In September 2009 we were commissioned by Visiting Arts, supported by the British Council, to participate in their 1 Mile Squared programme, investigating a square mile in central Johannesburg and ‘mapping’ the cultural, aesthetic and boi-diversity, in association with two local artists, Anthea Moys and Kyla Davis.
What happened next was an incredible three month experience, working in an amazing environment with some fantastic people. We landed, walked (against all advice), talked and soon experienced inner-city Joburg in our own, inimitable way. With the research at the beginning, and the ‘tidy up’ at the end (as well as a well-earned holiday), the actual work was made over a period of six weeks. We were hosted by Johannesburg Art Gallery who, after initially not seeming to ‘get it’, ended up supporting the project, not least by allowing us to take over a gallery space as our workspace for the residency. Having the opportunity to make, what might be considered, a community arts project right next to their wonderful collection of contemporary artworks gave our project a legitimacy that is rare in an artworld that often seems confused by particpatory approaches, based as it is on the existing model of art-lover as consumer. We took the bull by the horns and began to make a series of consecutive, playful interventions to develop the project.
Intervention 1 – Nourish the Nation
Joubert Park, right on the doorstep of JAG, is a beautifully landscaped place, but is post-colonial, with only a single native tree to it’s name. It is in the middle of inner-city Joburg, and is considered by many to be a dangerous environment (during our whole visit, we only saw one other white person there). So we decided to make this our first port of call. We rocked up in the park, the four artists (wearing lovely pink aprons), and our gentle giant ‘minders’ George Khosi and Bule, from George’s boxing club. We set up a table and began to squeeze fresh orange juice, which we offered free to passers-by. As this took some time for each glass, we asked people waiting if the would mind writing their name on a luggage label we had prepared, and writing on the other side something about where they felt safe and unsafe. The responses were fantastic, people were more than happy to engage and we had soon collected a whole range of stories, which told us much about what people thought about their city. It quickly became clear that people felt that the area of Hillbrow was considered a very dangerous area (this in a city recently cited as having the third highest murder rate in the world). So, very much on the hoof, we began to tell people that the following wek at the same time, on the same day, they would find us in Hillbrow, where we would be doing more activities (we didn’t know what at this point), and they would be more than welcome to join us.
Intervention 2 – Move The Nation
We had noticed that we saw very few white people in the inner-city, and learned that, post 1992, much of the middle class had fled to suburbs, particularly in the North of the city. we wondered how we could draw this constituency into the project, and came up with phase 1 of ‘Move the Nation’. We went to Parkview, a suburb very close to the inner-city, but a million miles away in other ways. We walked around and knocked on doors, asking anyone who answered if they would donate a flower from their garden, which we would take and decorate a space in Hillbrow. We got very mixed answers, from ‘not today, thank yous’ to offers of money – which we politely refused, reiterating that all we required was a single flower from their garden. We had been told that nobody would give us flowers, that we would not be let in, but a few hours and several cups of tea later we had filled two cars with all kinds of beautiful flowers. We promised to keep in touch with all those that donated flowers – and of course, kept our promise (we always do – trust is not something you throw away lightly when working with communities).
We took the flowers to George Khosi’s outdoor boxing ring, which is on Claim St, a major thoroughfare through Hillbrow, and decorated the space with them, using beer bottles as vases (there is a major problem with alcohol in the area). We started to clown around within the space, fixed ribbons to the fence marking the title, move the nation, as we wished to continue the theme. People started noticing these strange people behind the fence and we started talking to them, inviting them in to come and play. we asked the adults to write a more detailed story about how they felt about their environment, then we would take a portrait photograph of them clutching one of the flowers we had got from the suburbs. The young people will be invited into the boxing ring, where we held a dance workshop, inverted so young people taught the artists to dance-with hilarious results. We then took a group portrait of the young people next to the boxing ring brandishing the flowers, before inviting them all to meet us the following week at the greenhouse project nearby.
At this point we decided we needed to find more ways of connecting the suburbs with the inner-city, so we decided to make a series of postcards reflecting and documenting each intervention in the stories we were collecting, which we would use to connect our suburbia participants with our inner-city participants. More of this later.
Intervention 3 – Grow the Nation
The following week we made our intervention at the greenhouse project, an environmental initiative set in the corner of Joubert Park, but surrounded and hidden by a high fence, and consequently receiving few visitors. So the first job was to get people through the gates and engaged with what we were doing. So we created the Joubert Park fax machine, a zip line reaching from the first floor of the earth building at Greenhouse and reaching over to a lamppost in the park. We would send our letters, sealed with a kiss, along the line and into the park, containing an invitation to follow a pre-laid line of oranges from the park and around the corner into the Greenhouse – you never know what might happen! We had been told that people would not engage with this, unless they thought they would be getting something free out of it. These expectations were confounded when people, good-naturedly, fought for possession of the letters before running around to the entrance of the Greenhouse Project. Here they were met by Anthea and Kyla who were dressed in bathing costumes, and clutching forks, shovels and hoes, while having a tea party. The ladies would lead participants around the corner and into the earth building where they would be met by Lee and Sandra, who would ask them if they would help these foreigners, by making a map of the inner-city, marking on places where they should and shouldn’t go. People spent a long time doing this, heads down, concentrating, we were incredibly impressed by their focus. Once they had completed these we asked them to go upstairs where they were met by our UK colleague Simon Walker, who had, along with our Zimbabwe refugee volunteer Ben Matongo, created a huge map of the streets and blocks of inner-city Johannesburg. Here they were asked to remove their shoes, step on to the map and locate themselves where they lived. We would then take their photograph, before asking them to fill in the blank areas on the map with important places, especially particularly good or particularly bad places. With the people silently walking around the space focusing intently on the map beneath their feet the space took on a peculiarly meditative quality, the participants again showing an incredible amount of concentration.Once they had completed this part of the activity we sent them back downstairs where they would get some refreshments, before being led around the corner to meet again with Anthea and Kyla. Here they would participate in a workshop to teach skills in methods of growing food in urban environments. Each participant would make plant pots out of recycled plastic Coke bottles, into which they would plant a food seedling, such as spinach or kale – and were encouraged to take it home with them. Many of the participants said that they weren’t aware of the great environmental work that the Greenhouse project did, and they would return in future to learn more about the techniques the project taught in sustainable living.
Intervention 4 – Map the Nation
Since the Joubert Park fax machine was so successful we decided to continue the approach, but this time we hung the airmail letters from trees in the park. The instruction this time was to meet the man with the straw hat by the Fountain at an appointed time. We did this with a number of groups during the day, when they arrived at the Fountain they would be greeted by Sean, a tree expert who would take them on a tour of the park and talk to them about the different trees, the conditions they needed in which to grow and how important trees were for the environment. During the tour he would teach them songs in Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English, to reinforce the lessons he had been teaching them. Once they have finished the tour they would meet Kyla, who would hand them a red paper bag containing paper, coloured pencils and instructions to follow the trail marked out in ribbon. The trail led them into Johannesburg Art Gallery, into our project space where Sandra would sing them in old English folk song, greet them and hang them refreshments and fresh oranges. She would then ask them to draw a tree that was important to them, cut it out and colour it in. We had placed the huge map from the previous week’s intervention in the rear space of the project area and we asked them to hang their tree above the map over their home. We also asked the adults to write a detailed story of a tree that was important to them in some way. At the end of the intervention we asked the participants to return to the gallery the following Sunday afternoon, where more exciting things would happen.
Intervention 5 – Landing
Our final intervention took the form of an exhibition launch at Johannesburg art gallery. We invited all the participants from the previous interventions, the people we got flowers from in the suburbs, people from townships such as Soweto and Alexandra, where we had done some informal teaching at local colleges, and of course the art audience for the gallery. So on a Sunday afternoon around 200 people gathered in our project space at the gallery, where we’d set up taster versions of our interventions, photographs, maps, our research and of course plenty of food and drink. So people came to the launch party unaware that they are about to participate in our final intervention. After spending some time drinking orange juice, writing stories, boxing with George, adding trees to the installation, adding stories and generally having a great time, we gathered everyone together in the central space of the gallery. Antoinette, the chief curator of the gallery, gave a short speech detailing the project and talking about the work that we and the gallery had been doing. We then ask everyone to follow us and went out side the gallery to the entrance to the park where we had installed a piece of ribbon, which we then cut and declared the park open. We then took the 200 or so audience on a journey through the interventions that we’ve made, meeting participants on the way as well as all participating in Sean’s tree singalong. Along the way we picked up about another hundred people, and the whole crowd trooped together back to the gallery, where much food and wine was consumed in a very convivial atmosphere.
It was a very emotional experience, George had tears in his eyes and said to us that this is what it should be like,that in this space whether you were black or white did not matter. It was a fitting end to a series of interventions.
As part of the legacy of the project we produced, with the help of our colleague Simon Walker, a series of five postcards which had on the front photographs from interventions and on the back, in greyscale, quotes about the city taken from participants. These limited edition postcards are available from us here at the price of £3.50, all proceeds going to George Khosi’s boxing club in Hillbrow.
As well as these interventions we taught students in two townships, worked with the education group at Johannesburg art gallery, held dinners to which we invited artists, community activists, police, architects and urban planners and participants from our workshops and interventions, continually attempting to connect people through our activities. Our relationship with our volunteer and friend Benjamin Matongo developed wonderfully and our commissioners, Visiting Arts, found a little extra money to enable him to continue working with some of our participants in uploading stories and pictures to the website after we left for home. Ben has continued to work with some of our participants and Johannesburg art gallery and is developing a theatre piece examining the very relevant issue of HIV infection in South Africans. We also connected a number of individuals and groups during the residency through our work including the inestimable inner-city-forum with the Greenhouse Poject who had previously not worked together. It has been incredibly satisfying to see the many outcomes from a series of simple yet highly effective interventions by the artists working in the public realm.
Due to the project’s success we are pursuing a number of avenues to return to Johannesburg to continue the work begun during 1 Mile Squared – watch this website for details.