Art goes public in Cape Town in a big way

NADINE HUTTON CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - Feb 18 2011 - The Mail & Guardian.

Dig if you will the picture; Of you and I engaged in a kiss; The sweat of your body covers me; Can you my darling; Can you picture this?

Dream if you can a courtyard; An ocean of violets in bloom; Animals strike curious poses; They feel the heat; The heat between me and you.

How can you just leave me standing? Alone in a world that’s so cold? (So cold) Maybe I’m just too demanding; Maybe I’m just like my father too bold; Maybe you’re just like my mother; She’s never satisfied; Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like; When doves cry.”

When Prince sang these lyrics, I doubt he was talking about Public Art (yes, Capitalised) So why then does this song come into my head when I’m struggling to put words to what makes Infecting the City the most exciting endeavor of my fledgling public art (uncapitalised) career?

It’s the intimacy of putting your process out there for the public, the real public, not the gallery visitor or your fellow artists, to either embrace or, by casually ignoring it, reject it.

It’s about the passion that sees artist Anthea Moys burning a painful shade of pink sweeping the streets with cleaners to collaborate on a piece called the ‘The No. 1 Unexpected Undercover Cleaning Agency’. “Society has rules, like a game,” she says. “Everybody plays according to these rules. With the groups that I work with, I am interested in making new rules, imagining alternative situations, asking what if and why not…”

We don’t put fences around anything,” says Brett Bailey, curator of Infecting the City. “Everything is free.”

This four-year old the festival is this year themed Treasures. “We spotlight the people, music and performance styles from the many cultures that have made Cape Town their home.” Says Brett Bailey. “We remember our monuments, buildings and communal spaces, and our precious natural resources. We draw attention to the workers that keep our City running, and the valuable recyclable materials we throw out in the trash.”

You won’t need a text to decipher what it all means to enjoy it. You’re invited to make your own meaning, or not. You can simply allow it to wash over you, perhaps infecting you to make your own creative statement.

You don’t need to buy tickets to see, visit and engage with one of the largest public art festivals in the world – it’s out there on the doorsteps, pavements and squares of Cape Town’s inner city all day, everyday from 21- 26 February. Headquartered at the Cape Town Station, ITC plans to reach at least 30 000 of the 120 000 people everyday that use that hub and drawing audiences from greater Cape Town.

Public art is very much about the interactions between people. Test wrapping ITC guest artist Athina Valha to a lamp post with clingfilm (part of my own series of interventions) immediately drew people into engaging. Suspended there, several people immediately began snapping pictures of themselves with her, looking very much like Great White Hunters with the catch of the day. They wanted to know why, and even when answers weren’t forthcoming began to analyse what we were doing.

ITC plans to challenge what we call art, who we call artists by inviting diverse groups to perform during the festival in what are called Jewel Stages. From a new martial art codified from the Cape Flats Gangs’ fighting techniques called The Piper System to Ratiep: an underground Sufi ceremony brought by slaves from Indonesia 300 years ago, involving drums and swords. They didn’t forget the drum majorettes, sangomas, hip-hop B-Boys, and a wealth of other cultural practices.

Public art is gathering momentum, even as funding budgets are slashed. Even the future of ITC is threatened by the major sponsor divesting after this year. Artists working harder to make more with less. But this year at least, over 310 artists will be infecting the city. Among them Myer Taub, leading people on a treasure to find the magical ring of a Cape Town washerwoman. Doung Dala tracing the route of underground rivers. Choreographer Owen Manamela turning a garbage truck into a noisy mobile stage.

It’s the most socialist, sans the repressive regime, of art forms. The more we see art in public space, the more spaces become public. Most public space (particularly in cities) is heavily controlled and there is an
inherent distrust of the people who occupy those spaces.

By investing meaning into public space through art, we acknowledge the potential of the public to change not only their own circumstances but their relationship to power.

It creates a conversation not just between art object and viewer, but between people. It rouses people from their internal reveries of rush, work, no work, shop, struggle, rush and gives them an opportunity to engage creatively.

When you put art, of whatever medium, out in public it becomes performative, even if the only performance is from those that are dart a quick look and walk on. Of course, those that stop and engage, even for a short time become collaborators.

At the very least ITC will see some city birds displaced from their perches on monuments to colonial power. At most, we will begin to inspire a populace that like Egyptians in the last few weeks would volunteer, ready to fight, to protect the cultural treasures that define them.