Photography by Dash Scout

Beach in the City: the art of spatial play and summer nostalgia

 

On Saturday October 8, I tasted the first offerings of Summer 2016: sand between my toes, the smell of sunscreen in the breeze, a crowd of floral dresses interspersed with multi-coloured umbrellas, beach balls bobbing overhead, and in the periphery a group of friends dancing around a volleyball net. But rather than an ocean skyline, my horizon was capped with concrete high-rises and billboard advertising. This was an oasis transposed into Mary Fitzgerald square. The urban beach party had been conjured by event promoters, Until Until: expert illusionists who regularly transform inner-city spaces into sites of play pilgrimage. Beach Party was very much in line with the kind of parties we throw already”, they told me. “It’s something experiential and a bit out of the norm.” This time, Until Until had teamed up with Virgin Mobile and Superbalist’s In the City to deliver seven hours of sonic summer heat.

Pouring sand onto Newtown concrete, the fantasy was brought to life. “It had to look like a beach. That was a very big point of what we were trying to achieve. In terms of social media, we ran the ‘wish you were here’ postcard campaign”: the resonance of holiday souvenirs sent back to friends and family.  Until Until hoped to transport its audience to a place of paradoxical juxtaposition — the feeling of being away whilst at home; of being able to step into another world, made sweeter by the ability to glance back at the old one.  “We played on the contrast of being in the city versus being on the beach. So if you saw some of the marketing visuals, you had drone images of girls laying on the beach in their bikinis, and as the drone pans away you realise you’re in the middle of Johannesburg”. 

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For all the seaside-surrealism of that Saturday, there remained a tangible familiarity. Weaving through the sand were threads of a well-known practice: journeying to the beach to signal the year drawing to a close. So, in addition to offering an uncanny spatial illusion, Beach Party also served as an elusion to other times and places, within our collective and personal stories. Indeed, beaches carry weighty significance in the history of South African play politics. There was a time, in our not so distant past, that beaches were racially segregated. Fierce attachments to beaches have catalyzed racist hate-speech and defiant rebellion. While the beach-going, even in ‘post-apartheid’ South Africa, has all-too-often remained a white phenomenon, the closing of each year is defined by the annual ritual of thousands of black families travelling to spend their day in the salt and sun. This is summer’s definitive act of socio-spatial transgression.

For some, the beach is that precious family treat afforded by a Christmas bonus. For others, it is a celebration welcoming loved-one’s home from a long time away. And for others still, it is a site of religious and mystical power. The beach is not only a place in which the socio-economically marginalized occasionally claim access to sites of play, it is also a source of reprieve for many who spend their year grinding in urban offices. For people across demographics then, the simple act of a day on the beach is charged with history and meaning. For many, it is a source of nostalgia and childlike escapism.  That’s why, when Shekhinah ascended Until Until’s Beach Party stage, her lyrics resonated:

‘Let’s take it back to the beach

Where we were young and carefree

This is how it should be

Said the city don’t feel me’

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Also on the line-up were DJ’s Capital, PH and Tira, as well as Atjazz, Julian Gomez, Melo B Jones, Stilo Magolide and AKA. Ricky Rick’s performance culminated in a spectacular stage dive, which saw the artist plunge into a crowd of drenched fans. It was the best of South Africa’s house, hip-hop and urban repertoire — drawing the crowd-tide in.

At about 7pm, the rain descended unabated from the sky. Water was added to sand and sweat, engulfing the crowd in all the associations of ‘the beach’. Some took short breaks, huddled under tents and umbrellas, encountering strangers. The Until Until crew, many dressed as lifeguards, moved to rescue the hype when the crowd were drowning. But for the most part, partygoers relished their rain dance, finding solidarity in the drenched dancefloor and their muddy shoes.  “I think it’s the first time maybe in the history of parties when you’re getting reviews like ‘the rain made it better’. You could see it in their faces: the energy’s there, they’ve been there a few hours now, they’re still waiting for their favourite song, [they aren’t going anywhere] …”

A testament to any good music festival is the willingness of the audience to brave the elements together — to give it all to the groove. Beach Partygoers burned through the rain because they were committed to this newly-created place; to the spectacle of sound, sand, and pouring water; and to commemorating a long-standing summer ritual.

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