Making public spaces in cities, Public: An interview with Jay Pather

The 2017 festival can be visited here

The Africa Centre’s, Infecting The City Public Arts Festival, exploded onto the streets and public spaces of Cape Town for the fifth time from the 6th to the 10th March 2012. It is the largest and most diverse annual public arts festival in South Africa, celebrated by local and international artists who create artworks that unwrap and unlock the communal spaces in the Cape Town City Centre.

Rashiq Fataar: As an event which spans across our beautiful Central City, includes all cultures, races, art forms and abilities, what is unique about the Central City of Cape Town that lends itself to an event of this nature?

Jay Pather: It is that it is essentially unfinished and imperfect. And that is good. There are absences in communication across cultures, there is discrepancy in the way people live and there is a lot that is missing. It is also physically very beautiful in parts and not in others. This rollercoaster of contradiction allows artists to go in and make work that is relevant and powerful. And that’s what one strives to do.

Rashiq Fataar: Based on your experience and the history of the event, what 3 changes would you make to the Central City, as a matter of urgency, which would improve the area for pedestrians and public transport commuters? and for artists and performers too?

Jay Pather: I think the Public Art Policy initiative should be speeded up and make the city a human city allowing its artists to bring their work for everybody without being treated in the same way the city treats wealthy film companies.

I think public access should be increased during festivals as a matter of course – later travelling trains and buses. Our city was the ideal apartheid city, if we want to change that we have to bring the Flats closer. The only way short of a geological feat, is transportation. Effective, cheap, frequent, secure. Do it already. It’s not rocket science. In all big cities throughout the world, what lends it dynamism is effective transportation, allowing for exchange, freedom to make decisions, freedom to work and play, freedom to engage in one’s own time and not dictated by an outdated bus schedule.

Finally, I think drivers should be fined heavily for driving into pedestrians. We had Swiss artists who I had to save on several occasions since they assumed that drivers would be more careful since in Switzerland you can be heavily fined for not slowing down when you see someone crossing the road. This may make pedestrians more confident about crossing at pedestrian lights instead of in the middle of the road. This would just make the city calmer, I think.

Rashiq Fataar: What are the challenges around the concept of public space and “making public space public”? Are the barriers generally around the legislation or by-laws or should we be re-designing mindsets and spaces around what we want the Central City to be or become?

Jay Pather: I think we can start step by step. First steps will have to do with legislation and there probably needs to be more discussion around this. Laws that govern access, permissions etc. Of course we don’t expect carte blanche but there should be a twinning with serious artists and arts festivals on what is needed and make this work. The central area is also small enough for larger pedestrian areas, even over particular periods when roads can be closed allowing for more social space.

Rashiq Fataar: What would you consider to be the most inspirational performance piece of the programme this year and why?

Jay Pather: It is really hard to say because there was inspiration in various ways. Mandisi Shindo’s Sacrifice blew us over with strong symbolism and the  use of the architecture on St George’s Mall while Leila Anderson quietly slept in a shop window in an exquisitely crafted installation performance as did Athi Patra Ruga and Olaniyi Rasheed. By the same token Dada Masilo’s courageous Death and the Miadens, Jazzart’s achingly beautiful Cantico in the Company’s Gardens were contrasted with the devastation and inspired aesthetics of Sello Pesa/Vaughn Sadie, Nicola Hanekom, Mandla Mbothwe and Sanjin Muftic. Ultimately replacing  work in new contexts also proved inspiring such as the work of Justin Kravwitz and the Cape Town Philharmonic. And there were our superb international guests, Ole Hamre, Victorine Muller and Vincent Mantsoe who brought  some powerful, refreshing international perspectives.

Every single work inspired for different reasons.

Rashiq Fataar: I have always considered an event like Infecting the City to be a jewel in Cape Town, which should become the norm throughout the year. Are there any plans to expand the event throughout the year with a series of smaller events or to expand the reach of the event beyond the Central City?

Jay Pather: Yes there is the discussion happening. It is possible to decentralize with a set of smaller festivals through the year. But there are a range of possibilities and this is  a key focus for Infecting the City in the coming years.
Rashiq Fataar: How do we keep our existing public spaces and areas lively throughout the year? Does this require a cross-sector partnership including buy-in from local government and other city agencies? e.g. should performances on Church Square become a regular occurrence?

Jay Pather: Yes. Infecting the City demonstrates ways in which this is possible but it does not mean that it should not happen throughout the year at various times. There is a lot to be said about how one programmes, when and where – so it is part of a large discussion, not just isolated, exclusive concerts. I certainly hope this can be had with local government and city agencies. There were exquisite moments of community as well as critical appreciation of the arts – not just dumbing down the whole experience and forcing camaraderie. As a nation we are ready to be challenged aesthetically as well as to be brought together. Art should and must lead the way. Any other intention will deaden the experience and reveal itself quickly. Artists know how.

Rashiq Fataar: Do you think Cape Town can differentiate itself from other South African cities by the way we interact with our public space? e.g. Should a piano player in the concourse of Cape Town station become a unique sound or event which attracts tourists but also contributes to our brand?

Jay Pather: I think our ‘brand’ is in the process of being made, we should not forget that. I am far more interested in the nitty gritty of who we are then in the spin on top of it. The piano in the station was a combination of an aesthetic and then kind of ‘why not?’. And in making that courageous decision, Justin Krawitz chose to premiere a new work. Some of it worked and some may not have. I am interested in getting at the roots of creative projects and then causing the waves to ripple through.

Somewhere in there I suppose lies ideas for some kind of brand. I am more interested in origins. And the people that live in Cape Town. All of them. I m interested in significant shifts of perception of what these spaces mean to us. When we have Capetonians and South Africans who can have a combination of attitude, suss, arrogance and good will all wrapped up in one as a typical New Yorker or a Berliner seem to have developed, then I think we may be arriving at something. We have to start with us. To develop if you want a ‘brand’ of proud, steel strength that can withstand international scrutiny and not just  be patronized as an African city that works. And there’s a lot there to do already.

Jay Pather is Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town, Director of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts and Artistic Director of Siwela Sonke.  A Fulbright Scholar, he read for an MA in Dance Theatre at New York University and since then Pather’s work has traveled widely extending across discipline, site and culture. He has collaborated with visual artists, architects and urban planners, since 1984, taking his inter-cultural performances into public spaces and working with the architecture of Johannesburg, Durban, London, Zanzibar, Amsterdam, New York, Barcelona, Mumbai, Muscat, New Delhi, Copenhagen and Cape Town.

All images courtesy of the Infecting the City Festival at