The ICA Live Art Festival which takes place throughout February in Cape Town presents a refreshing approach to the local art scene – showcasing 34 sophisticated and political works free of charge. As remnants of the apartheid regime are still present, the city lives with huge inequality. As a result the majority of its residents are excluded from participating in the creative economy. Add to that, the historic oppressing cultural policies keep the museums, theatres and galleries with an exclusive feel of colonial elitism. By insisting on free entrance the festival stands out in the long list of local cultural happenings, such as the Jazz Festival or Art Fair, and challenges the inequalities embedded in the local economy.
One challenge that remains tricky to address, is the geographical address of the festival. The line-up is spread around seven different “stages”, mainly next to cultural institutions in central Cape Town (CBD), such as Iziko National Gallery, Hiddingh Campus, Youngblood gallery, Artscape, the Castle of Good Hope, and some public spaces like Church Square and Long Street. The organisers, UCT based Institute for Creative Arts (ICA), are not alone – the vast majority of the Cape cultural production takes place in the city centre.
According to recent statistics, only 6,000 people of the 3 million residents of Cape Town live in the centre (0.2%). If you belong to that small group of people, you know the feeling that comes with it: walking the city streets during non-office hours, any given evening or during the weekend, feels like a stroll through a ghost town. The only faces you will encounter are of street residents – those who ironically are not counted in the above statistic surveys, and are not addressed by the cultural initiatives.
That strange reality poses the question as to what extent are free performances accessible to the public. The public transport, on which the majority of the city relies, is strongly aliened with the contemporary ‘slave routes’ – trains and taxis come to town in the morning, and leave in the evening. Good luck finding a way to get to a 7pm gig in town.
Curator of the festival, Jay Pather, comments on this: “City centres attract a great deal of art work because of large areas of diverse footfall, a reference to the range of people that pass a place on foot. Centres therefore are often most resourced. A city centre like in Cape Town which was the ideal apartheid city and continues to be, also foregrounds the lack of integration in the city. The lack of adequate transport and plans to create affordable housing close to the city are challenges that artists face to maintain visibility and equity at the same time. This does not mean that black audiences do not transcend this and our performances are evidence of this. While this is the case, when artists request a particular idea or space then we honour this.”
In regard to those dynamics, two performances stand out in the Live Art Festival line-up. It is interesting to notice that both artists behind those exceptional shows are currently based in Geneva, Switzerland. The imported challengers are Rudi van der Merwe who activates the Sea Point promenade, and Foofwa d’Imobilité who is orchestrating 5-hour long dancewalk from Cape Town CBD, via Observatory and Athlone, ending in Langa.
In conversation with the two artists, it seems that stepping out of the centre is dual move: while one leg steps out of the geographic centre, the other leg steps outside of the institutional art production. The motivation to go to the periphery ranges from political statements to logistic possibilities.
What about your performances made you choose public spaces in the periphery as your venue?
d’Imobilité: Dancing is usually done in a very confined space, even if you are performing on a “big” dance stage. A dancewalk is just the opposite: it is like dancing through a city or a landscape. It is not topic but geographic. The decor of the dancewalk – the walls, the hills – is real. It is not contained and organized as on a stage but surprising as in life. The interaction with “non-actors” people surfaces reactions in unpredictable ways. Dancewalking is like a declaration of freedom with the body as it is going through time and space in interaction with reality; it is a metaphor of destiny: all that is already political.
Following a route that is going from the city center towards the periphery, the outskirts, the suburbs is a way to get away from the touristic. It is about de-centering. I’m doing it here in Cape Town, and one week later in Soweto, and I want these dancewalks to be a social, political and symbolic act, not a touristic event. There are a lot of details and aspects about South Africa and Cape Town that I am ignorant about, I just hope that we, all people organising it, can be sensitive enough so that it has this mix of simplicity (dancing freely) and political weight (doing it in this place has additional meaning).
van der Merwe: Trophée has very specific spatial requirements and the Promenade is uniquely suited for this. It starts with a white fence that cuts a field in two. The audience is on the one side of the fence and on the far side, in the distance, three mysterious figures appear. The figures gradually move closer to the fence and when they reach it, a drum roll starts… The piece unfolds over 300 meter and we prefer to always have that depth of vision.
I’ve never really liked working in a black box, which is what most theatres are. Outside you can work on a different scale. You can easily subvert theatrical conventions. The imagination works on a different level. The audience is freer as well.
What is your take on the centralised cultural scene of Cape Town? Is that the inherent nature of most cities, that art happens in the centre?
van der Merwe: I already find it great that things happen outside of institutions and yes, it is quite normal that it stays in the centre. In Geneva, which is a small city with a vast offering of cultural events, festival Antigel was created 5 years ago to specifically seek out spaces on the outskirts and off the beaten track. The festival works like a bomb, but the city already has a dedicated audience of culture junkies who is willing to try out new things.
What is your experience working in public spaces in the periphery?
van der Merwe: When living in Cape Town in 2003-4, I did a series of performances at trance parties which were always out in the middle of nowhere, up in the mountains etc. With Trophée, we created the piece in a field in the middle of the European winter. I enjoy the freedom of being outside, the physical-labour aspect of the work, the contradiction of wearing a delicate dress while being up to my neck in mud. It has an element of survival to it.
d’Imobilité: Both public and institutional spaces are very interesting to me. Dancewalking interacts with reality in general and urban life in particular, in unpredictable, surprising, exciting ways. Also thinking of dancing in terms hours and kilometres is very interesting in my opinion.
When we dancewalked 100 kilometers in 3 days through 4 cities but mainly 4 regions in Switzerland in 2015, dancing with horses in the hills felt as important as one city’s marketplace. My ideal goal would be to dance through every inch of the planet, and give the importance to every one of these places; obviously that is impossible, but I like to think that way, in order to get away from the ideas of prioritisation, elitism, privatisation, etc.
Rudi van der Merwe’s Trophée takes place at 7pm on Wednesday 22 February on the Sea Point Promenade; Foofwa d’Imobilité’s Dancewalk starts at 10am on Saturday 25 February from UCT Hiddingh Campus
More information on the ICA Live Art Festival can be found here.