The notion of public space was in the spotlight at the V&A Silo District as engagement unfolded around a programme of talks, debate and performance, hosted at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA). The month-long event, titled #FREESPACE, offered South African and international audiences the opportunity to discuss and engage with the concept of space from a cultural, architectural, urban and personal perspective – space as a resource, and space as a binding medium between people. #FREESPACE is a project of INSTINCT in collaboration with Arup, undertaken for V&A Waterfront, in partnership with Zeitz MOCAA and the African Centre for Cities at UCT, with additional support of various donors.
#FREESPACE comprised a range of platforms of expression, an immersive symbolic container installation including artistic interventions, a programme of wide-ranging events and an online platform to share public views.
The initiative emerged against the backdrop of the Venice Biennale in Italy. Alternating every year between Art and Architecture, the exhibition and festival has established a global reputation. The theme of the 2018 edition, the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, was ‘FREESPACE’, chosen to describe “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda”. Due to South Africa’s absence from that Biennale, #FREESPACE is partly a South African response to this global event. It intended to create a platform to engage with this curatorial proposition and enable the expression of public and specialist views.
Caroline Sohie, co-curator of the event, says: “The physical translation of a temporary #FREESPACE territory in Cape Town created a powerful statement, a symbolic narrative of memory, inscribed in the city fabric. Ultimately, the project intended to lead to thought-provoking expression, uncovering disrupting narratives that would lead to a propositional debate about human space and imaginary futures.”
The container installation
The sculptural intervention outside the Zeitz MOCAA will have provoked the multi-layered question of transformation and resilience as a defining aspect of urbanisation in the contemporary African city. In South Africa, with a resolutely pragmatic and inventive approach, industrial containers or vessels of mass commoditisation have been repurposed to a wide range of uses, and adapted for places of human production, retail, pleasure, and habitation.
The container acted as a symbolic reference for the programme. Inside, the public has access to an immersive experience, reflecting in real time the sharing of #FREESPACE views on the online forum. The visitor is invited to contribute, there and then, to the public debate. In addition, curatorial content further fuelled public exchange as artists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines were invited for a 24-hour takeover of the container. Metaphorically, the container transformed into a temporary ‘white cub’ in which the artist could explore through their medium of expression an interpretation of the central topic.
As an ‘ark of knowledge ‘, the container was hung in a public space, as a symbolic vessel that conveys memory through the act of migration and change. An allegory to the notion of a transient and adaptive shelter, it represented a lens through which collectively South Africans can reflect and find resonance around the notion or ideal of ‘the diverse nation’.
INSTINCT engaged consulting engineers Arup to provide structural engineering design to get the container off the ground.
“It was important to the design that the container was seen to be hovering at eye level seemingly without support. To resolve this in an elegant manner they used thin tension cables suspended from a large steel frame. This gave the impression that the container is floating, while still ensuring it stayed stable under high winds,” explains Anthony Graham-Jolly, the lead structural engineer for the project.
Arup also created a design link back to the Venice Biennale, having collaborated on other FREESPACE installations in Italy including Alison Brooks Architect’s ReCasting and the reconstruction of Alison and Peter Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens.
Events and Dialogue
With Zeitz MOCAA and African Centre for Cities, a programme has been established to provoke and stimulate critical discussion. This dialogue took on various formats of engagement, ranging from talks to panel discussions, workshops and performance. The public events took place at the Zeitz MOCAA and V&A Silo District on weekends and during evenings during the week to maximise the opportunity for attendance.
Public space was explored through the lens of multiple disciplines, reaching beyond the realm of architecture and planning, to expose the intricate inter-relationships that give birth to or impact upon the notion of ‘space’. These provocations intended to reveal some of the drivers that inform the production of space. Topics ranged from the impact of food security to economic exchange, explorations of identity, diversity, and heritage in contemporary placemaking. The events included South African speakers and artists that have outspoken views on the notion of free space, punctuated by international contributions and global juxtapositions. In parallel an educational programme was held, enabling children of different age groups and backgrounds to experience, explore and express free space through tutored workshops.
The online platform
The online platform represented a call for participation to engage the public to ‘claim space’ by responding creatively to the central question: ‘What does FREESPACE mean for you?’ The public narrative that subsequently unfolded on Instagram and Twitter was shared on the #FREESPACE website. This public forum culminated in a physical, spatial representation, reflected in the immersive environment of the container installation, which generated an ongoing conceptual dialogue between the virtual public and the visitors on location.
#FREESPACE intends to unlock a constructive, multi-dimensional public discourse and platform about the current and future spatial reality of the city. Online and in-situ provocations aim to stimulate public engagement, to enable a broader local and international public to engage across race, age, economic status, professional and cultural affiliation.
Image: Tessa Brunette-Arup