Festival interview: PJ Sabbagha talks about My Body My Space Public Arts Festival 2021- going out on WhatsApp January 29 to March 31, 2021

Who: PJ Sabbagha – founder of The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative,South Africa Latest project: My Body My Space: Public Arts Festival 2021 (#MBMS21) Platform: On phone via WhatsApp Date: January 29, 2021 until March 31, 2021 Programme: Includes over 90 works by established and emerging artists from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar, UK, Germany, Spain and USA Cost: Free Register: Text  ‘HI’ to +27600110444 or scan the QR code  

Renowned choreographer PJ (Peter John) Sabbagha is artistic director of My Body My Space: Public Arts Festival 2021 (#MBMS21). The annual festival is presented by The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative at the Ebhudlweni Arts Centre, in Mpumalanga (about 51km by car, from Durban). In 2021, with the pandemic on the boil, the festival has pivoted onto WhatsApp and is being therefore tagged as festival on phones. Besides from data costs, there is no charge. A hallmark of the in-person festival is that umbrellas are handed out to the audience- to protect them from the sun in Mpumalanga. PJ is famously seen with his umbrella as he moves around the festival (see photo – featured image). For the 2021 edition of the festival, get out your umbrella and stroll along, with your phone as you click into the festival. Mobile phones are very portable. WhatsApp accrues relatively low data rates, which adds to the core values of this festival- “interaction and connection”. One can click in, as one roams about outdoors in the South African summer. The festival is said to be the first arts festival to present its offerings on a “dedicated TURN.io. hosted WhatsApp line.”  [TURN.io is a cloud-based application that integrates with the WhatsApp Business API, and enables mass messaging. For example, MomConnect uses the platform to send health messages to over 350,000 pregnant women and receives over 10,000 health questions weekly.]

TheCapeRobyn: This is said to be the first major WhatsApp arts festival?

PJ Sabbagha: While numerous creative projects have been delivered via WhatsApp, making use of WhatsApp groups and broadcasts, to the best of our knowledge, #MBMS21 is one of the first, if not a first globally, with regards to its delivery of an entire arts festival of 90+ arts projects through a dedicated WhatsApp Line. As WhatsApp has over two billion users globally and WhatsApp business API has many thousands of business accounts globally, it is almost impossible to 100% verify that MBMS is without any doubt the first and only use-case globally. However, our research has not revealed any other such application of the platform and to the scale at which MBMS21 is operating.

TheCapeRobyn: Can you talk about the use of TURN.io application in conjunction with WhatsApp?

PJ Sabbagha: From the inception and redesign of the 2021 iteration, framed by the challenges of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, #MBMS21 has sustained at the core of the project’s ethos a deep commitment to access and inclusion. Extensive preparatory research and stakeholder engagements over several months in 2020, in terms of Covid-19 motivated online pivots by many in the arts sector, as well as the very real challenges faced by the majority of the SA population in terms of access to technology, devices, WiFi, data and reliable sustained power supply, led the festival to WhatsApp, and finally to https://www.turn.io. TURN.io is a cloud-based application that integrates directly with the WhatsApp Business API, and enables organisations to engage efficiently at scale, with AI assistance. Similar WhatsApp lines (also hosted by TURN.io) 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. #MBMS21 can safely claim to be the first use-case of its kind: Global First as an arts festival delivered on a dedicated TURN.io. hosted WhatsApp line.

TheCapeRobyn: And the festival is free?

PJ Sabbagha: Funded by The National Arts Council of South Africa and The Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, MBMS 2021 will be delivered FREE of charge through a dedicated WhatsApp line in 2021.

TheCapeRobyn: How will you festival operate –by broadcast groups- limited in terms of numbers per session or unlimited?

PJ Sabbagha: The entire festival is available 24/7 via the WhatsApp line, you navigate menus using prompts / triggers (words/names/numbers in bold) that you send as reply and the content is sent to you. It’s free. Content is available all the time. Time slots. So no, the festival does not operated by group or broadcast and there is no limit to numbers of people at any one time.

TheCapeRobyn: Has all the work going out on this festival been commissioned for the festival or has some it being staged at other festivals?

PJ Sabbagha: The majority is new work. A very small portions’ perhaps 5% has been seen before.

TheCapeRobyn: The phone screen is very different to a computer – so the artists have needed to take cognizance of the small screen in creating their work?

PJ Sabbagha: Yes, as well as taking into consideration the platform 16MB size limits. Artists have had to work within very stick format limitation.

TheCapeRobyn: The pandemic has been devastating for creatives. You have funders on board for the festival. Is this enabling you to pay all the artist and creative teams?

PJ Sabbagha:  Yes everyone is paid – Funded by DSAC and NAC.

TheCapeRobyn: Let’s talk about The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative. Has the FATC been able to operate, since March 26 2020 – to what extent?

PJ Sabbagha:  All our programmes have migrated online and we have remained fully operational for the most part with the exception of projects that require large gatherings, we have retained all staff at 100%.

Public art: PJ Sabbagha- artistic director of My Body My Space: Public Arts Festival 2021 (#MBMS21). PJ is famously seen at the annual in-person festival with his umbrella as he moves around the grounds (see photo – featured image). Umbrellas are given out at the festival and have become a signature of the event. But, not this year, in Covid. In 2021, the festival is being presented on WhatsApp, on a TURN.io. hosted line. Images supplied.