The Art of Public Space: Curating and Re-imagining the Ephemeral City by Kim Gurney (Palgrave Macmillan)




“Someone once described writing about performance art as ‘trying to catch lightening in a bottle,’” says Kim Gurney, a research associate at the UCT African Centre for Cities and author of the recently published The Art of Public Space: Curating and Re-imagining the Ephemeral City (Palgrave Macmillan).

The author continues: “[Performance art] is here and then dramatically gone.” According to the Gurney, writing about ephemeral art is problematic, but if it is not done, the art can loose its “second life”, this is the life that exists beyond the transient moments within which it existed.

Gurney sees her book as linking bits of empirical observations to “stitch” together a “knowledge project”. The book uses three art projects, run in Joburg’s public realm by the Goethe Institute between 2011/2012, as a case study. The three projects were collectively dubbed New Imaginaries.

In the foreword to Gurney’s book, Goethe’s Lien Heidenreich-Seleme, writes that New Imaginaries was a response to an argument made by Wits Professor Achille Mbembe when he said Joburg was suffering from a “crisis of imagination”, and to free itself from this crisis, the city would need an act of imagination that perceives it as an event.

“New Imaginaries was an attempt to find space for acts of the imagination, and to build a bridge to another way of seeing and speaking through artistic intervention,” writes Heidenreich-Seleme.

Speaking at the launch of Gurney’s book, Mbembe said Joburg is an “amazing laboratory” for a series of studies of the urban. According to him, Gurney’s exploration of the public realm and its relation to art was important in a context where public space in Joburg is becoming increasingly commodified and privatised. Mbembe added that art was often equated with the art market, yet non-collectors constitute the majority of the art public.

Molemo Moiloa, the director of the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (Vansa), said the South African art sector needed to explore the extent to which economic forces have captured it. “To claim that public art is available to all is to deny the elitism of the practice and to deny the fact that artists are complicit in this vision of a world-class African city,” she said,  referring to a line that is all too often hauled out by city officials in describing ambitions for South Africa’s largest city.

It was clear from the book launch that the issue of public art has sparked a hot debate. It’s no wonder, then, that Gurney’s book has been welcomed as an opening salvo in this clash of ideas.


The three projects that formed New Imaginaries are Shoe Shop; A Maze. Interact; and Spines. Shoe Shop centered on movement and walking through space, A Maze. Interact explored the interaction of new media and gaming with the city, while Spines explored the city’s transportation routes.

According to Gurney, her book aims to explore the relationship between art, the city and the public realm at a very particular moment in time and place. After an opening chapter that details a litany of public art projects realised in South Africa (66 artists and 45 projects), Gurney jumps into the New Imaginaries projects, providing overviews then dedicated chapters on each of the projects.

She details the work of Doung Anwar Jahangeer of Dala Collective and Rangoato Hlasane of Keleketla! Library, who took participants on guided walks through parts of Joburg as part of Shoe Shop.

Jahangeer describes his walk as “architecture without walls”. On the project, Gurney writes: “He proposed a humanising politics of the in-between, drawing attention en route to physically overlooked architectural features and bypassed details to propose their potential to tell a story. Jahangeer spoke along the way about the urban environment in terms of interstices: road, pavement, boundary wall, alleyway.

“He demonstrated how in these tangible gaps, such as the road meeting the pavement, control becomes lost and ‘cracks in the asphalt’ appear where realisations start to happen. At in-between sites, such as a traffic island where people had reclaimed the grass as public space to sit and chat, they found their own way of humanising themselves on the street.”

Hlasane’s city walk was a musical mapping of Hillbrow through sites connected with the early days of kwaito. Gurney writes: “The walk reconceived of this kwaito musical legacy by spatially mapping its historical and political significance on the streets where it was born. He carried along a retro boombox and played select tracks connected to his narrative.

“He threaded a compelling narrative as we walked, cued by buildings and streets. It ranged from first recordings to key appearances, from the forging of friendships to the tiffs or ‘beefs’ between music industry players that still burn today. Interspersed were our guide’s personal anecdotes of living and loving in this suburb that root him to this particular urban geography.

“At one point, a muscular passer-by, incongruously dressed in pink slippers out shopping with a young girl, enthusiastically took up the boombox on his own shoulder to briefly accompany the group.”

Gurney also details how Lesley Perkes put up posters for Shoe Shop on walls, fences, community noticeboards and at taxi ranks. “A hawker in Hillbrow… rather fancied a poster from Jodi Bieber’s series of deportations for more practical use – as a tablecloth,” writes Gurney.


In the chapter on A Maze. Interactive, Gurney writes about a game that was developed as part of a 48-hour game jam. The game was called Reconstitution Hill and was developed by Mike Geyser, Alec Larsen, Keiran Reid and a learner named Dean.

“The aim in this game is to keep your humanity level as close to 100 as possible while trying to prevent the incorporation of cybernetics into the human race,” writes Gurney. “As your humanity level drops, you become more vulnerable to the underbelly of the city.

Geyser says: “Sometimes Johannesburg is a cool place to live, you take it easy and enjoy the city, you’re nice to people and they’re nice back to you – it’s like the city treats you well. As soon as you’re in a rush, skip a couple of robots, cutting people off, you really start fighting with the city, it’s like the city’s out to get you.” According to Geyser, it was this dualism of the city that they wanted to explore with the game.


In the chapter on Spines, Gurney details a project titled United African Utopias, curated by João Orecchia, Tanja Krone, Mpumi Mcata and Hans Narva. She writes: “It took participants on a half-day journey through the inner city and to Alexandra township adjacent to Johannesburg’s business district, Sandton. Participants experienced different modes of mobility: feet, an elevator, a bus, a taxi, a dance, a high-speed train, a bicycle and, finally, a blindfolded short walk. All the while, the narrative script was delivered via pirate frequency on funky radios hanging on individual lanyards.”

One participant told Gurney: “It made me feel like I’m not a real citizen of this city because I’m not out on the streets walking with others. I tend to sit in a car, drive to work, and I’m always in this bubble and interact with a very limited number of people. It made me quite sad because that is public space – the pavements, the streets where everyone is trading … and I feel like I miss out a lot of the time.”

Orecchia told Gurney one of the biggest problems about the general conversation regarding public space in Joburg is that it’s largely middle class people talking about it, bemoaning the city’s lack of it. “It’s very ivory tower, you know. It’s like: ‘From up here, I don’t see any public space down there.’ But on the ground, there is nothing but public space … Are you willing to walk through the streets of Joburg? Nobody is stopping you from doing anything there.”


But one participant raised an important point to Gurney when she said she felt like a pawn in the project. “I think awkwardness is a very powerful emotion but we actually have to know the difference between awkwardness that propels you to ask questions or connect and reflect upon our prejudices, and awkwardness that is simply awkwardness because it has at the core something there very oppressive and problematic.”

Gurney admits that this raises “a nest of ethical issues” when there is a climate increasingly in favour of “participatory art”.

“Stealth tactics are sometimes necessary to surprise people out of their comfort zones and declaration of intent is not always a viable or desirable artistic strategy,” writes Gurney. “That said, a participatory ethos may at times mask a more coercive agenda where the participant is in fact leveraged to make a creative or other point, and this raises attendant procedural and ethical issues.

“A work may claim to be participatory but instead employ the notion as a masking strategy to manufacture consent, instrumentalising an audience for artistic ends.”


While Gurney’s book is an important text in our country’s bid to grapple with ephemeral art, raising interesting discussions around definitions of value, public commons and the use of uncertainty and the unknown in art practice, it could have dug deeper when it comes to the politics of participation and discussions around ethics.

In conversation with The Con, Gurney argues the book is in itself an “ethical response” to art in public space.

But it seems at times that by not thoroughly engaging the ethical and participatory dimensions of the projects, Gurney doesn’t hold the artists accountable enough.

To this, Gurney responds: “All the curators in the trilogy the book takes as its case study were very cognisant of their responsibilities towards public space and took great care in preparing ethical ground before participating as artists in their respective projects or enacting any interventions that had a public dimension. South Africa has stark inequalities of different sorts and these are replicated in public space in very concrete ways.

“So there is a particular onus on any actors in public space to take such disparities into account and it’s incumbent upon artists to factor such realities into their public-facing work.  But that does not necessarily equate to being as transparent and participatory as possible. It really depends on the context and what the work is setting out to achieve, and there are a range of ethical approaches open to artists.

“I think the negotiation you raise actually happens at a lot of different levels in a complex project like this, starting with the host institution, the curators, the artists, the space, the audience, and so on. Every layer has its own politics.

“Given that many of the projects were performative, real life was a part of the curatorial mix. Vulnerable spaces for sure need to be negotiated, especially if the initiated dynamics are to be disruptive in a way that can be exploitative or risk harm. While bearing audience in mind, it is also important not to patronise a poor or working class neighbourhood or make assumptions.

“The Johannesburg inner city, where a lot of these projects take place, pushes back fairly well when contemporary artists take to its streets and do not lack their own agency, which forms part of the art of negotiating this kind of space.

“Treating members of the public as pawns, or privileged material in an artwork, can definitely be problematic and potentially alienating, but it is very difficult to generalise because context, purpose and consequence is part of the reading of the work. Artists also need some freedom to experiment and play with constructs in order to bring new perceptions to light and offer understandings that are purposefully overrun in society.

“It takes some difficult moments to do this because of the resistance to new ways of looking and the journey as an audience member is not always comfortable.”


Towards the end of the book, Gurney discusses Gerhard Marx and William Kentridge’s Fire Walker, the sculpture installed at the foot of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge in 2010.

“Standing 11m tall in steel and paint at the foot of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge that joins Braamfontein to the inner city, her interlocking planes have become a familiar landmark in this South African metropolis. They coalesce at a particular viewpoint into an integrated form of a woman informal trader carrying on her head a brazier used for cooking food for sale at the roadside,” she writes.

Gurney then quotes Marx when he said: “The fragmented views are as much a part of the work – if not more so – as the coherent views … The work is more concerned with the ephemeral and transient than it is with the monumental, singular image.”

But as Vansa’s Moiloa pointed out at the book launch, Fire Walker has had the unintended consequence of acting as a hiding spot for muggers, who prey on pedestrians passing through the area. This is a simple example how a piece of public art has had real negative consequences for members of the public moving through the space on a daily basis. It’s an aspect that couldn’t really have been forecast by the artists, who were not intimately familiar with the space within which their work exists.



Main Gif: The United African Utopias project on the streets of Johannesburg

This piece was produced as part of The Con’s partnership with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa for the 2014 Ways of Being Here project

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