In February this year the social media accounts of art and theatre lovers were suddenly flooded with references to something called The Centre for the Less Good Idea, a project seemingly involving something to do with William Kentridge, that was planning a series of events over five days in March in and around the Maboneng precinct in Johannesburg.
STORY: TYMON SMITH
PHOTOGRAPHY: STELLA OLIVIER
Details were sketchy but with the name of the country’s most renowned artist attached, tickets to these events sold out within days. In March there were gushing Facebook and Instagram posts from those lucky enough to have secured tickets to a strange, multi-faceted series of happenings in and around Maboneng featuring theatre, music, projections and performances, that while certainly providing evidence of some sort of mini-arts festival, didn’t exactly add any clarity to what this Centre for the Less Good Idea was. Turns out that if anything the Centre is a kind of typically Kentridgesque take on the idea of what a William Kentridge Art Foundation might look like – an incubator for the arts which “aims to find the less good idea by creating and supporting experimental, collaborative and cross-disciplinary arts projects.”
After the success and enthusiastic response to the first season’s programme, Kentridge, co-director or “animateur” Bronwyn Lace and a team of curators are currently well on their way to incubating a series of new projects which will be shown in October. However while audiences may be wetting their lips at the prospect of another art-celebrating-carnival on the streets of downtown Johannesburg, the real work of the Centre is focussed not on the presentation of the projects so much as it is on the process of their creation. As the about section of the website puts it,“often you start with a good idea. It might seem crystal clear at first but when you take it to the proverbial drawing board, cracks and fissures emerge on its surface and they cannot be ignored.” The Centre in effect provides artists with a space that supplies the resources and the time for them to explore the possibilities of working with those cracks and fissures rather than setting them aside. As Lace says,
“The Centre is not necessarily interested in developing resolved, rounded, completed pieces – it’s very much about the focus of giving space and resources to the process and revealing it both for ourselves and for audiences; the kind of mechanisms of art making. A lot of the pieces that were presented [in Season one] were unresolved and undercooked and for that reason they were quite interesting.”
While some works such as Choreographer and Season one curator Gregory Maqoma’s Requiem Request, in which he worked in collaboration with an iscathamiya choir, provided seeds for further projects – in that instance Maqoma’s recently produced and highly acclaimed production of Zakes Mda’s novel Cion – others may not have progressed much beyond their Season one incarnations. That’s perfectly fine for Kentridge and Lace who are far more interested in their space as a safe one for failure rather than a production plant for polished success.
Through collaboration and association with Kentridge, those artists who participate in the Centre’s program are obviously exposed to potentially beneficial approaches from high-powered organisations and heavy-art-muscled individuals who may choose to help catapult their careers but that is not a direct aim of the Centre itself, which holds no intellectual property rights to the work created during the incubation period and asks only, says Lace,
“For artists to acknowledge each other as they go forward – even if the collaboration splits and new things are built – and that you are constantly aware of where things were birthed – that is the ethos of the space.”
All of which sounds like mouth-watering stuff for Johannesburg-based artists but at the moment it’s not as if you can go to the Centre’s website, fill out an application form and then drive yourself crazy with anxiety as you wait for a rejection letter. The first season’s participants were chosen by three curators – Maqoma, theatre director Khayelihle Dominique Gumede, and poet Lebo Mashile – in collaboration with Kentridge and Lace. For the second season the curators are Wits University’s Tegan Bristow, Song and Dance Works’ Nhlanhla Mahlangu and CUSS digital art collective founder and Bubblegum Club creative director Jamal Nxedlana, and Lace is excited by the program’s
“strong digital focus and we’re working with some of the country’s most exciting programmers, mechatronic engineers – those sort of brilliant minds who embody new technology but who also and uniquely have the capacity to be artists, work with artists and understand process from an artistic perspective.”
Funded by Kentridge to the tune of an undisclosed amount which Lace says, “he thinks is modest but is actually far more than the acquisition budgets of many galleries”, the Centre currently works and hosts performances in several small spaces purchased by Kentridge and located within the Arts on Main area of Maboneng, where he has studio space. Lace reflects that during the initial season, “We were pleasantly surprised by how the centre held the performances because it was effective and intimate and there was an energy contained in it and they’re good performance spaces but they’re ultimately just shells that house things.” The spaces have also provided the Centre with the capacity to showcase other projects beyond those produced as part of the incubations, including a new series of one-off performances titled “For Once,” a nod as Lace notes, to “that kind of South Africanism with the exasperation of for once we get to see this piece. It was just identifying that there’s so much work by some of our best practitioners and artists that gets exported or commissioned specifically for international festivals, but that we never get to see, so we’re identifying that work and saying: come you can do it here and let’s see what happens.” The For Once project saw a recent performance, on June 16, by dancer Thulani Chaukwe, who created a piece in dialogue with Kentridge’s animation The History of the Main Complaint, to reflect on the 1976 Soweto uprising and its relevance to the issues facing the country today. Future performances include a piece by Nelisiwe Xaba and a conversation in August between Kentridge and cultural theorist Homi K Bhabha.
The location of the Centre’s spaces in such close proximity to Kentridge’s studio is for Lace, “seminal in that William is able to be present,” because in spite of his travelling schedule and personal commitments, “this is core to his life and his work and I think he enjoys it thoroughly and it’s opening him up to new things and individuals who he’s never met and who are now performing in pieces that are travelling around the world. William has the most exceptional capacity to be anywhere in the world at any time but also so very present in these workshops from the first moment in the day to the last. He really gives time and thought to each person’s piece and that kind of generosity is exceptional to witness.”
While one wealthy patron of the arts was so impressed by the Centre’s first season that he inquired about the cost of taking the performances to Cape Town, Lace says, “although that was an interesting question and we looked,” one of the things “that I thought was that you could replicate this in Cape Town with Cape Town-based artists and it might be more significant for Cape Town than this.” For Lace, “that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in going elsewhere and we’re already starting to see opportunities to branch out but we don’t want to become bigger than ourselves before we even understand what we are.”
With its second season well into the production process, Lace is already in conversation with artists and potential curators for the third season in March next year. For now, in spite of the unexpectedly enthusiastic response from both artists and audiences to the Centre’s first public programme, its aim is to maintain its independence and identity as an institution, which as Lace is keen to emphasise, is “not a client commissioning things, we’re a space that gives you something truly unique, which is time.”
The second season of the Centre of the Less Good Idea performances is scheduled to run from 10-14 October. Tickets will be available from September.