South African National Arts Festival … virtually

One of our highlights when we lived in South Africa, now more than 10 years ago, was to attend the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, which has now been renamed to Makhanda. The arts festival is an 11 day celebration of performing and visual arts with some amazing music, theater, comedy and dance. As South Africa is such a diverse country with many different cultures and attracts international talent, there were always many amazing performances to see. We attended the festival for five days in 2006 and attended the full 11 days the following year.

Although we love attending the festival, we have not been able to return since we moved away from South Africa as it was a very long trip. This year however, the world around us has changed significantly due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and South Africa is no exception. Due to the pandemic, for the first time in its 46-year history, the National Arts Festival was held entirely online from 25 June to 5 July 2020.

Although it is not the same as attending in person, we did take the opportunity to attend the festival virtually this year from our home in the US. We saw some great music (especially Jazz), a variety of different African dances, some interesting plays and participated in some great virtual digital experiences.

For example, Digital Rise brought a performance called Mechanical Souls which involved all the participants being onboarded in a fictitious human droid company. As part of our “onboarding” , we were invited to watch a VR movie of a wedding including some droids the company made. However there is a twist in that every participant sees a different version of the movie. We then jointly discovered the full story by discussing what we saw as a group. It was a great, interactive, performance and a great use of different digital media.

Another example of a digital experience was “Human Study #1 from a distance” which was brought by a Belgian Artist, Patrick Tresset who built a performative installation using robotic agents drawing participants, similar to an artist looking at their subject and drawing it. The experience involved posing for 20 minutes in a Zoom session while the robots made their drawings using different algorthims. You can find some of the photos of the experience as well as the final drawings below.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable experience and it was great to be able to attend this unique arts festival virtually. Attending in person is obviously a much better experience, but it was impressive what the festival managed to achieve in a virtual environment and we appreciated being able to attend this amazing event in these unprecedented times

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