When a country of immigrants, arguably the most powerful in the world, provocatively and inexplicably refuses entry to hundreds of immigrants on account of the fact that they are of a particular faith, you know that we are living in a time of turbulence and extremes. A time when loss of human dignity is not rare nor simply a metaphor, where freedoms, rights, the sanctity of life and the human body are increasingly vulnerable.
Performance art has its roots in times of extremity. In the early 20th century performance art flourished alongside the rise of fascism, culminating in such movements as Dadaism and Futurism. Unable to give expression to the complexity and depth of human emotion in response to fascism through conventional art-making, artists searched in disruption, nonsense language, the non sequitur, the illogical and in the fragment, for the anti-form. Any expression that defied the previously sacrosanct logics of the quintessential art work was welcomed.
These in-the-moment, once-off art happenings and experiences shocked audiences and troubled their hold on logic. The intentions of the artists were often about inviting a closer, more realistic relationship with the enormity and brutality of what was happening outside the sterile civilities of a white cube gallery and the neat, safe proscenium stage. The relevance of live art today as an appropriate retort to the irrationality of much of what is happening globally and nationally is plain to see, and will emerge more clearly still at the Institute for Creative Art’s (ICA) Live Art Festival – not only in its 34 performances but in its scheduled addresses, panels, workshops and Question&Answer opportunities between audiences and artists.
Of course, live art is not only the product of conflict. The popularity of live art in contemporary times, inviting the mistrust of singular voices for over a hundred years, may be attributed to the way live art strips away pretension and gets to the centre of a fiercely contemporary mindset. Its feeling is modern, risky, edgy, provocative. It is colourful not just in image but in opinion – the idiosyncratic points of view of artists, untrammeled and eschewing “nice” packaging for an audience. And mostly for the way live artists wield a multiplicity of media in the course of doing this. In many instances the results are unpredictable. The hallmark of much of live art is the integrity of a moment that may have taken months to prepare but that is open to anything in the event of its happening. It is art-making in front of your eyes. So live art often has an effervescence and a danger as the artist ventures into the reality and intimacy of a particular moment that may never be repeated.
The ICA Live Art Festival is made up of artists and researchers from the visual and performing arts, architecture, music, electronic media, social sciences, and archaeology. This multidisciplinary approach, epitomised in several cross-discipline collaborations, characterises an artistic consciousness that is restless and constantly searching for a way to arrive at something that remains elusive. As the gravity of themes would have us appreciate: history, land, feminist politics, violence, class, race, queer politics, the archive. Simple solutions are not invited. Neither are feel-good wrap-ups and neat resolutions, for the hallmark of these performances is a preponderance of a dogged integrity – and it is impossible to do both.
Live artists also defy the logic of commerce. Commercial art enterprises (galleries, fairs, auction houses) have supported and sustained many artists. But they have also sucked away at some of the core impulses of why we make art, and for whom. The wanton association of the arts with the elite who are able to afford art has unfortunately surfaced even as commercial enterprise has succeeded. Moreover, artists become the succour for both the conscience and aesthetic tastes of wealthy people. In eschewing the commercial space and thereby defying the logics of commerce, artists put themselves at great risk. The aesthetic and political risk is accompanied no doubt by a commercial risk. The fact that a performance cannot be bought, bubble wrapped and hung bears testimony to this.
In times of extremity the twin impulses to find an (anti-) form that mirrors the irrational assault on logic, and to resist the commercialising of art, make live art a compelling (even necessary) mode for the expression of contemporary complexities.
Performance art was more vigorously championed by visual artists who developed a performative element as opposed to the static art work. This began to foreground issues of immediacy and urgency and the experimentation tended to be anarchic and extremely political. Over the years the term “live art” was introduced to include performance art but also to embrace growing technology which simply means that for a work to be “live” there does not always have to be a performing body.
This whole field starts to make us question art forms such as “pure” theatre and dance, the static visual art form, and the archaic musical traditions that linked, for example, melody with music. Artists question these narrow categories and open new areas and new ways of looking. This is enormously exciting if one goes along with it fearlessly, unafraid to leave assumptions about art at the door.
Ultimately these new images, sounds, movements and forms that arise are often taken up by the mainstream years later because they are rich and provocative and they endure in the consciousness. They are also beautiful. Steven Cohen’s disruptive performances contain images that are extraordinarily detailed and beautiful, making the performance both alluring and profoundly disturbing. In some of Mamela Nyamza’s excruciating moments in DE-APART-HATE, there is a deceptive symmetry and heightened beauty that is disarming. Samson Kambalu’s filmic images, like Larry Achiampong’s images, are compelling because they are so carefully composed and yet they disturb and provoke our hold on the logical. Taketeru Kudo (who used to dance with the very famous and controversial Sankai Juku) collaborates with South African dancer jackï job in Dreams and Dragons – alluding to the exquisite torture of combining those places that we would rather avoid with the dazzling beauty of form and technique.
History is everywhere at this year’s festival, whether it is directly handled as in Sethembile Msezane’s Excerpts from the Past or Achiampong’s subtle unpacking of his own personal diasporic history. The need for an inventory of sorts seems to predominate much of the work. Memory Biwa and Robert Machiri’s Listening to a listening at Pungwe Nights explores the relationship between recording, translation and the recyclability of transnational phonographic cultures, through a sonic remix of Khoekhoegowab orature and Mbira tongues. With strategies such as remixing, the forays into history are contemporary and modern as the archive is interfered with and resuscitated, but also ironic and uncomfortable as in Donna Kukama’s Chapter Y: Is survival not archival? Set inside the Iziko National Gallery, this performance lecture will confront and explicate the artefact and the archive. Whiteness itself becomes an archive in Dean Hutton’s #fuckwhitepeople, a site specific work that engages with the notion of, in Hutton’s words, “how to fuck the white in you” – a reference to a historic accumulation of a way of being rather than a skin colour. Alan Parker’s Ghostdance for one is all about the archive and the uneasy, nourishing yet unreliable relationship between what we think we know and who we are now.
Violence against the female body, a recurrent theme in our society, takes precedence in the work of Gabrielle Goliath, Zanele Muholi, Buhlebezwe Siwani, Chuma Sopotela and Kivithra Naicker, amongst several others. But the forms are vastly different –ranging from voice to film to installation to popular culture and music videos – and proffer a wide range of perspectives and atmospheres. Fragility of freedoms of health burn through in the work of Genna Gardini who looks at misdiagnosis and multiple sclerosis. Gavin Krastin excavates William Golding’s profound “pig” image from Lord of the Flies in a physically painful evocation of the taking away of gay rights. Kamogelo Molobye extends this to a wider reading of masculinities. Using sport and games as a strategy he foregrounds the fragility of all male to male relationships, particularly queer relationships, in a world that does not seem to settle on rights – a world in which rights are constantly in flux, no matter how long or arduous the fight.
Exemplifying this theme is an immersive installation inside the dungeons of the historic Castle by Meghna Singh entitled The Rusting Diamond. Set in multiple spaces, the running thread is documentary footage of a slowly-sinking ship in the Cape Town harbour, which houses four Ghanaian immigrants suspended without papers and legal recourse. The acclaimed Hasan and Husain Essop’s monumental site specific Gadat, comprising hundreds of participants, continues this theme on the Artscape Theatre stairs on the Foreshore. The Gadats’ melodious sound and tune was the result of slaves not being allowed to pray, thus pretending to be singing. This performance of the ceremonial prayer will be open to the public.
Shifting forms from dance to an endurance performance of note is Foofwa d’Imobilité. He will “dancewalk” from 10:00-5:00 from Cape Town to Woodstock to Observatory to Mowbray to Athlone to Langa. This acclaimed Swiss choreographer will also be presenting a performance lecture of his extraordinary work in other parts of the world.
Turning notions of choirs on its head is the inimitable Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Anthea Moys together with Roberto Pombo in Rechoir. This work invites us to consider the capacity for live artists to play, deconstruct and put together again. This sometimes-unnerving experience also has hilarious results as Moys has shown us in earlier works. She reminds us that live art is a compelling, richly constructed means to look inside of ourselves and tune in – to what we are thinking about, how we think and why.
The association of only individuals – often leaders such as Donald Trump or even Hendrik Verwoerd – with acts of terror against vulnerable people is something of an illusion and a distraction. Because ordinary people put them in power. And millions of them. It’s what ordinary people do to other ordinary people. Racism and fascism, sexism and homophobia may, therefore, be hard to get rid of completely, but an awareness of how we think and why begins to dislodge something deep in the consciousness.
By interfering with accepted logics, live artists force us to re-think, to be hyper aware of our own constructions and to be vigilant. This is vital if we intend to do more than simply dream from the sidelines of a fair, critical and robust society. Immersed in these inspiring, thoughtful, vivid and visceral performances we get closer to how. DM
Jay Pather is Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town and Director of the Institute For Creative Arts which runs the festival.
"Don't gobblefunk around with words." ~ Roald Dahl