You will be assimilated
24 October 2014 15:19 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Live Art Festival in Cape Town: Not your mother’s arts festival

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Life, etc
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The opening of the second Live Art festival in Cape Town gives J. BROOKS SPECTOR a chance to speak with the festival director Jay Pather about what this push-your-buttons, stretch-the-envelope festival includes and hopes to achieve.

What with all the world crises to worry about, and those troublesome developments in South Africa as well, maybe a little multi-media, push-the-envelope, move beyond the usual boundaries, cultural festival is just what one needs, for a change. If so, then the Live Art festival - opening in Cape Town on Wednesday, 27 August and running through 6 September - may be just the right ticket. Live Art offers works from around the world, especially selected to challenge, confront and seduce, but never to reassure.

Besides South Africans, participating artists and performers include figures from Switzerland, the United Kingdom, United States, Cameroon, Nigeria, Netherlands and Ghana. The festival takes place in various spaces on the University of Cape Town (UCT) Hiddingh Campus, the Cape Town City Hall and several other nearby venues, such that audiences can attend up to five works per evening.

Shortly before this festival was scheduled to begin, The Daily Maverick spoke to Jay Pather, artistic director of the festival and the head of the Gordon Institute for the Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA), an autonomous cultural institute at UCT. Once one of the enfants terrible of South Africa’s dance and cultural worlds in the 1980s, Pather’s ambitions to keep treading in controversial cultural waters have led to the Live Art festivals, even as Pather is now a pillar of the “avant-garde establishment”.

Asked about the rationale for doing such a festival, Pather explains, “I’ve been doing theatre for 35 years and going through a range of conventional theatre structures from training to choreographing, myself, and working towards development initiatives… It’s always been for me unsatisfying, the kind of correlation of the complexities of content and the form… but not always sure the complexities of what our lives are like in these contemporary times in South Africa, with all the paradoxes of our democracy born out of the liberation struggle.” Pather added that the many different eddies such as the capitalist, the socialist, the internationalist, the women’s agendas are all tropes thoroughly embedded in South African contemporary society, and he argues he remains unsure the usual performance models actually get the job done to break through.

Pather went on to explain that right from his early days as a Fulbright scholar in New York in the early 1980s, he was aware of the ideas about  “performance” that stretched the mind and helped make audience members skeptical about what they were watching – rather than delivering “warm fuzzies” that sent audiences out into the night and then to the comfort and reassurance of their respective homes. Rather, he warmed to approaches that left one troubled and unnerved - and that forced everyone to figure out on their own what they were thinking about, about what they had witnessed. The real impact came in that pushing and pummeling of those sometimes-sacrosanct artistic and cultural boundaries. As a result, as a festival, Live Art is hard to categorise; but Pather slyly insists it has been deliberately designed to leave its audiences befuddled, confused, angry, irritated - but never, ever content.

Rather, Pather explains, “This festival is committed to producing work by artists who are investigating the very forms of what they are doing and bringing together fairly familiar themes like the nation or femininity, but looking with very forensic eyes. And [the] collaborations [are] across the disciplines. [For example,] a choreographer is working in a visual arts medium - they bring a kind of freshness of the forms they are using.”

Asked if this emphasis on performance art is something new, Pather elaborates, “Well, yes and no. Live art and performance art are about 120 years old, what with the Dadaists, the futurists, the impressionists, the Bauhaus movement, all of this was a long time ago. Before, it was on the outskirts, but now it very much part of the language – just look at the music videos of a rap singer and the layering of images in social media…. All of this is looking from a variety of perspectives. Besides, one shouldn’t underestimate whether audiences are tuned into this kind of thing.”

For example, he points out that at the previous Live Art festival, two years ago, audience responses to the festival were well beyond his wildest expectations. For one performance piece in 2012, a work that took place at the Long Street Baths, hundreds of people queued up to attend it. Pather says this underscores just how much of an appetite there is for such work. As a result, the Live Art festival has been designed to meet a real need from people who actually want to engage with work that is way, way, way outside their usual comfort zones.

But, given the likelihood some people in government may easily see these works as subversive, anti-government challenges - and in light of official reactions to all the predecessor cultural movements Pather had noted earlier, let alone to various push backs by government on the arts in recent years here - is he worried about some serious attitude, some backlash, from the government about his festival?

Pather pauses for moment before responding, but then replies, that it certainly is true that performance art started out as an anti-fascist movement. And then, in its resurgence in the 1960s, anti establishment politics drew on the power of performance art as well.  And yes, artists in this Live Art festival are addressing all those, so-called “big issues”. South African choreographer Boyzie Cekwana, for instance, is addressing images of authority in a work ostensibly about poverty. But rather than simple anti-government propaganda, the ways the works in Live Art manifest themselves will bear on the complexities and issues of government. Given South Africa’s poverty and the country’s history that is something one simply can’t take lightly, after all.

And besides, he goes on, “A university is the space for ideas. If not in universities, then where?” The country doesn’t have censorship laws (although someone like Brett Murray might conceivably demur), he says, but, yes, “We’re testing the limits of this. There is the issue of nudity, but that’s been with us for a while now. Artists are handling this with a great deal of care. I’d welcome some debate, that is what these works are there for.” Audience debate is crucial, Pather insists. An arts festival doesn’t want an actual street fight about its works, but still, it seems it shouldn’t be immune to the positives of some good, rousing arguments.

Asked about the problematic notion that a festival like this one only showcases work that can really never be taken home and hung on the wall, or played on the television screen again for later enjoyment, Pather agrees, but adds that while, “That is a very fair point and that is why Cape Town audiences – audiences that are a little blasé – they’ve got to pitch because that’s all there is. Afterwards there are images and films online, but that is a reduction of what it is. It is performance. It is live, and it reminds how singular and precious such works are.  That is perhaps why performance artists are so extreme. Its roots lie in its politics. It demands commitment - demands one be there.”

Given an irony that this festival is actually underwritten by a foundation supported by an insurance company, does Pather see this as a bit of a paradox; is he discomfited by the sources of this money for all the idol smashing? Pather, laughs, and says, “Yes, it is a paradox. But we embrace that.”

- - - - -

The Live Art performance works have been curated around several main themes. The first, Framed, speaks to representation and includes a work by the inaugural winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Performance Art, Anthea Moys, with the world premiere of her work, The Impossible Auction, at the City Hall. Co-founder of the Glass Theatre, John Nankin, also presents a world premiere of the work, Shakespeare’s Chair. Nicole Seiler from Switzerland uses technology in her two South African premieres, and Amsterdam-based Ntando Cele presents the South African premiere of her critically acclaimed Complicated Art for Dummies. Rosa Postlethwaite from the United Kingdom has created a work especially for the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, exploring site, memory and meta-narrative (Editor: Er, whatever that is). Building on Andy Warhol’s now-universally quoted idea of concept of 15 minutes of fame; Nadja Daehnke's My Minutes inverts assumed roles and invites audiences into the spotlight. Michaelis Galleries present the Independent Curators International’s do it exhibition.

The theme, Republic, meanwhile, is about state, nation and nationhood. It includes the South African premiere of the work, In Case of Fire, Run for the Elevator, by the lauded choreographer Boyzie Cekwana, and Mamela Nyamza’s acclaimed 19-Born-76-Rebels. Eduardo Cachuco’s premiere Flatland: A Method for the Experimental Production of Emotions, a lecture-performance that uses texts by Hendrik Verwoerd, and this forms a foil to the visceral dance performance by Thulani Chauke, Black Dog. The theme also includes the participation of Ghanaian artist Bernard Akoi-Jackson and performance artist Julia Raynham who presents the premiere of Monsoon.

Sello Pesa’s Limelight on Rites, heads a series of works about the theme, Body and Mortality. In this group, Mohau Modisakeng creates a new work Ukukhumula (“unclothing”), which refers to the final stage of the cleansing ceremony performed at the end of an extended period of mourning. The performance, featuring 13 performers, will be installed in the Mayor’s Chambers in the City Hall. Chuma Sopotela’s Inkukhu ibeke iqanda (“the chicken has laid its eggs”) and Tebogo Munyai’s searing look at mining provide idiosyncratic takes on the black body as a site of “contestation and decomposition”. UK artist Brian Lobel explores the body in a work that draws upon his own experience of cancer, while Annemi Conradie’s collaboration with John Wayne Stevens uses suspension, hanging the body from hooks pierced through the flesh, as a vehicle to explore the body’s limits. Providing a rousing and triumphant perspective on the human body, Andile Vellem, in Unmute, works with mixed ability performers in an unbridled, bold use of physicality and the deconstruction and reconstruction of wheelchairs to create images and narrative of startling beauty. Between Subject and Object, an exhibition curated by Penny Siopis, Kathryn Smith and Josephine Higgins, looks at the representations of death.

Meanwhile, one of Africa’s leading performance artists, the Nigerian Jelili Atiku, presents a new work Eleegba (Oginrinringinrin III), in a series entitled Abject Object. This series includes the sculpture and puppetry of Jill Joubert in the poignant Apple Girl, while Alex Halligey animates found objects with human voices in Resound. In Eyes closed with piñata, the blindfolded Thalia Laric sets out to destroy a suspended, papier mâché buck head to a contemporary reworking of Vaslav Nijinsky’s L'apres Midi d'une Faune.

Exploring diverse notions of Femininities, are mixed media works like The Walk: South Africa by Mothertongue Project director Sarah Matchett, and writer Genna Gardini and performer Siphumeze Kundayi. Grahamstown-based Nomcebisi Moyikwa pushes dance to extremes in the startling Caught, about two women caught in a room with one light bulb as their only source of light. And the UK-based Season Butler presents The Woman Who Walks on Knives.  Of this work, Dora Mortimer, in a review of the SPILL Festival in London last year, wrote, it “creates a cobweb-fine balance of danger and seduction and raises interesting questions about the nature of sacrifice in art”. Meanwhile, Nigerian-American artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji, offers a site-specific performance, Can't I just decide to fly? Completing the series will be Weaam Williams’ Ancestral Omega: The Medora, which explores the feminine narrative of the Cape Malay people using the Medora, a traditional headdress. This multi-disciplinary work uses performance, photography, video, graphic design, scripted narration and a Malay choir.

The Periphery as Threshold features Influences of a Closet Chant by Johannesburg-based Albert Khoza, which will be at the Festival directly after performances in Paris. The provocative Gavin Krastin’s Rough Musick explores archaic shaming rituals as a means to control and cohere. In the South African premiere of Quartier Sud, Cameroonian artist Christian Etongo considers the movement of the illegal immigrant while Richard September and Dann-Jaques Mouton’s Category Syndrome explores status, stereotypes and reclassification. Marginalised communities are examined in The Place We Ran From by The Uninvited Artists, and, rounding off this series, Cabaret Crawl takes audiences to various clubs in the Cape Town neighbourhood of Green Point, featuring a combination of Cape Town and London-based performance, drag and cabaret artists, directed by Brian Lobel and Season Butler. DM

The detailed Festival programme is available on www.gipca.uct.ac.za.

Photo: Un-mute by Andile Vellem (Photo by Dex Goodman)

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Life, etc


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