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“We are always co-creating the city” | Alex Halligey on ‘Breaths of Joburg’

Cities are often described as having a particular character, atmosphere, or identity of their own. In this way, they become the perfect sites for performance, play, and storytelling.

Alex Halligey Breaths of Joburg review performance
Alex Halligey PHOTO by Athena Mazarakis

The site-specific performance Breaths of Joburg, which took place outside of The Windybrow Art Centre recently, is testament to the myriad possibilities of engaging the city through these methods. Produced by UJ Arts & Culture and the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), the project is driven in part by theatre-maker and performance, drama, and urban studies scholar Alex Halligey.  

For Halligey, who is interested in investigating the kinds of everyday interactions that give urban spaces an identity, Breaths of Joburg is part of a larger public-art-as-research project that considers “creative writing and site-specific theatre as tools for engaging urban publics in dialogue about experiences of everyday, ground-up place-making in city spaces.”

In the below Q&A, David Mann speaks with Halligey about the origins of the project, the city as both a performer and an audience member, writing and researching the city, and more. 

Hi Alex, thanks for taking the time to speak about Breaths of Joburg. To begin, could you tell me a bit about how the project came about?

The project started with an inspiration towards the end of my PhD in 2017. I had done a participatory public art project that culminated in a site-specific/street theatre play (a short doccie on it is available here, and a website on the project is available here). Theoretically, I had been working with the idea of playmaking as a way of learning more about city place-making (ground-up, relational). I then started to think about how much writing about the city captured everyday moments of place-making and conceived of an interplay between creative writing, theatre and the city.

The full vision is to have 12 performances by 12 performance-makers based on 12 texts set in the city, staged in the sites the writing describes and using casts that combine professional performers and local participants. Six of the texts would be by established writers (works from Joburg’s literary canon), and six by unpublished writers (and not necessarily writers with any professional literary aspirations – writing as expressive medium, not honed craft). The unpublished writers’ work would be solicited through a writing competition call distributed through literary, arts and urban civil society Joburg networks. Over the course of this pilot version I’ve realised workshops to develop writing in different community organisations and hubs around Joburg would be a more interesting, integrated way to go than a writing competition and would make more out of the project’s offer for the expressive possibilities of creative writing about city experiences. Twelve researchers from a range of disciplines (comparative literature, anthropology, sociology, development studies, urban planning/urban studies, architecture, theatre and performance, applied theatre, media and communications, cultural studies, etc.) each take on one of the performance processes as their research project and respond to it as inspired by their discipline and research focus. There would also be an exhibition reflecting on the project, and a graphically sophisticated book of the creative writing texts and images from the project. This would all be done in Johannesburg, but also connecting with researchers in other cities and playing with the model in those cities.

Breaths of Joburg review performance Lebo Mashile Tina Redman
Breaths of Joburg PHOTO by David Mann

For the pilot version, I spoke to Pieter Jacobs, Head of UJ Arts & Culture, about the project at the beginning of 2022. He had budget and in-kind resources for me to produce a writing competition and one performance work, with the winning texts from the writing competition inspiring the performance work. In my search for collaborators and funding for the full vision above, I connected with Anders Høg Hansen, an Associate Professor at Malmö University’s School of Arts and Communication. Anders was interested in collaborating on the project, and we started working on funding applications and developing the pilot version to include a Joburg and Malmö University (MAU) post-grad student research collaboration. The MAU students were all from the MA Communication for Development stream and the Joburg students were primarily from UJ – from the Anthropology and Development Studies Department, the English Department, the Sociology Department and the Graduate School of Architecture. We had one MA Urban Studies student from the Wits School of Architecture and Planning’s Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies. MAU awarded Anders funding which could cover a field trip and videography for the project and Anders brought Mikael Rundberg on board from his department. Mikael is an interaction designer who works with how to use technology as a pedagogical tool for blended/hybrid learning, as well as a tool for connecting different publics. Live vision mixing and streaming of performance events is one of the tools he uses. Where the project already had videography towards a documentary built in, it came to have another aspect through Mikael: the possibility of sharing the work live online.

Public performance, city writing, place-making, and artistic practice as research are all longstanding research interests of yours. In this way, Johannesburg, with its rapidly changing urban spaces, is a perfect site. How has the changing nature of the city influenced your research?
the blinded city book

One answer is that the research at its heart is concerned with responding to changes: to make participatory theatre and performance works that reflect how the city has changed and keeps changing and to open up dialogue (whether explicit or in the inner, subtle workings of hearts and minds) about how it might change through our daily relational actions. So the question through the artistic process is always: where is the city at now? Where has it been? Where will it be going? Since I started working in this way in Joburg in 2015, I feel like there have been many small changes and fluctuations in the situations and qualities of inner city Joburg, but the overall mix of daily hustle, pleasures, fears, connections and disconnections feels like it hasn’t changed significantly – the short stories that inspired Breaths of Joburg, the stories the cast brought to the work and the sense from the street life of the performance site at the bottom of Nugget Street all attest to this. I think Matthew Wilhem-Solomon’s book, The Blinded City gives such a good sense of how there have been very real, material changes in planning, policy, civil action and lived realities in the housing and life-worlds of the inner city in the last fifteen or so years. Yet life in Joburg’s inner city, in spite of these significant changes, is still frequently a struggle, where the joys and safeties of relational city life feel precarious and under threat. For participatory performance to work in a public space, responding to the micro stories and macro myths of the city feels like an ongoing need.

Why Hillbrow as the site for this project?

The three winning texts all spoke strongly to the scenes and happenings of the inner city. So the initial thinking was to do the performance just outside UJ’s Doornfontein Campus – we’d get the site-specificity of the inner city but still have a connection to UJ with the performance being produced by UJ Arts & Culture. We were advised by one of UJ’s managers for public space events that we’d need Joint Operations Committee (JOC) clearance from the City of Joburg for the intersection we’d initially selected immediately outside of the Doornfontein Campus. Knowing the Windybrow Arts Centre, we thought it might be a better site and it was. The pavement outside the Windybrow offered a public space performance ‘stage’ well off the street (no JOC needed), but also well trafficked by pedestrians. The cast had already started working when they did the first recce to the Windybrow and were so inspired by the amount of children walking home from school, they decided to orientate the play towards children – speaking to the audience the site presented with.

One of the points of origin for Breaths of Joburg was the Set in Joburg writing competition. What sorts of narratives did the selected texts reveal about the city and those who inhabit it? And how much did they come to shape the performance?

The narratives of the three texts speak generally to hopes, pleasures and human connections alongside violence, hustle, theft, sex work and the public behaviour that threatens a sense of public safety for all genders and sexual orientations and for children. The stories, however, also offer specific city scenes and characters. There are Lerato Mahlangu’s informal, street-side hair braiding stylists in ‘The Chronicles of the City’ and sex workers in Teneal Naidoo’s ‘The Light in the Dark’ while Zandile Dube’s poem, ‘He is a city of crime…’, treats Joburg as a character that violently takes from those who dwell in it. All three stories centre around a young woman protagonist, aware of the dangers of Johannesburg, but trying to find her way with a mix of street savviness, trust, hope and resentment at the difficulties of navigating the city. All of these elements in the stories resonated with the cast’s own experiences of Joburg. Representing elements of the stories became containers into which the cast’s stories could be fed. ‘The Chronicles of the City’ became the braiding song and movement sequence in the play along with the images that all the braiders and braidees see of city life. Dube’s character of Joburg was represented by the original ‘River’ of Joburg, claiming early city dweller’s souls. The sex worker story of ‘The Light in the Dark’ became ‘The Lady Who Sells her Moon’ ntsomi. And the young woman character of all three tales is Cindy (Lebo Mashile) and Babes (Tina Redman) travelling through the city.

Breaths of Joburg review performance Lebo Mashile Tina Redman
There is the scripted and rehearsed performance that takes place outside the Windybrow, and then there are the incidental performances or moments that emerge as a result of the performance engaging with the city, and vice-versa – cars stopping to watch, people leaning out of their apartment windows, the noise and commotion of the city. What can these moments tell us about the city and its people?

I’m so fascinated by how staging a performance about the city on its streets blurs the line between fiction and reality. So people coming out to watch on a balcony are intrigued to watch the performance, but they also become a theatrical chorus, just as the audience of people who have intentionally come to watch the performance become a chorus or theatrical frame for the balcony audience. The theatricality of the scripted and rehearsed performance asks the audience to look at the stories the cast tells about the city, but it also heightens the audience’s presence to all the real life stories of the city happening simultaneously with the performance. The cast has a similar experience from within the performance: they are both witnessed by and witnessing the Nugget Street, Hillbrow moment of 14:00 – 14:30 on a particular Friday afternoon. I’m interested in how this opens up a gap for conscious awareness of our being, actions and relationality to one another in the city. The theatricality of the work leads the police van to stop, observing the gunshot scene, and the police van becomes a theatrical player in the moment in its own right. There is an imaginative journeying of some kind for the police officers and an imaginative journeying of some kind for all who observe the police officers stopping. In a very nascent way, where tangible effects are hard to account for, there is a momentary opening for thinking and feeling into someone (or something – road, van, bridge) else’s life-world in the city and how it connects to your own. My hope is that these blurry lines between the real and the fictional/theatrical, make us more present to how we are all always co-creating the city.

Similarly, the livestream allowed for online audiences to join. Do you think this adds another dynamic to the performance or is it more about opening up access to the performance?

Both. We gave a great deal of thought to how the cameras might change the nature of the performance and its presence on the street. Would the cameras make pedestrian audiences back off, feel that this wasn’t something for them? Would the camera’s take away from the magic of a sudden happening on the street? We thought it might be really important to have one show camera free and tried to find a way to negotiate this between loadshedding and connectivity concerns, videographer (the documentary maker, as opposed to Mikael doing the live stream) and photographer schedules.

The city becomes an incidental participant and audience member in Breaths of Joburg PHOTO by David Mann

In the end, the camera seemed to function mainly as a further theatrical frame, generating intrigue, drawing pedestrian audiences in. The sound desk, mic-ed actors and Yogen Sullaphen’s wonderful music set up already made the performance quite a strongly framed and attention-grabbing spectacle, so the cameras seemed less intrusive than we thought they might.

For local children in the audience (some coming back daily) the cameras became a way of participating in the work and connecting to the project team. They would be curious about the cameras and come up to the researchers operating them, asking how they worked, seeing the visuals of the play through the viewfinder. The cameras and their operators created a threshold between the audience and the performance where children in the audience could talk, reflect and ask questions about what was going on.

The opening up of access was twofold, on the one hand sharing the work with the MAU students who were not in Joburg and the UJ students who couldn’t make it to the site in person and on the other hand broadening the public engagement of the project that it might reach more people in Joburg (who for whatever reason couldn’t make it to the site) and people elsewhere in the world. The intention was not to create a voyeuristic window on to Joburg, but rather to put something of Joburg’s urbanity in dialogue with other city dwellers elsewhere in the world.

What’s next for Breaths of Joburg? Will this become a template for site-specific, art-as-research performances elsewhere in the world?

There are some immediate nexts. The three MAU on-site researchers are writing their final MA theses on the project. We’ll have an exhibition of photography, the documentary being made by Bonga Nkomo, and graphic representations of the winning texts at the UJ Arts & Culture Centre. We’re hoping to find some kind of online publication platform for the writing competition winners, scholarly/interpretive writing on the project and all the AV material we have from it. There is a need to talk through, with the whole team (UJ Arts & Culture, myself as a researcher at JIAS, Anders and Mikael as teachers and researchers at MAU, each one of the team members as individual researchers and artists), what worked, what didn’t and to revise the original vision, and for Anders and I to work together on finding funding for the next iteration.

It would be wonderful for the project to become a template for site-specific, art-as-research performances elsewhere in the world – that is definitely the hope. We might start with a version in Malmö and further iterations in Joburg. At this point we’re holding an open-handed space for the unfurlings of this iteration and seeing how those unfurlings might come together for a future project.

Find out more about Breaths of Joburg here.

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