Natalie Paneng’s quirky and cool virtual universe

The South African artist on immersing yourself into the limits of a world

August 9, 2021 / Interview by Alex Westfall | Photography by Lesedi Mokoena

Whether as herself or performing one of her many alter-egos, Natalie Paneng’s oeuvre centers the online presentation of the self with a cosmic quality—and a bit of humor, too. “In my work, it’s hope, cuteness, play, or it’s dreamy, trippy, weird,” she tells us about the themes that capture her. Deftly maneuvering between the tangible and virtual worlds, the Johannesburg-based artist contributes to the rich conversation of what it means to be watched in the digital sense. 

We speak with Natalie about her background in theater and production design, the power of collaboration, and her creative process, which, at its crux, is all about leaning into a project unknown. 

Was there a moment that you knew you wanted to do something creative with your life?

I grew up in Johannesburg, but the first four years of my life, I grew up in the Northwest with my grandmother. I was always close to my family. I was always playing, or I was always with my older cousins and forcing them to play.

That’s the landscape, living with family or living with my grandmother and moving down to Joburg and still being the only child until I was seven. Then my little sister came about. Then I’d play with her. I realized now that play was the main artistic connection I always carried on as I grew, just being a playful kid. I was drawn to multiple media types, and I consume media like everyone, but I never thought about it being art. I was just myself. I was super happy.  I was also in my head all the time. I was constantly just playing, creating worlds. When I was younger, dramatic arts is how I express myself. That whole thing of constantly re-enacting worlds and lives and characters is what kept this thing alive, and then varsity’s exposure and access.

When I was applying for university, I thought I would study Law. I suppressed art for a long time in school, and I just saw it as something I did on the side, something I enjoyed, something I always fought to have but never thought about as a career, even though I was passionate about it.

At university, I studied theater, and I wasn’t sure if I was happy in that space. I had to make the connection that expression could be turned into a physical output. That was how I got into visual art. I was almost only experiencing artists on the internet in a weird way.

I didn’t jump out into experiencing the art world that was around me, except for if there was a gallery close by. Local artists, in that way, where I’d engage with arts and go to gallery spaces, and they mainly show local artists, and you start realizing that there’s a bunch of artists living amongst us—doing well, showing in these galleries.

I found three important artists who were local at the time—Tabita Rezaire, Bogosi Sekhukhuni, and Dineo Bopape. I realized that these are people in the same country and context as me creating digital work that was super interesting. I found them on the internet, and they completely changed my perspective. Other than that, I was experiencing more of my context in terms of Black artists. I always engaged with international artists whose work I found interesting. That’s always cool, but it also sometimes is quite detached. We can still enjoy the work, but it doesn’t always click immediately because of our context.

"Hotspot 4X3NO."

A lot of your current practice deals with the online presentation of the self, merging the public and the private self. What were the aspects of theater that you chose to leave behind in your practice?

When I was in theater, I realized it was hard for me—it was just performance. I felt anxiety. I’ve always loved the performance, and I’ve always enjoyed being on stage, but when I got to university, it just felt so different. I felt like I was stuck.

I still appreciate theater. It framed my practice because once I realized that performance was not for me in the way that it felt like I had to be on stage, and also the archetypes of the characters that I thought I had to play all the time, all of those elements complicated my understanding of theater.

I moved into production design in my second year. That transformed everything for me because I could start building worlds and understanding the framework of stories and creating stories, creating worlds and how characters fall into roles, and costume, and all that kind of stuff. In some way, I still work on the principles of theater. I wanted to do it;  to break it up. There are so many things happening outside, and I felt like we’re still being taught the idea of theater that I had years ago was inside.

I was like, “Why isn’t this evolving?” I now realized that it doesn’t need to evolve. It’s a beautiful medium on its own. I could develop and take what I needed to take from it. That taught me everything.  I could be a character but with less of an audience which feels like I could stumble in front of an audience that I’m aware of the gaze but I’m also playing into it. I’m on the same vibe as performance, but moving it online and having my own type of control. 

Theater gave me the foundation necessary to create what I create. I took that and said, “Do this in this space.” I want to do this online. I want to do this by myself, with less pressure. I want to do this with my own stories. I want to present stories, and I want to narrate how this should look and who I get presented as, representation. It felt so messy sometimes, feeling like a character has to be this or whatever and being young and not knowing who you are, so you don’t want to embody all these things. I thought “How do I figure out who I am and use what I’ve learned and bring them into one thing?” 


How does your creative process begin?

I have an idea and get dressed and shoot, and then I would edit and then let the edits tell me what the story was and what was the reason for having this crazy, haphazard idea. Sometimes, I used to feel like ideas came to me, and then I had to be present and execute them. Now, my process has changed a lot more because, in the beginning, I wanted my art to inform me about myself. It was like putting the lens on myself, playing around, looking at myself, editing, and then presenting myself to the world.

Now I’m like, “I know I have this power now. I can do this. I understand. I know myself a bit more.” It’s shown me a lot, and I’ve figured out a lot in it, but now, I’m like, “What propaganda can I insert, basically, in the world through my work now that I know that there’s a purpose to this work?” Now, I think of the world that I want to be in. of the kind of message, or the kind of feeling, or if I want to create a dreamscape, I just [snaps fingers] the feeling, the confusion, the illusion, what elements could I bring out through the performance, or my editing, or the sounds? Now, I’m trying to enhance specific feelings, or thoughts, or moments.

The process becomes what it needs to be. I need to shoot this, I need to edit this, but this is the idea behind it. The editing is always the most important part because I can shoot something random and then find out that it’s deeper than I thought when I’m editing. That’s when I can transform and create something real. The process is simple. It’s just ideas, shoots, edits. Then that’s when I’m like, “This is where I must be careful about what I’m trying to show.”

All of the scripting and the idea happens in post for me. My process works all around ‘sometimes.’ Sometimes, I want to create walls. Sometimes, I’ve been working with models now, like paper models. Sometimes I’m like, “Well, let me start with building this.” This year I’d have nothing, maybe because of the pandemic, but I struggled for so long to get back into creative work and being characters and all of that. I felt stuck being an artist, and I was like, “What can I do?” I was like, “Let me make models because I can do theater.”

You make the model, and you present it, and it was like, “We like it. Change this.” It allowed me to be more tactile and work with my hands and tangibly see ideas and see myself inside a space. Also, elements brought into my process have helped a lot because now, I can physically build the world. Then from building the world physically, I’ll know what needs to go in there. I’ll just know how it needs to be edited. I know the feeling I want to present.

In my work, it’s hope, cuteness, play, or it’s dreamy, trippy, weird. Those are the two ways. I’ve had to negotiate with the work like, “Today, are we going to be weird, or are we going to be cute?” [giggles] What are your options? These are the options. That’s how my process has been, and it’s been like that for a long time. I’m starting to like that a lot more now.I want to formalize it a lot more.

Technically, I always hit a wall. I’m like, “Cool. I need to get better at this technical thing to push the boundary of what it means to just perform online.” I also feel like I’m just performing online, but everybody is, and that’s what my work is saying, is this is how I choose to perform, but I want to have an updated version of what this online performance needs. I feel the more technical skills I learn and the more technically skilled I am, knowing more will help my practice and help my agenda be spread.

"Looking at Myself Sincerely."

Does the audience cross your mind at all when you’re working?

While I’m working, I cannot even think about how it will look in the edit, so I don’t even think about the audience just yet. I care a lot about immersing myself in character. It’s so personal sometimes because I’m so inside it that it’s so singular at that point of creating and even editing. In its final form, my work recognizes that it’s being viewed and it, to an extent, tries to make the viewer feel like they’re being watched, too.

That’s more my perspective, performing to a lens, making the lens aware that I’m watching it, but I’m not trying to be affected necessarily by the outside world. That’s why I create worlds, because everyday life is being affected by engaging with people, being affected by the response, being affected by being viewed and watched, and people attempting to understand you from a few engagements. Through this work, I’ve allowed myself to have space where there’s little space for a gaze that will stop me from being anything out of this world, or in this world, or weird.

I need that space. It’s personal, close, and that’s why a play is great because you’re not thinking about these things if you’re playing. I don’t think about it. It’s mainly me playing, and so because it’s me playing, it’s doesn’t matter if anyone says anything because I was playing, and I had fun, and that would exist.

Iin my general life experience, I feel different, or the world does that thing that sometimes you feel different, and people make you feel different. They question elements about you. “Why do you do this?” Subconsciously, I’ve made sure that there’s a separate world where there are few questions. I know they exist, and I’m open to hearing what that is because I know that it is a practice and, like now, giving work out, and I would love to know.

I know people see my work, and I’m open to it, but I’m always sharing it more than anything. Even though it’s a performance, and I know it’s being viewed, it feels more like sharing something I did or a game I’m watching or that you should watch, too. I never think about the critique or the viewpoint that this could be watched.

You mentioned the word game. Can you elaborate on the role of a game or that interactive interaction in your work?

When I speak about game or play, it’s fully giving into the willing suspension of disbelief, immersing yourself into the limits of the world that you’ve created, and the limits or lack of limits of the character. It feels like a game because the restrictions are a bit less or it’s a bit weak. I say game because it’s play. It’s the give-and-take, “If I do this, what’s the reaction?” I want to make games, but I’m not technical in terms of gaming gears—the ethos of the my work is more in that space.

How did your project, Vaporwave Response Computer, come to fruition? What was the first thought that inspired you to make it?

That’s one of my favorite projects. At that point, I was struggling with being a digital artist and presenting my work. Vaporwave as a subgenre was one of the first things I found on Tumblr. I got obsessed early. As I was figuring out art, I was also figuring out vaporwave, and they merged and intersected without much of my control. I was creating in that way for a long time, and I wanted to give an ode to the subgenre that woke me up. 

Then I was like, “How many people don’t know about this here in South Africa?” or, “How many people have never seen this kind of genre applied to the Black body?” The same energy, the same play—it’s this subgenre from my perspective. I broke down what I thought Vaporwave was and presented myself in different spaces by playing with how the genre should look and how I reinterpreted the genre. What has been South African Vaporwave for a long time, too.

"Vaporwave Response Computer."

I only realized later that  the connections I made could be presented as creative research.” Even when doing creative research, I think, “I don’t want to write that down as an essay. I want to present it artistically;I still want to present ideas playfully.” I created the app, and it also functions as a game as a viewing space. It’s also light, playful, but it offers a different perspective and a different engagement with the genre from my perspective.

 I want a bit more power to go into the narrative of digital aesthetics and all of the stuff that exists online and take a small corner in that space and be like, “Hey, this is what I’ve taken from this,” or, “Hey, here’s how I would separate this information and throw it back in play. Here’s how I would present it from my experience and my context.” This is creative research, but I want it all to be done through play as a tool that generates information and answers for myself and others.