Transport routing the spine of city culture

Johannesburg, 3 December 2012 — Our guide looks like an air hostess of the future. She wears a golden cape with a high-necked collar over a white shirt, dark knee-length pencil skirt and flat white shoes with red socks. She grasps a compacted white umbrella in her hand and makes her appeal: “Please, everyone, just listen to what this gentleman is saying.”

We are seated on the high-speed Gautrain to return to Park Station from Alexandra as part of the United African Utopias tour, a play that imagines Johannesburg as utopia in the here and now. Curated by João Orecchia, Mpumi Mcata, Hans Narva and Tanja Krone, it forms part of the Goethe-Institut’s project Spines that plays with the city’s transport lines to explore notions of public space.

A chorus of chirpy radios hang around our necks playing a funky soundtrack but it contravenes the daunting list of Gautrain regulations. We exit utopia and land with a dull thud back in Johannesburg as the gentleman in a dark blue uniform states: “No-eating-no-drinking-no-chewing or loud music. Each is a R700 penalty … It’s not allowed. You have to ask for a permit first.” A couple of utopians are in rebellious mood and scratch in their goodie bag for the reel of yellow tape provided for such emergencies. They zip their lips in a mock protest that elicits a wry smile on the security guard’s return visit.

No such problems traversing the inner city streets in the first half of the journey, which made its way from Rent-a-Wreck car hire in Doornfontein to Braamfontein’s Park Station. We move at high volume, our radios blaring a narrative script via pirate broadcast but the city generally returns the pitch. It becomes a stage and we become players. Architectural oddities are megaphoned to our attention by a costumed guide. “Hello and welcome” says one passerby, as if we have just landed from another planet.

The comfort levels of navigating public space in this way seem to vary according to referent. A couple of utopians who walk these very streets on a regular basis expressed reservations. By contrast, another to whom they were unfamiliar was delighted at this everyday communal reality and simultaneously saddened her daily life was so alienated from it. The key, according to a third, was to have a sense of humour. There was also a personal touch in utopia that punctured the group dynamic, from individual radios to unique questions posed at the start seemingly designed purely for cerebral wandering.

The idea, says Orecchia interviewed in November, is to constantly play with shifting perspectives and understanding between what’s real and what’s imagined: “It’s about constructing reality the way you want it and finding that level of empowerment to just do it.”

As we pass through the utopian land of Zumania, for instance, our guides point out a Factory Shop that is “a sublime expression of Zumanian architecture” and in Neveräverland, we are shown a facade of advertising signs that comprise “Times Square – not to scale”. We are literally drummed up to the defunct Carlton sky rink on Commissioner Street where we individually meet ‘god’ in the middle of the arena and get to ask a question in a candlelit scenario. A recurring character from an introductory video appears here in physical form and again at the close on video feed. We are whipped off in a bus to a cathedral where couples waltz to a live organ recital by Givan Lötz and we exit by leaping through a ‘wired’ portal. Finally, we catch the Gautrain to Alex where a lucky draw earns a queen a ride on a rainbow-coloured bicycle chariot. We return in blacked-out minibus taxis playing ambient sounds to a golden chamber, where we are led blindfolded and have our godly questions answered through connections to those of the group. Threaded through are shifting states of mobility – by foot, by elevator, by taxi, by train, by tandem bicycle, and blinded.

United African Utopias as a whole felt carefully choreographed akin to a musical score, punctuated with shifts in tempo and occasional rests, and bracketed with a song at the end. And no surprise: three of its four creators are musicians. En route, we are stalked by artists with quiet interventions we may or may not notice depending on our awareness. In contrast, others occur at full tilt: we are mock-charged by a flash mob of runners and a crowd of demonstrators insists Park Station is an illusion. Thoughts are cued and the whole experience is conjured like an alternate reality. Participants have no responsibilities to worry about: even our Gautrain cards are swiped for us and everything is free.

The fictive play ends where it began: at ‘Rent-a-Wreck’ car hire. Behind me, a participant sings a capella the theme song heard at regular intervals: “Reality is just an agreement between seven billion people.” But following our Sunday visit to utopia, too many agreed Monday morning should still come around.




Kim Gurney is a freelance journalist 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 is currently researching for ACC on Spines as part of a broader research project between ACC and Goethe-Institut Johannesburg. She lives and works in Johannesburg. 




This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project


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