Brendan Smithers is the prime mover and “Drill Sergeant” for the Upsetters, who created The Turbine for Africa Burns 2007 and The Wish for 2008, as well as being involved in the creation of the San Clan (Man) itself. As much as anyone else he has made his mark on the Festival, predominantly in his large scale work. So what thoughts lead to such powerful, iconic pieces?

The Wish : Night

It started with The Turbine in 2007…

The turbine had 2 incarnations; we delivered the first one in June (during the rainy season) but it was washed away, along with the camp we had set up; there was a lot of loss in that one. There were jokes about Drowning Man for a few months afterwards. Afrika Burn then raised funds and gave me a grant, enabling me to rebuild the turbine better that it had been the first time; a lighter, more refined and elegant structure.

Why the Wish?

I don’t know. Because … [pause] Maybe because I wished it had been better last year. Maybe because the word Wish contains an aspirant notion, it’s very archetypal. There’s a Wish for something more. That wish is granted through people’s participation, for a very short period of time. There is a Utopian dream that only works in short bursts. Tankwa Town couldn’t survive 365 days a year. But there is a wish that its results last all year.

You worked on it for 8 months.

The Crew

It was between jobs, the last few months we didn’t have a job so we went into a slower working mode and there were people like, there where many people who voluntarily donated many hours to its creation. The initial idea with the turbine was to do something as a crew together, not for money but just for fun, fun was a big part of it, because we spend the rest of our lives working for someone else, making money for someone else, meeting deadlines for other people, it can get pretty stressful. Not that the turbine wasn’t stressful, and the wish had its fair share of stresses. Everything about it took longer than expected.

The turbine didn’t cost me too much money, the Wish on the other hand ended up costing me a small fortune. I’d like continue to do these things, but I think I am going to need some help. Afrika Burns got me a R15000 grant from the national arts council, thanks to Paul and Robert, but that basically paid for the weekend to set it up. There were food, fuel, and Jack Daniels costs for the crew of 20.

How did you get into construction?

Inside the Turbine
Inside the Turbine

I’m a trained artist. I studied sculpture at Michaelis and the Johannesburg Art School before that. Afterwards, I concentrated on film sets, and stopped making art for a long time. When Africa Burns came along, it allowed me the space to work at a scale with which I was more comfortable. We build big things every day. My initial desire was to recycle – in the film industry there is a lot of waste. It goes to building houses in the townships, we try to keep it as green as possible. There was a fair amount of recycling in the turbine – off cuts and leftovers. The wish had its fair share of recycled materials… but not enough.

Is there community being built in doing creative work together?

My crew the Upsetters, all film industry, have a bit of a family vibe; they work with me all the time. There’s no pressure to participate. They come from place right across the demographic spectrum, We are a crew of burners who , I think, represent a balanced slice of South African communities.

How did they connect to it?

They are very into it. They are connecting with a freedom and ideology they don’t experience inside their societies and cultures. Also they are connecting with people as people – in our everyday existence we do have a hierarchy – that’s the way our operation runs, whereas when we go out there is a 180 degree turn on everything.

You gave freely of your sound system, the very portability of which caused some consternation.

Soop alert! The pleasure and the pain
Soop alert! The pleasure and the pain

It wasn’t just my sound system; it was a mish-mash of sound systems that came together, of which my speakers were the smallest. It just grew. I kind of agree with the sound out of place issue, it is something that should be addressed. Perhaps a reshuffling of the village somehow, so that everyone can be satisfied. I gave the music over to pretty much anyone who wanted to play it (as long as it wasn’t extremely hard trance stuff). I feel a bit bad about going to the guy who was playing relaxed stuff on Sunday morning to ask him to shut down.

There is some relationship somewhere with music in what I do, I love music. House, essentially, and dub music. Music has got a power, people are looking for spirit. One of the most amazing things was around midnight, Saturday night, the wish full of naked people, dancing. There was a loss of ego; I thought it was a really beautiful moment. I didn’t take my clothes off, but I was dancing.

Do you have any notion of the sacred in terms of your structures?

Up Setting Up
Up Setting Up

Yes, I have seen them as archi-sculptures. Structures is a good term, they are not just sculptures. I want people to interact with them, to go inside them, to move around. There’s an element of light and shadow in them, which I ultimately feel was more successful in the Turbine, maybe because it was closer to the ground. The Wish lived at night more than the day.

We hosted a spontaneous theodrama, a transformative art Liturgy, in The Wish, and people were very touched.

I hope they were, the ultimate intention of it all was to bring people together.

Do you have any particular spiritual discipline that you are involved in?

No … I was in a wilderness for quite a while and since I started making art again I found my spirituality, that IS my spirituality, to create and share.

What has got to be remembered about the Wish is it’s not just mine. I’m an instigator; I’m not the only artist. There’s definitely a spiritual element in all my friends and crew supporting me to push the thing out at the event. The wish belongs to all those who made it, all those who saw and felt it.

The Wish : Dusk

There’s a little ball inside my head that doesn’t stop changing shape – that’s my spirit. I’ve been through various inspirations.  I’m not big on structured frameworks. I think people are evolving past that point, where they are locked into a system of spirit, I don’t think it’s necessary any more. I think it can also swing the other way too, where people become confused, too many channels are also not good.

What about next year?

I’ve already started drawing. Its the same pattern as 2007, want to do it again, now!….. but part of the process is to learn to be patient. The Wish was an extreme exercise in patience… next years one will come…

What sums up the Burner experience for you?

Afrika Burns has all my favourite things rolled into one:  music, extreme building, art, nature and the outdoors, camping, fire…. and most important, hanging with the people I love.

The Turbine
The Turbine
Afrika Burn 2008 Syncroblog:

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