Art as collision

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Despite being more connected than we ever have been, today’s world is, arguably, more fragmented than it has been since we entered the era of the global village. We can track the shift: think Brexit, Trump and the raising of imaginary walls in what seems like a regression to Cold War-era isolationism.

But let’s not be too quick to become despondent. I believe the fault lines we’re seeing emerge are probably the last hurrah of old, staid ways of thinking. Traditional power is in a corner, and right now it happens to be screaming the loudest. The more people feel their way of life is under threat, the more likely they are to retreat into siloes in which all ideas are familiar and comfortable.

That’s where the artist comes in: to challenge, to disrupt, to interrogate what makes people uncomfortable, and push all of us towards understanding it more fully. Good art is often not born out of comfortable spaces, but from conflict and collision – and it’s not until there’s difference that people collide. Through collision there’s an exchange of ideas and perspectives, and through that exchange, if those involved are really listening and applying themselves, art, as well as the acknowledgement of a shared humanity and connection to the planet we live on.

“Every culture has its origins in hybridisation, interaction, confrontation. In isolation, by contrast, civilisation dies out. The experience of the other is the secret to change,” writes Octavio Paz in an essay on art and culture.

Young people today feel less defined by national borders, and increasingly see themselves as global citizens. Modern technology and media connects us all. We are increasingly becoming aware of “the other”, of how their difference manifests in their perspective, and we are learning to listen. If we accept our role as artists and take responsibility for creating art that grasps at truth, we can tap into the collision and the difference, experience others, and challenge each other and our audiences. Art is, after all, confrontation. We can become a collective made up of a kaleidoscope of culture that pushes new modes of expression.

But to do this, we need to think outside the box. We need to go outside the box if we are to collide. We need to be curious, raise questions, and be happy even if we find no answers. We need to think differently about booking art, making it, marketing it, curating it and selling it. We need to dismantle traditional ways of thinking to build newer, more nimble models that adapt to the world’s changing dynamics and reflect our myriad truths through our practice.

This work is already happening in museums, in art centres, in hospitals, in academia, in businesses. It’s happening everywhere, in all the spaces in which there’s tension, where we push ourselves in new and potentially unknown and brave directions. I like to call our generation, especially the youth of today, the “slash” (/) generation because we’re not afraid to throw caution to the wind and try our hands at new and exciting things. Today’s artists, myself included, wear many hats.

Too often I hear people say they “can’t”. “How?” they ask, and they get so bogged down by that question that they don’t even think about the what. They don’t realise that the closer they get to the what, the clearer it becomes, the more the question of how begins to fall away. When I hear an artist say, “I can’t”, I ask: How do you work in a field of imagination, of dreams, of access, and say it cannot be done? You are here, in this field where we have the privilege of engaging with ideas and expression, and with that comes responsibility. You must speak your truth. You are a thought leader. Discover what you have to offer, acknowledge it, and let it radiate from you. You’re here, you have power, and you’re in a position to make a change.

In addition to my roles as theatre-maker, educator and international arts advocate and consultant, and underpinning all of them, I’m a connector. I’m curious about people and I want them to be curious about one another. I’m fortunate enough to be able to facilitate the exchange of ideas and practices through programming conferences and hosting long tables where the art elite sit alongside young cultural innovators. These forums are vital sites for disruption because artists are the real cultural diplomats, as their creations speak to people, their audiences, the loudest, and make further linkages possible.

There’s a dire need in art, and the world today, for voices to speak, limbs to tweak, brushes to streak from the Global South. South Africa is a particularly fertile ground for the creation of art. Your country is rich with people from all walks of life. It’s an ideal space for collision, for learning, for artistic expression. Don’t pigeonhole what culture should be. Don’t build walls around your traditions. Allow yourselves to engage and collide with all the “others” around you, and march to the tune of a future that’s pregnant with potential. Tap into your moment of political and ideological fission to create art that does not shy away from difference or shirk uncomfortable questions. Talk, engage, create. The world is your audience.

Maas is many things, among them artistic director of the International Society for Performing Arts; artistic associate and director of the fellowship programme for International Performing Arts for Youth; cofounding director of the Pan-African Creative Exchange; programming director for the Off Broadway Origin Theatre Company; adjunct professor at CUNY Brooklyn College’s MFA Performance and Interactive Media Arts Programme; a core member of Theatre Without Borders; an artistic advisory board member of DecadesOut, a Brooklyn-based organisation at the intersection of arts, science and policy; and a member of the Netherland-America Foundation Cultural Committee. He was in South Africa to attend the 19th ASSITEJ World Congress and International Theatre Festival for Children and Young People in Cape Town; and the Vrystaat Arts Festival in Bloemfontein, which he is helping to grow into a platform that presents African works to local and international audiences. He is directing the play GIF/POISON/ITYHEFU by Lot Vekemans (translated by Willem Anker), starring Tinarie van Wyk-Loots and Atandwa Kani with vocals by Mahlodi Kenny Rakotsoane, which premieres at the Vrystaat Arts Festival in July. While Maas was in the country, he taught at the University of the Witwatersrand and gave workshops at the Market Theatre Lab. He was hosted by the National Arts Council.