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Brown Arts Institute and Centre for the Less Good Idea collaborate on ‘Pepper’s Ghost Exploration’

Project is second ongoing collaborative residency of IGNITE Series

<p>The mirror technique was also projected onto the floor in order to allow performers to contribute to the illusion both behind and in front of the mirror.</p><p>Courtesy of Brown Arts Institute</p>

The mirror technique was also projected onto the floor in order to allow performers to contribute to the illusion both behind and in front of the mirror.

Courtesy of Brown Arts Institute

Last week, The Centre for the Less Good Idea — a performance group based in Johannesburg — collaborated with the Brown Arts Institute to hold a series of performance-based workshops using “Pepper’s Ghost,” a theatrical technique that uses specialized mirrors to create hologram-like images and narratives.

The performance — part of a collaborative spring 2024 arts residency under BAI’s IGNITE series — was shown four times, each instance called a “sharing.” In each sharing, the “Pepper’s Ghost” mirror technique was also projected onto the floor in order to allow performers to contribute to the illusion both behind and in front of the mirror. 

Performers presented five acts in each sharing, which varied from session to session due to differing schedules of performers. The sharing on Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. began with an “energizer” in which the performers sang and danced in a circle while greeting each other and inviting the audience to join in.

Performer, choreographer and theatre-maker Nhlanhla Mahlangu explained the reasoning behind the “sharing” label. 


“(The audience) is coming to watch the artist’s thinking, and that’s the biggest privilege,” he said. “In a performance, you see a finished product, which to me, is only a residue of the process.”

Mahlangu has been involved with The Centre for the Less Good Idea since its formation in 2016. He worked initially as a collaborator for the Centre’s first season and then as a curator beginning with the second season. 

“Each artist had an idea, and these ideas don’t have to be in any advanced stage,” Mahlangu said, explaining the process for “Pepper’s Ghost Exploration.” “What I realized is that as artists, we kept making the same work — just different fragments of the same work.”

His work on “Pepper’s Ghost Exploration” was an “extension of a piece (he) did in Johannesburg.”

According to an interview in TLmagazine with William Kentridge, the centre’s founder, the name for The Centre for the Less Good Idea comes from a Tswana proverb: “when the good doctor can’t cure you, find the less good doctor.”

Likewise, Mahlangu said, “a studio is the safe place for stupidity — no matter how wrong your idea is, you are allowed to present it. There are great minds that are able to develop it with you.”

One of the acts of “Pepper’s Ghost Exploration,” entitled “Thrown/Throne,” featured performer and conceptualiser Neil McCarthy thrashing around on the floor while an image of a quickly-rotating chair was projected onto the mirror, creating the illusion of a person struggling to remain on the chair. Another act, “Git Black,” conceptualized by JaMario Stills, featured footage from the short documentary “Fieldwork” and text from the book “Mules and Men,” both by Zora Neale Hurston.

The performers explained the inspiration behind their acts during a Q&A session after the performance. One performer also taught the audience the lyrics and melody to a song featured in the last act.

Architecture and Slavic Studies concentrator Jasmin Lin ’24 became involved with “Pepper’s Ghost Exploration” after speaking with Kentridge. “It was interesting to see how it all came along,” Lin said. “We started building off the momentum.”

Many performers cited personal experiences and other artworks as inspiration for their work on the project.


“I asked (performers) to think about their earliest memories of themselves, and we started working from that memory,” Mahlangu said. “We are constantly projecting our history: our excitements, our traumas, our fears.”

The BAI’s collaborative residency with The Centre for the Less Good Idea is a part of the IGNITE Series, which launched in October 2023 to “showcase a diverse array of offerings” from the “Brown Arts ecosystem,” according to the BAI website. The third part of the residency, “Studio Process and Political Change: The Case of William Kentridge,” is a lecture by Rhode Island School of Design professor Leora Maltz-Leca that will showcase on April 2.

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