Terry Kurgan

Terry Kurgan works across a broad range of mediums from written work, drawing, and photography. Throughout her career, Terry has studied the nature of photography and how to use the medium for public engagement. Her project ‘Hotel Yeoville’ brought together people within the community of Yeoville in Johannesburg and used photo booths and recordings to tell their stories of how they reached South Africa. This project was presented as an exhibition as well as a published book.
 View her work here.

 

Febby:

What are you working on at the moment?

Terry:

A book which is a series of linked essays that each circulate around a series of photographs, all of which were shot by my late grandfather, and they are family photographs.

Backtracking, my mother was born in Poland in Eastern Europe in 1935. I’m from a Jewish family and they were living in a part of Poland on the border with Czechoslovakia and Germany and as the war broke out, things became very bad for the Jews and my family were very lucky, being part of a very small number of people that managed to get out of Europe after the war had started. And my grandfather was a melancholy, introspective, an intellectual very circular Jew, not religious at all. Even the women had PHD’s, all wealthy and had been to universities in Berlin or Vienna, and so on. They lost their professions and education and managed to get out of Poland just in time. My mum was four when they went on this extraordinary journey. My grandfather kept journals all his life, but we have them from the first of September, the day the war broke out 1939 in Poland and the year that they lived in Romania. This whole journey and then his life in South Africa. I’ve slowly been having these journals translated and I’m working on some ways to tell an aspect of that narrative, going from a sort of racism and genocide to this country with all of its complicated race stuff. But it’s also very much about photography. So it sort of tells a story, but really it’s a book about photographic meaning through narrative. I’ve been working with his diaries and his photographs, my own memories and my mother’s. The project is much more personal but the links are migration and photography.

Febby:

Your earlier work started off much more personal as well, for example, ‘Family Affairs’. It’s kind of like going back to that.

Terry:

Because I’ve done a lot of big public art projects, and art that engages a lot with the outside world. But this is very personal work. So I’ve done the writing, my next job is to turn it into an artist’s book. Something where text and image are more equivalent.

Febby:

How did your interest in photography start?

Terry:

When I first began to draw as a teenager, I drew from photographs. For my undergraduate degree, I was living in the US for a long time. I majored at that time in drawing and print-making. I always worked from photographs. As things shifted out, I began to realise that I should be showing the photographs. I’m not a photographer, I’m often considered to be a photographer but I’m useless at photography, and digital has made it more difficult. I always worked with, looked at, been incurious about photographs and what they mean in the world.

And so gradually I started to work with photographs and the photograph was my reference material and then it became the object of my work. And when it became the object that I explored. So there was a gradual shift and I’m endlessly interested in photography. Not so much documentary photography, I’m interested in photography that is about photography.

Febby:

After I read your interview in ‘Figures and Fiction’, you said that you didn’t enjoy being in this documentary mode. Is the idea of being a documentary photographer something you avoid?

Terry:

Not that I don’t like it. I think I’m much more of an artist who uses photography. The photographs are always asking questions about themselves. And about their meaning value and about their true value. I’m just much more interested in really going very deeply into what an image means. Even here, there are many layers to this project, but alternatively it’s about what images mean and how it begun and how it ends. ‘Hotel Yeoville’ responded to these completely ubiquitous images of the refugees suffering and it was to sort of to try and humanise and personalise who they were.

Febby:

Could you tell me about the format for the project, ‘Hotel Yeoville’?

Terry Kurgan:

Well, it was an interactive digital environment that ran for a year, and originally the idea for the project, bearing in mind the technology changed so fast and when we did this, very few people had smartphones. So communities in Johannesburg who needed to get online would have to do so by communal community spaces and it’s strange how quickly things have changed.

When this project started, I had a little Nokia phone, I didn’t even get an email.

So the project came about first because we noticed that in the Yeoville, there was such a big immigrant community. So the first idea was to make ‘Hotel Yeoville’ a website. The first thing we made were physical booths you know, a story booth, a photo booth, a video booth. They were all online activities. But we didn’t have a big enough budget and we produced a website.The site was difficult to use.We were sort of doing things that Facebook was doing and Facebook was only just picking up that at that time. We just duplicated what a multi-billion dollar cooperation was doing. So it didn’t take off, it was too clunky.

So then we thought we have got to go back to the beginning. We found another developer who gave us far better advice. And we decided to remake the website and we used platforms like Facebook, a photo sharing platform. It was very difficult to market this in internet cafés because people are paying precious money and time to be online and they don’t want to spend it experimenting. We ran all kinds of research on the internet cafés. Then what we did is we opened a free to the public environment, where every single web activity was both web virtual and actual; physical.

So you could in our physical space produce all the material for our website. That’s how that came about, there was a resource section, people came and arrived in a sort of inbetween space, there would be posts, multilingual facilitators waiting to greet you. Then you’d go through the website, you’d be explained the significance of a digital trace, so that you participated freely and happily. You’d browse through our website and have a look at the resourceful content. There was a refugee survival guide, a guide to the city of Yeoville, all kinds of useful content to the new corners of the city. You could also kind of see what other people have uploaded, the journey booth, the photo booth, the business booth, the story booth. So the book gives you a sense of how we put it together; it’s very open about our Plan A that didn’t work out and our Plan B our thinking and what people said. The most popular thing by far was the photo booth. People love making selfies.

Febby:

Are there any places you’ve worked outside South Africa that you can compare and show similarities?

Terry:

No, nothing like the inequality of this place. One of the reliefs of working in Berlin was that I wasn’t working in such an unequal social context. I couldn’t compare it, I suppose Brazil if I could compare, is one of the most unequal societies. I’m on the lucky side of the unequal divide, having skin privilege, being middle class. I grew up here with many blessings. No place that I could compare with but I love this place, but it’s a hard place to live.

Febby:

An unavoidable subject of conversation is for me the inequality.

Terry:

Do you like it here?

Febby:

There’s a lot that frustrates me when I look around and makes me sad. But at the same time, you have to consider what the country has gone through and perhaps not compare it to where I’m coming from. Also, there is a positive change happening, visible amongst the younger generation. The landscapes are like no other. It’s an exciting place to be.

What do you think about the contemporary art culture in South Africa right now?

Terry:

I think I find it incredibly interesting and exciting. I feel like there’s a whole other generation, I’m still the generation that grew up with apartheid. There’s another core generation after me now, people under thirty who are producing very interesting and exciting work. And I think it’s very fantastic. It’s very diverse.

Febby:

I guess with technology moving on so fast it’s so much more global.

Terry:

I think South African art is getting so many more opportunities and it’s fantastic and very vital. Africa seems to be ‘Top of the Pops’, verbally.