‘Nah man, there isn’t any art at Arts On Main anymore.’ This was a comment from a friend of mine during a heated conversation about the socio-economic complexities of the Maboneng Precinct. Whilst the merits of this statement are vastly layered, I was thinking about the validity of this comment after taking in the third season of The Centre For The Less Good Idea.
For the uninitiated, The Centre For The Less Good Idea is a interdisciplinary series of arts events which take place predominantly at Arts On Main, in Maboneng. Its launch last May could easily have been relegated to the unopened section of art event invites, the kind that don’t hold your attention in the myriad of social media feeds. But the gravitational pull of William Kentridge and the curiosity of its odd name, gave the festival the street cred it needed to see tickets getting snapped up. The name is inspired in part by a Tswana proverb: If the good doctor can’t cure you, find the less good doctor. But this is applied to artistic practice, as the website states: ‘Often you start with a good idea. It might seem crystal clear at first but when you take it out to the proverbial drawing board, cracks and fissures emerge on its surface and they cannot be ignored.’ The Centre as such aims at being the safe space where those cracks and fissures can be interrogated and experimented with in an attempt to find what could, can and will develop. It becomes a space where less good ideas journey to become great ideas. The third season ran last April and it saw both solo and collaborative interdisciplinary projects.
However, before assuming that The Centre For The Less Good Idea is yet another in the list of art festivals to inject the inner city of Johannesburg with a dose of artsy culture, like The Playtime Festival or even Arts Alive, the Centre has no aim to present completed or even resolved work. At it’s Arts On Main base camp and in satellite locations such as the Drill Hall, the collaborative engagements between artists, curators, musicians, theatre-makers and dancers were for the most part uncooked and not yet fully developed. This makes it at its core a safe incubator for creative experimentation, leading to growth and discovery.
The third season had two main streams of works, Desert by Lindiwe Matshikiza, and Writing for the ear, writing for the eye curated by Bhavisha Panchia and Bettina Malcomess. Despite there being only two core programmes for this season, 30 local and international artists were called upon. This team of curators and hand picked artists worked alongside William Kentridge and animateur Bronwyn Lace.
Desert, I think, best embodies how the Centre changes the perception of Arts On Main as a barren white elephant graveyard. Hovering between stage, installation and film Desert is composed from extracts from Harold Courlander’s A Treasury of African Folklore and work by John Matshikiza. Its complex layering uses elements of sound, design, film, live performance, lighting, installation, projection, animation, architecture and archive. Like good art should always do, it is challenging – situating its audience in spaces which at times feel uncomfortable. I found myself clapping at the end of the first performance whilst looking at those around me for approval. Was I the only one in this boat? Puzzled yet intrigued? Performers chanted, danced and painted on a strip of canvas placed on a runway-like structure in what can, probably, best be described as an ethnicised Pollock-esque action painting. The end result was an abstract desertscape. Moving inside for the rest of the performance, music took center stage. João Renato Orecchia Zúñiga and his band of collaborators, used turntablism, projection and dance journeying deeper into the desert. After the production had concluded the canvas that initially had ushered us in, now led us out of the Desert. Despite feeling lost at the start, I left the space feeling privileged to have seen this experimental work.
It is easy for one to forget that Arts On Main is home to William Kentridge’s studio and, I would guess a determining factor to why he chose to have The Centre For The Less Good Idea located here. This is worth remembering when you find yourself debating the legitimacy of this space as an artistic creative hub.