Sifting through the ruins

After delays and a game of musical chairs, it finally happened. Kim Gurney looks at
What Cape 07 promised and then delivered

Liza Littlewort, Untitled (L’Exotic Biennale), 2007, Ink, watercolour, gouache, pencil, saliva and splashes of tea on paper, 29.5 x 21cm Originally published on artheat.blogspot. com, March 12, 2007 Courtesy of artist and ArtHeat Financial labour pains that threatened to scupper the inaugural biennial art event CAPE 07, which kicked off around the peninsula in March, are paradoxically to thank for an improved exhibition model, according to various participants. Just weeks before launch of the originally conceived Trans Cape exhibition, the organisers Cape Africa Platform (CAP) had to change tack when expected funding failed to materialise. A more modest CAPE 07 was born from an “open process model” that precluded the major cost of transporting artworks, a change that prompted artistic director Gavin Jantjes to quit.

This news followed an earlier postponement of the event from September 23 last year. A familiar anxiety about this country’s capacity to host large-scale art events settled outside the delivery room as CAPE 07 was nonetheless born. But in retrospect, the forced pare landed the event exactly where it should have begun: with a core, flexible model from which to grow. The original Trans Cape was too ambitious, according to Marilyn Martin, director of art collections at Iziko Museums, one of the event’s major host venues. Martin said it was important for the industry as a whole that the event succeeded and CAP had successfully democratised viewing the visual arts by taking it to unexpected places. However, South Africa had a credibility issue centred around too much ambition, she said.

“This is one reason why the Johannesburg Biennale failed,” stated Martin. “We have to acknowledge we have a third-world situation and it is difficult to access funding – private or public… It doesn’t mean one shouldn’t have vision or ambition but it needs to have an element of realism. [The event] should be small and focused. All credit to [CAP] they pulled something off but we will still have to step back and weigh up the pros and cons.” Indeed, feelings were rather mixed as CAPE 07 drew to a close in late April. By general agreement, there were some clear successes: the weekly art awareness programme Multimediations was a winner; the multiple venues encouraged exploratory travel; and the fringe programme X-Cape rallied local artists. But the event also raised questions. Kirsty Cockerill, director of the AVA, said it was positive CAPE 07 came together but expressed concern about a management team that did not work to budget. She was also frustrated at a lack of transparency around Jantjes’ role: “He had this idea, it took a long time and money to come up with, and then he left.”She also expressed doubts about whether TransCape could have been delivered even if anticipated funding materialised, given the enormous costs and strict conditions of transporting work of international artists: “[CAP] hired lots of faces but nobody knew how to do anything pragmatic.”

CAP CEO Mirjam Asmal-Dik said that in retrospect Jantjes was appointed too late and rushed unhelpfully into the headlights at the preliminary conference Sessions eKapa in December, 2005. Consequently, by the time his proposal was submitted to the board, the event had to be delayed to meet ambitions. “We should have given ourselves more time from the very beginning and could have followed the process better… and scaled it to the budget that we managed to get,” she added.

The show went on, with curators Gabi Ngcobo and Khwezi Gule negotiating artists, artworks and venues, until a funding hole emerged in early 2007. It centred around a R3-million request in October 2005 from the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund. CAP was informed in December 2006 that its application had been successfully evaluated to receive funds but, as Trans Cape edged closer, no exact amount or date of distribution could be given. It was in fact only as CAPE 07 wound down that positive confirmation was received. The other major financial disappointment was the Cape Town Mayor’s office: hopes of R1-2-million faded as it became apparent the application was stymied by administrative error. The City did support the event in other ways though: it stumped up R100,000 for Sessions.

Lottery spokesman Sershan Naidoo said applications were processed chronologically; CAP’s application was received on the last day submissions were open so it would have been among the last to be processed. He said: “We cannot control the adjudication process or make it possible for applicants who do not make the effort to get their applications in early to ‘cut the queue’.” (Shortly after CAPE 07 closed on May 2, CAP received news that their lottery funding was availalbe for disbursement.)

Money aside, Asmal-Dik said it was tough for a brand-new organisation to win up-front confidence from the private and public sector. Delays are bound to occur when an organisational structure is getting started and has no track record, according to Laurie Ann Farrell, director of exhibitions at the Savannah College of Art and Design, who recently presented a comparative paper on Trans Cape and the Trienal de Luanda. She said delays were acceptable given proper notice but knew of several art world professionals who ended up going to Cape Town in September 2006.

The funding crisis led CAP to “radically reconceptualise” the exhibition. The original contingent of artists was approached and 40 stayed on. Martin said the biggest disappointment for Iziko was losing artists like Johannes Phokela and Shonibare. On the flipside, artists like Willem Boshoff responded positively by driving his artwork down from Johannesburg himself; Robin Rhode bought the sound equipment for his video installation. Norway-based Jantjes did not think it possible to reshape the exhibition “sitting in Oslo”; nor did he think it possible to change the project “and do something that did not fit the concept we had worked on for nine months”. He wrote to artists requesting ongoing support and then resigned. Asked about CAPE 07 on its second day, Jantjes felt the main programme did not have the same dynamism as planned but he had “good and positive” impressions on X-Cape, the artist-led fringe.

X-Cape is regularly cited as a success. Nearly 300 local artists opened their studios, hosted exhibitions, performances and interventions. Pierre Fouché, an artist at Bijou Studios in Observatory, said he had a lot of fun with X-Cape despite slim viewer turnout by the usual suspects. Work was also compromised in many cases because artists jumped on the X-Cape bandwagon to do something for the sake of it. But his biggest gripe concerned promotion. “Signposts only work if you can actually read them without difficulty,” said Fouche. Similar negative feedback was expressed towards the information booklet, also designed by Peet Pienaar. Another X-Cape artist Peter van Heerden said the fringe lacked momentum and the handling of the event was “pathetic”. “Cape Town has huge issues around the state of the arts in general,” he said. “It’s a goon show.”

The Western Cape perhaps has too many disparate festivals, suggested Martin, with four separate events held between January and March this year. Festivals were also now run like businesses with CEOs but not a lot of transparency with respect to their finances, she added. While this perception has also tarred CAP, Asmal-Dik was candid. At launch, she said CAPE 07 had received R475,000 in funding: Business and Arts South Africa (R40,000), the National Arts Council (R100,000), Spier (R100,000), IFAS (R93,000), Royal Netherlands Embassy (R73,000), the British Council (R56,000) and Cape Town Routes Unlimited (R16,000). The bulk was spent on flights, accommodation and allowances for CAPE 07 artists, production costs, publicity and fixed costs. Pending bills await the Lottery disbursement in particular. Asmal-Dik was unwilling to disclose the professional fees of key staff, past and present.

Numerous seed funders also financed a feasibility study, market research and Sessions eKapa. The Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) led the way with R1.5million for the Sessions coffers (about three-quarters of its cost). Minister Pallo Jordan also opened the CAPE 07 at a ceremony in Khayelitsha. He said the main purpose was to begin a dialogue and erode the alienation of the majority from visual art, galleries and museums.

Access is certainly one issue likely to arise, said Farrell: curators were inventive with works on hand but there could have been more community involvement around Look Out Hill in Khayelitsha, for instance. In addition, Cockerill pointed out that the strong focus on video and new media work could be quite alienating for a public “just warming up to contemporary art”. When it launched, CAPE 07 was initially defined in the negative — as “not another biennale”. Asmal-Dik said a radically different model was required to run mega-events in South Africa, an interdisciplinary one that actively positioned the artist away from ivory tower status and towards meaningful and income-generating production. “We cannot take the big-budget model that goes in Europe and America,” she said. “We must not think of the huge budget but think of the huge impact.” She said local artists were focused on a daily basis with creating networks and production; the new model reflected these realities.

However, CAPE 07 still had multiple venues, numerous auxiliary events and one grand vernissage plus all the elements of the so-called cyclical art event, said Farrell. “I think their initial premise had a romantic notion of departing from a western model but I’m not sure this actually happened,” she observed. Nonetheless, enhanced engagement with artists was definitely a positive response to the funding issue, she added.

Looking ahead, Asmal-Dik has agreed to work full-time towards CAPE 09, with a new series of Sessions mooted. She said the event opened against “incredible odds” and the team was determined to retain momentum. CAPE 07 was not the perfect product everyone was looking for, she admitted, “but it’s a very good basis upon which to build.”