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Play>Urban and Picnicing
Zakara Raitt

Play>Urban Johannesburg 2012 (27 August – 23 September) took up residency in the Visual and Communication Network of South Africa (VANSA) new headquarters in the King Kong building in New Doornfontien. The residency was a month long intensive program where students, staff, researches and participating artists investigated, interacted, played and walked in the city of Johannesburg, as well as host an event every Wednesday at Ruth Sacks and Simon Gush’s Parking Gallery at King Kong.

During the first two weeks of the project participants discussed what it was they wanted to achieve/investigate during the month long period. As a starting point participants agreed to recreate specific projects that they had done in their previous Play>Urban experience, students who had not formerly been involved in the project were to present any other work they had done which they thought related to the project and more specifically work they had done within their public. Along with revisiting previous work the participants were introduced to a number of local South African artists who work within the public realm.

The local artists involved were: Dorothee Kreutzfelt and Bettina Melcomess (Dead Heat); Rangoate Hlasane and Malose Malahlela (Keleketla ! Library); Humphrey Maleka, Brian Mtembu, Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie (Ntsoana Contemporary Dance Theater); and Donna Kukama.

The artists each presented an aspect of their work to the group, and or invited the ‘play>urbaners’ to participate. The Ntsoana Contemporary Dance Theatre invited the ‘play urbaners’ to two performances in public parks within the city along with further consultation during the duration of the month, Dead Heat a walking tour of specific sites in the city, Donna Kukama a presentation on a performance she did near the Mai Mai ‘muti’ Market in Doornfontien, Keleketla ! Library a tour of their offices/library/work space at the Drill Hall in Jouburt Park as well as an introduction of their radio project which was to be apart of the Play>Urban project in South Africa and France.

The project presents participants to explore and uncover aspects of the city that one would normally overlook. Taking a simple walk through a certain area and discovering a key rhythm of that space that is found interesting, due to its most likely problematic nature that involves either or both body and space politics.

In this ‘investigation’ of the city ‘Play>Urbaners’ after a week or so divided into groups, discussed aspects of what they found interesting about the city of Johannesburg (specific spaces and ‘issues’) and how they wanted to explore these spaces and thus present their findings.

The group in which I was apart of made up of all white females(three South African, four French) decided to use the idea or act of a ‘picnic’ as an entry point or vehicle in discovering/uncovering certain things or aspects about the city. The group was to decide what the ‘picnic’ was to be, to possibly establish rules for the proceedings of the intervention.                             A number of questions became apparent due to the nature of working within a public space and ultimately creating a spectacle. The group was to discuss the role of the artist and the viewer and how they interlink, how to negotiate the inclusion or exclusion of the viewer, the viewer becoming apart of the performance, to answer the question of why the viewer would participate, and whether the group wanted outside participation.

As a result a number of ‘test’ picnics were to be conducted, in order to establish how the picnic would aid to the production of knowledge. These initial picnics were conducted in the traditional sense of the picnic; a blanket was laid out where each group member was to bring an item of foodstuffs to contribute to the shared meal. From these ‘tests’ each member was to replace their foodstuffs with an ‘artistic’ contribution, which would shift the picnic into an artistic intervention apposed to a shared meal in public. The notion and presence of the ‘picnic blanket’ would be the only aspect of the traditional picnic to be carried out in the interventions/performances.

The group thus decided on three public sites where the artistic intervention would occur, the sites chosen being spaces of recreation and leisure where a traditional picnic could happen. The first being the David Webster Park in Troyville, the second in Jourburt Park and the third in Mary Fitz Gerald Square in Newtown. These sites made for interesting analysis as non-white people predominantly utilize the areas, thus our presence in the areas created spectacle immediately due to the colour of our skins. The ‘picnic’ was to be conducted in a specific way where it was to have a start and end time, where the picnic would progressively grow and then disappear leaving only a small trace. The result of these interventions/performances was that there was an influx of participation from the audiences, mostly consisting of children due to the playful nature of the works. Due to the mass scale and the degree of spectacle that the interventions encompassed, there were points in the duration of the performances that were interrupted by city and park officials. As the works were not overtly political or offending in any way, officials merely wanted to know what was going on and why we had chosen the specific site.

The result of the interventions/performances of the unorthodox picnics was that they invited the question of what is public intervention and how play can be used as an entry point for public participation, as well as body and gender politics due to our presence being ‘foreign’ within the selected sites. For each group member this meant something different and could thus be applied her personal work.

As a core mode of investigation of Play>Urban involves the act of walking through different areas in the city, this simple act often created a level of discomfort as we created a spectacle in almost all of the areas in which we explored. Due to the sheer size of the group and dominating presence of the white body in majority of the places that we went (predominantly in the inner city where its populace is mainly black), it invited the feeling of being a ‘tourist’ even though I have lived in Johannesburg my whole life. This feeling really made me question the concept of ‘space’ and what it means to exist or pass through a certain area that has specific connotations, conventions, and inhabitants.

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