Going Live: Three Accounts
We decided to transform the virtual spaces of the Hotel Yeoville project’s website into a real-space and real-time exhibition experience. Digital Artist Tegan Bristow designed and built a beautiful series of playful, self-documenting applications, each to be housed in its own dedicated booth.
The question remained as to where the physical project might be housed. Our preferred option was to build into and operate out of a small shop front in the middle of the suburb’s main shopping area, effectively blending and merging with the many other small businesses in the area. After several weeks of tramping the pavements and talking to leaseholders and property owners, it became clear to us that this was going to be beyond the means of our project.
The Johannesburg Development Agency, an agency of the City of Johannesburg which stimulates and supports area-based economic development initiatives, had undertaken an ambitious urban regeneration programme with regard to several of the Yeoville neighbourhoods’ community and public facilities. And one day, the hoarding surrounding the new public library building under construction came down, and there it was. A refurbished electrical sub-station transformed into a pink and brick and glass double-storey building in the suburb’s bustling hub. One conversation led to the next and the library became the venue for the Hotel Yeoville installation. It seemed a perfect fit in terms of its function, and its location in the heart of so much ‘passing trade’.
Alex Opper and Amir Livneh of Notion Architects joined the team at this stage, and sensitively and inventively designed an exhibition environment that became an inclusive and intuitive user experience, enabling people to interact with each other in profoundly moving ways. At the beginning of 2010, Hotel Yeoville was installed in the brand new public library, visible to and from the street, inside its dedicated vitrine-like exhibition space. There it hung, elegantly suspended, brightly coloured during the day, and lit up at night with pink fluorescent neon advertising the website address. The exhibition’s surfaces and spaces not only functioned as invitations and prompts for the users of the exhibition, but in fact relied completely upon the traces and gestures – the engagement and participation of visitors – to produce both the website and the exhibition’s content. Participants could write about Johannesburg, home, childhood, love, hopes, dreams and fears; map their roots and journeys across Africa and beyond; generate a series of portrait photographs or make a short movie. We were trying to build knowledge, and so all the content created in the documentation and story-telling booths was uploaded to the website and mixed with the resource content: migrant and refugee survival guides, online discussion forums, classifieds, and an extremely popular business-listing directory.
Acts of Resistance
Enlisting human participation and working in the public sphere is neither straightforward nor predictable. An inevitable negotiation with reality characterises both public art processes and multi-agency projects.
On a purely practical level, we installed the exhibition into the library in early January, which is the height of the Johannesburg season of summer storms, and discovered, to our horror, that the brand new roof leaked in many places. Worst of all was the group of leaks directly above our installation. Aside from temporarily dressing the whole thing up in rain gear, we had to find our way through the extraordinary lethargy and recalcitrant chain of command of the City’s system of public works. In the end, inevitably, we had to make our own plan. There was also theft, and theft again, and many plucky local entrepreneurs scoping the joint, wanting to know what we were going to do with our technology and equipment when the project came to the end of its run.
While a measure of the impact of the project is contained within its hundreds of analogue and digital products, and in its enthusiastic take up by so many people in the neighbourhood, it was also reflected in the number of people who came up the stairs to ask questions and to argue with us about things like our politics, our formal means and ideas.
Several university academics and Yeoville community activists wanted me to make the project more strictly about activism and human rights. And, when this pressure was coupled with the terrible human rights abuses that some of our visitors reported upon, it was sometimes difficult to keep firm and steady on my original path, which was more open-ended, conceptually risky and so much about the potential of intimacy and private lives being accorded the most public of stages. I was trying to think the aesthetic and the social/political together and steer clear of the vocabularies of human rights discourse with its more certain hold on social roles and categories.
While we relied on participatory practice to lead the product, we had very carefully and methodically created a frame, an authored situation that fused with social reality, and this too heightened the tension between aesthetic and social narratives that is inherent to working in this way. In an attempt to create a poetic distance from politics, and also to free the work from a referential dependence upon the harshness of xenophobic violence, we very consciously made Hotel Yeoville a utopian or idealised space. The frame we produced was warm, pink and happy. How to pose, or when to click the shutter was the subject’s choice. But, as the makers of the project we undoubtedly stood in for Photographer. If we accept the claim that all photographs bear the trace of the encounter between the photographer and the photographed, then some of the trace that these images carry is that utopian desire – a world in which power (us) and citizens (our participants) existed on a plane of co-dependence and equal exchange.
For just a few weeks short of a year, the project ran five days a week and generated public engagement and unusual, extraordinary social experiences at the same time as it produced a distinct and tangible body of work.
“Yo! Peeps!!! My guest today is … Weeell … it’s me!”
My earliest encounter with the Internet was in my third year at university. When I tell the university class I teach now, they laugh at the thought of using the Internet for the first time at the age of twenty-one. It’s a really good opening line and brings home to students the fact that the Internet has a short history that has fundamentally transformed culture in less than twenty years.
It is no surprise that Johannesburg inner city Internet cafés appear as if by magic in the middle of this history. You will find them in supported ‘business districts’, in the CBD or Braamfontein, in Rockey, Raleigh and Bezuidenhout Streets in Yeoville, and all over Hillbrow. Run by the smartest and brightest African immigrants and refugees, they are more than just places to send emails from rehabilitated computers. These are culture clubs – Cameroonian, Ghanaian, Congolese, you name it – immigrant and refugee groups connecting with each other and, more importantly, their families and partners all over the world. Sure, I’ve seen a few shenanigans here and there, but I’ve also seen everything from job seeking to online education, to young brides looking for florists and catering. The inner city Internet café trend may have started with the influx of immigrants accustomed to a more technologically engaged community, but it did not stop there. Now you will find plenty of South Africans in the mix, learning to use computers and surf the web in these cafés. And of course, from that point onwards, there is no looking back.
The Hotel Yeoville installation was much more than simply a reflection of the Hotel Yeoville website. It was Internet use expanded into its physical moments – a direct acknowledgement of the culture of the Internet cafés, their forms of collective communication, shared technology, shared knowledge, self-expression and very serious business. Internet culture African style, in tangible form.
There are no outsiders in the public realms of the Internet and there are no outsiders in Yeoville. Everyone is foreign there. Even the middle class white lady who lived in Yeoville for many years as a student is now foreign. So we started the journey with “Where do you come from?” not “What is your name, ID number, password, code name?” That would have emptied the streets in less time than it takes to make Dodo1 in the Yeoville market. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to try to be like one of the telcos in the late nineties and pretend that the Internet is the great unifier, the end to all suffering. No, we got over that a while back. Security and identification rules are worse online than they are on the streets of Yeoville, and that is saying a lot! Our first concern was that absolutely anyone should be able to come in to Hotel Yeoville, tell a story, have a little fun and leave without having to mention his or her real name. We realised from the start the limitations and strengths of Internet culture and we wanted our users to continue being the anonymous insiders they already were (use your pseudo name and fake email if you need to, it’s part of our design). We wanted people to tell stories, to document and write themselves into their presence in Yeoville through fantasy, reality or an appropriated form. The Hotel Yeoville project wanted to see all the entanglement that comes with being a foreign insider. What are you willing to share? What matters to you? Where is home?
With this in mind, we developed four ways to tell a story, aligned with well known platforms of Internet documentation: geo-location, photo profiles, YouTube videos and pure theme-based short story writing. Each interactive application was developed for Hotel Yeoville with a direct line back to the website and, like all things Hotel Yeoville, each was developed in collaboration and with the help of friends.
The Journeys Booth
Everyone in Yeoville comes from somewhere else, and Yeoville is not usually their first stop. We thought that the easiest and most familiar way to get people to tell the stories of their journeys to Yeoville would be through an actual map. Not only would this give us information about the routes taken, but it would give people the opportunity to mark and leave comments about their ‘original’ homes and the places through which they had passed.
Google Maps – now as integral a part of the Internet as email – is something we have all used as a tool for getting around as well as for doing research and discovering things. Because of its ease of use and global accessibility there are now a myriad ‘Google Map mashups’: through Google it is possible to make a unique application suited to your own criteria and needs with Google Maps running as the underlying canvas for this application. With the limited budget and time we had for Hotel Yeoville, it made sense to make our own Google Maps API, a proper Web 2.0 exploitation of what is already available and accessible. A unique Google Maps application could easily give me all this functionality, and spare me months of developing a brand new solution to interactive mapping.
I wanted an application that would run on the website and be interactive, giving visitors the ability to add information easily. In addition to basic Journey information, I wanted users to add photographs of locations and people, if they had any, making a richer visual experience of the map. One of the few things an immigrant or refugee will carry with them is a photo of family and friends left at home.
So I designed and developed the Journeys Application with programmer Andrew Graaf from Kagiso Urban Management. It was very important that we prompted people to add Journey information, and not just random comments to the map. So while we kept the interface as simple as possible, we included the follow framing text:
The Journeys Map was designed with the knowledge that nobody comes from Yeoville and everyone has a ‘real home’ somewhere else to begin with. The map allows you to tag your home and upload a short story or photos that you would like to share about that place. It can become a beautiful documentation of the diversity of origins in Yeoville.
The Love Booth
The Love Booth was made with Photoboof software donated by the very generous Alec Bennett, a Los Angeles developer I met online. The idea for the booth was inspired by Terry Kurgan’s interest in domestic photography and snapshots, and by my Zimbabwean friend named Avoid, who was always asking me to take pictures of him and his wife to send back to his children and parents back home.
The Video Booth
This was built in Max/MSP and Jitter, and kept us very busy and entertained. My favourite participant was a high school boy who came in twice a week. I think he was starting his own TV show. His line was: “Yo! Peeps!!! My guest today is … Weeell … it’s me!”
The Stories Booth
We built this in Flash with themes designed by Clint Corden. It is a simple and good-looking story-writing application. Love story? Dreams and fears? Childhood memories? Johannesburg? My journey? These questions were inspiration for any Yeoville resident.
All the content created in the booths went back to the website and entangled and intermingled with resources, forums, classifieds and business posts. Just like the installation and the Internet, the virtual Hotel Yeoville is filled with serious business, giggling teenagers and cooking tips with open connections.
Ways of Belonging
As architects collaborating on Hotel Yeoville, it was our brief to translate the virtual project site, www.hotelyeoville.co.za, into a physical exhibition – a real-space, real-time participative user experience. Not only was the exhibition to be a translation of the virtual project, but it was to produce actual and ongoing content for the website. It was important that the physical and virtual project sites informed each other, in terms of the self-production, -representation and -dissemination of their respective content. Our neighbourhood-specific approach – to suggest a design strategy which encouraged a self-producing exhibition – continued the malleable, context-responsive and non-deterministic research process at the core of Hotel Yeoville.
Cross-culture as context1 best describes our approach, as immersive designers, to reading and interpreting aspects of the immediate neighbourhood as well as the complexities of the larger socio-economic, cultural and political locale we were working within. The multifaceted and layered context meant that the project needed to be sensitively housed within the new Yeoville Public Library, which was to be the exhibition’s home. The space was designed to be accessed and interacted with in a variety of ways. Conceptually the arrangement of the exhibition in a part of the library relied completely on the engagement and participation of the multifarious users of the space – the users, in fact, produced the exhibition.
Similar to the way the initial website was informed by the importance of a ubiquitous presence of Internet cafés – as communal hubs in the everyday context of Yeoville – the library’s immediate physical and social context, of Raleigh/ Rockey Street, served as a clue for the make-up of the exhibition. As architects we walked and drew the urban spine of this street – a social melting pot – along its entire length, in order to gather clues that would inform the situating of the exhibition within the suburb and, by implication and extension, within an African Diaspora so visibly expressed in that suburb. A series of five-minute drawings became conversational tools of immersion in a multi-layered context. The street, as an accessible, connecting and facilitating public space, felt to us like the most useful metaphor for the exhibition – to be housed in the vitrine-like space of the library’s first floor – visible from the real street below.
Our approach to movement through the space and the way participants in the exhibition were greeted by particular ‘addresses’, in the forms of themed surfaces and activity booths, was a strong conceptual guiding principle. Participants’ movements in, around and through the various focal and in-between spaces introduced a strong notion of ‘cityness’2 into the space of the exhibition, presenting a micro ‘city’ that encouraged and, in fact, lived off participation by all its users. In essence, the citizens of this new ‘city’ wrote its existence into being, through the traces left behind on its analogue and digital surfaces. Bold colours and a language of informal sign-writing were employed as design layers to embody the street-like quality of the project’s manifestation.
The importance of movement as a conceptual driver was further embodied by the way the exhibition borrowed from cartography: once in the ‘hotel’, visitors were able to follow a non-linear map of possibilities and were simultaneously invited to chart their own inner maps on the various exhibition platforms. Participation by users facilitated the emergence of new ‘landscapes’: personal environments that visitors were able to construct as exercises in re-membering the various socio-cultural, political, personal and physical landscapes that many have been forced to leave behind. As architects who employ a practice-led, intuitive approach to design, we attempted to situate ourselves within an imagined field. This Diasporic condition is a precarious space, a tenuous existence defined by the many trajectories of flight that cause the target audience to be where they are: that is here, in Yeoville, and not where they might rather want to be, that is at home, elsewhere. We were very conscious of not designing a space to represent something. We attempted to provide a series of programmable vessels and in-between spaces that, through use, could themselves become spaces of representation, which might facilitate the emergence of new forms of sociability and empathy, focusing on the embracing of difference, rather than the simple highlighting of it.
At the exhibition’s entrance an inviting chalk-board wall welcomed visitors, prompting them to inscribe their origins on its surface. The Journeys Booth came next, employing Google Earth, encouraging participants to chart the journeys between their original and new homes. This was followed by the Love Booth, which proved to be a very popular address. Here, visitors were able to document themselves photographically, keeping one photo-strip and leaving one behind, again, as a vital trace contributing to the evolving exhibition. Next in line, the Video Booth catered for the recording of self-documenting videos; the Business Booth provided a space for entrepreneurs. Finally, a Story Booth where everything imaginable could be typed, shared and uploaded ended this sequence of possibilities for self-expression. Although the order as described here is linear (according to the way one would have entered the exhibition space, via the library’s main entrance), the design allowed for the intuitive use of one or all of the possibilities and the ‘accidental’ possibilities of encounter and connection that existed in the less-defined in-between spaces of the exhibition.
The exhibition experience extended, in a very physical way, on the 3:4 screen-ratio of the website’s virtual interface: the performed traces of users, which marked the physical space, literally fed back into and complimented the growing and, importantly, living archive of the project’s ongoing Internet presence. In this sense the exhibition’s productive potential was almost endlessly multiplied and disseminated. The Internet expression of the exhibition formed the critical link between the disjointed landscapes of the there and the here. Collectively, the material, gathered and presented back to the participants/producers who co-created the exhibition, as well as to new online audiences, acted as a critique of the often one-dimensional, highly edited and over-simplified natures of many media representations of forced migration in the African context. Participants in the exhibition were able to perform and portray their own personal ‘psycho-geographies’ – to borrow from Situationist Guy Debord’s terminology – within the open and relational framework of the exhibition’s structure. The pure white cube was extended, challenged and developed in this context: here it did not act as the neutral container of objects to be consumed by a passive audience, but became the canvas itself – the carrier onto and through which the lived experiences of participants were performed, recorded and celebrated.
The everyday experience of the street, as a connecting and truly public space, is nowhere in Johannesburg more palpable than in Yeoville. This place counters the anti-street nature of much of Johannesburg’s more homogenous suburban fabric. In the case of Hotel Yeoville, the exhibition became the street and was visible from the lively urban fabric of Rockey/Raleigh Street itself. The exhibition drew on the continent at large as a visualised landscape – expressed in the form of memories, desires and dreams. These loaded personal expressions inscriptively manifested themselves in the exhibition space. The subjects of the exhibition became its authors – narrating, performing and writing their journeys between homes, elsewhere, and a Hotel Yeoville, here. As spatial practitioners we tried to provide productive spaces for the voicing of the tensions that exist between longing and a difficult desire to be-long. The co-opting of the participant meant that he or she was able to fashion a series of tangible, self-documentary landscapes that hopefully helped make the migration from respective landscapes of origin more bearable. This participatory approach supported one of the project’s goals, which was to act as a catalyst for dialogue and healing. Through the exhibition’s open and interpretive framework we sought to make available opportunities for the de-territorialised to symbolically re-territorialise themselves; to provide a liminal space of social power that enabled the transformation of the status of the outsider to that of the insider. These claims or aspirations are of course very difficult to measure. However, Hotel Yeoville retroactively illustrates the value of critical multi-disciplinary spatio-political engagements with South Africa’s schizophrenically fraught attitude to difference. This project posits a productive view of difference. It begs for a careful re-evaluation of the locally, often narrowly defined and understood slogan of ‘Rainbow Nation’,3 in order to argue for a broader and more encompassing meaning, closer to the slogan’s original intention.
Alexander Opper – Notion Architects
1 This position borrows from anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion that culture = context.
2 ‘Cityness’ is used by Saskia Sassen as a counter to and development of the term ‘urbanity’, which, in her view, represents a Western-centric idea of urbanism and what cities ‘should be’. Lindsay Bremner, via a slightly altered spelling – ‘Citiness’ – uses her term in a manner which is equally useful in the context of the Hotel Yeoville project: in her recent book, Writing the City into Being (2010, Johannesburg: Fourthwall Books), which focuses on Johannesburg, she uses this term to describe the city-specific relationship between its ‘physical, spatial and social’ aspects and its ‘daily life’.
3 The term was famously coined by South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu in order to describe aspirations for a non-discriminatory and inclusive post-apartheid South Africa.