If it's Tuesday, this must be LA: Antwerp is a European City of Culture with global aspirations: which is where the Ark comes in. Ellen Cranitch reports

A MUGGY May bank holiday in Antwerp; a small, smartly dressed Belgian boy stands staring at a curious object on a barge on the river Schelde. It's a huge hunk of ice encasing a bottle which in turn contains a photograph. From the photo, a dark-eyed, curly-haired two-year- old stares back. The information beneath the picture tells the reader that Rafael Suarez, born on 30/1/91, was last seen in Los Angeles on 17/3/93 and urges any sightings of him to be reported to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The Belgian boy soon loses interest and runs on.

It was the Los Angeles artist Stevin Glassman's idea to bottle these missing children leaflets then freeze the bottles as part of his installation on Antwerp's new floating theatre, a converted barge known as the Ark. As the ice melts, the bottles are released and will roll into the river. He hopes the photos will prick the consciences of the good burghers of Antwerp.

The Ark is moored directly opposite Antwerp's old city centre, a bustling tourist site, especially spruce this year as the city plays out that role of dubious distinction, European City of Culture. Rafael's image - the flotsam of Los Angeles society - will drift across the Schelde into the reflection of the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Our Lady. Most probably it will lap against the bank there, its message of American urban despair unheeded in such a prosperous European city.

Can this year's so-called cultural capital of Europe succeed in generating art with immediate power and lasting impact, where most of its predecessors have failed?

Eric Antonis, the crusading director of Antwerp '93, hopes that his global, socially aware perspective will do the trick: 'This festival cannot ignore what's going on beyond our borders. We have the seeds of similar problems here. In our last national election in November 1991, the separatist Vlaamseblok (Flemish party) took 25 per cent of the vote. The party has risen in strength in parallel with the other right-wing movements in Europe. There are acts of aggression against our minorities, the Turks and the Moroccans. We also have our poor and homeless, though you won't yet see them in the city centre.' Hence Antwerp '93 has concentrated on bringing in often controversial work from the most volatile regions of the world, such as Haris Pasovic's searing Sarajevo.

The Ark has been conceived as a latter-day sanctuary for performing artists from a number of troubled cities throughout the world. In addition to Los Angeles, the 14 cities presenting work include Soweto / Johannesburg, Ljubljana (Slovenia), St Petersburg and Berlin. The artists are young and unestablished, often living in a climate of social and political unrest. For one week each, a different troupe takes up residency on the boat - they live, work, eat, sleep and perform there.

The inaugural Los Angeles show is essentially a collage of individual acts. In the artists' quarters a few hours before the performance you'd easily forget you were in the bowels of a Belgian boat; the ambience is pure LA. Mehmet Sander, a muscular male choreographer of Turkish extraction, whose work tends to focus on the fact that he is HIV positive, is limbering up. He looks like a thug with his severe crew cut, nasal earrings and heavy boots. But later, his supple body, squeezed into a black, Lycra one-piece, moves with skill and purpose through a solo indicting a cop for the sadistic intimidation and rape of an innocent gay man.

At the table, a peaky-looking blonde comedian, Shannon Holt, sits with a towel wrapped around her neck, sipping tabasco to ward off an imminent infection. She's engaged in a good-humoured debate with Angie, a young black girl, as to the ethics of looting; Angie belongs to the all-women theatre group Madres, all of whom have lived rough at some stage in their lives. Shannon maintains that taking what's not yours is always wrong, but Angie reckons if it's there spilling out into the streets, it's anybody's. Legend and Craig E Z Luv, two Muslim hip hop artists known as the Soul Bothers, take this as a cue to start leaping about the room recalling the pleasure of looting during the riots.

Meanwhile next door, in a converted oil container which now functions as a rehearsal space, the singers of the First AME Baptist Church are warming up with a haunting Negro spiritual.

The voluminous drummer Gwen Payne breaks off to explain that the church is in South Central Los Angeles, the heart of the district where last year's riots took place: 'Before the fighting we were giving money to homeless individuals, during the riots we were sheltering entire families.'

The show's director, Laura Fox, says: 'LA is such a segregated city. It would be unthinkable there for these artists to socialise, let alone work together. And things have got worse since the riots. The last verdict on the Rodney King killing was like Band-aid on a mutilated body.'

She claims her greatest sense of achievement lies in having brought the artists together and welded their work into a single show. However, as the Antwerp audience begin to arrive - soft-spoken, arty intellectuals - she starts to worry that they won't respond to the performance.

In the event, her fears prove unfounded. The audience whoops and whistles to the Soul Brothers' punchy songs and dislocated gyrations; they sit thoughtfully through Mehmet's provocative solo, laugh loudly at Shannon's parody of a bargain-obsessed LA housewife, cheer the Madres, and rise in foot-stomping ovation for the Baptist singers' exhilarating finale.

Eric Antonis stands outside on dock, his feet in the melting ice of Glassman's installation, and looks relieved. It's clear the spirit of LA has stirred the souls of Antwerp. Across the river, Rafael's plight might yet be noticed.

The Ark project continues on the river Schelde, Antwerp, until September 1993. Tel: 010-32-3- 234 1188. 'Sarajevo' is at the ICA from 8-11 July (071-413 1459).

(Photograph omitted)

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