conscious acknowledgment of that and therefore why that’s interesting too, for an audience to see. There are two aspects working simultaneously. I think maybe this is the architect in me speaking. This is why I found The PLOT so intriguing: it wasn’t just the content it was also the space. Ultimately, they have to complement each other.

The PLOT was so simple but so effective. To add to that, were there any other digital artists that inspired you during lockdown? Or was it more of an individual experience that you moved through towards your own expression/work?

I found myself looking at video artists, in particular Maya Deren, an experimental filmmaker from the 1940s. I found myself drawn to video art and video work from the period when film and photography were becoming more mainstream. I’m not sure if I have a rationale as to why, I think for me it was an interest in image-making through film and questioning, for example, my place in it, my body in it.Who I am as a woman, in front of the camera, and what that means when you put that into the context of a webcam. 

© Courtesy of the artist.

I think there’s also a balance to strike during lockdown of using technology, but also trying to remove yourself from screens to stay sane…

Yes, I have a line on my website which I really like. “Challenging the pressure to perform while performing.” When lockdown started, suddenly we were following or being exposed to people online who were making such a good go at it. They were doing such cool things and I was overcome with an intense pressure to do the same. In reality though, I think everyone was thrown; many people found themselves in a horrible depression where it was uncomfortable, disappointing, and not enjoyable.

But that wasn’t represented online…

Online you only show your best self: the bits that you’re really proud of. It’s been very difficult for a lot of people. Social media has that effect where you are pulled into the illusion of someone else’s great life. You have to constantly remind yourself that it is just one side of their lives and one way of representing who they are, and it doesn’t make you look worse, incapable or lazy. I was seeing everyone else’s wonderful, interesting art which made me feel as though I had to perform too. But I fought against that, I thought: I don’t have to be perfect and I don’t have to make something that is outstanding, I just have to make something. 

via GIPHY

© Courtesy of the artist.

The social media landscape is a bizarre but intriguing place. To round off, what are your plans for the future? Are you looking for gallery representation? Where do you see yourself moving towards in a post lockdown world?

I think it’s something that I’m now seriously considering. As I fit into many different boxes – and therefore fit into none – it’s difficult determining how to position myself. I think deep down I am an artist, that’s what I’m most drawn to, but it’s a world that I know the least about. I worked in the architectural industry for 10 years so that’s the space I understand, but it’s also the space I know I don’t want to be a part of anymore, or I don’t want that to be my focus. Now I’m finishing my Masters and while I’m in this interim I’m trying to put myself out there. At some point, I would really love representation from a gallery, but for now, I am continuing to explore the grey areas, the overlaps and the opportunity that the digital space offers. 

About the Artist

© Courtesy of the artist.

Rebecca van Beeck   |  @rebeccalvb  |   Facebook

Rebecca van Beeck is an emerging scenographer and artist from South Africa. Influenced by her background in architecture, her approach links across spatial design, urban and participatory research, stage and costume design, and live and visual art.

Her love for the theatre and performance grew out of many years of searching for what she originally self-termed as making space. She is interested in the relationship between “space and performance”, with the notion of performance ranging from daily patterns of use to theatrical movements on stage. Rebecca considers the design process an improvisation framework for collaboration and collective making.

As a designer, she is skilled in model making, technical drafting and rendering, video editing and illustration software.

Rebecca studied architecture at the University of Cape Town and is currently completing her MA in Scenography at the Central School of Speech and Drama. She has an additional postgraduate degree in strategic brand and business management. She has worked and lived in Cape Town, Stockholm, Zurich, Bangkok, Los Angeles and now London.

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