“people know a lot of facts – but to the point where they’ve almost become quite numb to a lot of the realities we have around us. I think that’s where our work starts becoming very influential. If we’re clever, or innovative with what we produce, then that’s what will get people to respond to it in a productive way. If I see another statistic on a death rate from a disease … it’s meaningless; I don’t flinch at all”
Interview with Damien Schumann, freelance artist
30th August 2014
VH Could you just tell me something about your work? What your practice is?
DS I work as an artist; mostly photography is my medium, but I’m not restricted to that – I’ve also ventured into installation art, a little bit of video, writing and audio. And all of my work is focused on social and humanitarian issues; and ideally I try to structure exhibitions that can be used for advocacy communications and social mobilisation purposes.
VH And how much of your work … would you say is associated specifically with health issues within that?
DS The projects I took on in the beginning of my career were all focused around tuberculosis and HIV… if I was to look at the span of work it would probably cover about half of my projects. And then I’ve looked at other work that is not directly related to health, but there is some sort of link – like looking at stigma, and then stigma related to HIV and tuberculosis, and schizophrenia, those kinds of things.
VH Do you think that the work that you do has an impact on people’s health – a direct impact in any way? Do you aim for a health outcome, or is it more about a social outcome?
DS I suppose it’s a little bit of both. The catch is that it’s very difficult to have a measurable outcome. So, to give an example, I’ve done some advocacy campaigns where we’ve managed to raise money that’s gone towards the cause, but then it’s very difficult to track how much of that money actually ends up influencing the cause itself. And then, on another scale, I’ve worked with individuals that have come to me afterwards and spoken about how they were moved and influenced by the work and project, but it could also just be their opinion, there’s no hard evidence to prove it. But I definitely like to strive to create work that has some sort of impact and feeds back into the cause that I’m working with.
VH But you’re not taking a therapeutic approach when you start out with a projects; it’s much more about a political approach I guess?
DS Yeah. And there’s also a personal motivation. A lot of the work I take on is because I’ve got a thorough interest in the topic – I want to know what whatever I’m looking into is all about. But essentially I find it’s very difficult to entrench yourself in content like that and only be a consumer – it feels wrong. You want to give something back.
VH What relationship do you have to research and academia in the work that you do – if any?
DS It definitely forms a strong part of my work; just because I feel the better you know a subject, the better you can represent that through your visual medium. My background isn’t very strong in the academic sense so I don’t personally have a very elaborate history of research; but what I have done in the past is collaborate with experts in the field that I’ve been working in, so I’ll gather my knowledge from them and then interpret it. And I just finished a Masters in Documentary Arts; it was an RPL [Recognition of Prior Learning] programme, so based on my work experience. And that had a research component to it. So in the last two years I’ve started doing academic research; but to be honest I don’t like it very much [laughs].
VH Is there anything useful about it? Is it a way of documenting what you’re doing for another audience, or…?
DS There’s definitely relevance in it – the knowledge and the findings that come out of it are very important. But I’m very lost on the conformity of it, and the regulations. I love creative writing, but academic writing would literally drive me to suicide [laughs]. But the content I find very interesting; well, at least qualitative; quantitative I don’t think I could get into.
VH It’s interesting that creative writing is something that we’re ready to absorb, but that academic writing is so often so bad, actually, that it’s quite off-putting.
DS I think it is. I almost get the feeling that nobody wants to get caught. So they’re trying to cover their footsteps so much all the time that there’s very little that one can find intriguing in it.
VH I’m interested in what people feel is useful evidence, and how it gets presented; I feel quite strongly that the work that both of us do is evidence.
DS Yeah, but I think evidence is only worth what you do with it. What’s the point of knowing that you’ve got a 10% murder rate in the country if you’re not going to say ‘let’s try and drop it to 5’? I think maybe more than evidence, I’m starting to go into statistics and results now. I just feel, in general, people know a lot of facts – but to the point where they’ve almost become quite numb to a lot of the realities we have around us. I think that’s where our work starts becoming very influential. If we’re clever, or innovative with what we produce, then that’s what will get people to respond to it in a productive way. If I see another statistic on a death rate from a disease … it’s meaningless; I don’t flinch at all.
VH So do you feel the work you’ve done has had any influence on policy?
DS Yes. It has had influence on policy; but not independently. So, I can’t take credit for a policy-maker seeing my work and thinking ‘bloody hell I need to change this’. But I’ve been in collaboration with activists and lobbyists, and – not taking out of account the fact that they could have seen a related campaign on something the week before, or heard something at a dinner table – yeah, we’ve definitely had an impact. The Shack exhibition was definitely the most successful.
That assisted policies relating to HIV in two countries. In Holland I was working with the KNCV Tuberculosis Foundation, and they managed to get the Dutch government to increase their spending by 50% over three years; so it went from 40 to 60million Euros. And then in Australia I worked with Results International. And with them we managed to get the Australian government to agree to one of their Millennium Development Goals, which was the Debt2Health swop with Indonesia: the agreement there was that Australia would drop a $70million debt owed by Indonesia on condition that 50% of that was spent on public healthcare through the Global Fund for TB, Malaria and AIDS. I think that that’s probably the biggest achievement we’ve had so far.
VH I associate campaigning often with quite narrow concepts being presented in quite a narrow way. But what struck me about the art that you make is that it’s not didactic. It’s more about representing the whole experience of being somebody living in a context where they are likely to contract TB. And the reason it seems to work is that it’s not a narrow concept – its success is about the fact that it embraces a much broader understanding of the condition.
DS A lot of my work really just presents what is there. But I present it to people that are not familiar with that environment, and I think the trick in the media is just to present it in a way that holds someone’s attention – and doesn’t get lost in the flood of other media which is around us every moment of every day.
VH And how do you feel your work sits with the mainstream of arts practice, if there is such a thing?
DS It hasn’t sat very well at all [laughs]. I find I tread a very awkward line. In the sense that – if you’re going to go into the fine art world, particularly the high art world, they don’t, very often, want to have a cause associated to the work. They’re far more interested in the concept and methodology behind the work. And particularly in Cape Town (not necessarily internationally), I find that the art world is quite insular, so it’s a bit of a competition to outsmart, outwit, claim something as yours …
VH Within a peer group?
DS With an extended peer group, yeah. And it also comes down to exclusivity; your work gets judged based on where you show it, who’s buying into it – and very little of my work gets shown in the confines of a white-walled gallery. It doesn’t appeal to that kind of audience. That said, I do still approach the industry and try and get stuff out there but it hasn’t been greatly successful. Particularly locally, actually. It’s had more success overseas, for some reason. I think South Africans are exhausted with social issues and history.
VH But it’s interesting to hear that, because I was struck when I came here by the fact that you have a tradition in South Africa of social engagement in the arts which I think is different from the UK tradition. People like Kentridge, Goldblatt – the big stars – are very socially engaged …
DS Well the names you mention have come out of the struggle period, the 80s. And I think at that point it was a form of rebellion. But if you look at the artists today … a lot of artists are starting to look more at identity now, which I think is the birth of democracy kicking in, people trying to work out where their footing is. But – just thinking offhand – with the exception of Zanele Muhole, I can’t think of anyone that’s really pushing a cause at a high art scale. They’re all about making statements and expressing their opinions but there’s no real driving cause …
VH The argument against that is that the arts are there not to be presenting a cause but to be challenging all assumptions; it could be said that your job is to represent the fact that none of these politics are exclusive, and the truth. When you are very specifically attached to a cause I suppose that’s what you lose – that distance. But on the other hand when there are so many important causes to be fought …
DS Yeah, I think so; otherwise it’s maybe it’s just a lack of empathy, if you’re not attaching yourself to a cause, if it’s all self-involvement. Maybe running with the theme of identity, that’s all about me, me, me …
VH So the mainstream of arts practice is not comfortable?
DS It’s just difficult because I think these ‘streams’ encourage a mould; if you look at most of the artists that are significant – particularly in Cape Town but also throughout South Africa – they’ve all come through a very specific institution, and got the same education, and they’re producing quite similar concepts of work. And I don’t really fit into that – I’ve got a different history and background; and I don’t have much motivation to conform [laughs]. Which sometimes works against me. I think it’s just a different objective, as well, that we’re exercising.
The other line I walk quite fragilely is with journalism and documentary, because I’m telling stories, but I also don’t conform to the conventional forms of pictures and stories that find themselves in newspapers or magazines. It’s a similar thing I’ve experienced there – a little bit of a clash, where the more journalistic media forms find me too abstract, too arty, and the art world finds me too journalistic. So I’ve kind of lost myself in the middle [laughs].
VH And do you feel you sit with health practice in a similar way? Do you feel your work is accepted in health circles? Do you think that there’s an openness to it, or…?
DS The people I’ve had the best buy-in from are more advocates and activists, people that are really trying to get something across. I’ve definitely got more commissioned work for advocacy campaigns which are using my work to secure resources, whereas I’m actually far more passionate about doing more community-based social mobilisation programmes, but there’s not a lot of money in preventing an issue, only in resolving it.
As far as health goes, again the more conservative circles within healthcare don’t really buy into it, but more and more I’m finding people that do find interest in the work – and in quite a broad spectrum. So I’ve been collaborating with the UCT pathology museum a lot recently, and they love the idea of creating media to get people more engaged with pathologies; and it’s fascinating stuff. I’ve been working with tic [crystal meth] addiction, as an example. The stereotyped visual of someone smoking crystal is of sitting in this dingy room with this ‘lolly’ – and down-and-out … Very few people can relate to that environment and that image; but I think that’s why it’s been so popular – it’s striking but it separates you. Whereas what I’m finding in pathologies is stillborn foetuses from mothers that were smoking tic during pregnancy. And when you start looking at these expressions, you can see pain on their faces. My thinking is that more people can relate to parenthood than they can the dark dingy room, so this visual, in theory, although it could really be sensationalised, could potentially have a stronger impact.
 Damien later adds that ‘Mikael Subodsky started off in social issues but his newer work is more focuses on himself and his experience as a South African. An interesting move considering this conversation…’