Reconfiguring space through performance: The Live Architecture project

The Live Architecture project opens this year’s Art Week Cape Town programme today. Alongside the two art fairs, a design conference and a whole host of other exhibitions, walkabouts, events and screenings that are taking place in the Mother City this week, the Live Architecture project offers a programme of live art, installations and performances that seek to reconfigure the space of the Rex Trueform buildings in Salt River. The ephemeral art pieces aim to evoke the history of the garment factory that existed in the location and explore the politics of the ’55 minute hour’ labour practice. We spoke to the curators of this fascinating project to gain more insights into the concept and objectives. 

Who is Off Plan and how did the idea for the Live Architecture project first begin forming?

As the name Off Plan International suggests this curatorial collective, made up of Mary Corrigall, Nelisiwe Xaba and Amy Watson, are concerned with undeveloped ‘space’ both real and virtual. We intend using art and performance to activate overlooked or disused buildings, properties or ‘spaces’. We view live art, both everyday performance and artistic gestures as the immersive artistic mechanism that can remake or reconfigure ‘space’ and have been interested to work to create the conditions for new and ambitious live and installation art. We settled on our name about a year ago, but the organisation came out of discussions between ourselves and practitioners in the arts community interested in developing the performance art field.

How did you select the artists to work with on this project?

We selected artists who had some sort of connection to the clothing manufacturing industry in Salt River – had a personal link to the history of the building, the suburb or the clothing industry – such as the artists Igshaan Adams, Zyma Amien and Buhle Siwani . We also wanted a live component so obviously we approached artists whose practice is defined through performance or is driven by it such as Gerald Machona. As we trade so much on the ephemeral and deal in evoking it, James Webb’s aural work was an obvious choice. As was commissioning Jenevieve Lyons, who is known as a fashion designer. The architectonic aspect of her design interested us as did her sensitivity towards the clothing industry and the politics of exploitation tied to it.

Zyma Amien installation. Pic by Mary Corrigall
Zyma Amien installation. Image by Mary Corrigall
Buhle Siwani. Pic by Mary Corrigall
Buhle Siwani. Image by Mary Corrigall

Can you tell us a little about how the conceptual components of this project fit together – the space, the shifting history of place, politics of labour and urban change?

The Rex Trueform buildings in Salt River are the historical and ideological anchors of The 55 Minute Hour. The historical city block was built between 1948 and 1962 are caught up in different stages of their lifecycle; the main building has already been refurbished and is occupied by a range of commercial business tenants, while across the road from it is another edifice in a state of disrepair that cannot be safely entered. This is why we could not stage our event there. This turned out to be part of the conceptual framing; the inaccessibility of history but also the attempt to ‘evoke it’, honour or remember the workers, at another site. At the height of its success Trueform exported clothing around the world and was competitive in the market due to the low wages that a skewed racial ideology secured. Thousands of women spent their working lives in the building and a community of machinists were united by the setting and working conditions.

The 55-hour minute was a scheme employed by Rex Trueform to ensure that the machinists took regular ‘breaks’ – an hour lasted for ‘55’ minutes leaving the seamstress 5 minutes to “squander” at her will, creating the illusion of freedom, though her time is never her own in the factory space. This scheme of Trueform’s became the main conceptual impetus because it lent itself to performance and evoked the way ‘bodies’ were regulated in the factory setting and were more or less expected to perform like machines.

Jenevieve Lyons
Jenevieve Lyons

As curators and cultural practitioners, what role do you think art can, or perhaps should, play in negotiating this complex space between history and the present-future?

Artists and curators can’t be expected to bridge this gap or reconcile with history. We can only try to draw attention to the gap.

How can interdisciplinary live art, performance and installation engage with this in ways that conventional art practice perhaps cannot?

Live art and sound art are both ephemeral forms of art and speak to or echo the intangibility of the past, the unseen history and voices of subjects that are ‘silenced’ to some degree through a gentrification process in industrial spaces.

Fashion, fabric and costume are also central to this project. How is this explored in the installations and performances in the programme?

All the artists except for James Webb are using fabric or dress in their performances or installations. This is partly due to the setting, it being a disused clothing factory, but also because the form of repetitive labour that occurred on the site was centred on dress, so in invoking that history clothing seemed the ideal medium. That said, performance also tends to be inseparable from dress as a central visual tool of communication. Jenevieve Lyons’ dress installation is most interesting because she is stretching her vocabulary past the human body and the commercial drive of fashion, she is also creating her work on site, so it becomes completely site responsive and in some senses reenacts the largely unseen labour that took place at Trubok Factory.

Andi Colombo in Richard De Jager
Andi Colombo in Richard De Jager

As three female curators and collaborators, how are conversations around gender activated and engaged with in this project?

The majority of workers who toiled in the clothing industry in Salt River and Woodstock were women, so we immediately identified with that history and further gendered traditions such as sewing as ‘women’s work’. Gerald Machona challenges this in his piece, where he performs as a seamstress – bringing us full circle to another era in which male seamstresses from other parts of the continent now perform that work here in South Africa. Buhle Siwani, Zyma Amien and Igshaan Adams identify with the women in their families who were trapped by repetitive and exploitative labour practices, while James Webb, through the aid of a psychic, channels the ‘voices’ and concerns of the workers, who were largely women, of the past.

Live Architecture: the 55 minute Hour launches in Cape Town alongside an orgy of commercially orientated art fairs, exhibitions and design showcases. The name and nature of the project is by contrast so temporal. This is evidently deliberate. Can you tell us more about this?

Very little substantial curating, particularly of live art occurs in the context of commercial events. Live art is used as a prop at art fairs to summon the ‘art factor’ rather than to support it as an art form. We are interested to create the conditions for challenging and experimental live art rather than expecting artists to function as entertainment. We wanted to stretch the boundaries between art and design in such a way that we could also critique the exploitative labour practices that underpin the mass production of design and the unseen histories of all these cool creative gentrified hipster places in Woodstock, where art functions as a commodity.

Gerald Machona Influx detail. Pic by Mary Corrigall
Gerald Machona Influx detail. Image by Mary Corrigall

Is this the beginning of more live art projects to come?

Yes it is.

What do you hope viewers will take away from the experience?

A sense of awareness about the history of exploitation that underlies all the cool industrial spaces that have become the sites for creative expression and artisanal fare. 

Watch Live Architecture: The 55 Minute Hour at the Trubok Factory, Brickfield Junction, 15 Brickfield Rd, Salt River. 

Tuesday 16th of February with live performance, 18:00 – 20:00

Wednesday 17th – Friday 19th February, 11:00 – 14:00

Saturday 20th February with live performances, 12:00

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Agency

Off Plan

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