James Webb, sound artist, Cape Town

South African artists on Sylt

"Sound is a very visual art"

The table in James Webb’s apartment on Sylt is covered with slips of paper, neatly arranged in a circle. Most of them carry just one or two written words, each one an idea für what is going to be a sound installation. Will it be morse code or Peking opera maybe blasting, maybe whispering from the old loudspeaker system at Langa taxi rank in a Cape Town township? „I offered to repair the speaker system and in exchange was allowed to use it for a sound piece“, says Webb who refuses to be called „sound artist“: „That would apply to people like Stockhausen.“ Webb’s art ist not about sound as such. It’s about those pictures in our heads that sounds can evoke. It’s about the tension between a certain place and the sounds that James Webb is planting there.

Like the summer songs of South African birds he planted in Japanese winter trees by hiding small speakers between the branches.  „There’s no place called home“ ist the name of the piece he installed in 2005 and of course it’s subjects are alienation and migration. „I’m white and I’m considered European by lineage which is bizarre because I was around 25 when I came to Europe for he first time. I’m constantly aware of being a potential outsider.“ But there is another layer of meaning. Birds’ songs, explains Webb, are by no means the expression of pure joy we tend to hear in them. „The birds are marking their territory. They are saying ,go away’ or maybe sometimes ,come over here’ when courting.“ Separation of national interests, walling-off, outbreaks of xenophobia as happened in South Africa - the birdcall piece is part of that.

Although Webb is more of a stage director than anything else there can be no doubt that sound always was his favourite carrier of artistic expression. When he was about four years old, Webb remembers, his father brought him a tape recorder he had won at a golf tournament. „I was fascinated by the possibility of rewinding, playing something again. I can remember recording my voice calling my mother and playing that from a far away corner of the house, then immediately I would call her myself from the opposite direction.“

An experience as irritating and disturbing as James Webb’s pieces can be today. Even fort he artist himself who in 2006 for a period of three months accepted every invitation he got to reach beyond the limits of his own routines.

The process of exposing oneself to unfamiliar situations while collecting material is part of Webb’s piece of art as well as peoples’ reactions. „For me there are two criteria for a good project. I consider it a success either when people invite me back or when the project keeps lingering with me for a long time.“

The latter will most probably be true for the layout that seems the most advanced among the ideas for the Langa taxi rank and ist old loudspeakers:  A tinkle from a high bell introduces an official announcement by computer voices in many languages: „Ladies and gentlemen, please remember: Everything is fine!“  – so soft and reassuring it makes you feel that something must be going terribly wrong.

James Webb