Co-Hosted Workshop

Performative Urbanisms

Wits City Institute Director Noëleen Murray chaired the Performative Urbanisms workshop with Peter Vale of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, with contributions from Visiting Scholars Peter Beilharz of Curtin University, Perth, Trevor Hogan and Julian Potter from the Thesis Eleven Centre, La Trobe University, and Sian Supski of Monash University.

9 – 11 September 2015 / University of Johannesburg

Words: Jill Weintroub

Image: Yohann Quëland de Saint-Pern. A still from ‘Desert’, a video in four parts by Yohann Quëland de Saint-Pern (2004) showing two different desert terrains in Mauritania. The artist walked backwards into the desert using a mirror to orient himself. The scene on the left shows where the artist walked from; on the right, the image in the mirror reflects where he is headed.

What happens when artists across forms and disciplines make the city the target of their creative energies? Cape Town and Mbombela have Infecting the City – a week when socially engaged artists and performers ‘inject’ the city’s public spaces with music, drama, visual and performance art forms. Now it’s Johannesburg’s turn. Can video film-makers and performance artists can say anything new about the complex issues facing this city – and other African cities?


Unlike Infecting the City with its international funding and prestigious awards for artists who create entertainment-oriented public commentary as befits a tourist destination like Cape Town, the Johannesburg project, Performative Urbanisms, is a serious intellectual endeavour, with academics driving it and heavyweight research and theoretical work involved.

Its aim is to challenge the hegemony of the ‘western canon’, and to contribute to transformed curricula in the arts at several universities in Africa. The terrain for these engagements is the African city: what can a context of rapidly changing urban environments in Africa contribute to a reworking of arts curricula to better serve students at African universities? Can the experience of rapid urban change, dislocation and fragile citizenship be harnessed in the creation of African curricula and alternative critiques of modernity?

Day two of the three-day workshop featured the Joburg research initiative, Construction Site/Chantier, a project that draws together scholars from local universities and academics with artists in Switzerland, Réunion, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to focus their energies on answering just such questions. Construction Site/Chantier grew out of a 2014 Goethe-funded project in which faculty from the universities of the Witwatersrand and Addis Ababa came together to work as equal partners to transform their arts curricula. At that point, those involved realised the potential that cities in transformation could offer in the making of alternative knowledges for students who were at the cutting edge of change in their daily lives. ‘The tremendous pace of development in Addis Ababa under the guise of modernisation that was displacing thousands of the city’s residents made our Addis colleagues question the concepts of modernity and development as they unfold in Africa,’ comments historian and heritage specialist Cynthia Kros, former head of the Arts, Culture and Heritage Management division of the Wits School of Arts, and co-leader of Construction Site/Chantier.

Video art was becoming a tool for young Ethiopian artists who are using the medium to express their experience of a present that is under construction. In a context where centuries-old neighbourhoods and indigenous infrastructures were being dismantled daily, these artists were able to use video and photography ‘to articulate what’s really going on in what we call the post-colony today, where development has become a major discourse, encroaching on citizenship and creating a shifting existence and unstable identities,’ notes art historian Elizabeth Giorgis of the School of Fine Art and Design at Addis, who was part of the 2014 partnership with Wits and is now part of the Construction Site/Chantier initiative.

At the same time, the potential for cities under construction to make space for the articulation of otherwise silenced or marginal voices is gestured to in the work of AbdouMaliq Simone, urbanist and research professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. Simone calls the majority of the urban population of Jakarta, where most of his research has been done, ‘the missing people’ in reference to the failure of officialdom to register their existence. Such ‘missing’ people, Simone argues, survive through a mixture of strategies and are engaged in the ‘auto-construction’ of a viable built environment and economy. For these people, Simone suggests, it is better that the city remains an incomplete project. Simone’s writings along with those of Gayatri Spivak, Achille Mbembe, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari provide some of the theoretical underpinnings of the Construction Site/Chantier research agenda.

Researchers in Construction Site/Chantier aspire to reach beyond commonly held notions of cities as finite physical entities and ends in themselves, and to see them instead as complicated and entangled environments that are constantly evolving and changing, a view that is better able to engage with the realities of African cities and the instabilities and fragilities of citizenship within them.

‘Rather than thinking about cities as “results”, we want to engage them as complex environments in movement, in transformation, and to explore processes of “cititude” in their various states of spatial emergence,’ notes Professor Georges Pfruender, former head of Wits School of Arts and now chair of Theatre Pedagogy and Art Education at the University of Northwestern Switzerland, who partners with Kros as co-leader of Construction Site/Chantier.

Such a conception of cities as construction sites or incomplete projects had the potential to trigger advanced disciplinary thinking about the complex issues of transformation, dislocation and modernisation confronting cities in Africa, Kros explained. She was speaking to delegates at the Performative Urbanisms workshop convened by the Wits City Institute and UJ’s Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, the Melbourne-based international journal of ideas Thesis Eleven, and Curtin University of Perth. The approach required ‘disciplinary mobility and an open-book position’ to appropriately consider in dynamic and multiple ways the myriad phenomena of the urban condition. The arts, including visual, performance and digital in particular, had a unique and vital capacity to act as catalyst for the kind of trans-disciplinary research required to produce alternative curricula and critique suitable to contemporary African contexts. Art forms such as digital film making could facilitate the shaping of new theoretical tools that would go beyond conventional discourses of urban regeneration, modernisation and development as ways of thinking about change in cities.

Take the Tower of Babel. A biblical story and archetype of impossible construction that has been reworked by writers and artists across the centuries, not least the Swiss playwright and artist Friedrich Dürrenmatt who evoked the tower in his plays and paintings, often as a symbol of the senselessness of the human endeavour altogether. Dürrenmatt returned again and again in his prolific writing career to the tower. ‘The Tower of Babel is an emblem of humanity’s hubris. The tower collapses, and with it the human world comes to ruin,’ he wrote in a commentary on his paintings and drawings before his death in 1990.

Right now, that tower and Dürrenmatt’s many interpretations of it are the catalyst for Babel Re-Play, a key project in Construction Site/Chantier, and one that involves digital artists and film-makers Yohann Quëland de St Pern (College of the Arts of La Réunion) and Margarete Jahrmann (University of the Arts, Zurich) each of whom uses their respective art form to ask questions about cities and how we experience them. The Babel Re-Play project uses film and digital media to create urban games and play situations which are then deployed to encourage a more nuanced understanding of the environment, and to help audiences through games and play to appreciate that all structures and narratives are frail, prone to crumbling, but also full of potential.

Babel Re-Play hinges on the idea of the tower and the architectural forms it evokes, linking three iconic touch points: Ponte Tower in central Johannesburg, the 450m deep shaft at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine near Rustenberg in the North West Province of South Africa (a negative tower), and Prime Tower in Zurich, the tallest building in Switzerland and home to banking firms and finance companies – in some contexts described as a monument to a failed banking system.

These locations resonate with themes in Dürrenmatt’s work. From his location in the post-World War 2 world, Dürrenmatt was disturbed by the rise of different forms of totalitarianism. He projected a tower image onto the stage in one of his plays to comment on the conditions of Stalinism experienced by many in Russia. As well as the tower, recurring themes in his darkly comic plays are the Minotaur and the labyrinth. Drawn from Greek mythology, the labyrinth features as metaphor for the city as a confusing and un-quiet space of suffering and poverty, and for the Swiss banking system that he saw as participating in a high-stakes game played on the stage of world finance, with terrible inequalities as the outcome.

The labyrinth and Babel myths in Dürrenmatt’s plays dovetail with notions of disciplinary mobility, open-endedness and incompleteness – characteristics that the Construction Site/Chantier attributes to cities. The Babel myth is incomplete, porous, inconclusive and open to so many interpretations. These aspects give the story its potency, Kros explained. ‘What ingredients are required to build the tower? What kind of authoritarianism? What elements of performance? What is the Tower of Babel in terms of Johannesburg? Can it be separated from the banking tower in Zurich, or the Marikana mine shaft?’ Zurich’s financial tower stands at the centre of the resources in the world, but it cannot be detached from the negative towers in Africa.

Babel imagery and Hyènes (1992) by Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty (based on Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit), provide inspiration for two performance pieces that are to be filmed and screened in South Africa and in Switzerland in 2016. Both pieces draw on the fact that Mambéty felt it was his right to “appropriate a part of Africa from Europe” in using Dürrenmatt’s characters and plot in a film about contemporary Senegal.

In creative hands, film can be used as a tool to ask questions about South African cities. Using digital media to probe ‘the politics of space, citiness and desire’ is something that filmmaker and UJ lecturer Nduka Mntambo has been experimenting with for several years. Pointing out parallels between cities that are always on the move, and films as moving slices of life, Mntambo argues that film provides an appropriate mode for speculating about the city. ‘Films are like construction sites in that in the finished product – the building or the film – all technical aspects are hidden.’ He cites writer on African film Marie-Helen Gutberlet: ‘Both cities and cinema consist of dual forms: they possess a certain materiality, they are to some extent design, they are something that takes place in the interior, something that will not easily be materialised.’ At the same time, film allowed a layered ‘lines of life’ approach as a form of understanding the complexity of African cities. ‘What can film as a language tell us about the city?’ Mntambo asks. ‘Can film provide an alternative to the western canon?’ Mntambo’s experimental film If This Be a City was part of the Johannesburg Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2015.

Using digital video in a radically different way is Yohann Quëland de St Pern who teaches theories and praxis of video art at the College of the Arts of la Réunion. De St Pern’s method is to ‘use video like a document’ as a way of sampling ambience and/or texture, as a means to ‘test the borders of the real’. A state of contemplation is required to enable forms to be crossed and to allow conventional modes of movement and looking to be reconsidered. De St Pern sees his role as an artist in testing ways of subversion, in refusing principles governing the authority of social organisation, and in offering a reassessment of reality. He uses ‘doubt’ as a tool to augment reality.