Art and the Public Interest: A view from Joburg’s Premier Public Art Gathering

“Public access”, the theme of Johannesburg’s second conference on public art, held November 16-18, was aptly cued the night before the talkshop as attempts to host a tea-drinking ceremony in Hillbrow were almost scuppered. The planned street closure was denied at the last minute by metropolitan police — no such permissions are being granted for the foreseeable future, according to the conference organisers, Trinity Session.

But the tea-drinking ceremony and video installation went ahead anyway using the pavements instead. That was made possible by recent infrastructure upgrades from the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), the Trinity Session told delegates at the conference opening session. The two organisations have collaborated in recent years on related projects, which has included investment in public art.

The Hillbrow incident cued one of the most pertinent strands of conversation for the conference weekend: the pavement and its informalities as a way of reconfiguring conceptions of public space. Speakers who referenced comparative experience in the global South proposed a less precious notion of public space in general.

Henning Rasmuss, a director of Paragon Architects, on 17 November elaborated upon visual clips of his notion of public space via video footage captured on multiple journeys through numerous African cities. He suggested the concept of public space was perhaps over-rated and discussion terms were too abstract and embedded in the design sphere. Instead, he proposed public space as a function of excess or “a leftover thing”. He said: “Designers and architects get very uptight when the word public space is mentioned … Public space is simply the stuff between things or objects and it’s just really the space where people do stuff,” he said. “Public space has a history of having being created as a benefit, in the pursuit of our objectives, but really when you travel around it’s just the leftover stuff and what people do in it.”

Furthermore, design by community rather than architects was often very useful and beautiful when people just figured it out for themselves. He said: “One thing I keep seeing is how people make stuff, for themselves. Good public space and design should be useful and in their usefulness, in a very direct way, things get made to function for daily life – not in the pursuit of art, beauty and meaning. It becomes quite striking, quite surprising and quite engaging and sometimes an amazing indication of needs.”

Rasmuss said he found it strange to have a conference on public space as if it were something precious. He proposed that public space was everything that did not belong to people, private entities or cities. “We all tend to think about it as if it’s these tiny pockets we have to control. Maybe those pockets aren’t things that we know,” he said. Instead, Rasmuss suggested conceiving of public space as a continuum of “all-enveloping glue between the stuff that is specifically made”. And this glue belongs to the seven billion people of the world. “By 2050, there will be two billion on the African continent. So this is like a big public performance space and artwork that will belong to two billion people so that’s a great project. And to think of it as little pockets and little enclaves and little city improvement districts and street corners that get marked with colourful tiles on the pavements … Man, that’s nice but only a tiny tiny little fragment!” he added.

Rasmuss said cities are the biggest communal artworks that we as human beings make but South African cities were terribly boring in comparison to their African counterparts. He said: “They don’t have nearly enough density, freedom, chaos or space. We are very far away from the kind of sense of ownership that other countries on this continent have and we’ve developed an urban culture that is incredibly poor and we talk a hell of a lot about management and it doesn’t help with letting the big work grow.”

Professor Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities, on 16 November sketched some macro contextual questions before suggesting delegates zoom in on the neighbourhood scale of urban life where public art sensibility and urban development practitioners might intersect. He said: “Here I would argue there is an unmistakeable ‘imaginary vacuum’ when it comes to places of intimate contact and exchange in our cities … places that have a two-and-a-half to three kilometre radius; places that can be walked within half an hour; places where life hangs together with a sense of familiarity, routine, jealousy, bickering, envy, joy, drunken stupor and so on. If we are going to break through policy inertia and development gridlock across the urban landscape, we need to figure out how we can best enhance and enliven the energy of neighbourhoods, the molecular context where life, aspirations and desires are routinely frustrated and sometimes elevated.”

Pieterse then stepped further afield in the global South to bring some insights to bear from Medell├Čn in Colombia where the core idea was “careful, beautiful and audacious design” that suggests it is possible in a relatively short space of time to afford dignity to the poorest people in the city by investing in the best quality design. He added: “What was really distinctive was understanding that content really informs the design.”

Pieterse said Medell├Čn had a number of learnings for South Africa, starting with the best possible quality public infrastructure for the poorest, understood as a kind of downpayment on the right to the city and the possibility of active citizenship. This extended to more public infrastructure investment around portals of local territories, involving people from the beginning, building cultural, social and solidarity economies around public infrastructures, and investing in platforms for public arguments, disobedience and contestation within neighbourhoods and especially across the city. “However, the only way in which this can enhance conviviality is if it is primarily mediated through cultural participants,” he added.

Alex Opper, an artist, architect, writer and lecturer at University of Johannesburg, spoke about Johannesburg through the lens of Cape Town and New York with reference to Jennifer Robinson’s idea of ‘ordinary cities’. Many of the projects he cited linked to “the surface, the body of the city, the depth of the city as a place that needs to be negotiated very carefully and sensitively”, as he put it, rather than to an object as such. These included a University of Johannesburg student project investigating the value of a repurposed former warehouse converted into a micro-settlement, next to Alexandra township, and another student project that researched burgeoning inner city private schools that have repurposed buildings.

Many of the projects Opper cited worked in the interface between formal and informal sectors. He mentioned the pressure upon government to service the former but acknowledged informality was finally being recognised by the government for what it’s worth, reflected in its decision to upgrade informal settlements rather than eradicate them. He hoped the same level of sensitivity would spread, celebrating the intelligences attached versus marginalising them.

The conference ended with a literal celebration of the pavement in Diepsloot. An environment upgrade incorporated a two-year public art project, led by JDA and Trinity Session, which formally launched 18 November in a procession by a children’s marching band to the Mozomhule School where a theatrical performance took place amid playful street sculptures and installations. They were themed along a love letter to Diepsloot, which ended with the phrase: “Dear Diepsloot, I love you but you break my heart”.

Kim Gurney is a freelance jou
rnalist with over a decade’s experience including News Editor of a weekly at Financial Times Business and stringer for Newsweek International’s Africa bureau. She is also a visual artist and independent curator, most recently facilitating an exhibition that spanned art, media and law. Kim is affiliated as Research Associate to African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town, engaged primarily in research on public space/ public art, and Research Associate to Research Centre, Visual Identities in Art and Design at University of Johannesburg. She lives and works in Johannesburg.



This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project

image credits: Kim Gurney


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