Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Let me Entertain you: Anthea Moys

By Murray Kruger

The merit of Anthea Moys's new body of work, Anthea Moys vs the City of Grahamstown, lies in its potential to entertain. This aspect of Moys's practice, which is often overlooked in discussions of her work (the emphasis is on her familiar vocabulary of gaming, play, participation, public space and risk), becomes the focus at this year's National Arts Festival. She doesn't do away with her inventory of interests, but rather amplifies them in a formalised display of her prowess as a show-woman. As this year's recipient of the inaugural Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Performance Art, Moys has set herself the ambitious task of attempting to capture and maintain the attention of audiences, all of whom are there to see what should be considered a benchmark project of institutionalised local performance art.

Moys acknowledges in various sources that she is interested in exploring connections between performance, play and public space. She sees activism, education, staged performances and street gaming as the tools to conduct these explorations. Her HIV/Aids: In It Together project as well as Flipside Game are two notable examples. Her work is often collaborative in nature, aiming "to foster connections between different communities and the spaces they inhabit", says the artist on her website.

An early example of this methodology can be found in 2007 when Moys involved boxers and their trainers from George Khosi's Rhema Boxing Club (Hillbrow) in her work. Titled Boxing Games, Moys spent two weeks training with them, coming to terms with the related concepts of play and violence, safety and survival through the development of games. The thematic concerns of these works supposedly "cohere around an interest in the liberating possibilities of play". Through play, she feels alternatives to the status quo can be tested and new alternatives proposed and performed. The "structure" of the everyday, our environments, are the parameters she likes to attempt to reconfigure, albeit momentarily.

Moys is compelled to create work that is accessible to a range of different audiences. Her 94.7 Cycle Challenge performance attests to this. Moys positioned a stationary bike on a section of road that formed part the 2006 cycle race and peddled as though she was a competitor, although she went nowhere. This gesture is easily understood on numerous levels. She displaces and juxtaposes her actions against the proceedings of the race, to comedic effect. By playing the fool, she entices laughter out of the audience as she accentuates the futility and failure of her gesture.

My experience of Moys's work has been as an audience member and a performer participating in her projects. I recall "freezing" on Mary Fitzgerald Square, parading outside the Sandton Convention Centre, welcoming employees at Gordon Institute of Business Science, weaving through Braamfontein in red lycra and waiting for a horse opposite the Circa Gallery in Rosebank. Being "in" the work has allowed me to understand the particular "distancing" that Moys gravitates towards establishing between performer and audience in her work, despite the potential for interaction between these two parties.

For example, while dressed as a jockey, standing on Jan Smuts Avenue in proximity to taxis collecting passengers, we were instructed to keep our communication limited to minor exchanges, answering only the necessary questions if approached. However, when interaction is the modus operandi, the gestures often maintain a tense relationship underscored by the knowledge of the artificiality of this interaction. Here I recall over-zealously shaking the hands of startled employees arriving for work after showering them with confetti. The focus needed to remain on the "show", the action performed, not the show's effects or potential alternative directions it could evolve in that moment. We were positioned as rehearsed curiosities for entertainment.

In Anthea Moys vs the City of Grahamstown, Moys is scheduled to fight the English army, dance the cha-cha in a ballroom competition, compete as a soloist in a choir festival, take on five chess players simultaneously, tackle a soccer team on her own and challenge six Karate black belts in combat. The qualities of endurance and ridiculousness point to the impossibility of success, an inevitable failure. This situates the work within the terrain of a farce, and Moys as the subject (antihero?) to be laughed at (rather uncomfortably).

The multiple "player" roles she will be "performing" are brought together in a series of carefully choreographed promotional photographs (available online at the National Arts Festival website as well as the Facebook event page created to informally chronicle the project).
Moys is always pictured from behind, dressed in the garb particular to the "game" she will be playing. This framing automatically places us, the audience, on her side. There is equivalence between the figures, an alarming sameness that makes Moys appear as a stand-in rather than a personality. It is as if she isn't really there, cancelling herself out with each incarnation. However, this cancellation doesn't allow me as an audience member to project myself into that role. She doesn't seem to want to serve as my stand-in either.
The idea of playing a salsa dancer or a chess player etc can be dangerous because this "front" undermines the details of the game/competition and its "real" participants. Although the training she has undertaken over the last three months leading up to the festival suggests a level of competence, it is just enough to make her appear as a believable player in each arena. But it was never about the games themselves, rather about her playing a "game", as a result her prowess (or lack thereof) as a performer is privileged. What would her winning or losing change really? The potential for entertainment is all that is left and her skill as an entertainer and not a competitor/player should be foregrounded instead when watching the performances.

To be a good entertainer, you must be able to maintain an audience's attention, stimulating it for as long as you are performing. This extended moment is dependent on the delight/pleasure derived from viewing/participating in the activity. TV shows like America''s Got Talent attest to this. With the press of a button (as a manifestation of the audience's attention span) an act can be cut short and forced off the stage.
The converse is also true, their act surviving this gauntlet and being met with applause. However, the show's overall entertainment value lies in the audience delighting in both ends of the spectrum; an act's success as well as its failure. This is the tension that Moys plays with in her proposition for Grahamstown.

For those familiar with Moys and her work, in this particular instance she makes it easy to imagine what to expect in Grahamstown. However, I remain intrigued by the potential that we might be wrong in our predictions and strangely delighted by the action of the games played, rather than their irrelevant outcomes.
There is nothing transgressive here, though. Rather, it's all about her showmanship.This is where the risk lies because it is only in the chosen "delivery" of her performances that Moys has the chance to win over her audience. We will have to wait and see whether she is able to surprise us and prove that entertainment can still be challenging, an avenue not readily pursued by other performance artists. - published in The Sunday Independent, June 30, 2013.

Kruger is a guest blogger that Mary Corrigall was mentoring as part of the South African Arts Writers and Critics Association's Mentorship Programme 2013. 

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