From May 5th through May 19th, global performance art project “Port Cities” will present the first movement of its odyssey in New York City. As a traveling project, Port Cities will link five cities along seventeenth century Dutch trade routes. From Perth, Australia to Cape Town, South Africa, from Amsterdam and New York City to the old port of Jakarta, each city will host a unique project exploring interconnected heritage and legacy.
We sat down with Talya Chalef, creator of Port Cities, and asked her about her fascination with Dutch ports, while discussing how a historical interest, a creative mind and a bold idea eventually turned into a global project.
In the seventeenth century, the Dutch sailed the seas of the world with frequency and dedication. As a small nation with a special relationship to the sea, the Netherlands was almost naturally positioned in an outward focus. The repercussions of these voyages have proven to be persistent, both positively and negatively, leaving a global path of intangible and tangible traces of Dutch footsteps in the ports of the world.
To kick off our conversation, we wondered why Talya, born into a South-African/Australian household, specifically chose the Dutch out of all the trade routes marking our oceans. “I grew up in Cape Town, where I learned to speak Afrikaans. As I grew up during apartheid, I didn’t really appreciate the fact that I had this separate language.” In 2008 this changed, when Talya visited the Netherlands during a work trip. “I discovered that I really loved the Dutch and the Netherlands, which already increased the value of us sharing this language.”
In the years that followed, Talya started to think about how formative the Dutch have been for Cape Town. “Dutch history is so present everywhere. I am not Afrikaans, but it was all around me growing up, so I became really excited about this heritage.” Talya spent her twenties in Melbourne, Australia, and became aware of the Dutch ship wrecks on the West Coast. She started researching the history. “I thought: how fascinating that the same ships that passed Cape Town, also passed Brisbane, and went up to Jakarta.” When Talya relocated to New York, it almost seemed like an unknown force was pulling her to these places. “Another Dutch port! There’s not really a single moment to identify when the idea was born, it was more a multitude of different ideas that all started to connect.”
The Port Cities project aims to use history as a framework to look at the issues these cities are currently dealing with. “It is our intention that we would be inspired by the myths and legends from these particular cities but through a contemporary scope. The project will trace these legacies – of the city’s heritage and history – to connect in with the mechanics of the city and the traces that remain through time. With this, movement, whether physical or thematic, should play an important part.”
Talya has described Port Cities as a global performance project in five movements – like an opera. However, the online documentation of the project of each particular city will be a movement on its own that takes form in a global mapping space on the Port Cities website. “We will gather either video footage, conversations, panel discussions, or aspects of research of each city, and accumulate a map of the five cities and their movements. By the time we reach Amsterdam, these materials will be manifested into a gallery installation. Having arrived at the source of it all, visitors will be able to participate in the online movement on interactive projected maps on the walls, and experience the trace lines between the cities.”
A lot of Talya’s work starts with images. “I’ll take images and start seeing the stories attached to them. The image that really struck me in New York, was the Dutch shipwreck that was uncovered under the World Trade Center in 2011, and the African Burial Ground that was discovered only streets away in the Financial District. Then I went on a writer’s residency Upstate, which was the same week when the protests in Ferguson broke out. I started to think about systemic violence, about structures and systems that have been in place for centuries, and I could see the connection between systems of violence and systems of trade.” She envisioned the economic collapse, and connected it to the image of the shipwreck. “I saw the ghosts of that time surfacing under a federal building, and I saw those same ghosts manifested in the violence on the street. I recognized a cycle.”
A childhood story of Talya herself also served as an inspiration to the main character. “When I was 8, I went to this South African beach that is called Beady Beach because a ship wrecked off the coast there during the Dutch trade era. These huge big china vases crashed into the water, and to this day people can still find trade beads washing up on the beach. I picked up a piece of china without realizing, and I just had it in my hand all day, whining that I could not find any beads.” At the end of the day, Talya came up to her parents and told them about the piece, and that it had “a little blue flower on it.” They had it tested, and it turned out to be a centuries old artefact.
The main character, Katy, is an archeologist that is trying to understand what is haunting her. “The image of me finding this piece of china was sort of prior to the image of this woman that is being haunted from a very young age. Like my 8-year-old self, she doesn’t realize that her history is complicit to the history of how the city was formed.” During the play, Katy will encounter the major players of the Manhattan of the past in a game that she is forced to play. “She encounters these players, but they are actually contemporary characters as well. So as an audience, you are a witness to Katy on this quest, which is almost like a dreamscape or a nightmare.”
One of the historical characters that will make an entrance during the play is Grietje Reyniers. Allegedly, she was the first prostitute to arrive with the governor to the island. “She ended up meeting Antony Janszen Van Salee, who was a Moroccan-Dutch pirate, and they end up together in a marriage. However, she continued with her brothel, until she gets banished to Brooklyn by the church. She is given a tract of land, and eventually ends up being one of the wealthiest women of the US.” Like all the actors, Grietje switches between three different characters to illustrate the continuation of a cycle, as the actress is simultaneously posing as one of Katy’s friends – who happens to be a Wall street trader – and Lady X, who is a baroness, as well.
Prior to the performance, the audience gathers in the Financial District, where they will get on a water taxi that will ferry them cross the harbor to Red Hook. Here, they will board an old wooden antique barge for the duration of the show. “One of the myths I started with was the Flying Dutchman. Sailors would see the Flying Dutchman on the horizon and it would be upside down, which was a sign they would never make port. This haunting experience of seeing something upside down that defined your destiny, made me want to create an experience that would make the audience see the city from a new perspective. There is just something about leaving Manhattan, and seeing it from a distance.”
Fittingly, the journey begins at Wall street. “Walls divide us, and are an important metaphor in the play. It is about division of access; who is able to play this game of life, who is able to get by, who is privileged enough to have the network and opportunities, and education and resources. So much of that is systematics, such as where you are born and which family you are born into. I am not laying any blame specifically on anyone or anything, it’s just that history has created these systems and structures that we now function in. The question is: how can we reconstruct or redefine our systems, or find new ways to function so that there isn’t the penance of what we have inherited. How do we move forward?”
The water taxi will leave at Pier 11 at South Street, New York.
Talya is a Brooklyn based South African/Australian interdisciplinary artist who has developed and presented new projects since 2004. She is the cofounder of Public Works Department with Sofy Yuditskaya and a member of Mapping Spectral Traces – a global group of artists, scholars and academics concerned with cultural geography. Talya explores themes of social justice, memory, history and identity and seeks out new forms of performance.
The first movement of the global odyssey, is a theatrical journey from the Financial District to Red Hook. In May 2016, audiences will meet at Pier 11 in the Financial District, ferry across the harbor accompanied by an original soundscape, dock in Red Hook’s working port, and board The Waterfront Museum Barge for a multimedia performance. Featuring a live musical score by Cameron Orr, generative projection visuals by Horus Vacui, and an ensemble who move, morph, and mix between early settler icons and modern city dwellers, Port Cities NYC highlights systems of trade and cycles of violence.