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Art is Contagious

by Andy Davis / 18.02.2011

Infecting the City is Africa’s biggest public arts festival, what that means is, from early Monday morning iKapa will be breaking out in sudden rashes of artistic expression – emanating from the Festival Hub on the Cape Town Station Forecourt and spreading its tentacles throughout the CBD. For a week you can literally stumble on bizarre, beautiful and meaningful performances, exhibitions and random acts of culture. In the build up, we shot the breeze renowned South African dramatist and Infecting the City’s curator, Brett Bailey.

Mahala: What is the grand purpose of ITC?

Brett Bailey: The arts are vital to the general health of society, but squirreled away in galleries, museums and theatres they are beyond the reach of most people. This can be dangerous in a country like ours where resources are few, and things that are perceived to be less important might fall away. Establishing public arenas for the arts is a strategic move to support the survival of a healthy arts culture in this country.

In a society that has as many complex issues as ours, if one is commandeering the communal spaces of the city, it is not enough merely to provide entertainment for the public. There is a moral imperative to tackle the pressing issues of our day, and to ask artists to apply themselves to these.
This philosophy has determined the themes around which the works of the Festival are orientated each year. In 2009 ‘Home Affairs’ looked at xenophobia and human displacement. Last year’s theme – Human Rite – urged artists to envision the Cape Town CBD as a living organism, and to ask ‘what requires integration, transformation and healing? Who needs a platform, and whose stories need to be told?’

This year’s theme – Treasure – incorporates several realms of local treasures.

Is it a process of bringing the inside of galleries onto the streets or is it a more integrated and didactic approach to the artworks / installations?

It’s not about bringing the inside of galleries (or theatres and museums) into the public spaces of the City, but neither do I see the project as didactic. It is rather about establishing a platform on which artists can make works where the public spaces of the city are the forum.

If the arts are to touch diverse people and wide audiences, and ask them to interrogate our world; if the arts need to find a meaningful place in our evolving society and platforms on which they can become sustainable, new models need to be developed. These must engage with what matters to us, and with what we can relate to. They must transform and heighten our reality through the fire of creativity and the techniques of the trade.

The sites for these new forms are the communal spaces of the urban environment, where people from all walks of life can gather in a communitas of shared experience. Public art must infect the grids of our cities – defined by commerce, commuting, control and ideology – with a more human way of experiencing the world. It must make our cities into sites of creativity, beauty, stimulation and sensorial disturbance. Then gradually it will captivate new audiences.

I am constantly reiterating three things to the artists I commission to make works for the Festival: their work must engage with the Festival theme, it must push artistic boundaries, and, without dumbing down to the ‘lowest common denominator’, it must be satisfying and resonant on some level to everybody who attends it – from the street hawker to the culture vulture.

These restrictions demand a particular orientation on the part of the participating artists, but not necessarily a compromise. Artists from diverse creative backgrounds are given an opportunity to experiment, break new ground and engage with important material. They are liberated from the shell of the theatre or gallery where art is so often a commodity, and assured of a captive audience for their work.

watermarks_2_Doung Dala

You’re best known for your work in theatre. How is curating a massive public art project like ITC different to what you’re used to?

My artistic work is intimate, and plays in the safe arenas of local and international festivals where I communicate with small, ticket-buying audiences who are attracted to the kind of work I make. I can be very subjective, convoluted and incisive here. I can invite you into my inner world.

With a public arts festival, a living city is the forum, and my voice is much more public-minded. Here I feel a great deal of responsibility towards making the arts accessible to people from all walks of life, developing audiences as well as works that such audiences can understand, and fostering a more engaged, tolerant and open civic society: one in which the arts has a more meaningful place.

How did you choose the art / performances?

I chose the theme of the Festival, and broke it down into various areas, focusing on the diverse cultural forms of the city, the valuable recyclable waste that ends up in landfills, the ‘invisible’ functionaries that make the city work (street sweepers, security personnel etc.), and the ‘heritage treasures’ of Cape Town. I then approached a wide range of artists who I felt would have interesting responses to aspects of these themes to make works for the Festival.

The obvious size and scope of the festival – being the only public arts festival in Africa – is massive. Is this the best way to spend the money? Is public art more beneficial than spending on social services?

Why are the arts in general important when there are so many pressing matters in need of money? Education? Health care? Housing? Employment? Sanitation? …

We all know that this is a difficult sell.

But we also know that the arts give us hope, joy, beauty, stimulation… They can express ideas, emotions and beliefs that we have no other way of articulating or understanding. We have valued creative expression since we gathered in caves tens of thousands of years ago. It is in our DNA.
But let’s consider the impact of the Festival: the tens of thousands of people that will have access to the works on the Festival and the ideas that these works open up; the opening up of the City for creative intervention, and giving it a more human face; and the fact that – on an incredibly tight budget – well over 300 artists are employed and given exposure on this year’s programme.


Cape Town is notoriously segregated. How do you involve the more marginalised citizens in the festival, especially when many of them live on the outskirts and not in the CBD?

This has been a real concern this year. We even considered touring the Festival to satellite centres of the CBD, but simply do not have the resources.

Part of the idea for the Treasure theme, was to seek out and provide a platform for the cultural expressions – musical and performance – of the diverse communities and cultures of Cape Town. Our hope is that profiling forms such as Spaza hip hop, Ratiep displays, Cape Flats Jazz Dancing, opera and Xhosa stick-fighting will attract a much wider audience into the city.

Why Cape Town and not Johannesburg or Durban? Are there plans to take ITC beyond CT?

Cape Town is a great city to work in because it is so centralized and compact, and the city centre is so cosmopolitan. Johannesburg would be much more difficult, being so spread out. I would love to look at taking Infecting The City to other centres, but even the future of this festival hangs in the balance. Spier has funded it for 4 years, but that cycle has come to an end now and, with the corporate sector divesting from the arts on a grand scale, raising the capital for future festivals is no easy task.

What are the highlights of the festival. Is there one piece that stands out? What should people definitely not miss?

The Festival Hub, on the Cape Town Station Forecourt, is a hive of activity. Durational art installations made out of recyclable waste collected from five Cape Town suburbs spanning the socio-economic spectrum of the City. The Music Gems Stage, with three concerts a day by groups reflecting the cultural diversity of the Cape. Several performance interventions, tours, a Treasure Hunt, and the upgrading of the Station Gardens with the plants of our Floral Kingdom.

There seems to be a bit of a violent undercurrent with some of the exhibitions / artworks like the Xhosa stick fighting and the Cape Flats knife martial art. What’s that all about? How do you bring something like that to an art festival? Is it a performance or a demonstration?

One component of the Festival is called The Jewels. In selecting these I threw my net wide throughout the communities of the Cape. I simply looked for those cultural practises that employ the performative body, i.e. the body performing rehearsed, codified actions and gestures that are not part of everyday behaviour. Thus the Festival provides a platform for an array of rituals, dance pieces, ceremonies and martial arts that are found in Cape Town. Forms like Cape Flats Jazz Dancing, Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, Tai Chi, Ballet and Ratiep are given equal status.

Does it make sense to juxtapose a Sufi ritual with drum majorettes? And anyway, can each of these performances really be called an art form? Where are the boundaries, what criteria do we use to define these boundaries, and how culturally determined are these?

We live in a region where certain cultural viewpoints have always told us ‘this is more valuable and that is less valuable; this is Art with a capital ‘A’, and that is craft; this is a real Treasure and that is just junk’…

In presenting such a wide variety of forms as Art on the Infecting The City programme, I’m asking Capetonians to ask probing questions and to broaden their viewpoints to embrace difference.

What’s the difference between ITC and flash mobbing?

There is no similarity at all.

Infecting the City - Brett Bailey
Image © Morne van Zyl

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