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Rise Jozi, Rise

Fak’ugesi: The African Digital Innovation Festival 2015 took place in Braamfontein during August and September 2015.
Walking into a gallery is generally a quiet, subdued experience. Whilst walking into an art museum to see a screen with moving images that are being created by a plant according to the mood of the environment, it is not surprising to hear squeals of excitement. At the Wits Art Museum (WAM), Kasia Molga calmly explains how she has created sensors that connect to plants to reveal that they are ‘living creatures, just like animals, but slower.’ She is one of the four residents in the Digital Residency that is at the heart of the Fak’ugesi Festival. Fak’ugesi is a word that cannot be found in any dictionary, it is sourced from the Zulu slang term denoting ‘plug in’ or ‘switch on’. The Fak’ugesi Festival is an African digital innovation festival in its second year, that is creating a new wave of interaction in Johannesburg. The founder, Prof Christo Doherty of the Wits University Digital Arts Department, wanted to get the university to ‘move out of those heavily fortified gates to engage with the city.’ And after the incredible opening event with Berlin software designer and techno musician Robert Henke, the professor and the sound-laser artist drove through Soweto to fak’ugesi throughout the township. Using his incredible lasers to create a visual-sound experience at the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein, Henke left the crowd aghast at the possibilities of alternative art. When he drove through Soweto with his lasers it was he who was in awe at the possibilities of experimenting outside a theatre space and lighting up an historical site.
Lumiere II is the title of Henke’s latest experiment with sound and light and it provided the perfect opening to the Festival, as it switched on the city to new technological innovations. What makes the Festival unique is that it is structured so that ‘we are actually developing ways that can really speak to the African culture,’ Doherty says.
As part of the residency – which Doherty calls ‘the core of the Festival’ – Nathan Gates presents an attempt at making some of the absurdities of living in a space with loadshedding and WiFi that doesn’t work, sensible. He says, ‘I like the idea of tactical anarchy,’ and that the taxis and vendors around the city are actually what make it work. His experiment is a technological poem that links the random messages typed into WiFi routers and creates a kind of surrealist poetry. He sees it as a collage of thoughts that could potentially be used to communicate messages and put the redundant WiFi routers to use. ‘The Festival itself is an experiment,’ Doherty explains. It is this experimental nature of the Festival that makes it exciting to participate in. The works are created during the Festival and pose significant attempts at engaging with the city and developing fresh African solutions through the combination of arts and technology.
The function of the Festival, as Doherty puts it, is ‘to make the city a better managed organism.’ And it takes its inspiration from the city itself and brings the ideas that are being developed into the people’s hands. With a Market Hack where passers-by could create a miniature robot and pop-ups in Soweto and Alexandra townships as well as schools’ gaming workshops, where learners could learn how to produce games, the Festival injected a spark of creative life that met the technological interests of the time. It also presented an option of sustainability that may have seemed out of reach for the continent.
‘It just takes creativity,’ is the message that Doherty wants to propagate. The continent and the City of Johannesburg, in particular, can achieve immense feats by collaborating in creative experiments that envision and shape a new image of itself. At Body Tech, artists from the country, based all across the world, spoke about how technology helps them to imagine themselves in ways that are magical.
Kenyan digital artist Jepchumba experimented with creating a future-selfie during the residency. She imagined and photographed a Johannesburg set in the future and had participants interact with the notion of what they would say to themselves in this future-space. And the fourth of the residents, Ling Tan, gathered people-data about the city by manufacturing wearable technology responding to the person’s feeling of safety in a particular area, to create an alternative map. The Festival is an anarchic innovation. It is revolutionary because it listens to the city to create an interaction with its every level of living, from plants to WiFi, and it works.
Ed note: Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival ran alongside and in collaboration with British Council Connect ZA InnovationZA. This series of projects is supported by SA-UK Seasons 2014 & 2015, a partnership between the Department of Arts and Culture, South Africa and the British Council.

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