Body as gesture: William Kentridge, the keynote speaker at the Fak’ugesi Digital Innovation Festival, founded The Centre for the Less Good Idea ‘as a space for art making with an interdisciplinary and playful nature’. Picture: JAMES OATWAY
Body as gesture: William Kentridge, the keynote speaker at the Fak’ugesi Digital Innovation Festival, founded The Centre for the Less Good Idea ‘as a space for art making with an interdisciplinary and playful nature’. Picture: JAMES OATWAY

Fak’ugesi Digital Innovation Festival is a powerful centrepiece for the collaborative culture of art, futurism and technology emerging in Africa, the continent with 70% of its people younger than 15.

The festival is founded and directed by the interactive media artist and lecturer at the digital art department at Wits, Tegan Bristow. It has grown with the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein, a pivotal location for technology and innovation with skills development and incubation programmes, particularly the Maxum Incubator, which focuses on animation, gaming and virtual reality.

"From a university perspective, we feel the festival stands alone to serve communities outside of Wits and we want to see this continue," says Bristow.

"There is an important audience of young people in Braamfontein and the inner city that are central to our access objectives. We have also reached out to many of the private design, animation and creative technology education institutions."

The fourth annual festival, under the theme Brave Tech Hearts Beat as One, attracted 4,500 people to the Tshimologong precinct and many more online through social media, making it a global pioneering initiative with events such as CairoTronica in Egypt, Arts Electronica festival in Linz and the Dutch Electronic Art Festival in Rotterdam.

"Fak’ugesi … interrogates the role of culture and creativity in regional technology innovation and its recognition and celebration of African culture and creativity. I do truly believe that the role of culture and creativity in technology development in Africa cannot be overlooked," Bristow says.

Keynote speaker William Kentridge described digital art as the meeting of the intangible and the concrete through the relationship between movement and thinking.

"Essentially, the activity of art making is an embodied form of thinking. It uses the movement of the body as the gesture. Even if the work is done by the mouse or keypad, there is an extension which is a much larger physical movement," he said.

In November 2016, Kentridge founded The Centre for the Less Good Idea, "as a space for art making with an interdisciplinary and playful nature".

The name comes from the Tswana proverb: "If the good doctor can’t cure you find the less-good doctor."

"Our primary focus is allowing the making of art to be more accessible. We are developing a sense of empathy for the art-making process in that we open the art-making mechanisms up to the audience," the centre’s animateur, Bronwyn Lace, says.

The centre operates as a kind of collage, as curators and creators from all artistic disciplines form a coherent presentation through a process based on the Freudian concept of Tummelplatz. "Tummelplatz is the space between the psychoanalyst and the patient, the space for conflict or tumbling — playing, where anything is allowed to happen," Kentridge says.

"It is the space for free association, where the impulse and the whim may have the benefit of the doubt. Having a space for surprise, uncertainty, doubt and stupidity is a central part of the creative process."

Curators are invited to the centre to collaborate with artists, performers, dancers and entertainers to present two seasons a year, over four-day festivals.

It is a multilayered piece that talks about the white privilege and the black condition, living in a squatter camp, how you die while you are still walking because of the conditions you find in this country

Where the first season explored the edge of language and the old logic, the second season explores the physical in the form of art meeting with the immaterial in the form of digital. Curators on the second season include actor and director Nhlanhla Mahlangu, cultural entrepreneur Jamal Nxedlana and Bristow.

"The platform is challenging and wildly collaborative, making pushing boundaries that much more accessible," says Bristow.

"This type of innovation on what can be made with digital technologies and how it can be presented to a participant audience is not something that happens easily within the corporate environment," she says.

Her technology and art collaboration with alternative reality makers Rick Treweek and Garrett Steele, together with Dondoo, 3D studio and Kentridge has developed an Invisible Exhibition, "showcasing in completely new ways work that has been made by more than 20 South African artists in full three-dimensional space in [Google app] Tilt Brush". Bristow also invited multidisciplinary engineers Jarred Bekker and Daniel de Kok of Bushveld Labs and Riot networks to train Google artificial intelligence  with images that can only be found locally.

Mahlangu’s rich interplay between movement and sound as director of the isicathamiya choir in the first season earned him an invitation for the second season. He presents his solo theatre work Chant, which explores the relationship between human nature and technology from the perspective of growing up in a squatter camp. "We juxtapose ideas because we don’t want to be literal. We want to make beautiful art," he says.

"It is a multilayered piece that talks about the white privilege and the black condition, living in a squatter camp, how you die while you are still walking because of the conditions you find in this country."

Kentridge describes the power of this performance piece as "taking an oblique view to revealing the world".

He particularly refers to the story of Penny, the dog taken from the suburbs to become a coconut dog living in the squatter settlement. The dog is fed expensive food to ensure its standard of living does not drop.

"The making of digital art requires collaboration between two different ways of working — a programmer building the technology and an artist creating a concept or aesthetic," Lace says. "At the centre we have the luxury in terms of time, resource and capacity to establish a mutual language. We have begun with the question of whether digital art one day can be as nuanced or have as much depth as the trajectory of painting in the world for example."

For Bristow, the power of digital art goes beyond aesthetics and story-telling.

"Digital art is a very important location in which true interrogation and criticisms — both as medium and content — can be levelled at the globalised information economy and our technological futures," she says.

Jepchumba, the founder of African Digital Art website and a perennial visitor to Fak’ugesi, said in her address: "Technology means the organisation of knowledge for practical purposes. It promises something new. It is a reflection of where we are heading in society.

"Africa has a disturbing technological legacy where countries are mined for their cobalt, lithium, ideas, resources, materials and culture, which are repurposed and dumped back without any sort of credit."

She inspired fellow participants to the unique opportunities the digital age provides in Africa, such as developing centres for myth making, creating tools for collaborative healing, understanding the importance for imagination and developing an online African archive of history, languages and ideas.

• Centre for the Less Good Idea takes place from October 10-14.

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