Virtual Frontiers: The space between

Virtual Frontiers is a visual art installation created by Francois Knoetze. It incoporates virtual reality panoramas and sound pieces that explore past and present narratives of Grahamstown (Photo: Megs Kelly/Cue).

Learn to be uncomfortable. Francois Knoetze’s Virtual Frontiers is a dizzying arrangement of Virtual Reality films that not only invite the viewer to see diversity, but to be immersed in it; to be engrossed in the messy, discombobulating diversity of lived experiences that mark the town of Grahamstown.

Welcome to Frontier Country. It is 23 years since the end of Apartheid and nearly 200 years since the 1820 settlers arrived, armed with bibles and bullets. There are no formal geographic divisions, and persons of any race can technically wander where they please. We have transcended technological barriers, and can now view entirely new worlds without moving our feet.

Yet, in many ways, we have not moved. While some live in dumps and clean cars on the street, others play golf and sell livestock for millions a piece; some get degrees, others get shot. The border between Grahamstown East, predominantly poor and black, and Grahamstown West, predominantly middle class and white, still stands as strong as the monuments erected to celebrate its colonial foundation. It is visible and durable, but for most, it continues to be the pink elephant in the room. People would prefer not to see.

The four short films, shot using a 360 degree camera, have the power to put the viewer directly into other people’s subjective experiences.

Post-coloniality is in many ways an unexplored frontier in South Africa. It’s a term that is at odds with the lived experience of most South Africans, the structuring of its cities and its economy,” says Knoetze.

Grahamstown is conceived by Knoetze as a ‘collision point’. It is a place where land met sea 300 million years ago; where the British settlers and AmaXhosa clashed in 1820; and where the violent legacies and divisions of colonialism still rupture the ‘Rainbow Nation’.

The viewer journeys through various scenes that tackle these frontiers. “What effects does Grahamstown have on its citizens?” asks Thabiso Mafana, the exhibition manager. Grounded in ‘psychogeography’, the project explores the way in which systems and conditions influence how people experience Grahamstown.

Virtual Frontiers is a visual art installation created by Francois Knoetze. It incoporates virtual reality panoramas and sound pieces that explore past and present narratives of Grahamstown (Photo: Megan Kelly/Cue).
Photo: Megs Kelly/Cue

Avoiding the obvious, Knoetze carefully selects a diverse array of settings. Interviews, performance, and candid footage cut into each other and become your world. “I hope that by ‘placing’ the viewer in a scene, and then abruptly cutting to somewhere else, the sense of groundedness in place can be disrupted and the necessity of dialogue and adaptability can be highlighted,” says Knoetze.

People at a dump sing and chat around you; a women in her home cuts your hair; and a geologist lectures you on Grahamstown’s biomes. An artist paints up, down, and around your vision, and pigs eat in a field as a National Party leader talks to you out of an old-fashion TV.  A graduation ceremony enfolds around you, as police shoot at students fighting for their education. “The scenes wrestle against each other,” explains Mafana.

The immersiveness of VR is intentionally disrupted. Knoetze makes this point clear: there is not one reality, but many, each unique and unfolding in a myriad of directions. There are no linear narratives. The past juts through the present as archival footage and old photographs are overlaid in clever ways in various scenes.  The work confronts the liminal space between past, present, and future.

Illustrations, digital grids, and inverse editing also help to disrupt the viewer’s virtual experience. A ‘bug’ interrupts the scenes, with glitches and malware, signalling the impossibility of coming to a complete understanding of the diversity of experiences; a diversity which is possibly exponential.

“For me, being able to place the viewer into immersive first-person scenarios raises fundamental questions around positionality, and reconciling the giant rifts in the lived experiences of people in a place as divided as South Africa,” explains Knoetze.

But underlying Knoetze’s work is a sense of hope; a hope that there is a potential for dialogue. In a time where we are asked to either be blind to differences or be defined by them, this work seems to ask us to do neither. It asks one to move, to see, to encounter, to understand; to take up the position of ‘the Other’.

Sit down, put the headset over your eyes and allow yourself to be transported not only visually, but emotionally and mentally.  Take your identity, however conceived, and see where it fits, how it relates to different spaces, foreign and familiar. Learn to be uncomfortable, to be dizzy, and to be in-between.

By Sam van Heerden

View the exhibition daily at the Albany Science Museum from 9am to 5pm.