Playing with food and other serious matters

As part of the events programme running with the City Desired Exhibition currently taking place at the City Hall in Cape Town, the African Centre for Cities, in conjunction with dala, an organisation that attempts to engage social injustices through placing architecture in the field of contemporary art, hosted a series of gaming activities that culminated in the Serious Fun Symposium, which took place earlier this month.

The symposium was an opportunity for international and local urban practitioners of artistic professional backgrounds to discuss creative ways in which the city and its various issues can be more accessible to the general public.

The idea of play was engaged with as a means to consider alternative understandings of what the city is and how public spaces can be used. Games and performances, from ‘Metropoly’, a twist on popular board game Monopoly where players are each given different amounts of money to represent the unequal economic power that different actors in the city have, to ‘playing with food,’ were thrown into the mix of discussion on tested gaming experiments and to what extent the concept of ‘Serious Fun’ can become a strategy for future work.

One presentation that sparked extended debate was that of architect Doung Anwar Jahangeer. One of the founding members of dala, Jahangeer sought to engage the notion of community participation in building city spaces through a project involving Lego.

In the experiment, a number of school students living in Khayelitsha were given the task to create for themselves their ‘New Home,’ out of thousands of basic-shaped Lego blocks. The historical circumstances that led to Khayelitsha being planted on the outskirts of Cape Town and the subsequent spatial and housing realities, which exist in stark contrast to that of the inner city, were aspects of apartheid city planning that the project desired to challenge.

What sparked particular debate was the extent to which the students’ personal houses that were constructed quickly became additions to community infrastructure: “a person’s house became the city,” as Jahangeer described it. The ‘dream’ house that each student was tasked with creating did not stay personal, but instead turned into schools, into ‘civic centres,’ and hospitals.

One delegate from Egypt commented on how often creative processes in informal living spaces are linked to resourcefulness: the ability for people to recognise peripheral materials as being valuable for the construction of their material lives. Yet for him, drawing from his experience of working in informal settlement neighbourhoods in Cairo, it is rather the case that people with real expertise in creating their own living spaces establish intricate networks of accessing materials and resources, and so operate creatively but beyond a state of mere resourcefulness.

Another delegate representing Khulisa Social Solutions, a Cape Town based NGO, added to this. “Creativity is a bit like power,” she stated. It involves resourcefulness and resilience, but also the awareness that there are resources all around you, she explained.

Climate change was a subject brought to the fore by ACC researcher Anna Taylor. Her presentation brought attention to the difficulties of raising awareness within the wider public of a topic that is so multi-faceted, ambiguously understood by the average citizen, and drastically crosses temporal and geographical scales. “How do we keep simplicity while doing justice to the complexity of the subject?”

In an attempt to engage the idea of ‘serious fun,’ a group of researchers in Cape Town organised a game of tug-of-war on Adderley Street, in inner-city Cape Town, to create awareness of the tensions that exist around urban planning, zone-use planning desires, and high-risk communities along the Cape coastline.

Serious fun_climate change

Researchers from the African Centre for Cities play tug of war on Adderley Street, Cape Town. Image: City Desired.

The game involved a red rope representing the coastline, with nineteen knots representing nineteen risk hotspots along the coast, and a bucket of water suspended in the middle over a small house on sand. Passers-by were invited to take part in playing, and one of the most successful aspects of the experiment was the conversation amongst onlookers that it started. Participants were able to participate on their own terms, and as the game drew attention it also enabled the creation of an interactive space of curiosity on the subject.

But Taylor left the audience with a question: as successful as the experiment was in sparking conversation, how can such initiatives take conversations beyond their initial form to translate into active interrogation of the ‘serious’ issues confronting the city?

Many forms of play and its intentions (if any at all) were discussed. “The question is always whether we’re allowed to play with serious matters,” stated performance artist Tim Zulauf from KMU Produktionen, who continued to discuss the idea of fun as a powerful means to “de-normalise” things that are assumed or expected.

Yet a recurring question brought up during the symposium was how a sense of consequence can be built into this kind of experimental work, beyond the immediate experience of the game. The question raised concerns of participation, as well as the way in which ideals of what a city space should be like is often depicted without constraints, a point raised by Edgar Pieterse, director of the ACC. “We need something that pulls in reality,” said one delegate about how things really function.

The notion of participation itself is something that is often not understood. “It is the same thing with ‘freedom’ in South Africa,” said Jahangeer, “we are waking up 20 years later with a massive headache.” For him, it requires a long process of “unlearning” with which actors need to engage.

These experiments confirmed that science and ‘serious’ issues can lend themselves to metaphor. Yet how these spaces for engagement amongst diverse ranges of people can be created as a true strategy for future work is a question that requires further exploration.

Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Christy Zinn is a postgraduate researcher and urban thinker striving to interrogate the social and spatial dynamics of cities. Believing that people make a city tick, she focuses on invoking a culture of active citizenship within urban communities​.

Main image: Metropoly. City Desired.

See more Serious Fun videos at the dalablog.


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