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Icy combat

The inimitable locale of the Drill Hall, Johannesburg, is a place of rare chaos: even by Joubert Park standards, the death-defying stunts of the Noord Street taxi drivers and the surrounding vertical bustle of human activity guarantee extraordinary sights on any ordinary day.

This is the site deemed fitting for an especially unusual event South Africa’s first institutional snowball fight. On August 16 the Drill Hall will host Last One Standing, a knockout snowball fight tournament devised by the Swiss Official Snowball Association and customised for Johannesburg’s climate and budget by Joseph Gaylard, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt and Bie Venter of the Joubert Park Project.

Since 2005 the snowball fight association, an organisation working to get snowball fighting on the programme of the Winter Olympics, has organised similar tournaments in Switzerland where, for now, snow abounds. Although the Drill Hall will be no winter wonderland on the evening of the event, the snowballs will be made of real snow — or at least, real snow made artificially. Partly because of the prohibitive cost of this, onlookers will be dismayed to find that the snowballs are not for them. Four teams of six people each were selected, trained and kitted out in costumes designed by Birgit Neppl, famed for her work with dance choreographer Robin Orlin, before being eligible to lob a snowball in this competition.

Last One Standing is part serious sporting event — governed by a litany of rules drafted by the snowball fight association — and part art intervention. Working from the premise that the staged game brings its performers into reflexive, revelatory confrontation with one another, the tournament aims to bring groups of people “who have different stakes in the space of the inner city” into “managed combat”. Team members include daredevil taxi drivers, ward councillors, artists, local hairdressers, mechanics, trolley pushers, and soapie stars Abena Ayivor (better known as Isidingo‘s “Dineo”) and Luthuli Dlamini (formerly in Scandal!).

The object of the game is to eliminate the opposing team’s members by hitting them with snowballs across a nine-by-18-metre court. The team with the most players remaining at the end of the tournament is pronounced winner and collects the South African Last One Standing trophy. A second trophy will be awarded to the individual player who exhibits the most extraordinary heroism and skill during the tournament.

This all sounds like fun, but why the snowballs? Surely one could think of something more appropriate to throw in combat at the Drill Hall, an on-and-off military base since the South African Anglo-Boer War and the site of the early stages of the Treason Trial in 1956. The fortuitous relationship between the snowball fight association and the Joubert Park Project was instigated by performance artist Anthea Moys, who participated in a Last One Standing tournament while on an artist’s residency in Sierre, Switzerland in 2006. The move to Joubert Park is partly an experiment in the absurd, but it is also an ecological critique. The possibility of a snowless future for the Swiss Alps as a result of global warming means that snow will become increasingly commoditised as the region’s winter tourism industry comes under threat.

Johannesburg, at the opposite climactic extreme, appreciates snow for its rarity and makes much of the most miserly snowfalls. Saturday’s snowball fights will take place against a backdrop of documentary material from the five snowfalls Johannesburg has seen in the last hundred years, in 1909, 1936, 1964, 1981 and 2007. By limiting the number of snowballs allocated to each team per game Last One Standing forces players to think of snow as a limited resource and so be strategic in their combat.

That said, the element of farce, and not the rationale, is likely to bring droves of spectators to the Drill Hall on Saturday night. Robert Whitehead, Barker Haines to Isidingo fans and a Pre-Crapalite brother to art aficionados, is master of ceremonies and Louw Venter will inaugurate the event by singing the Ballad of the Snowball. Bishop Paul Verryn of the Central Methodist Church will bless the tournament and interactive soundscapes will be created on site by João Orrechia, Andrew Sherman and the Universal Gospel Choir.

Last One Standing starts at 5pm at the Drill Hall and is free of charge. Secure parking is at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, with a shuttle service to the Drill Hall throughout the event

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