Carin Bester is a performance artist, actress, set designer and art director who has been working in the film, television and theatre industry for the past 10 years. In 2015, Carin performed her first performance art piece Verlies. She was drawn to performance art because of its immediacy and honesty. She views it as a medium in which she can express herself freely as she interrogates issues of social importance effectively. In 2017, she did My Body My Life, a performance installation which took the statistics of gender-based violence in South Africa directly to the viewer. Since then she has done various other pieces about gender-based violence in South Africa. Currently, she is experimenting with documentation of performance elements to create print and video art. A piece called Dress of Remembrance, which was worn on August 1st 2018 as part of the #TheTotalshutdown March against gender-based violence to Parliament, has been included in an exhibition at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum. Cape Town audiences recently saw Carin’s set design featured in Figure of 8 Dance Collective’s Wag/Waiting which debuted at the Baxter Theatre. She will be performing a new piece Till Death Do Us Part this August as part of the Vavasati International Women’s Festival at The State Theatre in Pretoria.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I didn’t know I would get into the arts when I was younger but I have always been creative. There was always something I was doing with my hands but it didn’t click as, “This is something you should do.” Art gives me meaning. I love all forms of art. A lot of the time when people speak of art or an artist, it’s immediately, “Oh, do you paint? Do you draw?” There are so many forms of art. For me, right now, it gives me meaning. A lot of the time you get frustrated because you are not making money and you think, “Why can’t I just be an accountant? Why can’t I just be a lawyer?” It doesn’t matter what you think you might do, you’ll end up hating it and crying every day because you hate doing it. I suppose you cry because you are broke or you cry because you hate what you do.
What was the catalyst that made you decide to pursue that path?
When I was in matric, I looked at studying interior architectural design. That’s what I was aiming to do. I went to London and after seeing my first big West End theatre show I was like, “I need to be on stage! I need to be in the theatre.” I was just completely captivated and thought, “This is what I need to do.” I came back and then I studied Method acting in Pretoria.
What was that like?
Intense but good and fun. I really connect with the Method technique because of the realness and the intensity of it. From there I moved to Cape Town and I started a company with another performer. We did children’s theatre, puppet shows, drama classes [and] holiday acting workshops. I did that for a couple of years but in that time, I went for castings and auditions and did some of my own theatre shows. I left the company and I moved to town. For a while, I focused only on the acting and that’s when I ended up being so broke. It was like, “Where can I steal or borrow money from?” I started working on the other side of the camera. First I did a little bit of production assisting. It was specifically in commercials. I had the contact of an art director. I sent an email to this art director and said, “I really want to try out the art department and see how it is. Just give me a chance.” He replied to the email saying, “Thank you very much. I’ll definitely keep you in mind. It’s quiet now.” About a month later, I sent him an email again and I think I continued sending him an email once a month for about six months. One day he made contact with me and told me they had a job. They did a popup shop in Cavendish and the outside of this little house that was built had paper flowers. I sat folding paper flowers for hours and hours. It looked beautiful. I then continued working with him and his team for about three or four years and then I started working with other art directors and started moving into working as props master. That is how I started paying my bills while pursuing my performance side of my career.
In terms of moving into your design career, did you find that you took to that quite easily?
It was very easy. Like I said, I’ve always been a creative person. It’s not always creative but then you get the times where you dress and build amazing sets and it’s interesting projects where you really have to think creatively. There is that side of all of it and then I got back into theatre only last year with set design and theatre set design. Obviously, I love that way more than doing commercials. I’ve done a few short films and I did a film for Nicola Hanekom called Cut Out Girls. I was the art director on that. I think the reason I do commercials is because it’s a shorter period which gives you more flexibility to do other things. I’ve never done big international films where you work on set for five or six months and that’s the only thing you do. For me, it’s commercials and then I also love doing local films. It’s a shorter period of time. It’s something that actually has meaning, it’s interesting and then you can move on to the next thing.
When it comes to set design, what is your process? Where do you start?
Obviously working with the director or for [Wag], the entire group of dancers [and] choreographers to find out what they have in mind, what their feeling is and then taking that and just looking for inspiration, finding images of reference that you can check with them and go, “Is this something that you had in mind? Do you think this could work for you?” I think the real creativity starts when you start looking for your objects and then each object inspires you to create something and it moves onto the next element. This one, specifically, was fun because it was a small budget. You can’t just say, “I’m going to go and buy 10 chairs.” I went to a second-hand shop and the lady is amazing and she found all the chairs that were broken. She gave me a lot of chairs at a very good price. We went to the dump and I got some chairs from there. There’s a homeless man who goes past the studio a lot and he is always collecting things and then selling it. I got some chairs from him. I was kind of at the end of the set budget-wise, it was done and Marie [Vogts] told me that Grant [van Ster] and Shaun [Oelf] had this idea of having chairs that were up on the wall. I was driving down Koeberg Road and I noticed three wooden chairs next to the road and someone sitting there. I slammed on the brakes and made a U-turn and drove back there. They were perfect. They were three sturdy, perfect chairs. I gave them R150 and I had the final chairs.
The set featured in Wag seems so integral to the production. Did your process change at all? Because I can’t imagine them rehearsing without the set.
They did rehearse without the set. They have loose chairs that they dance with that they’ve always had. When I just started with the set and the first few chairs, I took a picture and I sent it to them and I said, “This is the starting point. This is the main first chair and you can actually sit on this chair and it will be strong enough and it will hold.” They kind of stacked their chairs for rehearsal in that same way but I came in and looked at what they were doing quite often to see how I could incorporate their movement into the structure and then they adapted to what the installation was in the end. It was really nice for me to see this installation that is almost an object, and it came to life through them dancing on it and moving through it. It was a lot of fun and amazing to see the final show and all the pieces.
What are the unique challenges that your job as a set designer entails?
With this one specifically, it upsets me but you can’t build an installation if you are one person. With Wag, the challenge was finding someone who could assist me. I’m very lucky that my partner, Kobus La Grange, is a sculptor. I worked at his studio. I would kind of be organising the chairs and then if I couldn’t get them to balance, it became a thing of me holding a chair in the air and then going, “Kobus!” And he comes running. “Can you quickly hold this so I can stand there and have a look? Hold it just like that.” I would say it was not having a big team that can assist. But it also made it fun.
In terms of balancing both a performance and design career, do you feel as though those two lend themselves to one another?
Like I said earlier, there are all different kinds of art forms. I love all these artforms so it’s an easy thing for me to be in the one or the other. Sometimes you end up working for months and months on only the one side and you do start missing the other side and you think, “I can’t do this job. I need to see if I can book an acting job. I need to be on stage again.” It is a juggle. It’s not like you hate the one and love the other. They do blend.
As a performance artist, what are the stories you feel you gravitate towards?
Most definitely my focus is on women and the war that we fight in South Africa on the bodies of women and children. It’s not a battle, it’s not a fight, it’s a war. For too long people have been quiet about it. I’ve got sisters and they’ve all got kids and my middle sister, when her daughter was about two or three years old, I read an article about a two-year-old that was raped and killed. It just really suddenly hit me, specifically because I’m so close to a child of that age, “Why is no one doing anything? Why is the entire country not disgusted and fighting against it?” The reality is that it happens all the time. Seeing that article wasn’t the first time you see it and it’s not the last time you see it because it literally happens all the time. I spoke to a friend during that time who said that we are so desensitised because we see it all the time. You look at the newspaper, you see it and think, “Oh that’s terrible,” and then you move on. It doesn’t affect you. You just carry on. For me, it was like, “But it does affect you.” If you are a human being, this leads to affect you. It might not happen to you directly but it might be that a person you work with is being abused or has someone close to them who is being abused. They might be fearing for their lives because the reality is that half of all the women killed in South Africa are killed by an intimate partner. That person who is supposed to cherish and love you is possibly the one who is going to kill you. That is why I did my first performance piece that focused on women being raped and killed in South Africa. It was called My Body My Life. The reason for doing that is that I wanted to put it into people’s faces and go, “Get out of your comfort zone of thinking this doesn’t affect you.” You need to be aware of this. That is how it started and since then, my performance art has basically been 90% focused on women and children.
When it comes to dealing with that kind of subject matter continuously, how do you make sure that you emotionally don’t take that on into your everyday life?
It is difficult and I think I do cope with it in a certain sense but I do take it on. It comes across very strong especially when I hear someone say something… I can get so aggressively angry and I speak up and I say to people, “Are you crazy? That is not ok.” Someone said to me, “You have too strong opinions.” I’m like, “That’s your problem, not mine. My opinion is strong because it’s reality. This is not a subject that you water down.” A lot of the time when I’m busy with my work, especially when I do the research, it becomes overwhelming and I’ll break down and cry and kick and scream and hate humankind. Then I take a deep breath and go, “I still need to do this,” and I go back and I continue doing it. But I do also have a therapist. So that helps.
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
I would say continuing because there are a lot of times where I’ve gone, “I can’t do this anymore because I don’t have money. Everyone goes on holiday when season is quiet and I take all that money and I start working on performance pieces.” Because of the performance art style, a lot of my performance art is installation pieces so it’s not a show that you buy a ticket to and go watch. There is no physical thing that you can buy. So then I don’t make anything back from it. You get to that point and it’s sad how the biggest challenge is usually money. I’m like, “No, I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to stop. I’m going to save my money and then have a good winter where I can go on holiday and I don’t have to stress.” And then literally two days later, I see something and I’m like, “This is what I need to work on next!” Even with the acting side of things, I’ve never been the commercial face who books work constantly. I know a lot of other actors who are brilliant actors but also didn’t get that big break who kind of got to this stage of like, “It’s not working. I need to move on and find something else.” I’ve not been able to let go.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge?
It really is having the financial support to do all the things that you conceptualise. I want to do a really big installation performance piece but what it would have worked out to be cost-wise was completely impossible for me to do. I’m still sitting with this idea and this need to do it and I’m trying to figure out how I can change it and make it so that it’s not so expensive. There is no way I can show what I want to show in a smaller way. That is definitely a challenge when you really want to do something and financially you are not able to do it. It definitely breaks a person sometimes when you just can’t do it. Performance art is not something that people are always easily keen on giving money to because it’s like, “What am I getting back?” They give money for sports or whatever because you’ve got your big banners everywhere and it’s advertising for whichever company. No one wants to have their logo behind a naked woman who is full of blood. They are like, “That doesn’t really go with our brand.”
What advice would you have for any young women who are looking to enter into the world of set design?
Don’t be afraid of the still male-dominated industry of design. It’s actually not mostly men anymore. There are a lot of women who do set design and who not just do the set design but they build sets as well. Don’t give up. Don’t be scared. Keep on going. Keep knocking on doors. You’ve got to go to theatres, watch shows, find out who’s the set designer, speak to the set designer, email an art director every month for six months. You’ve got to keep on trying until you’ve got the first foot in and once you’ve got that first foot in, you’ve got to work really hard. You also have to do the whole rubbing shoulders, smile, introduce yourself, find out who’s who, talk to who’s who. It’s also important to know directors because you are not going to necessarily get the job via the producer. You are going to get the job via the director because they are the one with the creative idea and they want to be able to work with someone they know or they’d like to get to know or want to work with because they’ve seen what their work is like.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
As a performance artist/ choreographer, it’s Mamela Nyamza. She is powerful. She is unapologetic and she is fucking amazing. I’ve always loved Irma Stern’s work. Nicola Hanekom as an actress, writer, director. The theatre she’s done is amazing and now she is moving into film. She doesn’t stop.
Special thanks to Marie Vogts.
All photos were taken on July 11th 2019 at the Baxter Theatre.