- Cascoland: Interventions in Public Space, Drill Hall, Johannesburg, South Africa
This compilation of essays and photographs may document only a single series of “interventions in public space” in central Johannesburg in 2007, but it deals with issues around reclaiming public space and enacting new publics, which resonate far beyond this specific occasion. This occasion brought together Cascoland, a public art group based in Amsterdam that had worked in 2006 in New Crossroads, an informal settlement near Cape Town, and the Joubert Park Project (JPP), whose members combine the efforts of artists, entrepreneurs, and unemployed youth and their elders to revive this dense and dangerous district in the eastern inner city as public space through art, commerce, play, and reconstruction of the built environment. JPP’s efforts began in 2000 by bringing together informal photographers taking wedding and other pictures in the park with students of public art and the formal, even aloof Johannesburg Art Gallery, which had hitherto turned its back on the park. These efforts paralleled those of other organizations—including Witwatersrand University (Wits) and the Market Theatre on the western edge of the inner city—to harness funds provided by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA, a city agency) to revitalize the inner city not merely by beautification, but also by expanding skills training, employment opportunities, and community responsibility among inner-city residents and by encouraging more affluent citizens to return to the city to play as well as to work. These efforts have not produced miraculous results: inner Johannesburg remains a risky environment whose residents from across Africa must compete for scarce resources, but whose lack of a shared language has encouraged suspicion, crime, and lawlessness. Nonetheless, they have improved not only the appearance of the city, but also community responsibility and day-to-day civility on the streets. It is this challenging long-term endeavor that provides the context for understanding Cascoland and the project of combining work and play, making and performing, to renew civility in the city.
As this preamble suggests, performance here extends beyond the confines of formal theatre by trained actors for a schooled though passive audience. The Cascoland project culminated in a ten-day festival (9–18 March 2007), but the book documents in texts and images each stage of planning, multiple sites of art-making, education, social interaction, and assessments by local critics and consultants, thus providing an illuminating and reproducible account of the process as well as a document of this particular case. The festival included modern-dance pieces, including “Living on a Construction Site,” by trained choreographers (121), as well as urban vernacular dance by groups like the Swenkas—older men strutting in formal suits, whose name derives from a formerly popular men’s store called Kaye and Swank—and InnaCity, hip-hop by young men in the neighborhood. It also included less scripted though no less significant kinds of performance and other spatial practices, from social interaction to the reconstruction of spaces to facilitate such encounters, and thus highlights the contribution of spatial and social practices to theatre and performance.
This reconstruction began in 2004, when JPP moved into the anchoring site for these events, Drill Hall, which, as its name implies, had been a military installation. Renovated to house a gallery as well as offices for JPP and city services like Child Welfare, Drill Hall was still surrounded by an ugly concrete fence when plans for collaboration with Cascoland were initiated that year. A 2006 assessment by local architect/urban designers SharpCITY apprentices Dino Kiratzidis and Andreas Hofmeyr, and Cascoland guests Bert Kramer and Jair Straschnow led to the creation of a steel fence whose more open structure provided not only access and security, but also, in the form of horizontal bars, retractable tables and chairs that invited street entrepreneurs as well as visitors to work and play with the structure. This collaboration also produced a steel-and-vinyl structure called the “urban playmobile” (83) that provided not only a stage, but also a temporary landmark...