Q&A ︎︎︎


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OtherNetwork is a platform with a surprising origin story. An unconventional travelling exhibition by a prominent German artist led the organisers to form a deep interest in local art communities on the African continent. This underscored the need to create a forum that links these and other kindred projects across the globe through digital infrastructure. Facilitated by a collaborative network of researchers in disparate places, it has evolved into a fascinating initiative with an impressive interface that embraces fluidity, acknowledges specificity, and ultimately celebrates ground-up art projects that are connected to their local communities. Two of OtherNetwork’s foundational collaborators, Federico Martelli and Samantha Modisenyane spoke to INCCA about what the platform is and how it came to be.

INCCA: Can you give a bit of background to how the idea for OtherNetwork formed and how the founding entities came know each other and collaborate?

Samantha Modisenyane (SM): This is actually Federico’s brainchild. I met Federico when Wolfgang Tillmans’ exhibition was showing at Johannesburg Art Gallery. I was assisting on the project on the Goethe-Institut side. I liked everyone working on the project very much, and I told Federico if he ever [wants to collaborate] on something he should contact me. And in 2021, when he was still conceptualising this project, he invited me to be a part of it and help research artist-run spaces on the continent. Most of the research I did was pretty much online and we used other websites that were already working on their own databases for arts organisations, institutions. So that’s how it started.

INCCA: So Federico you were here in South Africa for the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition (in 2018)?

Federico Martelli (FM): Yeah, I had been collaborating with Wolfgang for many years before and then this travelling exhibition appeared. He said “let’s do it together”, even though I live in Rotterdam and he lives in Berlin, because we had worked on a few travelling exhibitions before. That project went to eight different cities in Africa and one of the main challenges was that ifa [who was funding project] didn’t want to do a packaged show that is the same everywhere. In general that’s what they had been doing for the past 30 years – they put the artwork in [crates] and the exhibition travels without much understanding of the local context. So one of the conditions was that we would travel to the different places, Wolfgang would be there in person installing the show, and each show would be completely different from the other. And we wanted to make sure that we connected with the local art community. One of my main roles in the project was to do a little bit of research. In general we got a lot of help from the Goethe-Institut and we did research independently, establishing interesting project spaces, galleries [etc].

Specifications are difficult to keep. You have artist-run spaces that turn into commercial galleries. Or an art gallery that becomes a restaurant. There’s a lot fluidity in terms of what things are, precisely because of the precarity of the cultural scene.

So imagine, the exhibition runs for five years, and almost every year we were having one or two shows. And when each exhibition was coming to an end, suddenly I found myself with all of these contacts; all these amazing people that we had met. That’s when we offered this idea to ifa. We slowly conceptualised the possibility of creating a real network, talking more about what this could be. And it became more and more clear – maybe not in South Africa – but in many of the places that we visited that there was scepticism towards large institutions, national museums. It felt important that if local artists didn’t feel comfortable showing in local national museums, to [highlight] the strength of bottom-up projects and communities. That was the initial origins of the project.

And then I think very early on we started working with Samantha in Johannesburg because we had met before. In Accra I met with Abraham Tettey, who also became part of the research team and the same with Kinshasa [Lucille de Witte]. Then we met Geoffrey Oliaro in Nairobi through a contact I had met from the previous travel. So those were the four main cities where we had collaborators on location. As Samantha was saying in the beginning it was very much about doing online research, trying to find out as much as possible. An important thing to say is that this started in 2020, so it was really the peak of COVID… We knew that everyone needed work, especially freelancers, as are most cultural practitioners. We have this institution run by government funds, we had this very good idea and now nobody is going to feel weird about a project that we do online. So suddenly it became really natural to start a project where we were all in different places and meeting online. 
INCCA: Could you perhaps explain how you define independent for those who are unfamiliar with the term, what are the criteria for your database?

SM: I think what we were looking for initially were spaces that were funded by artists. In our research and how we characterise different spaces, we understand that artists’ spaces rely on different institutions, collaborators and partners to either exist or grow. But at the core of it are spaces that are managed by artists.

FM: The whole initiative was focussed on artist-run spaces, but then obviously that creates limitations…  so we wanted to make it a little bit more open, understanding that this is a network, so everyone depends on each other. The more that we kept researching, the more that we understood that the definitions of what we consider an independent or artist-run space had to be quite flexible. Specifications are difficult to keep. In many cases you have artist-run spaces that turn into commercial galleries because they need to start selling artworks. Or an art gallery that becomes a restaurant. In a way there’s a lot fluidity in terms of what things are, precisely because of the precarity of the cultural scene. And that is also something that is interesting about the project in itself, that it’s hard to put a finger on what things are.

 People connect with each other based on the different ethics of work in the arts. In this project, the connections that we have always match our ethics and  goals.

But if I was pressed, there’s an issue of scale. Projects that are somehow organic and there’s not such a strong hierarchy, or departments within. When things start to become run more like an institution it becomes difficult to define as independent. For me it’s an issue of scale and contact with the community more than anything.

Recently we had a meeting with the person who is doing research in Chile, now that we are trying to expand into Latin America… there is a project being run by artists but they are very proud to say that they are a “private space” because they want to make sure that people know that they are not depending on the funding of the government. So being private, it can be a way of saying “because I am private I don’t depend on the government, and therefore I am independent”. And sometimes, on the other hand, you can say that if it is private, it is commercial, and depends on the market.

INCCA: Perhaps especially in the context of the Global South, a kind of purist idea of independence is not so viable or sustainable.

FM: I think in a way the idea of independence is an idealist construct. Everyone is dependent on something to survive... I live in The Netherlands and here we have a really strong and robust cultural system of support for artists and practitioners. My practice is independent, because I get to think of projects and try to make them happen by doing funding applications. So there is a level of independence, but obviously I depend on funding. In another place that model does not represent independence because that government represents such a strong presence, or mechanism for censorship. In every context the idea of what is being dependent or independent really changes.

It’s very important for an artist that you are able to support your practice, to support your ideas, but again it depends on the context. One of the points of the project is to facilitate ways in which artists can support their practice. Because it’s not a conversation of saying artists should not sell, we also have galleries in the project. But there are also places where there is no collecting market, there’s not that idea that you would pay money for a work of art to support an artist. Because the project has such a wide scope and range, we try to be very fluid. There are many ways that artists can support their practice, and everything comes from what’s happening locally. That’s why we’re also working with people in South Africa, in Accra, in Santiago. If we can be facilitators for certain ways that art practice can be supported in one way, in another place we can be facilitators in another way.

INCCA: Is it a point of interest for the platform that this interconnectedness is about nurturing each local scene, but also maybe making practitioners aware of the possibilities that exist within global connections?

FM: Definitely, I think that was one of the main observations originally. I worked on this project that took me to different cities, but actually the connections between these cities in Africa was very minimal. That was very strong evidence of the need for creating connectivity. It’s crazy that things need to pass through Europe, even if it’s interregional stuff. Definitely that’s one of the aims.

INCCA: So this is a project that has its origins in Africa, but now you’re looking more at contexts like South America. How are you making those connections, how is it evolving within these other other regions?

FM: Very organic, isn’t it Samantha? We ask around to find someone who knows about the local scene, who is embedded in the alternative scene.

SM: I think to do this work you always have to rely on the people that you know in different places. And in a way it speaks to how people connect with each other based on the different ethics of work in the arts. In this project, the connections that we have always match our ethics and the goals that we have for the project.

INCCA: The related project Interdependence explores how inventive forms of collaborative practice are often born in cities with limited cultural funding and are serving their local communities. Do you have any examples that come to mind?

FM: There are hundreds, but recently Camila Alegria, who is the person who is helping us with research in Santiago, showed us four or five projects happening there right now. It was amazing. People are doing such beautiful things. There is this famous building in the centre of Santiago next the main square [called Portal Fernández Concha]… I think it’s a lot like the centre of Johannesburg, where there are a lot of vacant buildings that were very spectacular in their era but now are a bit run down. The flats have been taken over by a lot of immigrant sex workers. A group of artists from different backgrounds started this project called Espacio 218. They were the ones who said, “we are private”… if you are private you have the freedom to do what you want, so therefore nobody is telling you what to do. And they literally have a project space in this building and are working with the community there. I think it’s amazing.

Independent Network for Contemporary Culture & Art