5 Questions for Jay Pather

Jay Pather
© Adrienne van Eeden-Wharton

Jay Pather, Associate Professor at UCT and curator of Infecting the City public arts festival in Cape Town, talks to us about the utopian city and a fictional lunch with the mayor of Johannesburg. Pather is one of the panelists at the Urban Places - Public spaces public debate on global cities.

We look forward to your contribution to the upcoming public debate Urban Places – Public Spaces, a live video discussion between experts in Johannesburg, Munich, Rotterdam, Madrid, New York, Istanbul and Sao Paulo on 26 April 2015.

Which role can performing arts and dance theatre play in the process of changing cities?
JP: The performing arts and dance in particular are kinetic, malleable and mercuric. They epitomize transformation, shifting spaces, tilting time. They are incredibly powerful as means to re-invigorate, to reveal and illuminate hidden meanings and to help re-imagine. The kinetic body also in some respects ‘animates’ the concrete and dance as such can draw powerful relationships spatially -foregrounding architecture, bringing to life dormant or static aesthetic.  Performance also may make it possible for spaces to be experienced in refreshingly new and surprising ways. Because it is so temporal dance and performance interrupts, ends and leaves traces. So it’s adaptable and vital.

A very important notion with changing cities is, of course understanding the importance of inviting different publics to take ownership. Cities have often been inscribed as homogenous spaces controlled by the few in power – performance as a way of constantly challenging these assumptions through the use of a wide range of dance or performance forms. During an Infecting the City Festival programme, a work was performed by by Jazzart Dance Theatre in the Cape Town Station.  I watched people stop in their tracks as contemporary movement unfolded that incorporated the ancient Nama rhythms from a traditional dance from the Northern Cape. Inside a potentially alienating space, people were made to pause in their rapid exit out of the city (which of course the city expects of its working classes) and drawn into a circle where for these few fleeting moments a sense of life other than being just utilitarian, could be felt.
There is the danger that some artists may use the city just as an elaborate backdrop, as a ‚theatre’ as opposed to what it is. But when the performance artist takes into account different publics and open processes of participation and not just recreating a theatre space in the public space, the experience can be highly evocative and very powerful. So the arts in public spaces can illuminate, swell the senses and provide mechanisms to counter alienation, foster belonging, increase a sense of presence and enjoyment.

Publics become an important part of the equation and often artists tend to miss this crucial step of researching what these publics are about. It’s a fine line between invigorating with something completely fresh or new which contemporary work is meant to be or to further alienate. And one has to keep testing this because in changing cities, there is no homogenous public – it’s changing all the time. Many conceptual artists for example however well intentioned often deny a level of failure in reaching the public they say they are playing for. There is also the instance where the artist plays to a small invited group ‘in the know’ and the passersby or regular inhabitants of the space, become the artist’s backdrop and inadvertent participants in the work. It’s good that audiences do get involved but when they don’t always know this, it is slightly cruel and counterproductive.

So it is also important that we look at this critically too in terms of possibilities and potential. Realistically, cities are spaces of commerce and the control of these spaces lies certainly not with any arts related organization, and only in part with democratically elected governments or municipalities. A large part of its texture and complexion emerges, as we know from wielders of big business. As such a strange dichotomy arises where the arts are used to make cities more habitable but also more successful as commercial spaces. So the gatekeeping of what kind of arts is used is locked in this dynamic of preservation and propagation of a status quo. So we do need to ask what do we want these cities to change from and to what. Many public art programmes let’s face it are merely to gentrify and beautify a status quo of keeping working classes at bay and increasing the enjoyment of a class that can spend, and these are often proposed as indicators of a successful city - enjoying a space and spending. This in turn of course keeps the economy moving so I am not being blind sighted to that.

However if we are talking about changing cities from the alienating cages that they in some instances have become or that they resemble, then this is another tack altogether. The arts are potentially highly transformative as well as enchanting while being educative, inclusive, participatory and instructive on social issues. The question will always be the extent to which this is indeed the will of the city. Providing spiritual comfort, physical ease and a sense of belonging for workers who are shipped in to do a job, may not exactly be on the agenda of corporates and cities. And it can be if there is a sense that in the long run this is healthy for a city. But this is arduous and expensive.   Unfortunately indicators of successful cities that I am aware of preclude something as the quotient of belonging, or daily happiness of its citizens. The arts are often called in to play the role of cultural tourism or superficial sense of joy for the spenders, far from utopia.

So the extent and significance of this role depends on an interplay of factors. Public art can play significant role in developing spaces for public debate simply because it instills the imagination and inspires a vision, asking citizens to be part of imaginaries and futures but it is important to accept a critical role that the arts might play. As opposed to what many cities aspire to which is a rubber-stamping of what exists, an embroidery on the limited achievements or as a mechanism for cohesion and celebratory consolidation. This latter exercise is not just hollow, it is also dangerous. Opportunities for artists are rare and some do capitulate to a kind of gentrified discourse. The space created for public art needs to be acknowledged by all players involved from city to producer to artist as a critical one as well as one of celebration or cohesion. In this instance the role of the arts can be of major impact.
How do you define public space, and who should have access to it?
JP: There is something of a contradiction in the question, isn’t it? It is an important question and a relevant one but it is interesting that we ask who should have access to what is indeed public. And we need to ask because certainly in South Africa, our sense of ‘public’ is skewed.  Models for public space are derived from notions of a homogenous public and not these massively complex, heterogeneous, changing ones.
Purely, public space should define itself and then it should be for everybody. Very often the indicators of that space are revealing of whom a city might consider its publics. In an emerging democracy like South Africa, it is not always clear as has been made evident in the various controversies around art in public spaces. Those publics themselves can only determine the defining characteristics of these different publics.
We have a kind of pervasive universality hang up in our society, where the dominant discourse is assumed as everybody’s. That dominant discourse has been fashioned by those who have privilege of economic and political power and education. They are sussed enough to incorporate markers of the other. And these often appear patronizing and way off the mark. It is an ongoing investigation as publics become less homogenous and more distinctive. Those who determine what constitutes public space then need to let go of the trappings and allow these spaces of communal occupation to be self-determined. This is an arduous, meticulous process. A post-colonial city like Johannesburg and especially Cape Town is inscribed with hundreds of years of palimpsest, various texts written on them that need to be shaken off and rewritten or adapted. The commerce of the emerging trade has created another crucial vector and these currents play themselves out in potentially exciting, dynamic and highly creative ways, ways in which public space can be recreated with invention and inclusion.
If you were to have lunch with the Mayor of Johannesburg and you could ask him three questions, what would they be?
JP: a) Well there is much talk of Johannesburg (like Cape Town) as world class African Cities. In recent weeks the notion of any ‘African’ city in South Africa has come up for serious doubt and questioning. So I would want to pursue a conversation that acknowledges a context of drastic levels of poverty, unemployment, inertia and the spaces of neglect that have bred interpersonal criminalities and xenophobic violence.  My question will be around how far essential infrastructure is being brought to bear on this and the mayor’s view on the notion that the recent attacks on foreigners are a response to the superficialities of transformation.

b) I would certainly ask about the development of a consistent programme of engagement between arts organizations and public spaces that are funded and supported. I would probe the Mayor’s understanding of the creative economy and how this can be useful as well as dangerous to public art programmes in a postcolonial city in need of drastic transformation.

c) And finally (if I have not been ushered out of the Mayor’s parlour by now): To what extent is the development of spaces such as Maboneng up for grabs and to what extent is this incorporated into a vision developed by residents, owners and developers. And related, what are the measures in place to develop inner city spaces into habitable spaces by day and by night for inhabitants and visitors.

Is the ideal city just a utopia, or do you think creating cities that are livable for citizens of all demographic groups is an achievable goal?
JP: I don’t think we have a choice. We are a society that is made up of different demographic groups. That’s no utopia – that’s a necessity. It’s a question of who and what we have learnt to value up to now. Historically there have been all kinds of divisions and ruptures as to who we consider to be human. What kinds of labour are honoured, and what are revered. The ideal city is connected to so much. Whose public space is developed and the ramifications of this come from a value system we hold as important. And in South Africa as in other parts of the world there is a covert sense of values based on economic power. I think we have to be clear about this or, as artists we tend to be floating on some kind of cloud.

The cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote puts the challenges to the utopian city well:
If cities could be spoken of as personalities, most of the world’s cities today are schizoid. In one aspect, they aspire to the comfort and sophistication of an international economy and culture; in the other they conspire to maintain the oppressive local structures that keep the shantytown enslaved, the hinterland brutalized, the inner-city ghetto isolated. Such a change sharpens economic asymmetries that already exist and produces new cultural discontinuities; it generates social conflicts and political uncertainties, all of which factors develop into a general crisis of stability; The contemporary city is held hostage by its multiple pasts; equally, it is mortgaged to its alternative futures. (2009).

Out of recognition of this schizophrenia, may be the beginnings of utopia. The ideal city was indeed part of the Nelson Mandela narrative of reconciliation and national unity and cohesion. Of course that has become more and more out of reach. We have not done the work that ought to have happened even as deals were being made in the early nineties. We have also capitulated to a kind of global sense of what the cities might be – it is time already to look inwards, take into account the kinds of work being done in for example Edgar Pieterse’s African Centre for Cities and embrace the challenges he posits. These pressing challenges pertain to this continent and the particularities of the South African city. The recent weeks have shown that this not an option anymore.
There may be ideas for utopia, certainly: a change of economic systems, for the vacating of ineffectual governance – all blithely utopian. The ideal city is not static. Accounting for the swiftness of movement in our cities is an opportunity which in the ideal world we should take up. And be the model we were meant to be.

Is there a city anywhere in the world that you think could be a role model for South African cities?
JP: Not one city in its entirety. South African cities share the challenges of many cities on the continent so cities closer to home such as Lagos, which succeeds on so many levels, present good models in part. Cities such as Bangkok and Hong Kong demonstrate abilities to be part of a global economy while retaining a sense of fluidity of cultural practices. In accounting for social velocity they are reasonable models for in particular the post-colonial city, of course there are enormous difficulties in the governance of these cities, no mistake. One could look at Sydney or Auckland as good livable, supposedly utopian cities but they are hardly role models for the complexities of a South African city or if there are, they are not dealing with them – I refer to issues of memory, heritages and diversities which they are very far from resolving.

Sau Paulo gives me a sense of its embrace of people, Havana the extent of its arts education programmes and Berlin, for its adept and humanizing incorporation of its turbulent and shameful history into contemporary discourse. A South African city could learn a lot from that.


Jay Pather is Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town, Director of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) and Artistic Director of Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre. Recent publications include articles in Changing Metropolis ll and Performing Cities. Recent art works include: Blind Spot for the Metropolis Biennale, Qaphela Caesar at an old Stock Exchange in downtown Johannesburg and rite, a re-imagining of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. He is also curator for the Infecting the City Public Art Festivals and The GIPCA Live Art Festivals.

Miriam Daepp conducted the interview with Jay Pather in April 2015