My Body My Space (MBMS) Public Arts Festival was started in 2015 in Ekhuruleni in Gauteng and then moved to Emakhazeni Local Municipality in rural Mpumalanga the following year. The festival is curated by the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative (FATC), which is committed to working with the local community, growing job opportunities, developing skills, stimulating the local economy and creating an arts and culture tourism sector in the region.
Usually held annually in April, the 2020 version of the MBMS festival could not go ahead after South Africa entered into a national lockdown in March to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, MBMS returned in January 2021 with a world first ‘festival on your phone’ using the WhatsApp platform. The programme aimed to highlight social issues and featured photo exhibitions, dance and theatre works as well as artist discussions on festival themes of isolation, grief, boredom, the nature of community and the conflicting challenges of navigating ordinary life and lockdown restrictions.
MBMS aims to disrupt and democratise space and the arts. The usual live MBMS festival occurs in various public spaces in rural Emakhazeni and encourages the audience to move as one body through these spaces from one performance to another so that there is no hierarchy of programming and an experience of human connection which transcends geographic and social boundaries. Through their virtual festival adaptation strategy, MBMS continued with their disruption of space, but this time it was the digital space being disrupted. This was done by countering what many other festivals were doing in the online space with high-definition, long-form works and ticketed events. Though their motivations were to pay artists for their work and provide high-quality, innovative digital works, this could be seen as exclusionary to lower income groups – as to participate, audience members needed to be able to afford tickets and data or internet connections. Artists also often required more sophisticated equipment in order to record their work for these virtual festivals.
For countries in the Global South like South Africa, the ‘digital divide’ makes moving online particularly challenging. Many artists do not have access to the necessary equipment, bandwidth and skills needed to produce a successful online production, while many potential audience members do not have access to devices on which to watch festival content, nor stable internet connections or high data costs which makes streaming or downloading content difficult. MBMS attempted to account for this by being low-tech, low-data, low-definition, low-cost, available on demand 24/7 and providing training to artists. For both artists and audiences, a smartphone was all that was required to either film or view content. Utilising the WhatsApp platform also made the festival more accessible as it is simple to use, video sizes are restricted (16MB), and most videos were 2-3 minutes long so only required small amounts of data to view. The adaptation strategy thus met festival aims of accessibility and affordability for artists and audiences as well as attempting to account for South Africa’s digital divide by being low-tech, low-data and free.
Networking and collaboration were thus crucial to MBMS’s response of a ‘festival on your phone’ as it was also through these channels that they were introduced to the Turn.io platform which would allow them to produce a phone-based festival that adhered to the festival’s main aims and allowed them to retain the quality of the festival as they moved into the digital space.Turn.io leverages the WhatsApp business API (Application Programming Interface), and seeks to support social impact organisations to disseminate information to improve health, employment, education, climate, agriculture, humanitarian response, financial inclusion and civic engagement. However, MBMS was the first arts and culture based application where a full festival would be delivered on the platform, and so the collaboration offered both partners an opportunity to innovate.
One of the major successes of the MBMS ‘festival on your phone’ was the increase in reach which was due to the innovative virtual festival format as well as the ease of accessibility. As a small rural festival, MBMS usually attracts around 1200-1600 people to the live event. Through the virtual format, the festival’s audience reach increased dramatically to 4 043 unique users over the main festival period from 29 January to 28 February 2021. The majority of users were South African but the festival also attracted a small international audience. In part, this was due to the increase in publicity surrounding the festival’s innovative, new and exciting adaptation as audience data shows a surge in users to the platform following broadcasts of interviews on national news.
Though artist engagement, training and development have always been an important part of the festival, it became more significant during the COVID period as MBMS pivoted their artistic development programme to help train artists to fill the gap in skills to produce works for the online environment. Supporting artists to transition into making digital work has emerged as a recurrent theme in this research as many festivals have offered training and filming support.
In running the mentorship and training programme, Zoom calls and WhatsApp group chats between festival organisers and artists were used. These became the means by which a community of support was formed between MBMS and the participating artists as people were sharing resources, ideas and techniques as well as encouraging one another in their work. This was a crucial point of human connection during a difficult time.
Rural communities have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, as they tend to be comparatively poorer areas of South Africa and are reliant on only a few types of economic activity to generate income, such as tourism, which was halted during the lockdown. The local community and municipality are particularly important to FATC and so producing a WhatsApp festival and supporting artists was not their only form of outreach during the pandemic period. Through the Angel Project, FATC launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised R160 000 to help support 91 households for 8 months during the height of the lockdown in 2020 with food, toiletries and PPE.
Based on the successes of MBMS’s virtual festival format – as well as the management team’s desire to deliver on community engagement, development, human connection, and challenging spatial and societal norms – ‘blended programming’ under a hybrid festival model could be a future business model for MBMS. However, a major challenge to the vision of this blended future is finding the finances to be able to make it happen.
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