DWA introduction: Terry Kurgan is a Johannesburg-based artist whose solo practice includes a number of public realm projects that provide a lens through which her audiences’ perceptions of the subject matter are challenged and invariably changed. Part of the currency with which she’s achieved this is her ability to turn her subjects from passive objects of the artist’s observation into active communicators of their humanity (or human-ness) in the face of potentially dehumanising social conditions.
Opinion piece author: Lorelle Bell
Country of implementation: South Africa
In her most recent public project, she takes this a step further; moving from interlocutor to creator of an intervention for a marginalised community. Hotel Yeoville (www.hotelyeoville.co.za), a web-based platform connecting migrants to friends and families, as well to economic opportunities and services, began as a straightforward photographic commission with a group of women in Yeoville in 2007.
Kurgan’s research in the Yeoville community revealed two very strong trends. The first was its pan-African makeup of educated, entrepreneurial and streetsmart inhabitants who had left their home countries because they’d had to, not because they’d wanted to. The second was the proliferation of internet cafes which served as both virtual links to homelands and places to seek opportunity, as well as community centres and business hubs. Each cafe or cluster of cafes had its own national identity.
Yeoville is an old suburb in Johannesburg’s inner-city. Most of its estimated 40 000 inhabitants are migrants, forming micro communities from every part of the African continent and the artist had been struck by the relative ordinariness of “a neighbourhood of South Africans and foreigners getting on, for better or worse, with their daily lives.”
Kurgan’s concerns with the intimacies of everyday life against the backdrop of the public political reality – a thread that runs through her public realm projects – were awakened by the sharp contrast between the popular perceptions of migrant life, mired in violence and crime, and the reality, in which people are concerned about the same things that affect everybody: a mother missing her child, a man longing for his lover, people searching for accommodation and jobs… With a base in the Forced Migration Studies programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, Kurgan raised funding to embark on a collaborative, participatory project with the Yeoville community.
The xenophobic attacks on foreigners in South Africa in 2008 coincided with this, and sharpened and framed the project’s content and objectives. Through Hotel Yeoville Kurgan sought to offer an alternative view of migration and its impact on the city to the prevailing one which was filtered through a discourse of “violence, displacement and abjectness, showing (migrants) as disconnected, not only from their history, but also from the experiences and histories of those who consumed their images.”
“What we wanted to do,” says Kurgan, “was create a social map of a largely invisible migrant community and start new, ordinary conversations that speak of individuals and the idiosyncrasies of place.”
The participatory, as opposed to documentary, nature of Kurgan’s public art projects combined with her determination to provide a resource to people “living below the radar” determined the format of the work: an interactive web-based tool through which people could connect and tell their stories, and also a medium through which they could access and share information about opportunities.
“The conceptual frame for the project was that it should not be separated from existing social infrastructure and everyday practices in the neighbourhood. It would be based on the notion, to quote a term coined by South African architect Hilton Judin, of ‘culture as infrastructure’. We had to find the right process, space and medium for an art project in which trust had to be built, and relations negotiated and acted out in a socio-economic, political and cultural milieu.”
For Kurgan the popularity and increasing familiarity of various social media determined the choice of platform. As she explains, “When I do public projects, I look for the medium that suits the project so that whatever we insert has a strong relationship with people’s lives. In choosing an online medium, we were really inserting a project into a space that was there to meet it. A space,” she says, “where even if most people don’t really understand the rules, they’re playing the game.”
The performative nature of most communication through popular social media platforms really paved the way for a project that required people to package and project themselves in a particular way. “People were already using Facebook, Youtube and Myspace and were used to performing versions of themselves which really suited our project and the way we wanted people to tell things about themselves.”
The result was an interactive exhibition installation set in a public library in Yeoville, made up of a website and a series of private booths where people documented themselves using a range of digital interfaces and online applications and could also make use of the online community directory and classifieds section. Every virtual space of the website was made physical, and both the exhibition and the webite content was produced by visitors to the space. At the exhibition entrance, a giant blackboard posed the question, “So where are you from?, introducing a playful and fun way into the project. The exhibition and website were launched in tandem so that the exhibition would both market and produce the first wave of content for the website.
From the outset the response was extraordinary and floods of people used it and were disappointed when the physical project, the exhibition in the library, ended after nine months. Reflecting on the impact of the project Kurgan asserts that, “It gave a voice to a community whose agency and social capital are often devalued and for whom participation in a production process is a means of self-validation. Our project is about producing ways to participate in the world in contrast to observing it, or being observed. This has been demonstrated most keenly by the products of our photo and video booths,which affirm the unique condition of the photographic image. This happens not in the sense given to it by Barthes and Sontag, of the photograph as the sign of something or someone that once was. Rather, in this context, the picture testifies that this particular person is here now, claiming space, asserting identity and even citizenship.”
While it was not part of Kurgan’s intention to turn it into a life’s work, she believes in its potential scaleability as an incredibly useful resource to migrants. The popularity of the business booth with its listings of skills, advertising, and business directory suggests a business model for the project, with revenue generated through advertising sales. Kurgan would like to take the parts of the project that really worked into phase two in time to come.
The views expressed in this article are entirely the views of the author or authors and are not necessarily those of DWA or its associates.