I am an artist, curator and interdisciplinary knowledge worker based in Cape Town, South Africa. I was born in South Africa, and grew up in Cape Town and Harare, Zimbabwe. I lived and studied for several years in New York and in Dublin.

I studied Fine Art, majoring in Sculpture and English, at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town. My final-year work, a large-scale sculptural and sound installation titled Transwerk (1997) after the train yards in which they were exhibited, was awarded a distinction and won the class medal for Sculpture.

I studied the creative use of electronics for my Masters degree in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. My thesis work, Suited for Subversion (2002), a protective-performance suit for street protest, was selected for the exhibition Safe at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2005, and subsequently made part of their permanent collection.

I was one of three artists representing South Africa at the Commonwealth Games Nextwave Festival in Melbourne in 2006 with my installation and curatorial project Sideshow, and again at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 with my sound installation Song of Solomon (2006) with Julian Jonker. My work has been exhibited on many platforms including the V Salon de Arte Digitale in Cuba (2003), ISEA Baltic Sea (2004), Project Arts Centre Dublin (2007), Vitra Design Museum Germany (2015), Machines Room London (2015), Toronto Film Festival’s digiplaySpace (2016), Het Nieuwe Instituut Rotterdam (2017), Also Known As Africa art fair in Paris (2017), and the exhibition African Voices at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (2017). My kinetic public sculptures were installed on Jetty Square in Cape Town in 2006.

My PhD, 'Objects in development - Radical Plumbers and PlayPumps' (2011), was funded by the National Research Foundation of South Africa and the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust. Writing it in the School of Engineering at Trinity College Dublin, I pursued my interests in interventionist art, critical design and activism to produce a critique of objects that are designed for use in the developing world, but supported by first world audiences and funders. My postdoctoral work at the University of Cape Town, with the African Centre for Cities and on the international research project Global Arenas of Knowledge, has continued my investigation of Southern agency in the face of global North South inequality.

While in Dublin my collaborative interventionist art project with Seoidin O’Sullivan, Tactic, was funded by the Irish Arts Council. I started working with Science Gallery Dublin in around 2008, curating the exhibitions Surface Tension: The Future of Water (2011) and Design and Violence (in collaboration with NY MoMA) in 2016. I am currently representing Science Gallery International in its interest in establishing a presence in South Africa.

My current project African Robots (2013 – ongoing) is a collaboration with street wire artists in Southern Africa to produce electronic and mechanical wirework automatons, along with other new material for their practice. It has been funded by Pro Helvetia, British Council, the Department of Arts and Culture and the National Arts Council of South Africa. Its offshoot SPACECRAFT sees the depiction through multiple media of a near-future fictional world of African space travel. African Robots combines interventionist art, design fiction and social engagement. The project is heading to Brazil in April 2018.

Across my work, I pursues an interdisciplinary approach to teasing out issues of power, activism, social engagement via designed objects, the aesthetics of make-do and ad hoc design, and the pleasures of pop culture, sound and music, multimedia and sculpture, and collaborative artistic practice.

This website has been a record of my art work since about 2005. You can read a January 2006 biography about my production up until then, on the South African art website ArtThrob. Read more about my work below.

You can follow my work on Instagram as ralphborland

- March 2018

Design and Violence 2016 - I co-curated the exhibition Design and Violence at Science Gallery Dublin, in collaboration with the New York Museum of Modern Art, who proposed the original show. The exhibition looks at objects and systems at the intersection of design and violence, calling attention to the politics and intentions embedded in everyday things as well as in weapons and new technologies. You can read my curatorial essay.
DIY 2014 - ongoing - DIY is an exhibition and online archive collecting together examples of functional objects from South Africa made by professionals and amateurs. Tools and technologies might be made to solve an immediate need, but they also tell stories – about the person who made them, or the situation they’re responding to. The exhibition looks to objects as a story-telling medium, drawing on approaches from interventionist art, critical design, and amateur production. Please see the exhibition website for instructions on submitting work, and add your work to the archive.
Better Living Challenge 2014 - I worked with curator Agata Karolina and agency Deep Design on the Better Living Challenge Showcase, an exhibition of entries to the Better Living Challenge competition organised by the Cape Craft and Design Institute. The Better Living Challenge provides a platform for the development of new and existing solutions that address the needs of people living in informal settlements - for access to electricity, water and sanitation, safety and privacy and other needs. The exhibition, on Cape Town's central station forecourt, engaged the public with prototypes and models of selected entries.
Future Foreshore 2014 - The University of Cape Town asked me in 2013 to curate an exhibition documenting work executed by students in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment that analysed and made proposals for Cape Town's foreshore area. This area of land in the central city was reclaimed from the sea in the 1950s, and freeways were built across it. It has presented problems for its effective use ever since. The exhibition, at Cape Town's historic City Hall, which overlooks the foreshore from close to the city's original shoreline, took creative approaches to engaging the public with students' work.
Surface Tension 2011 - I was the lead curator of this exhibition on 'the future of water', titled 'Surface Tension', which opened at Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin in November 2011. The exhibition brought together work by artists, designers, engineers and scientists to explore the future of water, playing on its physical properties, its role in politics and economics, and ways in which it may be harnessed, cleaned, and distributed. The Earth has abundant water, but only a very small proportion is available for human use. How should this be managed and sustained, and what would a water-scarce future look like?
IKM 2008 - 2011 - Information Knowledge Management (IKM) Emergent was a research programme I became involved with while studying for my PhD at Trinity College Dublin. I was commissioned to design an installation to communicate their work through creative means, first for a development conference in Geneva in 2008. I subsequently developed further material for other exhibitions and communications of their work over the next few years, designing original, portable display devices and collections of objects and images to explain their work.
Art and design

African Robots 2013 - ongoing - A proposal for animating wire-work street art using cheap electronic components and cell phone parts. The first prototype was a starling, a common urban bird in Cape Town. Running on a Nokia phone battery, it incorporates a sound-synthesizer whose pitch depends on light exposure, glowing LED eyes, and head and wing movement via a cheap hacked motor and handmade gear. Since then we've come a long way - launching in 2018 is Little Bird 2, a custom printed circuit board and electronics kit for activating street wire art.

Aeolian long-line 2014 - An aeolian longline instrument 'Wind Catcher' made for Afrika Burn 2014 'Trickster', with Lyall Sprong and Brendon Bussy, and the assistance of Tristan Nebe. Aeolian harps are an ancient form of musical instrument played by the wind. 'Wind Catcher' uses a 50m-long cord strung between two high points to ‘catch’ the wind. A resonator amplifies the vibrations in the string caused by the wind, and makes them audible.Thanks to everyone who helped, especially Elaine Du Plessis.

Handy Ears 2011 - ongoing - A headphone-like pair of realistic silicon rubber palms, cast from my hands, used as a tool for amplifying hearing: an extra pair of hands cupped behind the ears. Based on the experience of this familiar action's effect on one's engagement with the environment, this tool leaves the hands free, and invites associations between the whorls of the ear and the folds of fingers and palms, cupped hands and parabolic reflectors. Echoing headphones in form, the piece suggests a gentler enhancement of listener experience.
Mesh 2008 - For my contribution to the South African group exhibition JAMcity in 2008, I produced two large-scale maps of Wifi networks in Cape Town and Johannesburg. All that is shown is the name of each wireless network, in small type, at the correct positions relative to each other and the geography of each city. The project also includes online resources.
Clinton St 2007 - 'Clinton St' is a project to memorialise and direct public attention to an event that took place in my old neighbourhood in New York City in January 1998, when an apartment block at the corner of Clinton and Stanton Street was torn down by the City in front of its residents, taking their belongings and pets with it. In collaboration with musician Brendon Bussy, I broadcast a sound piece in the space on low-powered radio. This project was on the psychogeography festival Conflux in New York in September 2007.
Song of Solomon 2006 - An 8-channel audio installation created in September 2006 in collaboration with Julian Jonker. A computer program samples many versions of the song ‘Mbube’ (the source of the song ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’) to form a continually-changing audio collage that questions notions of intellectual property and the processes of cultural production. It was exhibited in the Cultural Olympiad of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010.
Promised land 2006 - An exhibition of work that comments on contemporary South Africa through manipulated found-objects and fictional artefacts, first shown at blank projects in Cape Town in August 2006.
Sideshow 2006 - In March 2006 I was part of the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne, Australia, itself part of the Cultural Program of the Commonwealth Games 2006. I produced the work Sideshow, an exhibition and social space featuring political art and documents, and provocative technology from around the world.
Jetty Square 2006 - The public space I worked on with Earthworks Landscape Architects, for which I made a group of 'ghost shark' sculptures, reexploring where the sea once lay.
Pattern 2003 - ongoing - A project to map the appearance of a distinctive, cellular automata-like tiling pattern that occurs around the world. I am inviting people around the world to take photographs of the pattern wherever they see it, and to send the images to me for the construction of an artwork.
Suited for Subversion 2002 - A protective suit which projects the wearer's heart-beat outside of their body. The suit draws on the protective-wear worn by activists at large-scale street demonstrations in Europe and the United States. The project was part of the show SAFE - Design takes on Risk, at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2005, and is the Museum's permanent collection.
Front 2000 - A collaborative art project with my friends Margot Jacobs and Jessica Findley, as The Millefiore Effect. Front is a pair of sound-activated, inflatable ceremonial conflict-suits - on exhibition, we act as attendants and help visitors to posture and play in the suits. This project has been exhibited all over the world since we first developed it in 2000.
Transwerk 1997 - The final-year work for my Fine Art degree at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, UCT, was a set of large sound-emitting sculptures suspended inside a partially-used train repair warehouse - the Transwerk Yards in Salt River. The sculptures were made from discarded polyurethane foam, laminated together with waste wax from a foundry, and incorporated multiple speaker arrays made from old television speakers bought cheaply from a TV repair shop. I was awarded the class medal for Sculpture for the work.
Global Arenas 2013 - 2017 - I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town working on the project Global Arenas of Knowledge, which 'explores the dynamics of organised knowledge production on a world scale', drawing on ‘Southern Theory‘. I interviewed climate change researchers in the Energy Research Centre at UCT and co-wrote the paper 'Southern Agency - Navigating National and Global Imperatives in Climate Research' to be published by MIT's Global Environmental Politics in August 2018. The image to the left is from Dan Halter's work 'Rifugiato Mappa del Mondo' (2012).
Postdoc at the ACC 2012 - 2014 - I was a postdoctoral research fellow with the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town between August 2012 and January 2014. The African Centre for Cities (ACC) ‘seeks to facilitate critical urban research and policy discourses for the promotion of vibrant, democratic and sustainable urban development in the global South from an African perspective’. I worked on issues around public art, design and culture, especially in the context of Cape Town as World Design Capital 2014. My position was the ‘Max-Planck/ACC Super-diversity Postdoctoral Research Fellowship’, funded by the Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity.
OpenHere 2012 - In Dublin in 2012, I participated in and helped organise the conference 'OpenHere'. A transdisciplinary community of critical theorists, engineers, artists, designers and industry professionals spoke on debates surrounding the digital commons. Key points of discussion included the conflictive spaces of the digital commons, tactical media, net-art, digital policy, disruptive wireless practices, alternative spectrum ownership models, next-generation networks and the political economy of infrastructure. I delivered presentations on 'Zombie Media' and other topics. See the conference archive. Open Here was held again in 2014.
PhD 2011 - I was awarded my PhD, for my thesis 'Radical Plumbers and PlayPumps - Objects in development', in 2011. I started my research in October 2006 in the School of Engineering at Trinity College Dublin. My supervisor Linda Doyle is an electronic engineer who is interested in working with artists. I wrote an analysis of design for the developing world, using approaches from interventionist art, critical design, activism, and science and technology studies. Thanks to the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF) and the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust for funding my research, and to Linda for all her help.
PSi16 2010 - I made a short video presentation titled 'The PlayPump: Mechanics of a Static Technology' as my contribution to a panel presentation at PSi16 Performing Publics in Toronto, 12 June 2010. The panel was titled 'Network Fetishisms: Beyoncé, Bicycle Couriers, Digital Divinity, and Development Design'. My presentation frames some of the work in my PhD thesis, focusing on my main case-study, the PlayPump. You can read a short script of the video presentation.
You can contact me at the address below. It isn't text or a link, please copy it by hand.