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The ICA Symposium: We’re in the third space. So like, now what?

The Institute for the Creative Art’s (ICA) third space symposium took its name from the Third Space Theory developed by Homi K.Bhabha, the director of Humanities at Harvard University. To get down to brass tacks – without making you fall asleep – the theory postulates a “third space” as an ambiguous area that develops when individuals and cultures interact with each other and consequently challenge historical homogeneous identities, especially dominant Western narratives. Friends, we’re in the third space. It’s not some parallel universe and it doesn’t have anything to do with the Star Wars franchise.  

This space is where the rainbow nation tastes like stale popcorn and Ubuntu is associated more frequently with open source software than qualities of compassion and humanity. A space where some continuously wave around their ‘whatalotigot’ Smarties boxes like maracas and dance to their own out of sync tunes, while others smuggle R2 Nik-Nak packets into the cinema because they can’t afford to pay R60 for no-name popcorn and coke from a fountain. A space where we’d rather be woke than part of a democratic daydream.

It’s like watching a film you’d describe to your friends as “interesting”, not because you don’t like it but rather because it resounds with your gut in an inexplicable way and you need to figure it out. So, if that “interesting” film is our lives, how do and should we live in this liminal space today?

At the symposium performers, academics, playwrights, choreographers and creative collectives presented a multidisciplinary exploration of ideas that pertain to history, language and cultural economies. The decolonisation of universities, the role of the arts in provoking change and tensions between the rigid nature of structured academia and the spontaneity of transformation were given as guiding points for those presenting research, work and ideas on the topic.

It was a platform to probe, respond constructively and discuss the current challenges and hopes for South Africa’s transformation. For this to actualise requires a process of physical, psychological, economic, social and political change. While in theory this should be and is occurring to a larger or lesser extent, there are still many psychological and physical challenges to overcome. It’s like saying everyone has the right to go to the movies, but in reality, not everyone has the means to attend. To address this, professor Jay Pather said during the opening address that it’s important for the symposium to “illustrate, underscore and reiterate this massively complex process. We need more than reductive thinking to overthrow and interrogate all spaces…this is an assemblage of thoughts to inspire thinking around context and complexity”.

Ilze Wolf spoke about physical spaces and how architecture is a site for social imagination. Using the old Rex Trueform factory as a case study, she highlighted the multiplicitous nature of many South African buildings. In it’s heyday, the Cape Town factory represented an industry associated with the fine men’s suits they manufactured, but for those in the production rooms, it wielded long working hours for poor pay and a daily routine whose design was conceived around separatism according to race, class and gender.

The factory was built in the 1930s and is a sound example of Cape Apartheid modernity. During the Group Areas Act of 1961, when the industrial zone Salt River was earmarked for white settlement and economic growth, a new extension for Rex Trueform was built. “It’s foundations were literally embedded in violent segregation,” remarked Ilze. To realise that most buildings erected pre-1994 all have foundations embedded in violence is to begin to understand that physical spaces serve as pretexts to the process of un-assembling and unstitching the archive of our history. When it comes to picking apart colonialism, the University of Cape Town is another case in point. How do we acknowledge its history and pave a constructive way forward without demolishing a campus that was built to serve the minority?

The idea of the third space also extends to notions of belonging. Fine artist Lois Anguria spoke about creative expression in the African diaspora. As a second generation Ugandan, growing up in South Africa made her grasp with the straws of what culture can mean and how artists define themselves. For example, is one Ugandan-South African or South African-Ugandan? This exploration of social currency and identification extends beyond the creative paradigm. When you meet someone, depending on the context and your heritage, do you say you’re African, South African, Afrikaans, Zulu or Sesotho, for example?  When do you choose to describe yourself as South African and when and why might that identification change? “I think that choice evolves with time. Nations inspire self-sacrificing love. We’re in a liminal space. I change which side of the hyphen I’m on, on a daily basis,” remarked Lois.

The third space isn’t just about identity and physical surroundings, it’s also to do with the production and distribution of knowledge. There’s a video on Youtube from the 1960s which documents an astronaut training school in Zambia. A man stands dressed in a cape and helmet, determined that after training, his students would travel to space. Theatre practitioners Mwenya Kabwe and Lieketso ‘Dee’ Mohoto spoke about using this as an inspiring and imaginative departure point for working with Rhodes drama students. Mwenya notes that is was an “opportunity to remember ourselves as Africans more imaginatively. What happens if we start from the premise that we’re full of knowing, that African knowledge systems are the status quo, the norm?”.

Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s long overdue that previously marginalised groups can take centre stage. It should have happened light years ago that a black stormtrooper and female protagonist, whose value isn’t reduced to looking hot in a bikini, are cast as leads. Albeit important to acknowledge, we should strive to be in a place where think pieces and symposiums don’t have to congratulate or discuss something that should be the status quo. We’re woke in the third space. Now what are doing about it? 

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