The My Body My Space: Public Arts Festival (MBMS) will be making global history in 2021 as the first arts festival to take place on a dedicated WhatsApp line. Curated by The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative (FATC), and funded by The National Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) and The National Arts Council (NAC), MBMS is committed to being as inclusive and accessible as possible in its transition to the online space in 2021.


Speaking about the process leading up to the innovative, world-first solution of a ‘festival on your phone’, MBMS Artistic director PJ Sabbagha, said: “Needing to create an online version of My Body My Space, as a result of the current Covid-19 reality, necessitated an intense period of deep searching, researching and many, many amazing conversations with others on the same journey and with thought-leaders and doers in the sector.”


Wanting to retain the strong Public Arts identity of the festival that is free and accessible to all and that takes art to where people are, the MBMS team emerged through this process of research and consultation with a strong conviction in the importance of bridging the digital divide and democratizing the digital space. This is a space that currently excludes many, particularly those in low-income groups, due to unaffordable data costs.


Sabbagha stated: “The place we have arrived at as a festival team, is massively exciting for us, as it enables our commitment to key issues around Access, Inclusion and Art in public spaces (whatever that means in the digital world), art in the everyday, while respecting the time and context that engulfs us all at this moment.”


This ‘festival on your phone’ will use the WhatsApp platform, through TURN.io, a cloud-based application that integrates directly with the WhatsApp Business API. TURN.io enables organisations to engage efficiently at scale, with AI assistance. Similar WhatsApp lines have been used since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and South Africa’s own Department of Health. MBMS will, however, be the first arts application of the TURN.io service.


What this means for festival audiences is direct access to festival content on their mobile phones. This happens through an easy opt-in process, by sending a specific prompt to the WhatsApp line. Festival audiences then interact with a simple menu that delivers the content immediately to their phones. Content on the WhatsApp line is by necessity and design light on data, making the platform an affordable one. Works featured at MBMS 2021 will also mostly be short-form works of one to three minutes long. The bite-sized quality of the content, the easy access to the festival platform and the light demand on data means that audiences can access the works whenever they like and wherever they are, hopefully engaging with MBMS content in the course of their everyday lives. In this way MBMS hopes to continue its Public Art identity in the digital space.


Showcasing cutting edge, provocative and socially relevant work that speaks to critical current issues has become a defining feature of the MBMS festival over the past five years. This continues through the 2021 programme that is currently being curated by festival organisers. Selected artists represent a range of disciplines, including emerging voices and established artists from across South Africa and the African continent.


MBMS 2021 continues its strong Development Focus through the Arteries and Development Programme as well as its commitment to placing marginalized rural communities at the centre of the festival experience, within this digital festival format. FATC will once again be working with local artists, dance groups, children and youth from the festival’s base in rural Mpumalanga to create content for the festival platform.


Another defining feature of the MBMS festival is its commitment to partnerships. Some of the confirmed partners for this year’s festival include Wits Drama For Life, Assitej, The Outreach Foundation, IFAS, Lo-Def Film Factory, Phoenix and Owl, BUZ Publicity, Zebra 360 Online Marketing, Creative Feel and Christo Doherty.


The full festival programme and festival dates are soon to be released.

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