Interview Goethe-Institut South Africa

An interview held between Miriam Daepp from the Goethe-Institut South Africa and published on the Goethe-Institut website, following a six week research residency in Johannesburg.

Your theme for the residency in Johannesburg was “security”. Was this your first stay in Johannesburg, what had you heard about security in this city prior to your arrival and how did your expectations or fears compare to the actual experience?

This was our first experience of Johannesburg. Most of what we had read or been told before our arrival described Johannesburg as a place with a reputation for being a ‘dangerous city’. Our own personal expectations were influenced by a period of time working in Cape Town in 2009, in which the ever-present issue of security, and how this seemed to feed off, and generate, a society of fear and mistrust, led to our subsequent interest in security as an area that we would like to investigate further. Towns rapidly emptied as soon as working hours came to an end, beautiful beaches were left alone at night, and neighbours in gated communities rarely seemed to interact with one another. Anybody who felt they had something to lose was busy building higher walls, adding electric fences, buying dogs and fitting alarm systems. For many people living in Cape Town this appeared to have been accepted as the norm, especially in more affluent areas. These observations and impressions provided the backdrop for our residency in Johannesburg.

Our actual experience of Johannesburg changed as time progressed. During our stay we traveled to a range of different areas and urban contexts – the city center (CBD), Hillbrow and Yeoville, the northern and eastern suburbs, the periphery of the city and (briefly) Soweto. The more you explore and engage, the more familiar, complex and connected a place becomes. This familiarity breeds a feeling of relative safety, or at least comfort and confidence (unless something unfortunate happens). We started to form a relationship with the city and those who live and work there. The majority of residents we met in more distant and self-contained suburbs such as Sandton told us that they had never been into the city center. The discussion would go a bit like this: Whatever you do don’t go to the city center! We were there yesterday. Oh, really? What was it like? One day we joined a walking tour of Yeoville organized by Dlala Nje. A number of individuals from the northern suburbs had joined the tour. They talked about residents living in a bubble and the importance of expanding ones personal map of the city. After the tour we certainly felt more comfortable driving or walking through Yeoville and Hillbrow, often referred to as ‘no-go areas’ of the city.

It might seem obvious, but the more we discarded our layers of protection and fear, the more sociable and interactive our experience of Johannesburg became. Walking the cardboard car through Bertrams, Yeoville and Hillbrow was a good example of this. One day we met and talked with one of Parkhurst’s ‘Golden Oldies’, the name given to somebody who resists the trend for building walls and electric fences. He talked to us about the changes in the area, the comings and goings, the different approaches to living in a community and why he chooses to live the way he does. He was the only one on the street not to have been burgled and despite people telling him to erect a fence, he’s happy the way it is. As we talk he waves to those passing his house, exchanging a few words over the low perimeter wall.

The city center was much more accessible and lively than we had expected. Despite occasional moments in which we felt uncomfortable, the hostile looks we would sometimes receive and the awareness that things can happen, we felt, to varying degrees, able to walk through the city center. I guess as visitors we were being both extra cautious and extra naive.

The suburbs on the other hand were more or less the way we had expected them to be, based on our experience of Cape Town and zooming around on Google Street View before we came. But the actual experience is always more revealing – and complex. It was the more subtle unexpected details that caught our interest, the changes in lifestyle, the landscaped pavements, an emphasis on the car as a primary means of transport (and how this is reflected in the architecture), and the decorative quality of certain security features. The golden oldies are clearly in the minority, with most residents choosing to invest in security guards and fortifications of some kind.

One of the things that gave us encouragement, were situations in which the security infrastructure that has emerged in a suburban area becomes a catalyst for positive change and social cohesion. For example there was a security guard who had worked on the same traffic island for many years. One day he started to plant fruit and vegetables on the land, to fill the time he had on his hands while waiting for something to happen. The result is a beautiful community garden that seems to be used by a number of local residents. When a neighbour threw out a wooden giraffe, he incorporated this as a sculpture in the garden. Another guard has become the facilitator for garden parties that bring together gardeners, domestic helpers and local residents. We found that security guards often knew more people living and working on a street than anybody else.

Pedestrian pavements in Johannesburg’s residential suburbs are gradually disappearing. Many house owners use the lawn outside of the perimeter walls as an extended garden instead of pedestrian walkway. Where does private space end and public space start and is there a place for pedestrians in Johannesburg’s suburbs at all?

Or rather they use the pavement as a lawn.

First of all we need to differentiate between public space and state or privately managed space that has been designated as ‘public’, a complicated set of contradictions and relationships that has been the subject of debate for a number of years. To me ‘public space’ is space that is accessible to all members of the public, ideally a space that is not owned by anybody but everybody. The more complicated part is how public space is used and managed. Most of what we commonly refer to as public space is state-managed, or managed by private companies that are contracted by the state. This results in a variety of corporate and political agendas that sometimes seem to compromise its very status as public space. Cities offer a combination of privately owned privately managed land, publicly owned state managed land, publicly owned privately managed land, and everything in-between. In Johannesburg we have been looking at publicly owned publicly managed space – something of a rarity. One example of this is the appropriation of the sidewalk. Another would be the resident associations that introduce security patrols or close public roads to restrict access.

The case of Johannesburg’s pavements is particularly interesting when we compare the city center and the suburbs. In both the city center and the suburbs the pavements have been taken over by the/a public – In one instance the pavement has been taken over by informal traders and in the other by local residents. In the city center this process transforms the pavement into a place for social interaction, in the suburbs it removes the possibility of this taking place. When a resident plants over a sidewalk, the space ‘feels’ private and out-of-bounds. If the shrubs are large or spiky enough it becomes physically out-of-bounds too. It is still a space that has been allocated as public space, but it now functions in a different way. The (or rather a) ‘public’ has reclaimed control over public space from the state, but excluded another public in doing so. You could argue that due to fears, founded or unfounded, that pavements in the city center also (psychologically) exclude some members of society.

I say all of this from my own subjective perspective that has been shaped by certain cultural conditions. We are aware that the very notion of pavements to regulate safety and provide space for pedestrians is a concept that was brought to South Africa with colonialism, and now once again with our own European perspective. We are told that in Soweto there is rarely any need for a pavement.

The changing sidewalk could also be seen as a new infrastructure, an invitation to use the space in a different way. We noticed how some gardeners would use the lawnment (grassed over pavements) to enjoy a break from work or wait for the bus at the end of the day. There is nothing but your sensibilities stopping you picking the lavender that has been planted in place of the path, or having a picnic on what is essentially public space. In practice it might be different. When we organised a picnic on the lawnment, one participant quite rightly suggested that it would be a more interesting experiment if we had all been black.

In some ways we like the way in which individuals are allowed to landscape the sidewalk. They are being public on public land. The local by-laws permit planting of any kind, as long as a 1,6m pathway for pedestrians is preserved. This isn’t something that would be readily accepted in Stuttgart. It’s nice to catch a glimpse of the personality behind the wall, it’s just unfortunate that the way in which this is done doesn’t always consider those who need to walk in the area, such as gardeners and domestic helpers, or possibly their own needs in the future, or those of their children. It’s a trade-off. The State saves public funds that would otherwise be spent on maintenance, while holding on to higher-rate tax paying residents by not interfering with the way they want to shape and control their environment. The question that needs to be asked is who has the right to shape public space? And how should this process be managed, controlled, monitored, regulated, or otherwise? How do you deal with private agendas in public spaces?

There will always be a place for pedestrians in the suburbs, partly out of necessity (those who can’t afford to drive in a car, those who need to walk a dog, etc). Walking will always be the most democratic form of transport. The question is where this place is. It’s a question of infrastructures and cultural habits, both of which respond to one another and are in a constant state of flux. Who walks, why and how? How might this change in the future? Is the walkers place in the middle of a road or on a pavement?

Both scenery and vibe on your “drive” through different neighbourhoods changed from Kensington to Parkwood. What are your most striking observations?

We were already aware of how the scenery and vibe changes as you move through the city, having made the journey numerous times during our stay and spent time walking in each of the different neighbourhoods while conducting our research, but traveling over the complete distance on foot gave us more time than usual to reflect on our surroundings and physically understand and experience the topography of the city and the distance we were traveling. It was a public holiday, so the streets in Bertrams were busier than ever and the suburbs were even quieter than usual. Things may have been different on a working day – but probably not that much different. When we got thirsty in the suburbs there weren’t any shops along the way, highlighting the differences in local infrastructure and the way this reflects a very different lifestyle.

What was new was observing how people in different areas react to and interact with a cardboard car walking along the street. Everybody seemed to enjoy the sight, but in the suburbs people were more distanced, taking photos, honking the car horn or waving as they drove past. In other areas we had expected reaction and interaction, but had never imagined a group of children jumping in the car, to walk with us for over two hours. The project and our presence turned into something very different than we had originally intended. Having the company of six children also allowed us to share our observations and thoughts as we walked. We probably learnt more about one another than we did about the landscape. We couldn’t imagine a group of children in Germany walking so far from home without their parents. One of the children told us that they are used to walking long distances.

It would be nice to ask them the same question. What were their impressions of the suburbs and the way the city changed during our walk together? For those who had never been to the northern suburbs, the journey became an unusual form of sightseeing.

How did the idea of the puppeteering come about and is it site-specific to Johannesburg?

The image of a cat walking along the tops of residential walls came to us while considering pedestrian access in the suburbs and the boundaries between what would commonly be considered public and private space. We liked the image of a cat that walks wherever it likes, oblivious to boundaries between properties. In reality this cat would probably get quite a shock trying to navigate the electric fencing. Using puppetry to communicate and explore this idea seemed to be an appropriate artform, both for practical reasons and in the way it implicates the human operator as the protagonist. We liked the futility of the situation. The puppeteers don’t even know if there is an audience on the other side of the wall watching the cat. A second audience, in the street, observes this attempt to communicate over the wall.

Audience interaction is an integral part of all of your work. How accessible is your art to an audience outside of the arts and culture sphere?

I’m not sure if we can answer this ourselves! We rarely think about targeting a specific audience, or distinguishing between an arts audience and a non-arts audience. We aim to create work that is relevant and accessible to all those we encounter in the situations that we create. Given that most of our work takes place outside gallery spaces, often without a large amount of publicity, we meet whoever would have been there anyway. Depending on the location of our work, we usually end up having more people interacting with an event who would not be considered as coming from the ‘arts and cultural sphere’. To some spectators or participants, our art is not perceived as art – which is ok. We try to create work that functions as an invitation to take part in something, rather than a forced interaction.

What is the motivation behind your body of work, not only in Johannesburg but generally? What message do you wish to convey through your work?

We are interested in investigating, revealing and subverting the hierarchy of the moment or situation. We do not have a message that we want to communicate. We want to create work that encourages an analytical approach to experience; that we consider and reflect on our immediate environment, our cultural habits and every moment that we find ourselves in. Work should act as a catalyst for continued dialogue and debate around contemporary socio-political narratives. And we want to keep learning, to conduct public experiments in which the parameters are defined but the results or repercussions are not known at the point of departure, sharing this process with those who would like to join us.

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  1. Thanks for sharing the interview- really interesting project.

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Susanne Kudielka and Kaspar Wimberley work internationally as interventionists and performance researchers specialising in site-specific and site-responsive art, alternative strategies for audience interaction and new forms of artistic collaboration.

The artistic process usually begins with a given site, and a process of observation and dialogue that analyses, and eventually responds, to the architectural, socio-political, geographical, mythological, connotative and historical narratives that can be found there.

Projects are quietly subversive, playfully readjusting the narrative and appreciation of a particular activity or a given site. The working process often involves those that live in an area, and aims to be accessible and relevant.

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