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Brenton Maart in conversation with artist Siemon Allen

Photograph credit: Goodman Gallery Photograph credit: Goodman Gallery
Artist Siemon Allen exhibited part of his South African music archive at the 54th Venice Biennale earlier this year, and more recently at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. Brenton Maart finds out what drives him as collector, archivist, curator and scholar.

South African-born Siemon Allen seems fascinated as much by forms of communication as by their media of transmission. His collections are the meeting points where his delight in the visual, the aural and the linguistic come together with his feel for the materiality of magnetic tape, postage stamps, newspapers, vinyl records, CDs and the increasingly rare 78 rpm shellac disks. He crafts his treasured collections over years, and research is a constant companion.

Allen was one of three artists invited to exhibit on Desire, the group show curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe for the South African national pavilion (the country’s first at the Biennale since 1995). Taking this opportunity to continue his work with a burgeoning archive of South African music – an interest that started with the purchase of a single Miriam Makeba LP dating back to 1965 – Allen created the installation titled Labels (2011). Here, 2,500 digital labels are housed in a transparent structure 15m high and 4m wide, fixed into a tautly curving plane. From a distance, Allen’s meticulous approach to categorisation is evident: disks from the same record label have the same form and colour, and these create vertical bands, as if they were lines on a graph. The strips of saturated colour, when viewed together, create a visual effect that is partly minimalist, partly op art. It is here where the artist works as mediator between the measured analytical power of the scientific trope, and the generous poetic agency of the nuanced aesthetic. A few steps forward erases the categorical linearity, as it is subsumed into a colour field that fills the visual frame.

Now, stepping right up to the work reveals the detail on the disks – text, images, marks – and bestows to each its value as an archival record of music and memory, as palimpsests of time and place, as marker of politics and people, societies and cultures, and as indicator of the processes of change.

It is also at this close viewing when the installation mechanics become visible, revealed as simultaneously structure, storage and exhibition. It is here, possibly, where the first set of implications for critical archival studies are revealed: this is a body of work that performs differently in different realms; it is malleable, open to reconfiguration and reinterpretation, and sensitive and responsive to variables in its context. It is as much a creator (of intellectual experience through scholarship, of sensual experience through art) as it is created.

Because the items in the collection form the work’s building blocks, Allen is able to adapt the installation for each new space. A few weeks later when I see its iteration at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town, the structure is extended into a large, open spiral, inviting the viewer to step inside.

Photograph credit: Goodman Gallery Photograph credit: Goodman Gallery
In Venice, Allen also installed five works from the series Records (2009–10). Deviating from his norm of exhibiting the actual archive, this is a series of large-scale digital prints made from scans of scratched and distressed surfaces of selected vinyl disks. Allen writes, in the publication accompanying the work, that

“The damage to the record was, for me, a further marking by unknown authors who had unwittingly contributed their history to the object; the image in the print capturing not only the historical audio visually in the form of the lines or grooves, but also the scratches, damage and repair work done by subsequent owners…”

This appears to be a productive new departure in his work, this fascination with the lives lived by the objects.

Brenton Maart: There are different types of collectors: some have subject-specific passions that develop over long periods of time; others collect for reasons of history or association; some collect for research and others for reasons of the intellect; some may have a passion for the act of collection regardless of the object being collected… there must be a host of everyday and astonishing reasons. How would you describe the part of your personality that relates to your life as a collector? What drives you as a collector? What are your primary motivations?

Siemon Allen: My collecting impulse has been directed almost exclusively towards the finding and ordering of various kinds of artifacts that relate specifically to aspects of South African culture and history. So my motivations for collecting can’t really be separated from this larger investigation. Perhaps this has everything to do with the fact that I now live outside the country and find myself conscious of looking from the outside in. This distance has made me aware of the way in which South Africa as a concept is not so much a stable singular thing as it is a complex provisional construct. And this seems resonant with how the archive makes claims to a kind of authenticity while at the same time operating as yet another fiction. I think that all of my collections are in part borne out of a kind of anxiety of loss; a compulsion not to overlook anything, to reconstruct a complete narrative. Yet all the while I know that this narrative is always incomplete and so I collect with a certain awareness of on the one hand the limited framing that I employ, and on the other hand the open-ended nature of any collection project.

BM: What have you noticed (or what could you imagine) to be the key differences between collectors and non-collectors? Could these be two groups of personality types?

SA: I am not sure if it is possible to distinguish between a collector and a non-collector in such a definitive way! As far as collecting things, perhaps there is a spectrum of human impulses ranging from abhorrence to accumulation to a kind of compulsive acquisition. I recall a story told by Bruce Chatwin where he described a man who lived by a simple rule. Every time he acquired something he let go of something, so that the sum of his possessions filled a single small suitcase. Was he then the anti-collector? I wonder if the collecting impulse is just a sublimated effort to deny the certainty of change. Collecting often involves a kind of artificial digging up of discarded things. Collecting requires a certain kind of sustained focus. Also, perhaps all research is a kind of collecting, though a different kind of acquisition.

Since childhood I had an affinity for collecting and organising and a love for listing and naming. I think that things tell stories and that there is something satisfying about finding something almost lost. I think that history is always incomplete and this does not worry me, rather it comforts me. So my collecting is inseparable from a respect for the paradoxical ways in which contingency and purpose can converse.

I do recall that as a child I had an extensive stamp collection, and as a teenager a huge record and audiotape collection that I arranged and photographed from time to time without being conscious of the action as being in any way an artwork. Even then the tension between the visual impact of a single item and a grouping of units in relationship was intriguing to me.  And yes, my fascination with a given item is at once a function of its material aesthetics (the patina of wear on used postal stamps, the rich history of graphic design evident in the record covers, the markings on vinyl records, the particular palette and framing of newspaper photographs) and its historical relevance as an artifact.

BM: Would it be accurate to say that your artworks seem to start as collections, which then evolve through acts of curation, into archives?
Do you see these as three distinct process steps? How do you negotiate them? How does the one inform the other?

SA: Perhaps the various collections each evolve in distinct ways. Still, I think that the collecting, curating, and ultimate archiving for me are not separate, nor are they linked through a linear process. Rather each is completely inseparable from the other. Though each of the collections began with a certain contingency, curating still occurs not only in the ordering, but also in the selection of the artifacts. Configuration is always giving way to reconfiguration. All of the collections have in common the sense that the artifacts, whether stamps, records, newspapers, or trading cards, are carriers of complex information.

To give one example, Newspapers began as an almost unconscious act when I began buying the daily newspapers from major US cities that were then available in coin-operated boxes around the White House in Washington DC. This was 2001 during the Durban Racism Conference and I was curious to see what coverage I could find of the conference in the US press. None of these newspapers were ‘collectables’ as such, and I did not start out to create an artwork.  I had been reading at the time some accounts of the efforts of the South African Government official Eschel Rhoodie in the 1970s to secretly purchase the Washington Star a US newspaper in order to better “Image” the country. So I was already thinking about the power of a newspaper to construct image. In this case an image of South Africa that was externally constructed. One thinks of newspaper collections typically as an archive of issues with significant headlines. This was not my intention, and yet ironically the last paper I bought within this period of the Durban Racism Conference was on Sept 11, 2001. It was a morning edition and therefore showed no indication of the events that marked that date so indelibly. A single insignificant paper became hugely significant. And that interested me.

Stamps was originally an attempt to reconstruct my boyhood stamp collection that had been sold some years back and evolved into an intensive research project where I collected one of each issue while tracing the history of South Africa through the images on the stamps. This evolved still further into a massive installation with over 50 000 stamps spanning 100 years from the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 to the (then) present, 2010. The most recent collection, Records, I think is driven by a slightly different motive and that is an acute sense of a lost history and an awareness of the sheer immensity of South African audio history – both in terms of the audio material and the accompanying graphics, documentary photographs, and text.

BM: Your artworks use actual archival material as building blocks, which then require other specialist material. Why is the trope of the archive so important to you?

SA: I mentioned earlier the archival collections I assemble are emphatically presented as incomplete narratives but as a collector I am the agency of that narrative. I struggle with what part of my studio process is collecting and archiving and what part is an engagement with more formal and aesthetic moves. And they are inseparable. The artistic questions I wrestle with also have much to do with the level of intervention I make on the original archival materials. I am obviously driven to collect, but then how does this action operate in concert with translation or framing in my studio practice? I am interested in how configuration for example can be the most dominant operative in the work. That each specimen remains intact, and yet hopefully meaning is articulated through arrangement and context. It is my hope that small moves can express larger narratives. Archive fever is an interesting term. Perhaps it is about finding something lost. Finding another thing that is lost. Making a third thing by allowing these to converse. I am not sure?

BM: There are multiple layers of value in your work, made infinitely more complex through its engagement with the archive. The archives, including (as they do) rare material are, of course, economically valuable. They are also important in terms of the history and heritage of their cultural application. Due to their temporal scope, they are essential as markers of highly specific shifts. Their significance is intellectual in critical scholarship. Finally, their role as contemporary cultural products leads to an appreciation that many find invaluable.

How then do you, as a cultural producer, mediate and negotiate productively between these very different forms of capital?

SA: As I mentioned earlier, this work has much to do with my sense of looking back at South Africa from the outside and my growing awareness of how cultural artifacts physically travel and through this how information travels. This question of value is also critical in that the use of archival items as “raw’ materials in making art – items, which are often rare and valuable in the non-art collecting market - can lead to some interesting and complicated dynamics. A mint stamp is often (though not always) by philatelic standards more valuable than a torn, damaged used stamp of identical issue. But a used stamp or hundreds of a virtually worthless stamp issues with varied marks and histories massed into a bold swath of colour is more interesting conceptually and visually to me. My record prints were intentionally made from scans of the most damaged rare records. So the intention of the artist in me trumps those of the collector in me. And yet I am very respectful of my original materials and seldom sacrifice the original artifact to make a new work. Perhaps this is why my interventions are small moves – I scan to make surrogates, or if I configure originals in displays that preserve the integrity of the found materials as artifacts. The stamps in the artwork Stamps have a value separate from the value of the artwork. This is true also of the rare records in my Records works. On the other hand, an exception would be The Birds, a woven panel of 16 mm film. With this work I destroyed an actual original print of Hitchcock’s famous film of the same name, to make the work.

As far as the notion of heritage is concerned the Records project has, more than any other, led me to a real sense of urgency to create a database of the material – both visual and audio. It is a cultural history that is not accessible outside a small group of audio experts and I have been interested in sharing information from my collection through a web database at So this is a slightly different format, but one that developed out of a necessity to explore the web as a means of display.

BM: Your works can be read as graphs that track variable changes over time, allowing patterns to develop. This seems to be a conscious attempt to provide some kind of linear coherence – a scientific trope – to selecting, categorising and presenting information and/or material. It is then also through your methodical application of this scientific trope that your aesthetic develops into patterns and colour fields, referencing both minimalism and op art.

Please would you explain how you apply the act of curation to mediate between the didactic, analytical trope on the one hand, and the poetic aesthetic on the other?

SA: In most cases, the aesthetic is a product of a chronological presentation. In fact I am totally committed in each work to a kind of system while knowing this is my own construct. For example, Labels, the gridded wall at the Venice Biennale, was made up of over 2500 digital prints made from scanned record labels from my South Africa audio collection. Labels at Goodman had over 5000. No two labels were the same, which gives a sense of the size of the source collection. In both works the digital prints were arranged in chronological order, but rather than progressing like words on a page, the chronology moved column by column from top to bottom and from left to right. The gridded wall in Venice was 15 metres tall and I was determined that a viewer would be able to see up close labels from each period. Stamps is another example of a chronology where the curved architectural installation begins with a stamp from 1910 and progresses back full circle to 2010. The poetic for me is that there is a kind of ‘accidental’ almost chance design generated out of the chronology. I like this notion that chance dictates the configuration and yet the resultant colour field reads as aesthetic choice. Stamps, Newspapers, Makeba!, and Labels all from afar read like a geometric abstractions or field paintings, but this visual effect is a by-product of an ordering system.

BM: Your installations are highly structured and architectural in the way they create their own spaces. In an interview with Ashley Kistler you describe this as approach as a “room within the room”, somehow connected to Hamlet’s “play within the play”. You suggest that this is a way “to make physical the metaphoric artificial space of a collection”. Please could you elaborate on this point?

SA: The use of a room-within-a-room as a display strategy not only addresses logistical issues of arrangement and bracketing, but also conceptually marks the collection as a kind of (constructed) theatrical space. Historically the act of archiving might be seen as objective and therefore neutral, but in examining a collection of artifacts we now ask about the nature of what is being collected, who is doing the collecting, and with what kind of framing is the material presented. We consider what kind of information is carried in the collected material, but in doing so look both at that which is explicitly shown within the archival collection, and perhaps more importantly what is not. So the room-within-the-room is a frame, there is an inside and an outside. There is one perception from outside the room and one from within. The use of the room-within-the-room strategy exposes the archival impulse for what it is – a framing.

BM: This may be a good time to look more closely at the formal qualities that are so integral to your visual and conceptual language: the architectural trope of your works (in terms of pattern, geometry, tessellation – the design – of your collections on a two-dimensional surface), and also the architectural trope of your installations (the use of architecture principles to create spaces).

How does the form of your construction (in two or three dimensions) reinforce its content?

SA: Though I have used a straightforward two-dimensional grid on the wall as a display option in configuring and presenting collections, a three dimensional (architectural) space allows me to work with notions of front stage and back stage, conceal and reveal, and the idea of the unfolding of information in time. Labels at Goodman, for example, was designed and sited in such a way as to operate at once as a barrier in the space and as an enclosure with an accessible entry point. The reverse blank sides of the digital prints created on the exterior a kind of modernist white grid. Inside the printed side of the scanned record labels is also a grid, but with random colour and densely packed information in the form of label text. So it is a space where two oppositional narratives can coexist. The exterior behaves like an autonomous, rather mute singular object, while the interior speaks to contradiction and multiplicity, through what is an artifact timeline of South African audio history.

Makeba! worked somewhat differently in that here the 300 record covers that made up the collection were inserted into a transparent gridded wall. The iconic image of Makeba read like multiple Warhol-like portraits on the “front” of the curved wall while on the rear of the curved wall the text from the back of the covers was visible. Releases from various countries might have nearly identical cover photographs, but surprisingly the political content (or lack of such content) on the back text varied considerably depending on the geographic location of the release. There was a sense of a front stage image and a backstage story.

BM: How do the architectural tropes function to further your curatorial intention of revealing – within the archive – a hidden meaning, or even creating new meaning?

SA: Architecture is by nature a site for sequential narrative. One experience follows another experience and so forth. So architectural tropes – walls, curtains, enclosures, passageways – all allow for multiple views of the work and a conversation with a given architectural space. For example, for the exhibition at Anderson Gallery, the Stamps display panels were configured in an almost complete circle. They filled the gallery space and blocked one of the two gallery entrances. The structure’s exterior surface was a deep flat black theatrical light-absorbing fabric. The interior was a brightly lit. A grid made of over 50 000 stamps covered the entire interior curved surface. At the threshold of entry into the interior space the stamp details were not legible, so from this initial view the configuration of artifacts resembled a massive curved abstract painting. As one moved clockwise along the curved wall one proceeded through 1910 all the way around to 2010. The architectural allows for this kind of narrative, this progression of reads – from concealed to revealed, from far view to close view, from beginning to end.

Architecture allows for an unfolding of information, the archive as collected is simply an accumulation of individual items wrapped, boxed, put away. In the act of display the narrative is further articulated and for me this is all about the ways in which a viewer’s encounter with the artifacts unfolds.

BM: The circle seems to be a favoured architectural form, where the viewer is almost enveloped within the work. What value does this experience of the circle bring, do you think, to the viewer’s experience?

SA: The circle envelops the viewer and allows for a seamless timeline. The circle is also a way to offer a counterpoint to the existing square or rectangular gallery architecture. So the structure behaves at once as form and as place.

I do not use the circle in my work as a symbol – spiritual or otherwise. For me it is a shape that allows certain things such as seamlessness and a non-hierarchical organisation of parts. I do think that the archetypal presence of the circle is undeniable, and has everything to do with the fact that it turns in upon itself and the beginning becomes the end. That it is the mark you make if you extend your hand and make a complete turn. The circle is part of a cultural language from circling wagons to circular dwellings.

BM: Until very recently, your installations mainly used the archival material from your collections. However, your recent Records deviates from the norm in that it presents large-scale digital prints of the surfaces of vinyl records marked through use and travel. These works, then, attempt to highlight the objects’ lives, vesting importance in their biographies. How did this new exploration develop?

SA: This is true. The digital prints are a departure from the work that is more about the configuration and display of the artifacts as found matter. Interestingly the evolution of that work was surprising to me and came out of my research with some of the more rare and damaged records in my collection. I was struggling to read one of the labels so that I could catalogue it properly and on a whim scanned the label in order to enlarge the text. The resultant images were visually stunning to me and I began to work with the scans to make large-scale digital prints. I had been fascinated by the patina of wear and individual markings on the records. Part of the curse of collecting is that you may find one of a type, but every example will be different, each will carry a different history. This is intriguing, because with all of these mechanically reproduced things – stamps, newspapers, trading cards, records - they begin the same in the factory, indistinguishable. But they go out into the world and when collected they are brought back together scarred and marked and richer.

BM: In the field of critical archival studies, one of the key activities is the development of methods to increase the agency of the archive; to make the archive work more effectively, more powerfully. One possible method is to allow the archive to speak for itself, through its biography. If this were possible, what changes do you imagine this may herald for the field of critical archive studies?

SA: The dynamics of collecting are fraught with meanings that are particular to a given cultural circumstance. For example, if archival material has been recovered after having been subjected to censorship or systematic destruction, or if there is a sense that the past might be erased (literally) in order that a controlling political body might construct an official history, then the drive to discover and preserve archival material takes on a particular kind of urgency. When collecting of archival materials is seen within the context of a reclaimed history then the project goes beyond the actions of any individual.

The documents produced during the TRC are examples of how the archive can be politically current and profoundly relevant. There was a retrieving of history in the process and I think a sense that the necessity for retrieval is an ongoing process. Archival material is always inscribed by particular viewpoints for particular purposes.

Significant that many of my collections are assembled out of items that were acquired outside South Africa so this makes one think of a kind of returning – a reassembly – the things have travelled and are reassembled. I like to think about the records being pressed – dispersed, lost damaged, and then being returned to the original context. The music begins in South Africa and it travels.

Photograph credit: Goodman Gallery Photograph credit: Goodman Gallery
What seems interesting to me is that the collections have been for the most part mirrors of collecting practices that are socially acceptable – conventional collecting practices – stamps, old newspapers, trading cards, records. In fact part of the way I understand the work is in a kind of tension with the parallel universe of the conventional collection. My military trading card collection project had everything to do with a reflection upon the curious dynamic of how “war” bubble gum cards acted as propaganda to young collectors. And how stamp collecting particularly in South Africa reads as a quaint, even colonial pastime. I am profoundly aware of how records that I collect come to me often through what has become an international market of buying and trading, and yet so many of the items I acquire show marks of heavy use. So there are two collecting practices in play – the original owners who clearly had at one time collections of music that suited individual taste, and now collectors such as myself who collect out of a passion for the music as well as a keen interest in its historical context.

Siemon Allen has also been blogging about South African music at Electric Jive for the past year

His most recent post delves into the early roots of Maskanda. All the tracks come from his archive of South African audio, and most of them are from 78 rpm records. The link to the blog post is: If you would like to download the music the links are:

Maskanda Roots Vol. 1 1927-1952

Maskanda Roots Vol. 2 1954-1964

Also an earlier post covers rare tracks by Miriam Makeba (Miriam Makeba - Tracks Less Travelled 1958-1998)


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