Art goes public in Cape Town in a big way

“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 (ITC) the most exciting endeavour 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, either to embrace or, by casually ignoring it, reject it. It’s about the passion that sees artist Anthea Moys burning a painful shade of pink and 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, the curator of ITC. “Everything is free.”

This year the four-year-old festival is themed Treasures. “We spotlight the people, music and performance styles from the many cultures that have made Cape Town their home,” says Bailey.

“We remember our monuments, buildings and communal spaces and our precious natural resources. We draw attention to the workers who 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, every day from February 21 to 26. Headquartered at the Cape Town station, ITC plans to reach at least 30 000 of the 120 000 people who use that hub every day and draw audiences from greater Cape Town.

Public art is very much about the interactions between people. Wrapping ITC guest artist Athina Valha to a lamppost with cling film (part of my own interventions) immediately engaged people. Several people 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 challenges what we call art and who we call artists by inviting diverse groups to perform during the festival — from a new martial art, developed 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. The organisers 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 as the future of ITC is threatened by the major sponsor divesting after this year.

Artists are working harder to make more with less. This year more than 310 artists will be infecting the city.

Among them are Myer Taub, who will lead people on a treasure hunt to find the magical ring of a Cape Town washerwoman, Doung Dala, who will trace the route of underground rivers, and choreographer Owen Manamela, who will turn a garbage truck into a noisy mobile stage.

It is 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 spaces through art, we acknowledge the potential of the public to change not only their own circumstances but also their relationship to power.

When you put art, in whatever medium, out in public it becomes performative, even if the only performance is from those who dart a quick look and walk on. Of course, those who 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 who, like Egyptians in the past few weeks, would volunteer, ready to fight, to protect the cultural treasures that define them.

For a full programme visit Hutton is a participating artist in Infecting the City. Collaborating with Lesley Perkes, she will establish a new Ministry for THe glorious preservAtion oF the Kultural tReasures of the Mother City. The ministry will procure sites, objects and persons deemed to be treasures in the CBD, and the MTHAFKR team of ‘preservation experts” will move to preserve these treasures with the high-tech material polyvinylidine (better known as cling wrap). Catch MTHAFKR on Monday February 21 as they wrap King Edward VII on the Grand Parade.

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