Festino Lenten.

July 10, 2012

What was unsatisfying about the Grahamstown Festival?

Of course, there were the usual fraudsters, like the talentless Steven Cohen and the burnt-out Athol Fugard, being paraded and promoted by huckster publicists – which wasn’t their fault, since if you have no merit you have no alternative but to comply with the demands of the PR industry. In fact, there were a number of interesting performances and exhibitions of varying kinds which were not in any way inferior to those of the past.

And yet something was missing somewhere, at least for the Creator, who tried to see as much as possible. There was, for instance, a little production called “Rats!”, which turned out to be a combination of an overblown recitation of Browning’s “Pied Piper of Hamelyn”, a competent performance of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, and two witless South African sketches performed without skill. It might have been interesting to see some kind of weird connection made between Browning and Beckett, but the performer made no attempt to do this, and the two pitiful concluding episodes allowed the whole performance to tail off into banality. One came away with a sense of opportunity lost and time thus wasted.

There were a number of Peter Watkins movies on show, but only one was showing at the time the Creator was present – Evening Land, a Danish production about an imaginary unsuccessful anti-nuclear protest in the late 1970s. It was a well-constructed, well-produced movie, as Watkins’ work always is, although a little strident and implausible for the Creator’s taste, as agitprop often is. Notwithstanding, there was no excuse for only four people showing up to see it.

Then there was Callum’s Will, a rather simplistic but well-performed two-hander about a crippled ballet dancer befriending a working-class youth and trying to encourage his aspirations – a very simple story given little complexity, but perhaps all the more satisfying because it attempted no more than it could accomplish. Likewise there was Bantustan, a rollicking farce about psychopathy, torture, detention without trial, murder and general tyranny in the latter years of the Ciskeian dictatorship. There again, while the piece was undeniably agitprop, the exuberant insanity displayed by the actor playing General Charles Sebe and the sinister, sardonic madness of the actor playing his chief advisor Kaptein Venter amid an environment where nobody but them took any of the demented structure of the system seriously, was beautifully carried off – and the finale, with President Lennox Sebe brought in almost like a fetish idol on wheels, but capable of inspiring astounding terror, was unusual among Grahamstown performances in providing a satisfying end. The audience was mostly young, black and enthusiastic – and perhaps that’s a good thing, except that white festival-goers should have seen it too.

Watkins’ son Patrick introduced a movie called The Universal Clock, a somewhat jumbled attempt to explain Watkins’ media theories – which revolve around the use of a psychological-structural template which he calls the “monoform” to impose intellectual uniformity on all media presentations – through a coverage of the process of Watkins’ late movie, La Commune. It was far better at revealing what an interesting and driven person Watkins was, than at analyzing what was wrong with the media – although it did a good job of exposing the Discovery Channel’s pretensions to integrity and honesty. Patrick Watkins came across as a well-intentioned anti-globalisation campaigner who seemed decidedly intolerant of anyone who disagreed with him – helping to explain his failure.

Not Either Hamlet, a monologue by a failed actor turned curtain-puller, was amusing, entertaining and far from banal; very well performed and coming to a sort of climax at the end. Medeaphenomenon was the worst-drafted, worst-performed and most banal the Creator has ever seen performed for money – yet a number of people went to see it, and some of them clapped at the end. Perhaps the three lissom young drama students performing it were personally popular.

Of other kinds of performance, the art exhibition Karoo 2052 was effective, and the slide-show and talk about fracking given by the organiser of the exhibition was extremely well-presented, giving the kind of “I am going to be reasonable even if nobody else will” perspective which liberals love. The Landmark Foundation gave a talk on the glories of their work with leopards, and they talked a good game even though they are royally loathed by lots of more established conservation agencies. (The talk included lots of splendid camera-footage of big spotty cats, including one who stalked up to the camera and gave it a good sniffing, its huge bulbous muzzle rubbing against the lens.) It’s impossible to tell whether the Foundation is more right than its opponents, especially given all the exciting rubbish in the media – but it was a mercy to see someone talking about something worthy of passion, even if it might have been bullshit. One in Nine, a photo-exhibition about the photographer’s experience of breast cancer, was as effective as could be – though, once again, the venue wasn’t thronged with people (and, arguably, we all know about those lumps and their consequences anyway). And, lastly, Chris Mann was plugging his latest little wife-illustrated book (dangerous to model yourself on William Blake) with guitar in hand and Janet Suzman to give a few readings, but while Mann’s poetry is pleasant it didn’t seem to have the strength to sustain all the weight Mann tried to lay on it.

Oh, and there were scattered art exhibitions, with varying degrees of talent and earnestness (benign goats and a ceiling-suspended foundation garment referred to as a “mobile haddock”. (Fish without a bicycle, geddit?) Probably the best exhibition of the lot was the one outside the Monument, an array of pieces of labeled paper with fruit tastefully arranged upon it – “Untitled Grapefruit, R12 000”, “Coconut/Oreo, R18 000”, and of course a banana labeled “Spear of the Nation, R12 800”. Apparently there were no purchases, which was rather a pity. And, of course, there was the PX Village and the Village Green, which are essentially concentrations of the kind of curio-stand one finds springing up in every unpoliced patch of ground in every urban area in South Africa, so that they have lost what significance they might have had twenty or even ten years ago.

So what’s to make of all this? Well, there is a lot of talent inSouth Africa. There are skills, and abilities, and people with time and energy. The fact that people without these things are often celebrated more than the rest is not a problem; no sane creative artist expects significant reward for creations. So, why is there so little coming out of this talent?

Wait. There is a lot being produced. However, what is being produced is trivial. One more or less expects art to have some peripheral connection with society. Dramatic or performance art especially, but graphic and even musical art, likewise. And there was the grand posturing Think!Fest and the WordFest (the latter sadly truncated by funding cuts) to, supposedly, provide guidance for such art. We clever people will provide material for you to stuff the vacant spaces in your heads with. Ah, yes.

We know that society is in crisis. However, the Festival suggests that this crisis is not being carried over into the artistic world and inspiring any responses, intellectual or visceral. Yes, there was the art about fracking, but although fracking is indeed important (and for all of us, not just for some sheep-huggers inAberdeen) there are bigger and more substantive issues which encapsulate things like fracking, and which the whole issue turned away from. Likewise, there was the occasional Sekoto-themed painting condemning xenophobia, but these paintings seemed almost obligatory, like a socialist-realist painter turning once more to heroic tractor-drivers in a flourishing wheat-field against a rising Marxist dawn. In short, there were fragments; there was no whole.

Whereas, there was a counternarrative which was contented in its fragmentation and which saw almost no challenge. Perhaps the classic example of this was the documentary on Watkins, for Watkins’ son knew absolutely nothing aboutSouth Africaexcept that he hated the ANC, and therefore had no idea of how his father’s ideas applied to this country’s representations of political systems. Meanwhile, the “satirical” playwright and artistic profiteer Mike van Graan had been called in to introduce the session devoted to critiquing the failure of the mass media to represent the interests of the people and its decision, instead, to serve the interests of a minority by focusing on trivia and by deploying intellectual structures which promoted shallowness and banality. Van Graan proceeded to talk about how brave and intelligent the media in South Africa were, having focused their attention upon such central questions as AIDS denialism and the courage and self-sacrificing patriotism of Brett Murray and his monoform corporate art of which “The Spear” was a classic example. In other words, Van Graan was psychologically incapable of even identifying the central issues at hand – for had he been aware of what they were, he would have anathematized them in his customary displays of allegiance to corporate authority.

The South African monoform is often used to create an illusion of left-wing or liberal aspiration within which extreme right-wing politics are embedded like broken glass in a soufflé – an approach conventional inEuropeand in the Democratic wing of the North American ruling class. As a result, it is entirely possible that people like Van Graan and Shapiro genuinely delude themselves into imagining that their reactionary maunderings are progressive, while people like Watkins are deluded into sharing such delusions – after all, they may be reactionaries, but at least they don’t support the ANC, which is the only test which people of Watkins’ stamp apply in South African politics.

Broadly speaking, this is the problem with the Festival. Everyone knows that things are stuffed up. However, nobody knows how to express this in a meaningful way, or how to relate the specific stuffed-upnesses of the known fields of chaos, to the broader catastrophic stuffed-upness of society. Whereas, there is a monoform – it’s all the fault of the ANC and Julius Malema – into which such feelings can be easily slipped, leading directly to loathing of the black majority and the working class, and to passionate admiration for neoliberal projects without understanding anything about their real nature. (You can read about this process in any of Arundhati Roy’s essays onIndia, whether under the BJP or the Congress.) So the people who are trying to express a response to actual reality find themselves floundering in incomprehension, while those who are expressing themselves clearly through established channels are inescapably endorsing the same problem which they imagine themselves to be opposing.

And meanwhile, the world-disaster, in our little neck of the woods, proceeds with glum but unchallengeable facility.