African Robots & SpaceCraft: Putting the wire in wireframe!

African Robots & SpaceCraft: Putting the wire in wireframe!

Throughout many cities and towns in countries like Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe, you have probably seen a form of wirework. They are often sold by traffic lights or kiosks and many children at a young age enjoy them as their first toy.

African Robots, a project initiated by Ralph Borland, hopes to bring those wire crafts to life. The project is designed to encourage people to create interactive electronic street art. By using inexpensive materials like fencing and electric, wire, beads, plastic and metal, artists can make easy three dimensional animatronic devices using cheap cellphone parts.

Kids make these everywhere in Africa, I am very interested in the economy of material in working with wire. You can take a reel of fencing wire, a two dimensional material, with very little material and make a three dimensional form. – Ralph Borland

AFRICAN ROBOTS is a project to intervene in street ‘wire art’ production in Southern Africa (particularly South Africa and Zimbabwe). Here, informal sector artists make largely ornamental goods from galvanised steel fencing wire and other cheap materials, which they sell in the street. African Robots brings DIY electronics knowhow and cheap components to produce interactive and kinetic forms of work; African automatons such as birds, animals and insects.

One of the intentions of African Robots has been to democratise access to technological knowhow: mechanical forms that have been in use for centuries for example, as well as computational and electronic principles. The ‘curriculum’ (one of the visions of the project is for an African Robots Academy) includes emphasis on non-European and extra-Western examples of such knowledge: the 12th century Islamic inventor Al-Jazari’s automaton designs for example (which include some of the earliest known examples of programmable devices) and fields such as Ethnomathematics, which recognise the use of mathematical principles found in non-maths places (often in craft practices such as weaving).

The project plays on the ‘viral’ way in which new designs are proliferated amongst street wire artists; and as a large number of street wire artists in South Africa are from Zimbabwe, it engages with existing cross-border movements of art and culture, and inquires into the experience of migrant artists in South Africa. It both imagines and attempts to bring into being new cultural and technological connections. – African Robots


SPACECRAFT is an offshoot of African Robots, a project to catalyse new forms of wire art, particularly involving electronic and mechanical components to create street-level automatons.

The sculptures, produced as unlimited multiples, are intended as artworks in their own right and as prototypes for street-level production. In their form they evoke the early days of computer-generated 3D objects, particularly the early Star Wars arcade games in the 1980s, or the images seen on consoles within the Star Wars movies. They play on the intersection between the way computers describe 3D objects, and how three-dimensional objects are described with wire through handcraft.

They play too on the existing practices of street wire artists in making items associated with popular movies, such as Finding Nemo fish or characters from the Cars movies. Where these items have been popular with the public, more and more wire artists have started to make and sell them. The project plays on this potential for catalytic intervention and viral spread of innovation in the street wire art scene, imagining their proliferation.

Alongside wire artists selling their original wire works are other vendors selling knock-off merchandise such as stuffed-toy ‘minions’ from the Despicable Me series, imitation ‘spinners’ and the like. The extended graphical representation of the SPACECRAFT series borrows from both phenomena, presenting itself as a combination of a knock-off brand, and an original reimagining of and contribution to the Star Wars world.

The limited-edition silkscreen posters displayed here along with the sculptures show the spaceships in a psychedelic African space setting, against backdrops sampled from modified wax-print fabric designs. The well-known backstory of the ‘African’ wax-print is of a fabric designed and printed in Holland in the late 1800s, intended for the Indonesian market as a partially-mechanised imitation of their hand batik work. It wasn’t well-received by its intended market, but was wildly popular when sold in West Africa, where the designs acquired their own local meanings. Still today, the ‘authentic’ or original wax-print company Vlisco is designed in the Netherlands and sold in West Africa. While Vlisco remains a status symbol and relatively expensive, imitation wax-prints with their own designs, some made in China, have more recently appeared. In this print series, one is based on a Vlisco print, while the other two are derived from lesser-known brands. The gesture here is the imitation of an imitation of an imitation.

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