Interview with Thomas Chapman, co-founder of C.Urb
12. October 2010
-What do you think of the notion of transgressive public interventions; which one should be permanent (should they be at all?)?; which ones should be temporary? (e.g. trailer park was temporary, why? Dance studio permanent but changing, why?)
To me a so-called ‘intervention’ in public space will always be something temporary, in that it can only inspire reaction for a limited amount of time, i.e. before the public who experience it every day become used to it. We did an artwork on a highway verge in Newtown which was intended to draw attention to lost/ leftover spaces in the city (of which there are lots in Johannesburg). The idea though was not to beautify the highway offramp but to draw attention to it as a space for practical use. The area had recently undergone what we saw as a pretty conservative public space upgrade and we wanted the artwork to be a criticism of this. My feeling is that the artwork was effective in this manner for a few weeks and after that just became a familiar sight in the landscape. Like the Trailer Park, however, the purpose of the intervention was to experiment as to what future, possibly permanent plans might be. A follow up project in the space would therefore not be seen as a subversive intervention anymore but something more solid/ a piece of infrastructure. In the Dansazania project, the temporary intervention has been us establishing our design office in the building we are converting, obviously this action is shaping the final design.
-Do you see yourself as an artist, architect, designer or all at once? Do you collaborate with either of the three usually in your projects? Who are the people you usually work with?
I market myself as an architect but most of C-Urb’s built work has in the realm of public art/urban landscape architecture. I have always had an interest in public space design though, so I try to experiment in this realm whether we get a purely architectural commission or a public art piece to do. I always work very closely with my partner Marco, and most of the time we have a group of students who help us. We also always work very closely with clients.
-Community-based art is said to suffer from uneven power relations in the “triangulated exchange between an artist, a curator-art institution and a community group.” Do you agree? Is it ok? Or should it be changed?
I think that it’s very difficult to generalize about any community-based project. Ideally, a creative project will emerge directly from a community group, in which case the curator doesn’t exist, and there is just a question of funding. Obviously there are loads of cases in Joburg where big-name artists/curators exploit street artists, this I don’t agree with.
-Has the participatory project, Dansazania, been successful? Have people from the community actually gotten involved?
I find it difficult to measure involvement or to define ‘the community’, especially in an area like Melville, where you have upmarket houses, offices and restaurants on one side of the park and a large group of homeless people living in the storm drain in the park. Also, there are transient groups of peoplewho use the park’s facilities (soccer teams, tennis coaches etc.) who also need to be considered.
The most important thing to remember about this project though is that it emerged from a Melville resident who has been running dance studios and feeding schemes separately in the area for over 10 years and has now decided to establish them together in the former Melville scout hall 2 blocks from her house.
Banner to engage local participatory involvement in designing the dance studio
We have tried numerous tactics to involve a broader community in the design process project (facebook groups, banners) but in reality the most valuable interactions with the community have been the informal one-on-one encounters with people who feel very strongly about the project. A large part of our process has been to set up our design office in the very building we are converting. We have regular meetings here which are open to anybody. There is a homeless guy from the park who comes to most of the meetings and who often has some of the best ideas for the building.
As we design the building and the park we also test design ideas in real space. So, for example we are proposing a running track that is also an advertising billboard around the park and to test this idea we have regular runs around this route. This action in itself has started to gain interest from some of the people who live in the area.
Discovery Run to raise awareness for participatory design project
-In practice, how does a group of people become identified as a community in an exhibition program, as a potential partner in a collaborative art or design project?
We are always very open to any community involvement, mostly because we work with tiny budgets and often the more hands we have, the more effective the project. When we did the installation on the highway verge for example, there were a group of street kids who lived just behind the site. When we started working on site they came over and started begging from us and we ended up hiring them to help us make the piece. This helped the project a lot because the street kids looked after the artwork for a long time.
Who identifies them as such?
At a broad scale, there will always be academics, architects, urban designers who have allocated budgets for projects and stipulated that some form of community involvement is required. Most of the case, these people haven’t a clue about the community they are making decisions about. I think that good community organizing by nature doesn’t exclude anybody- so if there are a thousand people who want to become involved in your art project then that’s what you have to deal with. The reality though, is that gaining community interest in anything is really tough work (unless there is some kind of payment).
Who decides what social issue(s) are addressed or represented? The artist? community? curator designer? sponsoring institution or funding org?
This always differs. With our country’s history, there are a number of social issues that are unavoidable, whatever the project. There are a few issues that we as architects have become particularly interested in in our work and we try to engage these in all our projects. The berlin wall project was an interesting alignment of our interests and those of the client, a German funding agency called DAAD. The client wanted to commemorate the fall of the Berlin wall by building a replica on the Wits University campus. The idea was to draw attention to the walls in South African society/ the continued spatial legacy of Apartheid.
-What is a “community” in your understanding?
I define community as people who come together because of a common interest. I don’t see community as something inherently spatial at all, i.e. just because 10 people live in the same street does not mean that they are a community. A community project in a middle-class suburb like Sophiatown for example would be most successful if it was run through a school in the area or at one or other sporting facility because these seem to be some of the only common interests amongst people in the area. In the case of the highway project, the common factor that brought the street kids together was poverty/ homelessness.
-What is the role of community in your projects? Are your projects dependent on your intervention as artist/architect/designer etc. or on the community? Are your projects self-sustainable?
The role of community always changes from project to project. I don’t think our projects are more or less dependent on our intervention or that of the communities. Most of the time though, the projects are not our idea, they have come from a client (which could be a community or an individual). The most sustainable projects I have found tap into some kind of enterprise that is already in place. We ran a studio at the university where a group of students worked with a bookshop to landscape a public space opposite the shop for ‘the community’ to use. Although the space was public, it added value to the bookshop and was maintained by the owners. In this case, we identified the project and approached the bookshop.