State Of Mangaung Arts

Bloem Underground: Whither the Hashtag?

After seeing three well marketed shows that were concomitantly well attended, ART STATE publisher Mpho Matsitle looks into the state of marketing the arts in the city.

Sometimes I am convinced that the whole Bloemfontein art scene operates underground. Big question is: why are we underground in 2018? Haven’t we heard of a little thing called the internet?

As an art patron in the city, I am sometimes fortunate enough to be invited to happenings around the city by organisers and performers. Sometimes I learn about these do’s via the grapevine – a friend will contact me ask me if I am going to that show or another, and that is how I usually learn about what’s happening around the city. This of course is not sustainable.

When I happen to attend the shows, more often than not I tend to check in (not so seldom I’d have to cook up the hashtag and create the venue on Facebook). And I would get the same complaint from friends; “why didn’t you tell me this was happening?”

It was out of that frustration that the Art State Gig Guide was born. Which appraised me to the seriousness of the problem. Every week when the time comes to update the gig guide, one finds it almost impossible to find information on the internet or social media. We search the news, institution, ticket-seller websites and social media for events. Most organisers only have access to the latter – yet it is terribly under-utilised.

Many a time no event is created on Facebook. When it is created, it is used primarily to announce the event, with very little else activity therefrom. In the super highway of information that is social media, one constantly has to jostle for space. A one-time announcement is as good as no announcement at all. Potential patrons need to be constantly engaged.

Depending on your friends, fellow artists and known fans is the pitfall many organisers fall for – and what renders the art scene an underground operation. They inform and engage this small clique of their “supporters” (most of which never pays for tickets, ironically). Even at the shows, the paying audiences – people who are there to buy a service they find value in, not merely “supporting” – are made to feel like gate-crushers at a private event. Some MCs are not even above constant and gratuitous shout-outs to their pals in the audience, further alienating those outside the clique.

Three shows this year broke ranks with this decadence and proved quite concretely the power marketing and audience engagement. These were Love Crime & Johannesburg, Jesus – Die Passiespel and Thirst. A common thread these shows shared is that they employed the services of marketing teams.

With a big cast and three elements to it – music, dance and drama – Love, Crime and Johannesburg proved to be a Moria of content for the Art State Media marketing team. In the lead up to the performance at the criminally quite Performing Art Centre of the Free State (Pacofs), article after article sprung up on this site and social media narrating the stories of the cast, crew and even the story. The Facebook event page was littered with interesting tit-bits about rehearsals, keeping everyone in the loop as what looms and whetting appetites.

Vukallective followed the same general strategy for Thirst, but they went one step further and stepped out of the digital space: hardly would you go to the loo in any of Mangaung’s cool hangout spots and not be confronted by business card sized flyers of Thirst plastered on the walls, usually tilted to the side. They also played a cat-and-mouse game of what the show was about; letting you guess from the enigmatic clues they left all over the city and cyberspace. One never got to understand what the Thirst/Dors/Lenyora (not “nyorilwe” as they translated it) was for. Was it about drought, or sex, or as one of their post said “for integrity…for acceptance…for love”? It created mystery and intrigue, and did the majestic dance artwork justice as even post the show it was left to the individual to conclude what it was.

Even though Jesus: Die Passiespel is an established event on the Bloemfontein cultural calendar, they did not sit on their laurels and expect the masses to just show up. With a host of sponsors including media partners Bloemnuus and Radio Rosestad, they opted for the more traditional routes to get the word out, this included members of the cast going to the Volksblad Food & Art Market and the Farmers Market dressed up in costume to hand out flyers.

All these efforts were not in vain; all the shows running days saw throngs of patrons flock the theatres, including even one decidedly rainy evening for Love, Crime & Johannesburg. The formula here was simple; inform and engage. Getting the word out there is not enough – it is not The Word, it has no power in and of itself. One ought to engage potential patrons as soon as the word is out. That is, the show doesn’t start on opening night – it starts as soon as the first post or poster is up. In Moving the Centre Ngugi wrote of how they rehearsed for a theatre  production in open view of the audience, and when opening night came the whole village came in droves as they all felt one with the show. Social media – the sleepy village of Facebook and the pesky city of Twitter – offers such an opportunity to bring in the audiences into confidence, to make them part of the show from the word go.

Equally painfully missing is the post-event engagement. Apart from the admittedly nauseating ‘thank you for supporting us’ short notes, usually accompanied with caption-less pictures, one hardly ever hears anything from the artists or organisers after the show. It is almost as if it never happened. There are no reviews or reflections, no photo essays, no podcasts, no highlight videos. Surveys, on the other hand, are totally unheard of.

Given the aforementioned sins of the artists and organisers, it is not unusual then that the audiences too don’t bother to check in, update nor publicise their reactions and reflections. There is no hashtag they can jump on.

All this leads to the current sad state of affairs; a lack of digital footprint of the arts and culture scene in Mangaung. The artists and organisers must be the first to get the ball rolling. It is they on whose shoulders the responsibility lies to drag the arts out of obscurity, out of the underground. They must start the fire, the audience will keep it ablaze.

The city has the infrastructure – there are plenty of radio stations, newspapers and e-zines that could do with the content generated by art events. What lacks is the will, agency and creativity to maximise the opportunities afforded. So long as these are not taken advantage of, imbeciles will keep spreading the propaganda that nothing ever happens in Bloemfontein.

Mpho Matsitle is somewhat of a hashtag specialist, among other useless talents.

FEATURED IMAGE: Mpho Matsitle taking a moment at Zakifo 2017 to check the social media feeds. CREDIT: Khutsie Kasale

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