Sophie Jerram on pedalling like a hamster and an emerging citizen movement.
The other day I got one of those Facebook messages reminding me what I was doing six years ago. It was a post from the final day - a chocolate fondue event in a vacant space - of Kim Paton’s Free Store. It was a project that gave Letting Space significant traction and, which through boldness, clarity of vision and popularity created a ripple effect on social art practice in New Zealand and in the community of Wellington. The now permanent Free Store next to St Peter’s in Willis Street is a descendant of this project, receiving commercial contacts and store fittings, and has an ethos of ‘no shame’.
For the last six and a half years Letting Space has been addressing both social and physical emptiness: spaces made empty through a lack of ‘apparent’ economic activity. In 2009 Wellington felt more like a stalled fun park. We became experienced at persuading property owners (sometimes through personal connections, sometimes purer gall) to allow us to open the doors, keeping their fallow ground in the public realm through socially productive activity.
We then created Urban Dream Brokerage to formally legitimate community and artistic uses for the wider conservative property sector. We were hedging the gap between the ‘market’ recommended rental price (prompted mostly by banks) and the creators of ideas who could readily fill the city The argument is that an occupied space is more valuable than an empty one. The cities of Wellington, then Dunedin and Porirua saw this work as something worth supporting on an ongoing basis after several years of trialing a funding model.
“If you want someone to join you,” I was once told by a business ethics teacher, “don’t just shout ‘jump’ from the other side of the chasm - build a bridge and go over and get them.”
Assuring legitimacy and care, and bridging the chasm between property owners and comprehension about what art can actually effect is core to the Brokerage service. We wanted to work in retail spaces to share the city with more people. We also had a drive to elevate social artistic practice into daily city life. “Imagine a city where artists were as visible as retailers,” we quipped.
Enraged by central Government’s reversal of previous progressive environmental policies I sincerely believed then we were on the cusp of severe economic and environmental shocks. And that art played a role in raising awareness and perspective, offering a community of understanding.
Though the world stepped closer to an abyss (we have just passed 400 ppm Co2, when in 2009 we were at 389) this country has not made many moves toward weaning from our systemic addiction to fossil fuels, for example. The reassurance of ‘business as usual’ has maintained the habits of the growth-focused enterprises that New Zealand has established during the last 200 years. The fun park wheel must be kept turning.
The retail worm has turned since the 2008 financial slump: Wellington shops are fuller again. I was wrong in thinking crisis would be writ large. Did Letting Space through its Urban Dream Brokerage service just ‘fill the gap’ and lubricate the pathway for retailers to rapidly move in, we wonder? The art and gentrification process was well documented by Robbie Whyte in his May blog ('Does Gentrification Make Boring Art?') here.
Even if the city keeps the fun park going we are in a different mode. A citizen movement has emerged in Wellington and across the world. Relationships have formed, both in frustration and in joy, that are tangible and non-tradeable. For the last six years we have helped keep Wellington accessible as a place for personal and political expression. Sometimes the gestures might seem small but keeping the city approachable as a place to try things out in has been a significant offer for over 150 communities and artist groups who have applied to the UDB service. Smoothing the way, we have given people the chance to become more adept at working with the public and with business, government and community. To partner up, and trial their work in public. We know we’ve added a greater range of voices to the city than was part of the polis before. Wellington would have been a poorer place had we not had projects that we shepherded into spaces such as The Market Testament, Imaginarium, The Beneficiary’s office, Moodbank, People’s Cinema, The Waiting Room, the Hawaiian Cultural Centre and of course, 17 Tory Street.
17 Tory Street deserves several columns in its own right - if you haven’t been and live in Wellington, keep an eye out for events. It has continued to thrive as an Open Source Community Gallery for over four years thanks to the vision and generosity of the property owner Michael Baker. It has also survived out of the sheer bloody-mindedness of a few, and the offerings of many volunteers: a home to great exhibitions, book launches, talks on capitalism, feminism, mindfulness and Palestine, as well as meetings for local businesses and as a food co-op drop off point. It can always do with more liaisons if you’re able to be flexible in your hours and want to help out - see www.concernedcitizens.co.nz.
Later in the year I’m heading away to research from Copenhagen. Whilst there isn’t an exact equivalent to Letting Space in Denmark, there are many programmes that are sponsored by councils to ensure that community voices are heard in the future development of their cities.
One destination is the former port town of Køge, which has an active multi-year programme called “Life Before the City.” Here turning a former port into a housing development is more than offering land to a corporation. Urban designers have been brought in to make community gardens, a dirt bike track, and unusual playground spaces, including a huge swing at the beach. Visitors are encouraged to play in this site in order that they might be able to imagine living there. Denmark is rich in the realisation that communities need to be allowed space and time to feel at home. Local councils are willing partners who enable communities to experiment and share their voices.
The lack of an adversarial relationship between citizens and their local governments struck me as uniquely Scandinavian when I visited recently. It is illuminating to witness the sophisticated belief that ‘the people’ might actually know what is best for them - once they have been shown respect and provided with sufficient information. It makes me aware how much of my and my friends and colleagues’ lives has been spent wrestling with authorities for a voice in New Zealand.
To many who encounter these urban interventions in Denmark, the experience of play and interaction may be very similar to that of experiencing social art practices, like those we have hosted through the Brokerage. In both cases there is surprise and curiosity about who has placed the piece in situ, or why.
I want to keep aware of the distinctions between art and design. Urban design is mostly about problem solving. It softens the ground for new living and for controlling behaviour. Artistic processes on the other hand, tend to be characterised by a unique individual or group vision that may or may not solve anything. And from witnessing 25 years of art events I know that the commissioning of art can be just as willingly co-opted into social and political scoring matches - albeit in a rather less overt way.
For the next year I want to research more explicit forms of community engagement than we experience regularly in New Zealand and learn about what it means to have a society driven by the needs of its citizens.
Participatory design and community engagement led by Councils is not new in Denmark. It is these practices I’m yearning to learn about. From what I have heard the assumption of an intelligent citizenry sets the scene for a level of conversation that we might dream about with our political leaders in New Zealand.
In the meantime, the Urban Dream Brokerage is still open for service in Wellington, Dunedin and another town or two (soon to be announced!). We keep on feeding the Brokerage flame because we believe it is a strong platform for independent citizen-led city making. As people with a love of artistic and community practice we’ve created a unique model, using our own connections into the city. I hope to share our citizen-led fervour with the Danes as I learn about the Danish way.