Notes on the making of "In Durban, all roads lead ..."

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Strijdom van der Merwe recently decided to walk away from a proposed project in Durban.  The idea was to paint a blue line through the city to demonstrate the potential impact of global warming.  Behind the scenes, Van der Merwe clashed with Durban City Management about the colour of the line.  Media reports have hinted that the reason for the disagreement was the association of the colour blue with the DA.  City Manager Michael Sutcliffe denied these allegations. 

Lesley Perkes, project coordinator of the Blue Line project, talks about "All roads lead to ...", an artistic protest staged to demonstrate dissatisfaction with the way the project and others was handled by City Management.

The installation of 240 temporary road name signs in Durban reading Suctliffe Ave, Suctliffe Blvd, Sutcliffe Rd, Sutcliffe St, Sutcliffe Str, Sutcliffe Pl, Sutcliffe Cr and another five-odd in similar vein.

On the historic occasion of the Ethekwini Municipality’s hosting of the United Nations 17th Conference of the Parties Framework Convention on Climate Change a lightning-fast art squad deemed it appropriate to celebrate the City Manager by naming as many roads as possible after him in three hours of careful work using Easy-Peel-Off Resistance Tested Stickers.

We are inspired and expect to make people laugh and laugh and have fun and wonder what's going on and think about what they want from leaders and what makes a good leader.

We especially want people to think about what makes us/them great
and how come we often end up looking mediocre or pathetic when we are not. We are most certainly not.

There is genius and magic in South Africa, but there is also too much idiocy in charge that attempts to disempower us. There is a tendency in our beautiful land to give the job to the opinionated, ill-informed bully and this can and often does result in the marginalisation of real power, beauty and potential. We want to be proud of ourselves – for each other and for the world (for instance when have a lot of international visitors), so why do the people in charge make that so difficult to do?

Last-minute briefs for emergency artwork; year-long lobbies for spectacle-scale public art that lead to last-minute go-aheads. And while of course there are exceptions to this and we are exceptional grateful for these sparks of what might be normal, it is high time more people – be they journalists, artists or any people who value public space, public life and creativity – stood up to those who would water down, damage or utterly spoil great ideas for reasons that remain obscure but that are most likely to do with how mediocrity feels when it is control.

I love us, our land and this precious planet, but I am bored with the dulling of opinion and the constant stupid obstruction in the way of good work. I have found that if I speak out against powerful mediocre people or their projects (eg if I say why was the World Cup 2010 official opening so appalling?) I will be accused of being an unpatriotic party-pooper, that I should rather get into the spirit of the nation – which is that everyone just wants to have a good time. But I am certain that we have much more to offer than we are releasing to shine and so it is humiliating to stand by and watch while those who really should have no power have it all, and great projects turn to nothing short of pathetic ridicule, further exacerbated by a chorus of sycophantic encouragement for complete rubbish. Great art and great artists cannot operate in such an atmosphere and the hot air climate conference in Durban has got to be the worst example of this I have ever experienced.

Before we did this installation I was warned that we should be careful because the City Manager would most likely not see the playful side of the project – which, although it is obviously about him, is also about everyone like him. And it is a warning to others like him that should they lose their sense of humour in equal proportion to their capacity to wield whips it is likely that they, too, will find themselves at the centre of imaginative satire.

Perhaps the recent parliamentary passing of the Protection of Information Bill (read: as bad as a kidney stone) finds its most intense impact (already) in the cementing of a disquieting self-censorship around boardroom tables, in business-government company. And similar. This general repression slowly, unrelentingly, bullies the atmosphere, gives the bad guys a sense of odious self-righteousness.

Mr Sutcliffe’s style is part of a bigger dis-ease. During the planning of this playful installation we considered that it might enrage him, which in our experience is easy to do. We also considered that some people may get lost and confused and that bus and taxi drivers might get the moer in (but they probably already are, considering the humidity and existing name change debacles in Durban).

We knew also that we might be blamed for all sorts of things, but also that the installation might not even be noticed or that the easy peel-off stickers might be removed even faster than we could put them up ... 

There was consideration given to all kinds of fascist attitudes:

  1. the “you are not allowed to do this” attitude
  2. the “we can’t see the playful side of this” attitude
  3. the longings of many in Durban to go back to a time when the streets were named after only some pink people
  4. the longings of many in Durban to be invited to dinner with Mr Sutcliffe.

We rather hope that the meek shall inherit the earth.

Also read Strijdom van der Merwe, the blue line, a red flag and black Tuesday.

Also read Blou Lyn-projek dupe in Durban, by Carina van der Walt.

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