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Ruth Sacks' words begin to take shape over Cape Town
Picture: Ed Young

The phrase completed
Picture: Doreen Southwood

 

////// Panic on the Streets of Cape Town //////

by Charles Maggs

It may be a generalisation to say that most people don't look up. Certainly some don't. If you were in Cape Town at around 3.45 on March 21 you may have been prompted to look up however, because there in the bluest of skies were the words 'don't panic' written in smoke.

Cape Town-based artist Ruth Sacks had broadcast this message as part of a body of work for her MFA degree at Michaelis. While the event itself was not the artwork (the artwork will take the form of a video), its significance is that it was unexpected and it occurred in public space. Sacks is, in part, engaged in exploring this space through her artistic practice, where public spaces can be seen as social, democratic and non-hierarchical.

Her work talks to everyday life and in this case a desire for 'people to look at everyday life more carefully'. To begin with don't panic prompts the viewer to look upwards, exercising atrophied neck muscles and increasing the flow of blood to the brain, the organ where the real exercise is desired.

While the phrase 'don't panic' references Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (these words are inscribed on the back of the digital book hitchhikers could use to traverse the known universe), this is less significant than the fact that it is a well known somewhat prosaic phrase that is very much in the public domain. This very banality makes it fit in public space - it feels familiar and remains accessible.

The choice of phrase was also governed by the skywriting medium itself, single plane lettering rather than formation flying, which is limited to around eight letters. The single plane carving out letters in the sky was like a giant pen writing and somehow felt familiar, expected, appropriate to the public space in which it operated.

The work references Martin Creed's text-based works, like the neon everything is going to be alright, but Sacks' work is less about subverting the everyday than it is about prompting an awareness of it. The subversion exists here in relation to the medium, skywriting, which is moved away from the commercial and toward the social and artistic.

The latter notion was explored somewhat inadvertently on talk radio while the skywriting took place. The host was wondering who was behind the event, speculating that it was an advertising exercise surprisingly free of branding. This illustrates how it is expected that these kinds of interventions are commercially driven and confirms the subversion. However the radio presenter finished her show with the words 'Whatever you do, don't panic', extending the physical range of the message beyond that of the smoke in the sky.

Because of prevailing winds and the time it takes to write anything with an object as big as an aeroplane, by the time 'panic' was written 'don't' had been distorted, opening the work up to other kinds of readings, perhaps intentional, certainly inevitable. This was satisfying in that it isolated the loaded word in the phrase, 'panic', which the Penguin English Dictionary describes thus - '... sudden unreasoning terror that spreads rapidly through a group'.

This is especially poignant today, where we need all the calm and quiet we can muster in order to ponder our realities from a reasoned and sane point of view. Ponder we must but don't panic, panic produces distortions of reality, distortions that can be manipulated by those that only have their own interests at heart. Don't panic...

Charles Maggs is completing his MFA in New Media at UCT.