Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Capitalising on the City: Infecting the City

It is a warm summer’s evening and it couldn’t be an easier start. I’m lying flat on the grass in the Company’s Garden watching clouds floating across the sky. Metres away are Saxit, a foursome channeling contemporary South African jazz compositions through saxophones. The crowd languishing in this park parallel to Government Avenue in the centre of Cape Town grows as a slow trickle of newcomers joins the picturesque scene as the sun sets.  We’re comfortable, relaxed.

The music, the performance,  has temporarily grounded us to this space, binding an inhomogeneous group transfixed by this abstract language. There is nothing to understand, decode. One can just be. Perhaps this idyllic state shouldn’t be underestimated in a country where “public space” is so politically loaded and is constantly being renegotiated. Or maybe we are just languishing in a superficial condition, rooted in forgetfulness, though one of the tracks is about Nelson Mandela.

There are many mellifluous moments in this year’s Infecting the City (ITC) programme. Is this a positive reflection on this public arts festival that spans six days? “Infecting” seems to insinuate a more subversive interaction with the city, not simply an uncontested aggregation with the diverse spaces that define it. Perhaps the “infecting” appellation has become a misnomer since its inception six years ago.  On its website the festival is described as an event “conceived to deliver provocative and novel site-specific performance art”.
Marcus Neustetter’s Erosion directly invokes the “infected” title. Clad in protective suits and eye gear, Neustetter and a team of helpers appear to be dealing with toxic material as they spill thousands of glow sticks on to the steps in front of the Iziko National Art Gallery. These garish artificial entities depend on the absence of light to be seen and consequently operate as some intangible parasite, infecting the space around us. It’s as if Neustetter and his team have managed to harness this invisible entity. En masse these glowing sticks make for a spectacular sight; he exploits our desire to grasp the intangible.

There are a few site-specific works, but largely the city functions as a backdrop to work rather than the element that is activating it. We walk from space to space around the inner city, mostly around the Company’s Garden and Church Square. It’s all familiar territory. Cape Town’s a well-adjusted city, or appears to be; we do not enter any no-go zones, we are never challenged, questions are never turned on us, as if we are an invisible entity. These short jaunts, strolls, are led by the curator Jay Pather. He introduces each work via a loudspeaker and regurgitates the bumpf in the programme before each performance. He’s quite embedded in the festival, becomes a feature of it.

We don’t travel by bus but we are on a tour, which immediately sets a voyeuristic slant to our status in the street, entrenching a boundary between us and them, them being the performers, the setting. This tour mode also underlines how the work has been packaged. Most often it comes down to practicalities; the performances aren’t linked thematically, they are strung together due to proximity. This cuts off the potential life that may exist between performances. Everything is read independently, making it difficult to get a handle on any predominant ideas. As such no clean thematics emerge.

Perhaps Pather had this in mind; public space is polyphonic; perhaps it shouldn’t be ordered. But we do need to name our experiences here. What name should we give them?
Explaining his motivation in the programme Pather hints at the most obvious dichotomous coupling attached to Cape Town: beauty and pain.  Perhaps the musical works are being used to transport us to that place of beauty that eludes words. Or maybe they access the pain hidden behind this city’s pleasing natural beauty and quirky, fashionable facades.

The musical works provide a space of sorts and take us into old buildings – churches that have become invisible in Cape Town’s architectural bricolage. Inside these cold buildings we are temporarily transported, suspended by the celestial sounds of choirs, in works such as Neo Muyanga’s Thoriso le Morusu and the Cape Consort’s Shades of Grey that is drawn from medieval chants.

For Pather these are not musical interludes or phrases joining larger sentences that make up the festival, but an overlooked form vis-à-vis public art schemes. Or maybe he has a thing for choirs. Certainly, there is a sense that the choirs, like The New Teenagers Gospel Choir that perform in Isa Suarez’s Cycling Voices – they arrive on bicycles with messages scrawled on satin squares pinned to their backs – consist of members of the public. This puts a fresh spin on public art as one practised by the public. For the people, by the people. This is one way of involving the public in the festival.

Music is a particularly powerful tool in public space. On the weekend that ITC ends, the Cape Town Carnival fills the streets of Sea Point with thousands of people swaying to many different kinds of sounds, proving how easily music can dissolve barriers and unite people.
Can other art forms really mediate relations between the individual and the community, private and public spaces, when South Africans are largely so ignorant about the arts?
Compromises in these contexts need to be made; the art has to be (re)modelled into something that is easy to consume, is non-alienating. Researchers on the tour stop and quiz us after performances; was the work informative, entertaining or confusing? The question sheds light on how the festival organisers conceive of public art.

There are few works at ITC that read as products of artistic ambition – in other words, advance the aims of art. It appears as if many are chosen for the area they occupy between art and entertainment.  This year’s incarnation of the festival seems designed as a bridge for those who don’t ordinarily patronise the arts to become more cultured. The public spaces and the free attendance are presumably seen as the incentives.
And it works. A throng encircles the troupe from Jazzart Dance Theatre Company when they perform Moving News in St George’s Mall. Resplendent in body stockings printed with newspaper brands and headlines, their bodies convulse to beats from speakers.

Some of the people in the audience have been following the ITC trail, others just happened to be passing along this paved shopping corridor on a Saturday morning.
One of the works is accompanied by a popular pop tune that a dancer lip-synchs to, so it is accessible. People in the audience are dancing to the track and one audience member breaks the fourth fall and gets down and jives with the dancers as if he is in a nightclub.
But this is a rarity; the barrier between the performers and the audience is maintained in these makeshift performance spaces. It is mostly enforced by the spectacles themselves – the bright costumes and exaggerated gestures and forms – that clearly demarcate the performance area, creating a barrier. The conventions of theatre, the music, costume, are therefore applied in these public spaces, turning each into a makeshift theatre, rather than tailoring performances to these outdoor settings. In this way there is a sense that the works are meant for a theatre and are simply being imposed on these public spaces.

It’s not a transgressive form of displacement, part of a deliberate intention, but one that is the result of logistics and practicality that hinder the works from living up to their full potential – that could be realised in a conventional theatre space. Such is the feeling with works such as The Widow by Mandisi Shindo, which takes place across the street from St George’s Cathedral. It has great potential and relates to the site; it is built around the ubiquitous RIP memorials that spring up on roads where people have lost their lives. So the work is grounded in public space but the histrionics, over-the-top costumes and stylised gestures and performance situate the performance outside of the context. In other words, the boundary between reality and fiction is hard and certain, and this enforces the boundary between the street, the reality of it and the relations between the audience and performers.

In Jinx 103 József Trefelli exploits the boundaries inherent to a makeshift stage, playing with the physical and cultural barricades. The performance space is marked out with red and white-striped barricade tape, and comes to operate as a sign for barriers between the performers themselves, whose cultural differences are gradually eroded through a dance where traditional dances from their native countries are combined into a sort of spontaneous gestural creole.

An overstated brand of performance is adopted by Mhlanguli George in Fourth Person in the Yard. Once again the work is about life on the street – in this case a family drama that plays out in a backyard – but a didactic dialogue and the high drama that defines this piece, which eventually evolves into an abstract work set in an abstract space, immediately disconnects it from the setting. These aren’t events that occur in the street.

Of course, we do not want to simply see street life replayed as it is, there have to be moments when the performances diverge and become self-reflexive. It’s a fine balance that few of the artists in this festival seem to understand. Rather, public art is interpreted as taking theatre to the streets, instead of allowing it to evolve seamlessly from it.
The drawback of this disjuncture between the works and the settings means they don’t prompt you to re-read the spaces where they are set; instead, the work ensures that you are divorced from the setting. This prompts you to question whether it is necessary  for some of them to be presented in public.
Inclement weather brought Alfred Hinkel’s Seep on to a makeshift stage in the Spin Street Studio and it seemed unlikely that this had any impact on the performance, which felt rooted to the rural Namaqualand setting where it was conceived, though it dealt with themes that stretched far beyond that place.

This leads me to conclude that this festival, certainly its incarnation this year, might have more to do with introducing audiences on the street to performance in an effort to draw them into theatres.  This is necessary; audiences that are exposed to these works, directly or indirectly, might not be familiar with theatre, dance or performance. But then the festival needs to be completely reconfigured to own this objective.
Some site-specific works just miss the mark. In/Apt: a contemporary Hanging by Shaun Acker had great potential; in threadbare clothing Gershwin Mias appeared like the homeless people who gravitate to an area between where the old slave lodge is located and the chambers of Parliament.
His body was looped around a rope suspended in this area but the presentation, the introduction to the work, didn’t allow him  to emerge from that scene. A passing homeless man grumbled when he saw the performance.

Being, by Owen Manamela and Aeneas Wilder’s Under Construction were both set in and near the District Six Museum. Wilder’s Under Construction is a large temporary wooden structure that fills the double-volume room at the Homecoming Centre in Buitenkant Street. It is destroyed after its pain-staking construction, evoking the annihilation of District Six during the apartheid era. Being is a less straightforward work that through its own complicated staging on two different floors and the confused thematics around determinancy loses its potency.

ITC isn’t a programme to appease critics like myself. I realised early on in the festival that I am not the target audience. Too much of the work is light entertainment, and is unsatisfying for a seasoned artgoer, though I do wonder whether the tastes of audiences, the various publics, are being underestimated.
It is possible for artists to make work that can satisfy all audiences, and perhaps that is the highest goal of art. Mamela Nyamza’s Okuya Phantsi Kwempumlo (The Meal), which was performed under the towering skeletons of mammals in the Iziko Natural Museum, had broad appeal. In garish pink tutus, which fitted uneasily, Nyamza and Kirsty Ndawo showed the struggle to comply with the strictures of ballet, the language of colonialism imposed on the bodies of Africans.
As the duo tried to appropriate the moves of this classical form, they broke it down slowly, until it was unrecognisable and they were free, though not completely liberated. It was an amusing, bold and accessible work that didn’t need to be contextualised to be understood. It was at ease in the setting, echoing the politics that inform the conception of the museum.

You could argue that art is always for the public and is always site-specific in a way. What we need to rethink is what these terms mean in a festival that attempts to highlight these aspects. - published March 24.

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