Infecting the City 2023
15.11 - 25.12.2023
In the days leading up to Infecting the City 2023, I kept stumbling over this year’s tagline: “Because courage is contagious.” The cynic in me thought it sounded corny as hell, but then I checked myself. Infecting the City can be accused of many things, but cynicism isn’t one of them. By the time Jay Pather had uttered the slogan during his introductory address, I was basically on board with it. If more of us had the audacity of performance artists to stake our claim on public space, politics would, at least, be a bit more interesting around here.
The prospect of seeing Cape Town’s defunct public spaces enlivened by unruly performances has an enduring appeal. The rules of engagement with these spaces are momentarily rewritten and then we get to see the space itself respond. We watch, in real time, as random passersby get sucked into a scene that breaks the flow of their day. Others linger briefly, wearing quizzical expressions, before brushing it off as some art thing. I especially enjoy the bad boys who will actively walk through a performance, without even batting an eye. Some vendors get understandably frustrated by the wanton weirdness obstructing their business, while others are too happy to stop for a moment and enjoy the spectacle. Seeing how these interventions traffic through the public is always at least sociologically interesting, often more interesting than the artworks themselves.
Despite being branded as a public art festival, Infecting the City is most well-known for showcasing performance art and this year was no different. Only three exceptions favoured installation over live or filmed performance. There was Raoul Jorge Gourgel’s installation of wax cast tyres on Greenmarket Square, burning in memory of the refugee sit-in that took place there in 2019. Thania Petersen wrapped a fleet of taxis in pro-Palestinian vinyl as part of her city-wide installation, which I thought was pretty ingenious. Jody Wood’s Social Pharmacy, in turn, dispensed homemade health remedies that the artist had gleaned from across Cape Town. After perusing Wood’s modest stall on Church Square, I took a vial of “Rishando’s Huis Raat” for sleeping and anxiety. A quarter teaspoon, dissolved in hot water, with breakfast and then again at night, is meant to do the trick. I have diligently taken Rishando’s medicinal powder twice a day ever since and it has helped with sleep, though I am still waiting on results anxiety-wise.
Movement and physical performance predominated in this year’s programme. Though abstract in form, most of these physical pieces were inspired by conceptual or historical content, which subsequently got condensed and compacted into the shape of bodies in motion. However, not everything within this line of work was equally successful. Kwanele Thusi’s physical interpretation of the writings of Steve Biko, for example, got lost in its own intensity. The forceful string accompaniment left no room for modulation. The piece directly preceding Thusi, which took the work of K. Sello Duiker as its subject, also fell victim to an overbearing soundtrack. Toby Ngomane managed to aggregate some of Duiker’s ideas in tone, but the piece felt underdeveloped and the sentimental score ended up doing too much of the heavy lifting.
More effective was ǁIs ge sada ge, sada ge ǁis (She is us and we are her) at the Iziko Slave Lodge. The angular and antagonistic choreography by Darion Adams (who also performed) was affecting and it is always a treat to see Adams in motion; they are an indelible presence. Adams also appeared in Luke De Kock’s expansive engagement with the Caste of Good Hope, which was unmatched for scale at this year’s festival. Not all of the parts hung together equally well, but it was hard not to get swept up. Both pieces dealt with the histories of violence that beset the sites they occupied by returning to the body, the nodal point where trauma and agency converge.
Yaseen Manuel had the unenviable task of translating the war in Gaza into a physical language for his contribution titled Breaking Borders. Despite being charged with urgency, it felt unlikely that Manuel would be able to construct an impactful image of the conflict within a political moment so saturated with Palestinian suffering. Yet somehow he pulled it off. All three dancers, including Manuel himself, spent themselves in the process of mounting this gut-punch of a performance. The piece ended with the three figures handing out small portions of grain to each audience member. The handful I held felt too totemic to be let go of, so I wrapped it in a receipt I found in my pocket and emptied it into a jar when I got back home.
Breaking Borders was followed by another pas de trois that took place on Thibault Square. Madoda, a plain-clothed choreography about fatherlessness led by Elvis Sibeko, was an unassuming triumph. I enjoyed its roughshod sincerity. Thibault Square also played host to another loose-limbed wonder by Sboniso Thombeni and Manoko Tlhako. Wan tHo Wan tHo recreated various childhood games within the heart of the financial district and drew unsuspecting businesspeople into its orbit of play. Thombeni and Tlhako were inspired by the sophisticated geometry of these games, which they used to transform the square into an urban playground.
A far grizzlier transformation took place on Church Square at the very end of the festival under the direction of Mthuthuzeli Zimba. Ndijongiwe I’m being looked at installed a complex of informal structures and an intricate surveillance system around the statue of Onze Jan Hofmeyr. A harrowing spectacle of claustrophobia and madness that did not abate for even a second. The intervention that took place at Rhodes Memorial, by contrast, favoured spaciousness. The live instrumentation by Nkosenathi Koela, Keketso Bolofo and Iman was another highlight of mine. Koela and co acted as architects of aural space, while the bodies of the SboNdaba Dance Company punctuated and thus accentuated the space they had cleared. It was a remarkable recasting of a historically freighted structure.
Of all the dance companies involved this year, I was most impressed by SboNdaba, who cropped up on more than one occasion. The vitality and precision of Johannes Tieties, especially, stuck out. Jazzart had their regular showcase, which was accomplished, but largely forgettable. ANIKAYA Dance Theatre’s Conference of the Birds, on the other hand, was drop dead gorgeous. The piece dramatised the eponymous epic poem by Farid Ud din Attar, emphasising themes of migration and confluence. It felt like the most well measured work of the bunch. Each performer was magnetic and distinct, while the strange animated projections swirling above them conjured up a Gulf Futurist horizon.
After Catol Teixeira’s solo physical performance titled Clashes Licking, I gathered up the parts of myself, but they had all been warped in relatioIn to Teixeira’s protean physicality. The first act saw the dancer swiveling on a rope to deconstructed baile funk and other gnarled electronic sounds, suspended over a stack of speakers. Two bars of fluorescent light checked them from one side. After a short routine, they lowered themselves onto the floor, unfastened their buckle and changed into a voluminous blue wig and ballet points. The rest kind of defies description, but I was completely overcome by the bent, alien eroticism of the piece. Teixeira’s physical presence is penetrating, almost as if they are able to get inside your molecules and fuck with your substance.
At one point, towards the end, Teixeira’s entire body started shaking, sending ripples through their drenched costume, which seemed to be made from an unearthly neoprene-ish material. It produced a watery slapping sound, like something between a fish out of water and an industrial suction mechanism. Hiddingh Hall was left breathless and bereft. I was sitting in the front row, beside myself. Aside from a few moments during the first act of Ranavalona III, The Chrysalis Queen, another strange marvel, nothing else felt as unassimilable as this moment from Clashes Licking. The Brazilians are just more advanced.
This year’s film and video offering was hit and miss. I finally got to see Wolff Architects’ Hophuis documentary, with live accompaniment led by the golden boy of the Capetonian jazz scene, Fernando Damon. Siya Mthembu from The Brother Moves On, another crowd favourite, contributed vocals. The film meanders through the small town of Steinkopf in the Northern Cape, gleaning bits and pieces of personal and architectural history. It didn’t really land anywhere, but I don’t think it was supposed to. Stories in the Wind, an animated fable set in the Richtersveld, had a lulling effect on me, while the more abrasive She Poems series did quite the opposite. This was also due to the fact that, halfway through the screening, residents of a neighbouring flatblock started chucking eggs at us from an overhead balcony. Thankfully, they missed, so jokes on them for wasting a carton of eggs in this economy.
Louise Westerhout’s unclear was presented as a film, though we soon realised that we were watching a live stream of the artist weaving their way through the corridors of their own home. The stream was blown out and at times hazy due to a bad connection, which only added to the unadulterated rawness of the work. Westerhout’s shape shifting performance refracted various personal and political themes through their embodied experience of stage 4 lymphoma. Yet there was a lightness of touch about the way they framed the confrontational subject matter that was frequently disarming. The piece ended in Westerhout’s garden, amidst thriving patches of herbs, with a poignant lecture on Karma that has been spinning through my mind ever since.
Another subset of live performances favoured language over physicality. Like Mandla Mbothwe’s festival opener, which saw three mischievous figures dart around the Grand Parade wielding typewriters and venomous words. Soon thereafter, a live reading of Don Jadu by S. E. K. Mqhayi drew a large crowd at the Cape Town Station. uMqombothi, uBhokweni neJuba by Russel Hlongwane and Tammy Langtry was perhaps the most wordy of all the performances, but Hlongwane’s characteristic rigour and depth of research ensured that the piece never lost its shape. Shacks & Yoga Mats, which was essentially a satirical play, added a welcome dose of comedy to the programme, before taking a darker turn in its critique of the service industry in Cape Town.
Two very different pieces touched on the South African mining industry, one more convincingly than the other. Ties Remove featured imageby Angelinah Maponya was an impressive installation and performance about “a community enclosed by a mine dump” and the particular emptiness that haunts a place once it has been gutted by a mining corporation. The second was a straight-up baffling Swiss-South African coproduction called Converting Evictions, which lost me pretty early on. Something about how Switzerland profited from its dealings with the Apartheid government, as well as the Xolobeni mining dispute, mixed in with a handful of bizarre fictional scenes about I don’t know what exactly. It would take up too much page space to catalogue its various twists and turns, but suffice it to say I stumbled out of there bemused.
Keerom Street was the site of two profoundly moving performances, namely Blood Guns and Revolutions: Izenso (Acts) by Msaki and Get Free by the Sex Workers Theatre Group. The former showcased Msaki’s unusual stature as a performer, not to mention the breath-taking honesty of her singing voice. By the end, half of the audience was ugly crying. Get Free dramatised its case for the decriminalisation of sex work emphatically on steps of the high court. There was an am-dram looseness about Get Free that felt refreshing and allowed it to access a dimension of emotional resonance that would have been unavailable otherwise. Proof positive that great art is not a matter of mastery, but a matter of soul.
Then there was Ab Fab Drag, arguably the centrepiece of Infecting the City 2023. I say this not only because Basil Apolis put together a tight production, but also because the two-part experience managed to capture what Infecting the City does best. In fact, it was the walk from the first stage on Church Square to the second at Zero21, late one Thursday evening, that reminded me what makes this festival distinct. Walking is the tissue of Infecting the City and it makes for a remarkably rich and variegated art experience.
The walks themselves were coloured by a selection of linking performances that led the audience from one show to the next. The Ukwanda Puppets and Designs Art Collective’s life-sized elephant puppet was the most commanding leader, though the Pussy Squad perhaps required the most from its followers. After the guy next to me was called upon to loudly chant “PUSSY” somewhere along Strand Street, he turned to me with a pained look on his face and said “This feels forced.” Yet we were all implicated. The big band that blasted ghoema anthems through town did a great job of announcing our presence, especially when they decided to up the BPM in the middle of Golden Acre Mall. There was nothing else to do but keep up.
One afternoon, as we were walking past Eastern Food Bazaar, I was intercepted by a friend passing by who seemed to be amused by the motley crew of enthusiasts pickling between pieces. He was quick to point out how ridiculous we all looked, which undeniably rang true. Infecting the City is one of the most ridiculous events on the Capetonian calendar. It presents perhaps the most esoteric contemporary artform, that is, performance art, in the most exoteric of contexts. However, an element of risk has been at the core of performance for as long as it has been practiced. In performance, one risks potential ridicule in pursuit of complete transformation. It can be difficult to watch for this very reason, but, by the same token, it rewards like few other artforms.