Virtual Frontiers (2017) was created over two months on location in Grahamstown. The work takes the idea of the frontier as its starting point, probing its connotations both as a historical concept and as a technological one. The series comprises six short Virtual Reality films shot using a 360 degree camera. The viewer, placed first-person, is transported through a dizzying carousel of scenes: a boxing gym; a church service; a wildlife auction; a local quarry.
These scenes, when viewed in conversation with one another, bring to light some of the idiosyncrasies of Grahamstown and make apparent the contrasts of multiple experiences of one small town. The films look at the town as a collision point: here, seven of South Africa’s nine biomes are found. Here, too, ocean and land became a site of convergence for sea creatures and plants 300 million years ago. And here, the first brutal clashing of the British invaders with the AmaXhosa in 1820; the forced assimilation and appropriation which ensued, and the continued violent legacy of colonialism in the ‘post-colonial’ era.
Having grown up here, this is one of a number of Knoetze’s works which deal with the stark divisions apparent in this Frontier town and his own positionality therein. As filmmaker, Knoetze is interested in the psychogeography of Grahamstown. Virtual Frontiers is an attempt to make sense of the effects and systems which organise the way people experience this space.
The films are a loosely-woven phantasmagoria of interviews, candid footage, re-enactments and improvised performance. Historical references tear sharply through the present with the insertion of archival footage and sound recordings, as well as old photographs that have been physically cut up and digitally collaged. Here, neat, linear narratives have no place and temporal lines are blurred. The work hovers at the frontier between representations of the past, experiences of the present and imaginings of the future. It straddles liminal zones; it lives in grey areas; it embraces hybridity.
Slipping deeper into the virtual realm, the films suddenly glitch out and the viewer is thrown into a scramble of binaries upon a grid: the back-end of a computer virus where an omniscient robotic narrator asks you to ‘blink once for yes’; or warns that ‘you may contain malware too’. This intentional breaking of the illusion of reality bucks against the Virtual Reality’s immersiveness, and speaks to the idea that there is not one fixed reality, but multiple. It points to the potential for scrambling systems and order. Whenever the artist tries to make coherent the insurmountable mess, it glitches out: stories are malleable and the rifts between experience seemingly exponential.