Talking Heads

Brett Bailey and Jay Pather organized a program of interdisciplinary works for the 2008 Spier Performing Arts Festival, which they staged in non-traditional venues throughout Cape Town. 

Their emphasis on the interdisciplinary peaked with the Festival’s grand finale, Talking Heads, directed by Bailey. Tapping into the fascination many local visual artists hold for the archive, Bailey chose an archive, Cape Town’s historic Centre for the Book, for his “living archive”, Talking Heads. Its contents, a collection of forty “experts from a wide range of fields”, were installed respectively at forty café tables with black table-cloths and polished brass numbered disks in the Centre’s main hall.

In the late 1950’s Alan Kaprow sought to push the “action painting” of the abstract expressionists out of the picture plane and into time and space. Creating revolutionary “Environments”, Kaprow combined large “hunks of matter” with flashing lights and auditory elements, ultimately incorporating the visitor as an integral part of the artwork through the assignment of various tasks. Coining the term, “happening”, Kaprow created works that were a departure from the static confines of the painting and a marked shift toward the border between the visual arts and theatre. A pioneer in boundary- pushing, Alan Kaprow and his followers mounted “happenings” for about a decade, until he transitioned into less-charged works that he called “activities”, which were more issue-specific and at times touched upon the sociological. This experimentation ultimately gave way to performance art, which places itself squarely on the border between the visual and performing arts, and like Kaprow’s “activities” is frequently issue based.

Kaprow and those who followed him laid the groundwork for the interdisciplinary works of art that have become an accepted part of today’s arts lexicon. It is within this tradition that “curators” (as they referred to themselves) Brett Bailey and Jay Pather organized a program of interdisciplinary works for the 2008 Spier Performing Arts Festival, which they staged in non-traditional venues throughout Cape Town. Their emphasis on the interdisciplinary peaked with the Festival’s grand finale, Talking Heads, directed by Bailey. Tapping into the fascination many local visual artists hold for the archive, Bailey chose an archive, Cape Town’s historic Centre for the Book, for his “living archive”, Talking Heads. Its contents, a collection of forty “experts from a wide range of fields”, were installed respectively at forty café tables with black table-cloths and polished brass numbered disks in the Centre’s main hall.

Bailey, a theatre director/designer and award-winning playwright, arranged the event so that each member of the “audience” was randomly assigned four different sessions with four different experts. Very much in the spirit of Kaprow’s concept of the viewer/ “audience” member as an integral player, each of the twenty-minute sessions placed one or two “audience” members at each expert’s table. Bailey instructed the “audience” to feel free to listen passively or aggressively engage the experts, who were to explore issues around the future. At the end of each session he sounded a bell, and the “audience” rotated to different experts. The result was a Through the Looking-Glass image of talking books in a library. Talking Heads was a metaphor for the ultimate bibliopolic experience.

At the start of the event Bailey projected a list of the experts and their subjects onto the wall. A sampling includes: Alistair Catto on “Techno-phobic Future”; Anne Cawood on “The challenges of raising capable, resilient children in the 21st Century”; Eve Annecke on “Building Memories of the Future”; Denise Hadden on “Facilitating Future Vision”; Mazibuko Jara on “South Africa after Polokwane”; Tim Jenkin on “A New Money for the New Millennium”; Keith Mould on “The interconnectedness of all things – as long as the network is running”; Neo Muyanga on “Rhythmic Arithmetic”; Curator Joost Bosland of the Michael Stevenson Gallery, on “The Bright Present”; and Mike van Graan on “From Protest Art to the Art of Conformity to Protest Art? The future of the arts – particularly theatre – in a changing South Africa”.

Drawing numbers 18, 32, 11, and 7, I started out talking with Richard Freedman, Director of the South African Centre for the Holocaust. Freedman’s topic was billed as “The Holocaust: Lessons for Humanity – examining the past to ensure a better future”, and we discussed changing the world through education. This was followed by looking through kaleidoscopes with Lara Light, a “kaleidoscopic light artist/therapist”, who taught me about healing with light, colour, and kaleidoscopes. My third session was with Neil Doveton, fashion editor for Men’s Health. Doveton is interested in eco-issues in fashion like the need to recycle clothing and the development of garments capable of providing protection from the hole in the ozone layer. During the final session, I chatted with playwright Mike van Graan, author of Green Man Flashing about why there aren’t more South African plays dealing with HIV/AIDS. He also told me in detail about a new play he’s working on exploring relations between Moslems, Jews and Christians in Cape Town.

Suddenly finding myself in a private audience with these experts was exciting, especially given Bailey’s instruction that we were free to engage the expert as little or as much as we saw fit. Feeling released from being judged for what I might or might not say, it was elevating to discuss a new and charged subject with an expert who was essentially at my service. And from the energy filling the hall, it was clear that the other participants were equally excited. I suspect that the metaphor of the living archive was lost on many of the members of the “audience” who were probably too involved in their individual experiences to see the larger picture. That metaphor was in fact of little significance compared to what was being played out at the expert’s tables.

In the end Brett Bailey’s Talking Heads didn’t look or feel much like an art event, and its is only through referencing its historic roots that we can define it as such. But its success far outweighs its definition. Based on “the Black Market”, an on-going program Bailey had seen in Europe, Talking Heads was an empowering experience that brought people together and actively engaged them. Many of the participants have been encouraging Bailey to make this an on-going program. He’s taking the suggestion under consideration.

sanford s. shaman