ICA Live Art Festival 2022
19.03 - 03.04.2022
The ICA Live Art Festival recently returned to Cape Town for the first time since 2019 and came as a bit of a shock to the system. This year’s addition was no doubt unique in that we all seemed to be re-discovering the intensity of the live event. As per the curators’ note, artists and festival goers alike took part in “a tentative breathing out, a gathering, being alive and appearing live” for the first time in what felt like ages. Live art is fast becoming an endangered form, but it is by the same token a useful medium with which to explore the vitality and intimacy we long to express now more than ever. This year’s programme brought together a diverse survey of what live art can be at present and the element of ‘liveness’ seemed to take on a rather different meaning for the various works on show. So much so that one is hard pressed to isolate a common thread that binds the festival catalogue together.
For one thing, not all the pieces involved an artist appearing live in front of an audience. The very first artwork on the programme was a video installation by Syowia Kyambi, which made use of on-screen performance to articulate some kind of liveliness. It was an intriguing curatorial choice to open with, one that immediately got me thinking laterally about what to expect from the weeks that were to come. As it turned out, a number of video works were presented and while they lacked the immediate presence of the in-person performances surrounding them, it felt appropriate that the curators included works that engaged with corporeality on screen. Performance was perhaps the most consistent feature, if only because of how ambiguous it is as a medium. The ritual character of performance, in particular, was foregrounded as a crucial part of the production and experience of live art at the festival.
However, some of the more enigmatic pieces seemed to relate only very loosely to common notions of performance. Chief among these was the Nighttime Assembly presented by D.I.T., which can be best described as a participatory sleepover, albeit with a distinctly political outcome in mind. At 11pm on a Saturday, around the halfway mark of the festival, a motley crew of participants assembled to partake in a set of easy-going group activities before collectively going to bed. The experience was designed to inspire a post-capitalist imagination around rest and dreaming. To call the event a performance doesn’t quite cut it and one might rather class it as ‘relational art.’ This controversial and widely memed subgenre refers to art that does not take the form an object one can point to, but consists in the relational networks that produce it. There was no clear art object to pour over at the D.I.T. event (although one of the artists did give me a tube of Ayurvedic toothpaste that I keep as a token of the experience). Instead, the interactions that occurred around the event can be appreciated as its ‘product.’ While a performance is perhaps hard to discern here, the D.I.T. sleepover was undoubtedly live and felt ritualistic in its structure. The underlying political project of the assembly was not very well defined and seemed more-or-less inconsequential, but I did get a really good night’s sleep out of it.
Another unusual but popular format at this year’s festival was the performance lecture. This hybrid form uses an academic style of presentation together with more artistic elements to add dimension and colour to the theory. However, in their attempt to merge the rigour of theory with the freedom and breadth of art, performance lectures can end up feeling neither here nor there. The problem is exemplified by a recurring motif, wherein multiple speaking voices, either recorded or live, are layered on top of one another all at once. It is a formal tactic that serves to include multiple voices equally within the lecture’s discourse, but often has the unfortunate effect of reducing all voices to indefinite noise. Phoka Nyokong’s Fragile was particularly scattered in this regard and never felt justified as a performance. Its content seemed far better suited to an academic article. Qondiswa James deployed this polyphonic strategy more successfully to evoke a real sense of collaboration, but it still felt unnecessarily alienating to sit through. Phumulani Ntuli’s Notes from an Algorithmic Memory, in turn, made effective use of multi-channel video and live synths as a supplement to his lecture, but the spoken component of his presentation got lost in the mix. Neither art nor theory was given a chance to resonate in a meaningful way. However, a notable exception was Russel Hlongwane’s Ifu Elimnyama performance lecture and installation. It reported on an abandoned Master’s research project that investigated the story of a cryptid snake in Kwazulu-Natal at the turn of the 19th century. In this case, the artist carefully studied the contours of the media in which he was working and made transdisciplinarity a critical concern of the work itself.
There were also a number of hard-to-watch confrontational works on display, which seems to come with the territory of performance art. It is sometimes hard to tell meaningful discomfort from a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to such works, but they are often at very least memorable. There was the indelible moment when Christian Etongo first poured hot wax onto his face during Totem. While Rafé Green’s durational performance saw the artists shivering dangerously for four hours under a water fountain on a brisk autumn evening. I also don’t think anyone who was present for Rehane Abrahams and Wynand Herholdt’s performance will forget the moment they realised we were watching some kind of BDSM role play in the courtyard of the Iziko Slave Lodge. It is worth dwelling for a moment on this performance, which was probably the most controversial at the festival. At first, the work presented itself as a historical role reversal, with Herholdt as the slave and Abrahams as the master. However, after an extended unsimulated whipping scene, the performance became increasingly intimate and I was soon unable to avoid thinking, “is this… kinky??” My fears were of course confirmed and the performance ended with the two lovers walking off hand-in-hand. Most of the audience dismissed the spectacle as tasteless-at-best, and it isn’t hard to see why, but the work is at least commendable for bringing the political discussion of the body in relation to coloniality (which dominated the festival discourse) into the realm of festischism and unconscious enjoyment. The provocation did not go much further than that, but the piece marked a welcome shift away from the purely sociological forms of critique that the festival seemed to favour.
Yet the performances that simply focused on gesture and the pleasures of movement were consistently more memorable than those that were weighed down by theory and jargon. Most of these involved little more than a skilled performer using their body in extraordinary ways. To watch the body contort itself is uniquely captivating, even though it can so easily devolve into (literal) navel gazing. Nico Athene’s Cruising Utopia was an example of physical performance that is inward-facing and impenetrable, whereas the really inspired works were all properly exothermic. Like the two figures trapped inside a gigantic television set in Tracy Rose’s Shooting Down Babylon, whose beguiling pas de deux radiated well beyond its confinement. So too Tandile Mbatsha’s staggering I AM spoke volumes from within the contained space it demarcated. On a purely formal level, Mbatsha’s four-part performance was easily the most impressive thing I saw. It was a consistently surprising experience as well, one that incorporated a number of disparate tones and twists, but did so effortlessly, with an elegant minimalist spirit running through. Words fail to capture the marvel that is the third act of I AM, but it shows the genius of the human body alongside its failure and vulnerability in a way that was as moving as it was mesmerising.
The curators also had the good sense to bookend the festival with music. On the opening night, the avant-popstar Desire Marea, beautifully adorned by Lukhanyo Mdingi, treated the audience to an instrumental reinterpretation of their 2020 electronic album Desire. The show took a number of interesting sonic turns, but it was ultimately Marea’s magnetism that had the audience in their thrall. It was an object lesson in one of the hardest to pin-point elements of a successful performance: that ineffable quality that just makes you want to watch someone do their thing. Collin Meyer’s Nama Khoi folk tunes were a highlight of the Kirstenbosch leg of the festival on the final weekend and helped wind down towards the final event. In closing, a generous DJ set by Ntone Edjabe, based on Stevie Wonder’s experimental masterpiece Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, was able to round off the edges. After two weeks of lively provocation, I was all too glad to finish the last of the festival’s free wine while dancing loosely in a circle with some friends. A wordless communion of bodies and souls that captured something of what live art is all about.