Infecting The City, Cape Town’s public art festival, begins its citywide interventions, walking tours, serious ponderings, and general madness this week Tuesday and runs until the 10th of March. It’s the largest public arts festival in South Africa and is designed not for the lofty art fags but for the man on the street, those that hurry back from their work day, those that don’t have the time or resources to engage meaningfully with their city, its history and its myriad people. Events are staged daily, and nightly, all over the city, ranging from orchestral performances in the train station, to deep conceptual initiation performance art in the Long Street Baths. Cars will be driven at audiences at high speed near the Moravian church, images will be projected onto old buildings at night, storefronts will change their purposes and there will be wandering provocation and dancing. In short, it’s the week where the city becomes a playground, a dreamscape, an imaginary beast sloughing off its nightmares.
Featuring work by Chas Unwin, Athi-PatraRuga, Cape Town City Ballet, Dada Masilo, Nicola Hanekom, SelloPesa & Vaughn Sadie, Victorine Müller, Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya, and Julia Raynham; the festival takes its form, firstly, in a series of scheduled walking tours to the various performance sites.And, secondly, in some random acts of minor disruption, as well as a conference around the purpose of public art. Below, we spoke to Jay Pather, the festival’s curator about Infecting The City, Public Art and what it means to ”beautify” a city.
Mahala: There was talk last year of ITC being underfunded and fears that it would be abandoned this year. Is there a new funding strategy in place?
Jay Pather: I wasn’t around last year, I wasn’t part of it, and so I can’t comment. However there has been a budget cut this year, and we’ve had to take a different approach, which was to put out a combination of calls, one for new work from artists and the other for works from arts companies to be co-presented. Infecting The City is still an Africa Centre project and funded by their various supporters, but with this new approach we’ve managed to expand the program this year.
And you’ve also taken the step to stage some of the performances at night.
The issue of night staging is a double-edged sword, mostly because the city empties out at night. People do make arrangements to come in for arts events at night, but it’s generally people who don’t rely on public transport. Infecting The City is a public arts festival and public access is important, but it’s also about the poetics of the public space when it’s not being used, often these poetics are hidden by the utilitarian nature of daily life. Some of our artists are very interested in these spaces when they’re empty; when they’re not being used they’re inhabited by the ghosts and whispers of the day. Staging at night also allows people who can’t get away from work, who can’t get attend the day performances to experience the festival. I really think it solves most of the problems.
Is public art for the public? Does it not interrupt and inconvenience normal life?
Public art is by its nature an intervention, and a disruptive act, if it was to be placed in neat corners, like we do buskers, or in an amphitheater, like in Thibalt Square, it suddenly becomes very naff; it has nothing to play off. It’s meant to shake you out of your complacency, to remind you of another world outside of your nine to five. Public art is not an item that aims toward gentrification, there is this way of seeing it as a way to beautify the city, that very pastoral. Art works like The Dragonfly Girls on the promenade do not exist to disrupt, they are there to prettify. But beauty can be found in the anarchic, the disruption itself is the beauty, it can push you into the dream world you’ve been trying to avoid. However as public art is an act of violation and disruption it’s up to the city fathers, the festival directors, the artists, and the curators to guide it. We know it’s not an immature act. We understand why it has to happen.
What limitations do you put on the artists when you brief them?
You know, when an artist tells me what they want to do, I often think to myself, “Do you have to do that? Do you know how many more city permissions that’s going to take?” But I suppress my desire to say that it’s going to be difficult, primarily because I believe that disruption is important. We’re not doing Generations,it’s not soap opera, its something else.
How does the notion of Cape Town as a constantly photographed or filmed city interfere with the spectacle of public art performance?
I once did a dance performance in Cape Town station. During the course of the performance, there were two women, with shopping bags, going to catch the train, when they saw the performance; their reaction was to look around to see if there was camera, in case they were in the way. For me that was quite sore; that they felt they might be in the way of a camera, when the work was actually for them.
It’s very difficult, the city can get as rich and as fat as it can from foreign filming, but it will be city without a soul, where people continue to feel alienated in their own environment.
We are so used to not getting for us, streets are being cleaned, roads are built for tourists, for those coming for Design Indaba, or for the opening of Parliament, but never for the public. We have to build a nation that expects these things for themselves, a nation that sees that this work is for them.
During the rehearsal for one of the performances, in a shopping mall, we were trying to negotiate just a small place for the dancers to change, and the attitude was that they had given over so much already, why should the dancers be given more. What they couldn’t see was that the point is that it’s not for anything else, but the upliftment of the public at large.
Public art touches the core issue of public space; is this yours or is this someone else’s? And the way this is seen has to change.
When I interviewed Oliver Hermanus about the making of Skoonheid, he said that his producer, while trying to get permission to shoot on Clifton, realized that Clifton was never actually filmed as Clifton, it was always a stand in for somewhere else.
I live in the city, and it’s so often I can’t get to my apartment, that the streets are blocked off for filming, you get weird signs next to the statue of Van Riebeck, “Ye Olde English Shoppe” or something like that. We’re so often the cheap set for the Spanish villa, or the South of France, and we’re supposed to be proud of that? We need to maintain balance or we’ll end up as this hopelessly gentrified soulless city.
How advanced is the formulation of public art policy in South Africa, and Cape Town in particular?
Joburg has a public art policy, there is one other city, but it’s certainly not Cape Town. We’re having, on the Friday, a public discussion on the formation of a public arts policy, hosted by GIPCA, the Africa Centre and Creative Cape Town. Zayd Minty and Roger Van Wyk will be talking about the lack of public art policy, and how public art policy exists internationally and nationally. And how public art can uplift the lives of the people who exist in that space.
*All performances listed on the Festival programme are free. A detailed programme is available on www.infectingthecity.com or by contacting the Africa Centre on 087 150 5446.