On the resurgence of Cape Town’s counter-project spaces
with Vela + Under
The idea of a project space is not a new one in the contemporary art world. An inclusive, community-centred landing where artists incubate then present their work, outside the confines of profit drive model, project spaces come and go, often adapting once they have addressed the issue/s they initially looked to address. In the second half of the year, Cape Town has become home to two new project spaces: Under Projects and Vela Projects. Featured in this week’s Re:View, after a week-long correspondence, we consider their models and goals.
On the second Thursday of September, Brett Seiler, Guy Simpson, Luca Evans and Mitchel Gilbert Messina welcomed the public in to christen Under Projects with a show titled Pilot. In their own words, “We mostly think about Under Projects as an empty room that’s publicly visible. A space for artists and practitioners to develop projects, shows, works and ideas within, where (unlike the studio) the process of that development is visible to the public and can be engaged by a broader art community.” A fluid space, open to tweaks, compromises and hybrids, Under Projects looks to create room for “engagement, feedback and thinking ahead” that is both led by and centres the artist.
For Vela Projects, run by Jonathan Goschen, the decision was informed by wanting to “work closely alongside artists” as they develop their practices. Public from the end of October, Vela Projects is focused on creating opportunities for the public to engage with unrepresented artists as if they were. Working on a month-to-month schedule and without a permanent space, Vela’s focus is on “presenting exhibitions every couple of months according to venue availability” as well as an artist’s readiness to show.
Co-founded by four practicing artists, Under Projects positions itself as being aware of the kind of art spaces the city needs. Describing the contemporary art and overall cultural scene in Cape Town as one “in recovery”, they saw it imperative to develop a place they and other artists would be excited to participate in and contribute towards.
“The last two years battered an already precarious ecosystem, and consolidated a model where the sale of work is the point of a show,” Under Projects shared with FNB Art Joburg. “It’s an understandable model given the precarity, but it increasingly creates scenarios where the value of an artwork is dictated less by said artwork’s ability to evoke a feeling or an idea in the viewer, and more by its ability to be traded as an asset.”
Formerly working in gallery spaces and currently as Cinga Samson’s studio manager, Goschen has insight into the type of support artists need. So when Songezo Zantsi, currently showing a solo through Vela Projects, approached Goschen it was an opportunity to put the learnings to work.
Although Seiler, Simpson, Evans and Messina collectively see the decision as “very much a foolhardy decision, not a calculated one,” so far things have been good. Following Pilot, the project space has hosted seven projects, the latest being 25 Years of ArtThrob.
Keen to reach as many members of the public as possible, Vela Projects opted for long opening hours and working weekends. “Staying open until 7pm makes it possible for people to see the exhibition on their way home if they’re around town,” explains Goschen. It’s also why Vela Projects prefers venues with courtyards. “We run a small bar and have a space for people to hang out, listen to music and get used to spending time in art spaces with the artists.”
While projects run for seven (to sometimes fourteen) days, the team does well to immortalise each project’s lifespan by documenting them. “We’re currently trying to get to the point where we can produce a small publication after each show.” Until then, Under Projects is “stockpiling what will eventually be a healthy archive of everything that happened”. Adding to the thinking behind their project durations, part of their email thread reads, “The week also provides a healthy limitation… Usually the time constraints produce some ingenious shortcuts, because things can be ephemeral and none of the work needs to last forever.”
A community funded space, Under Projects only has enough support to last until the end of February when we correspond. Open based on resources, Vela Projects is subject to a familiar fate. Almost unnervingly at ease, both project spaces maintain an open mind, fluid and unopposed to the unknown. Existing in a capitalist context where cash rules everything and the rest of us are too tired and sore to resist assimilation, their stance is frightening and comforting.
New shows open on Thursdays at Underline Projects. Songezo Zantsi’s exhibition Iinkumbulo at Vela Projects closes on 24 November 2022.