Johannesburg: a creative city

The city of Johannesburg is a creative city. Its people, its energy, its music and its textures are creative ones. And yet, its creations are not necessarily though of as artistic and its people are often considered as ‘not art audiences’. 

Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández  makes the argument that contemporary western influenced understandings of art practice limit it to a ‘definable naturalistic phenomenon that exists in the world and is available to be observed and measured’. He posits that this understanding of creative practice limits who can access it, how it is accessed and where it is accessed. It also limits the potential for its production – assuming a hierarchical and often elite monopoly over the production of culture. The alternative is to understand creative practice as part of the everyday fabric of society, of doing something or of playing some part in the normal goings-on of ordinary life.

It is my position that the potential for public creative practice to carve this space for an ‘integrated practice’ and therefore a practice made and ‘absorbed’ by anyone and potentially even everyone is ripe with possibility but also potentially miscarriage. Through a series of projects and with the support and creative impact of artists, VANSA has been seeking out ways of approaching a public based creative practice. Through the projects 2010 Reasons, Revolution Room and 2014 Ways, the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA) has explored these concerns for the past 5 years. This ‘public’ is not simply a place (as in a square or a street) but is also groups of peoples (understood as transient, often shifting and often belonging to multiple groups at same and different times). Publics are also ways of understanding the usage and ownerships of places; publics are also created, constituted and enacted by these ‘uses’ or ‘experiences’. 

These projects have sought out variant strategies for connecting into and productively creating out of, publics. These publics are often imagined, in the sense of the imagined community. But are also often unpredictable, self-malleable, shifting and multi-polar. Within South Africa and Johannesburg especially, these publics are also regularly engaged in complex negotiation of power, ownership and belonging with other publics and powers. Within this exists the artist, and the arts organisation, who are also implicated in these negotiations of power but also take part in the malleability and multi-polarness of public making.

Artists, and arts organisations, are not immune to these complexities and are often situated in a power position – of funding, education, class and others – that create very difficult, often taxing (emotionally and physically) demands on the ethics and positionality of the artists and the production of art – its meaning in society. But it is possibly in these tussles for public making, and in the difficulty with self and others that these kinds of public processes encourage, that the potential for re-thinking an integrated practice and integrated practitioners is enabled.

1) Gaztambide-Fernández, Rubén (2013) Why the Arts Don’t Do Anything: Towards a New Vision for Cultural Production in Education. Harvard Educational Review: April 2013, Vol. 83, No. 1, pp. 211