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Creativity, collaboration and conversation with Jay Pather

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Academic, choreographer and director Jay Pather is the director of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts and is the curator of the public arts festival Infecting the City 20012. 

He speaks about what creativity, collaboration and conversation have to do with city spaces and urban development.

How long have you lived in the city centre?
I moved here in about 2006 from Durban, where I also lived in the city centre – I was born there. I’m a great purveyor of city centres – and why lies in my great idiosyncracy: I don’t drive. I’ve spent time in places where I simply didn’t need to drive, one of them being New York. And the city has always fascinated me as a living space – where you have your social and living space side by side, and you constantly have to take care of recreating self.

You must walk the city a lot. Any walks you’d really recommend?
I walk everywhere, and almost always walk for business – to appointments, to the office, back home. But when I do get to walk for pleasure, I love to walk Sea Point Promenade, Newlands Forest, up Table Mountain, along Kloof Street and Kloof Nek over the mountain to Camps Bay, particularly on a cloudy, poetic day.

Why do you choose to live in the Central City?
Living in the city is challenging, but it’s a wonderful challenge. It’s a way of developing my own sense of the world. Living in the CBD, I’m constantly in the world, a part of everything going on, and I really like that. It’s both elevating and assuring for me. Suburbs determine the kind of people you meet. In the city, there are always accidents, moments of serendipity. Here, in the city, I feel like I’m part of something global, something bigger. It’s interesting how surprised people are when they come up to my apartment – surprised that life in the city can be both engaging and comfortable.

What brought you here?
I was appointed an associate professor of drama at UCT, which I worked at for four years. Then in 2010 I was responsible for postgraduate studies for drama, and for the last year, I’ve headed up GIPCA – the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts – where I’m responsible for fostering interdisciplinary dialogue.

What does your work entail?
GIPCA is close to the city, and so has lots to do with it. The objective of the events we stage – and we stage one every month – is to involve the public in an open and discursive way, to have collective conversations. Earlier this year we held a series on film and dance, and how film, particularly that made available through social media, is democratising this elitest of art forms. Earlier in the year we debated issues of race and identity. Soon we’ll run a series around climate change.

So part of what you do is make art more inclusive?
Art can play a role in making city spaces more welcoming – especially art in public places – but artists have been playing to a very particular crowd for some time – to the educated, by which I don’t mean the intelligent. People are intrinsically intelligent, but may not be schooled in artistic codes. By not using more obscure codes that have developed within disciplines, you can still make work accessible without dumbing it down.

What are some of the international cities you love, and what can Cape Town learn from them?
Places like Maputo and Havana – cities concerned with development that haven’t forgotten their social conscience. I love Edinburgh because the people there often use words like “take care” – and I really value this idea of a place where people look after each other. Berlin is a city that really confronts heritage with a contemporary sensibility. What Cape Town and South Africa can learn from Berlin specifically is how to be unstinting in its confrontation of the past while finding ways to work through it.

What can and should Cape Town become?
The challenge of urban development is that we need people of great sensitivity developing our city space – we shouldn’t simply ape the gentrification of the rest of the world. Development can be a double-edged sword, and needs to be balanced with the preservation of the soul of a place. It’s arguable that New York is as cutting edge as it used to be, given how gentrified it’s become. South Africa is still seen as a highly creative nation able to solve great problems with great flair and insight into the human condition. But we need to listen to our people more, to collaborate. The wave in the late ’90s was because we started to speak to each other – that’s when we became known as the miracle nation with miracle cities. We are straying away from that, taking these freedoms for granted.

To be part of the conversation, visit www.gipca.uct.ac.za, join the mailing list, and head to any one of the monthly GIPCA events.

This article first appeared in the October issue of City Views: Cape Town as an African City

Photo by Lisa Burnell

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