Public art infects Cape Town

The man with the helium balloons leads us to the corner of Pier Place, a square in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD. The crowd stares blankly at the grey high-rise building that demarcates it, everyone poised in anticipation of the something about to happen.

The music starts and a shadow darts across the wall, impelling an immediate upward movement of the eyes. The taught and tiny bodies of two female dancers, harnessed to the ends of two separate bungee ropes, come into view. The dancers perform fluid, acrobatic movements against the rigid backdrop of a plain painted brick wall.

It doesn’t take much to amaze the crowd and the daring choreography has onlookers mesmerized for the full duration of the act, which lasts about 45-minutes.

Environnement Vertical by Compagnie Retourament - Pier Place

Environnement Vertical by Compagnie Retourament – Pier Place. Infecting the City.

Stunts like this one, titled Environnement Vertical, formed part of Infecting the City, a public arts festival that unfolded across Cape Town city centre last week.

Presented by the Africa Centre, Infecting the City is a reaction to citizens’ desire for the authority to freely express themselves. The festival is intended “to bring curiosity, wonder, beauty, empathy, pain, and new ideas out into the streets for everyone to engage with. To demonstrate that we all have the right to speak and be heard.” With this in mind, I sought to engage in the organized creativity that took place in the mother city on a windy Tuesday afternoon. I wanted to know how the performances raised questions about the physical significance of the city centre to different sectors of urban society.

…Con Tatto, an artistic conversation of bodily interaction between eight colour-coded artists, their spectators, and the moving space they occupied, explored the senses of fear and suspicion adopted by citizens moving through city streets. Starting at the mouth of St George’s Mall, the performers led the crowd to Thibault Square.

Agile fluidity defined the development of physical movement as the artists worked with one another to playfully and sensitively inhabit audience members’ personal spaces. An artist in bright yellow silently approached the crowd and curved his body backwards around the legs of a man, who froze and smiled, self-aware as he waited for the artist to part from him. Similarly, a crouched photographer was greeted silently by two green and pink bodies as the artists positioned themselves over and around the photographer, who quickly proceeded to take pictures of the ‘insider’ experience.

...Con Tatto by Da Motus! - Thibault Square

…Con Tatto by Da Motus! – Thibault Square. Christy Zinn.

In the closing act, each artist partnered with a selected spectator drawn from the crowd and then involve them in a choreographed set of non-contact movements. This interaction steadily developed into active engagement with one another’s bodies through spontaneous dance, transcending the conventionally constructed expectations of performer and audience roles.

Audience participants included the full-suited retired veteran, the feisty street-savvy female, the not-so-feisty-nor-very-street-savvy indie guy, and a German middle-aged tourist. The initial anxieties among them, of not knowing what to expect, started to dissolve as interactions with the artists proved to be increasingly familiar and unthreatening.

Adopting a MyCiTi bus station as their stage, dancers in Going Places performed a 20-minute choreographed skit based on the life stories of public transport commuters. The station as a liminal zone of waiting, a symbol for the common hopes to arrive at one’s chosen destination, in both a geographical and metaphorical sense, was transformed into a vibrant platform of energy and movement as urban beats resonated beyond the traffic.

Dancers took on the roles of typical commuter characters, including girls in school uniform, long-distance travellers, and parting lovers. Performers attempted to channel an understanding of common experience through the different dances.

Going Places by Mzokuthula Gasa - MyCiTi Thibault Square Station

Going Places by Mzokuthula Gasa – MyCiTi Thibault Square Station. Infecting the City.

From one act to the next, actors were staged in conspicuous places en route. Frozen against the backdrop of commonplace aspects of the city’s architecture, these human ‘still-life’ displays were barely noticeable as they melded into their immediate surroundings. Their presence did not, however, fail to draw the curiosity of people and characters from every corner of the city.

The seeming disappearance of these actors into the walls and floors they occupied brought notions of marginalisation and belonging to the surface in the context of urban modernity.

Infecting the City’s interventions gave voice to ideas and reactions that usually go unnoticed in the urban space. And free engagement with the unexpected gave credence to the power of public art to expose a city centre’s potential to inspire a sense of citizenship.


BodySpectra in the City by CityVarsity - en route

BodySpectra in the City by CityVarsity – en route. Christy Zinn.


BodySpectra in the City by  CityVarsity - en route

BodySpectra in the City by CityVarsity – en route. Infecting the City.


Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Christy Zinn is a postgraduate researcher and urban thinker striving to interrogate the social and spatial dynamics of cities. Believing that people make a city tick, she focuses on invoking a culture of active citizenship within urban communities​.

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