OPINION: The Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival envisions a virtual event under lockdown

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Rucera Seethal, Artistic Director of NAF. (Photo: Supplied)
Rucera Seethal, Artistic Director of NAF. (Photo: Supplied)

The arts and entertainment sector has surged online in the wake of sudden and far reaching coronavirus shutdowns. This movement was initially evident in northern hemisphere countries where the virus first took hold. From mid-March South Africa began to take strong social distancing measures culminating in the announcement of a 21-day shut-down on the 23rd of March, 2020.

And now, under extended lockdown, we linger uncertainly in hallways and pause at the sound of quiet streets, while the online space is pulsating in the screen you are staring at.  

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In South Africa, the lockdown of the arts sector institutions, platforms and venues has left production schedules in disarray, audiences abandoned, and raised the harsh reality of lost earnings with restrictions on public gatherings affecting not only artists but an array of professionals involved in the creation and presentation of artistic work to the public. 

Artists and individual creative practitioners expressed concern and then swiftly began adapting themselves, offering various kinds of paid-for content online, from live gigs to online lessons, often via social media channels or communication software like Zoom or Skype.  

At a time when habits, family, society and economy are changing, we can take lead from artists, adept in questioning ways of being and presenting different perspectives.

There is something between a scramble and a paralysis in the reconfiguring of personal and work habits, and the uncomprehending of these times. Colleagues and friends alike, feel both inspired and disturbed by lingering and conflicting sentiments. 

A Swiss colleague is relieved that her sector has substantial support from the government to see it through this shutdown period; at the same time, she also considers if this year’s postponed programme will have relevance in the new year, when likely the ground underneath that content will have shifted significantly.

A Nigerian colleague called an online meeting of artists and professionals as the first stage of an international collective project: 34 participants from Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, Uganda, Brazil, the USA, France, Spain, the UK, and the Netherlands brought together simply and quickly.  For the first time she was part of the conceptual meeting, whereas previously she would have been busy with the logistics and fundraising needed to create a physical meeting incurring costly flights, long journeys, and dignity-reducing visa application and border crossing experiences.

A French colleague praised South African artists’ adaptability while lamenting the mass exodus of performative content to online platforms led by French institutions. She acknowledges the move is aimed at sustaining the industry and thus income, but is critical of transposing to screen, performative work constructed for the theatre and live audience.  She is worried that the artists intention is no longer served.  

THE INTERNET AS SPACE AND MEDIUM:

In these times, the necessity for the South African arts industry to move online is evident. The question of ‘how’ then opens a further string of questions which are just as important to ask, some relating to the internet as a space, and some relating to the internet as a medium.  

The National Arts Festival decided not to cancel this year, but rather to move online.  Soon after the announcement to create a virtual National Arts Festival, South African producers, venues and institutions began to contact us, with predominantly positive response to the decision as well as many questions. 

The wave of questions exposed the need to meet, reflect, share ideas, practice and plans, to tease out the ‘hows’, but also to puzzle over ourselves in this online space and how we may approach it as a medium.  As new habits are forced upon us we must ask if we are content to essentially just transfer our existing systems online, and identify where we need a rethink.    

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Festivals put funds to the creation, presentation and circulation of work. But a festival also curates a shared experience by hosting works and people in a specific location to collectively construct and participate in the experience of the festival. The internet as a space, a perpetual ocean of data engulfing time zones and collapsing distance seems inherently opposed to this ‘locatedness’. 

At this moment, we are both envisioning and affecting the future. Where do we ground our imagination of counter-futures? If we consider the internet as a medium, the possibilities for being, making and experiencing art in an online space can take on radical new dimensions. We know notions of virtuality are present in African knowledge systems and lived in contemporary African culture.  Consider something which is an ideal, or a force, not totally present in material but nonetheless real, this is virtuality. Contrary to history books, the virtual has been with us all along, in our acknowledgment of ancestors, the dead and unborn, in our spiritual relationship with the land.

THE VIRTUAL NATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL:

The National Arts Festival, now in its 46th year, is normally located in the town of Makhanda (formally Grahamstown), in the province of the Eastern Cape, in South Africa. The festival is rooted in diverse groups of people, and its long history deeply embedded in the larger narratives of South African history.  Recognising this as a moment at the precipice, I am interested in using it to take stock, to experiment, to listen; to reconsider how we solicit, select, produce and stage work. 

For the artists who have taken the challenge to reconsider their work, or are considering new ideas for the virtual National Arts Festival, I hope that they can quiet the noise, consider the internet as a space and a medium, and imagine works or artistic gestures which will be the bytes configuring our emerging future.  Where we can, we are working on ways to assist with access to creative technologies and skills.  We want what amounts to the creative outcomes of a mass of ‘at-home’ artist residencies, to gather as a bountiful and challenging virtual National Arts Festival 2020.  And as we present this virtual festival, we must ask ourselves where the Festival’s identity moves to from this point.

As the artistic director of the National Arts Festival, I am part of a team working to generate answers for the questions surrounding our virtual festival, all the while seeking to unearth the more pertinent and perceptive questions.  It seems to me that this is really a time for the South African arts sector to work on our questions, while we hazard answers.  As my colleague puts it, “we are engineers on a moving train”. 

Written by Rucera Seethal. Rucera Seethal is the Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival.

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