The show must go on: the uphill rush to take culture into the digital space 

By Malibongwe Tyilo 30 March 2020

Thursday 4th July 2019. National Arts Festival 2019, Guy Butler Theatre, 1820 Settlers Monument, Fort Selwyn Drive, Makana Municipality, Makhanda (Grahamstown), Eastern Cape, South Africa. NATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL 2019! I Am Somebody. Sirqus Alfon. Creators & Performers Martin Östman, Erik Rosales, Henrik Strindberg. Outside Eye Hugo Hansén. Assistant Choreographer Sofia Södergård. Costume Design Agnes Kenttä. Creative Producer Follow The Rabbit/Josefin Lindberg. Sirqus Alfon bring their amazing creativity using high tech variety and electronica to their engaging music theatre that uses crowd interaction with their performance called 'I Am Somebody' in the Guy Butler Theatre during the National Arts Festival held in Makhanda (Grahamstown), Eastern Cape, South Africa on Thursday 4th July 2019. A series of images taken of various artistic, dance and theatre performance pieces and exhibited installations done by a host of artists, dancers and performers amongst others during the National Arts Festival 2019 in Makhanda (Grahamstown), Makana Municipality, Eastern Cape, South Africa on Thursday 4th July 2019. PICTURE: MARK WESSELS. 04/07/2019. +27 (0)61 547 [email protected]

The National Arts Festival is going digital, and so are many other art platforms as the creative industry rises up to the challenge brought on by the spread of the coronavirus.

As the coronavirus shutdowns rock economies and industries, theatres, galleries, museums and art festivals are taking a major hit. That said, various organisers and the art community are rising up to the challenge. South Africa’s National Arts Festival, now in its 46th year, was planned for 25 June until 6 July 2020. The team has taken the bold decision to go digital.

“We talked about cancelling, but cancelling doesn’t benefit anybody, not the artists, not the sponsors, and it doesn’t benefit us,” says Monica Newton, the festival’s new CEO as of January 2020. 

“We discussed postponing, but the festival is too large to move to a point in the year where there isn’t a complete school and university holiday. And of course, June is really the only time where all of those holidays are actually at about the same time; and then the weather in Makhanda [formerly known as Grahamstown] starts to become a factor in summertime, because it gets so hot.

“As we got to the hundred-day mark before the National Arts Festival, at a time that about coincided with the president’s 15th of March announcement regarding the disaster protocols that would be put in place, it became clear that we needed to make a decision one way or another because we couldn’t have artists continuing to work and incur costs. So we came up with the idea of a virtual festival,” she explains.

Around the world, galleries and other art institutions are innovating and finding ways to make the most of digital platforms. For many, Google’s Arts & Culture website and app, which features virtual exhibitions from some 2,500 galleries, has become a new home.

Others are making the most of their existing online platforms. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has opened a Digital Concert Hall, free until 31 March, where viewers can watch from an archive of more than 600 concerts from the past 10 years. The Biennale of Sydney, which opened on 14 March, has announced that it is going completely digital in partnership with Google.

A little closer to home, the inaugural Stellenbosch Triennale, which opened on 11 February, and was meant to run until 30 April, has also had to close down. It has taken to Instagram’s IGTV, posting videos of walkabouts, featuring its various exhibitions.

On 26 March, the Stevenson gallery opened its latest exhibition, by artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, on Instagram, with posts featuring the artist’s work and quotes, as well as regular Instagram story posts that delve deeper into the artist’s research and inspiration.

One of the challenges of moving events on to digital platforms is to make sure the work translates effectively. While some work can translate well on video, some might not. And for work that still needs to be made, like some of the work that will be presented at the National Arts Festival, there is the question of access to artmaking tools; some pieces also require teams to travel regularly to be in the same room during the creation process.

“We are definitely reaching out to technology and telecommunications companies and our existing partners to sort of also challenge them in the space, to say, ‘Look, we need help, cash is always welcome, but also expertise’. For example, if we could get zero-rated URLs, similar to some of the education ones that would allow for free access. 

“And so, hopefully, in the next couple of days you’ll see some exciting announcements from us in that regard. The jazz will also continue to be a really big part of what we do. That is probably going to be largely live-streamed or pre-recorded. Jazz, by its nature, is collaborative, so it’s very hard for jazz musicians to imagine creating jazz separate from each other, and that’s really one of the things that the current lockdown will make quite difficult. But we’re pretty confident that in early June, we’ll be able to do that work and make sure that the jazz is a significant part of the festival,” explains Newton.

Her team is also currently in the process of collaborating with the artists to find ways in which some of their work can be reimagined for a digital platform. 

Says Newton: “There are a lot of artists who are working with augmented and virtual reality already. And that’s the kind of an imagination that we’re really wanting to tap into. This actually presents a really interesting new way for us to think about design and visual arts. 

“Some architectural practices have also been in touch, because of course, they do a lot of their work in a 3D space, with 3D modelling, and with the architectural biennale not happening this year, there’s been a bit of interest from that side. So I think it’s gonna be a very, very interesting festival for us now. 

“One of the most amazing things about this festival team is how innovative they are. Everybody is working 300% on making this happen.”

Business unusual

With very little time to plan, there is no choice but to innovate on the go. Lauren Woolf, founder of Mrs Woolf, a marketing agency that works with businesses in the creative industry, including galleries, design businesses and auction houses, launched The Lockdown Collection (TLC), an online initiative to run during South Africa’s 21-day lockdown, in partnership with Artist Proof Studio and the Sirdar group.

The idea behind TLC is to get 21 visual artists to each create a work that reflects on and documents their experiences during this time. The work will then be sold and the proceeds from the sales will be split three ways:  towards the solidarity fund set up by the president, a vulnerable artists fund, and the participating artists.

“But if I tell you… we’re doing this minute by minute…we haven’t got it all figured out. I think a campaign like this might take a year for an agency to figure out and we went from conception to creation to launch in 72 hours, and we’re already on day two,” says Woolf.

“I’m very passionate about the arts and creativity. I mentor for BASA [Business and Arts South Africa], I’m on the board of the Artist Proof Studios. And I mentor a lot of young visual artists, because I believe in creatives, I believe in the storytelling of artists, and I believe that they are often a very unsupported sector, but they’re so crucial for society.”

On the day Maverick Life spoke to Woolf, it was day two of the national lockdown, and day two of TLC’s showcase. The first day featured work by Gordon Froud, published on their new Instagram page; day two featured a work in progress by Lindo Zwane.

“We’ve already raised in excess of R200,000, and every day is an opportunity to do more,” says Woolf. 

Three days isn’t exactly an ideal amount of time to organise something like this, and currently, her team is working around the clock to build a website for the project, to get more partners and artists involved, and to get word out to vulnerable artists so that they are able to apply to the fund.

“You’ve just got to do it. If we sit around and wait to get the right artists for tomorrow, then we’re gonna miss the day. We’ve already got commitment from well-known artists Penny Siopis and Diane Victor. Liza Essers from the Goodman Gallery is working with us to give us guidance. It’s really amazing and I get all excited; it’s got huge potential, we just need to give it wings now,” says Woolf. 

Louder for the ones at the back

Although going online might present an opportunity to reach wider audiences, one of the challenges that remains is audience activation. A live event offers the opportunity of a real-time shared experience for audiences, while in physical proximity to each other, offering them a sense of occasion. Although we can all click through to a website, festivals and other art events will also be competing with so much more online content for attention.

“Some of the Facebook platforms like watch parties and those kinds of things definitely enable us to create shared experiences, but we do need a completely different kind of marketing to get people to know about the festival and to want to share the experience. 

“We’re currently talking to two partners about the possibility of a TV channel. Some of the work will translate well on a non-interactive TV kind of platform. That’s one of the big ideas to make sure that the platform is accessible as possible,” says Newton, referring to plans for the National Arts Festival. She also says that her team is working on the back-end of the current website to develop ways to make it a more shared experience.

They are also in the process of discussing with everyone involved how long the work will remain on the website for. 

Says Newton: “Obviously, artists would have the main say with regards to the question of availability, because at the end of the day when an artist agrees to be part of a festival, we have limited use. There’s also the value of exclusivity. When you’ve been to a festival and you’ve seen something there that you couldn’t see anywhere else, that makes a difference. So, we’re thinking about that as well… how do we really make this special? Especially now at a time when, you know, the world needs hope and inspiration.

“There’s a lot of interesting platforms for us to begin to experience: podcasts that we’ve never done before, using Google Hangouts as a social space for the festival, challenging some of our art critics to join us and be part of the festival, but in a completely different way, and using social media in ways that we’ve not done before. If we fail, we’re gonna fail forward.” ML

If you would like to share your ideas or suggestions with us, please leave a comment below or email us at [email protected] and [email protected].

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