The Joburg Joburg Story: Finding the center

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Trek to Downtown Joburg

During the beginning months of 2014, due to a culmination of (supernatural) circumstances for which I am very grateful, it so happened that on the 1st of March I moved into the apartment of my dreams: in the fabled CBD of Johannesburg, close to the Workhorse Bronze Foundry (where I intended to keep on being involved); close enough for me to commute to work (Eskom’s Megawatt Park), and – best of all – on the rooftop of the most beautiful old bank-mogul’s building. It needed some work, but it was perfect as a living/working studio space, which is what I needed if I were to stay sane. (I work as an Engineer for Eskom, but I must also admit that I do find it interesting – I work on solar energy in the Renewables Department).

Allen Laing, an artist I came to know through Louis Olivier, shortly thereafter asked to share the flat, as it was only 8 minutes’ walk from Workhorse where he was starting a job, and because – like me – he found the inner city to be an inspiring place to live and work.

Allen Laing

Figure 1: Allen Laing, the crazy ginger artist that stays with me. We shout at each other a lot, it’s awesome. This photo was taken on the roof of our flat (we call it the “roof roof”) by his artist girlfriend Heidi Fourie.

The Workhorse Bronze Foundry1

Figure 2: Work Bronze Horse Foundry, visible is an old book-press and art by Louis Olivier. The foundry was largely made possible by the support of William Kentridge.

The first time I found myself in the city centre of Johannesburg (working for the foundry in 2013) I felt a distinct duality of emotions: fear and shock mixed with excitement and awe. (I find that visiting friends and family tend to exhibit similar symptoms.) So perhaps I could be forgiven for initially opting for a 6 month lease rather than a year long one. Fast forward to the middle of 2013, however, and I am loving my life, loving the strange beauty of Johannesburg more every day and very keen to extend my residence for as long as possible.

So it was with some dismay I then found out that that unveiling plans for the rooftop did not involve residents staying there. Urban Ocean (owners and developers of our and several other inner city buildings) mentioned plans of a golf simulator and a clubhouse on the roof. Thankfully, Herman Schoeman (Urban Ocean CEO) graciously extended an invitation for us to talk.

The Bronze Dome

Figure 3: The bronze dome. The dome is on the same level as our studio

The concoction of sentiments we were feeling in the time leading up to this meeting would later become an all-too familiar experience that seems to be an inherent part of “doing stuff”: Shock of the unexpected, Anger at whomever one might seem to blame, Despair at the prospect of visions falling apart, Acceptance that one’s vision can never be exactly as one plans it, and finally an Adaptation to circumstances that ultimately lead to something better than envisioned.

Only a few days after receiving notice from Urban Ocean, we were visited by a couple friends that included Diane Victor and Gordon Froud. To our pleasant surprise, Diane was enamoured with the bronze Dome (figure 3) and declared that she would love to exhibit therein. Later the evening, over a bowl of Allen’s famously non-soupy butternut soup, Gordon offered to bring his rooftop sculpture exhibition (which he curates regularly) to our roof, if it could somehow help with our cause of staying on in our flat.

The Big Idea

With backs against the wall, we decided to just go all out in the pending meeting. We came up with a vision of developing the rooftop spaces into a communal “creative engine” that produces value for the building and its residents, while being low-cost and sustainable. We outlined a couple of components that this vision could include:

  • Resident Studios: Artists (or other Creative Individuals) that rent accommodation and/or studio space on the roof and commit to delivering customized art and/or services to Urban Ocean as per an agreement. In return these individuals get to live and work in a creatively stimulating environment at a very reasonable price, although the refurbishment and improvement of their living spaces (and possibly the communal rooftop spaces) will largely be their own responsibility. These “In House Creativesnaturally included me and Allen.
  • Fine Art Gallery: We proposed the possibility of transforming the bronze dome, with some other spaces, into an art gallery. We suggested that Urban Ocean would own the gallery and earn commission, but the rooftop community of creatives would act as the source of both actual work as well as connections in the art world.
  • Artist Residencies and Studios: A natural addition to such a vision would be the facilitation of artistic residencies. For example, a relevant organization or institution could rent accommodation and/or studio space from us and invite outside or international artist to live and work (for x amount of time) in the Joburg CBD and connect to the local artistic community. As part of the agreement they would produce exhibitions for Urban Ocean’s Gallery and/or other services.
  • Other: Additionally there would be a lot of potential to develop a coffee shop restaurant and/or residence canteen.

In effect this would be a self-sustaining and mutually beneficial creative rooftop community that holds the power to activate the building and add value. (The building, called The Cornerhouse, is still in a developmental phase.) The principles of partnership and mutual understanding between all the parties involved, would come to be called the “Kingdom Hideout Partnership”.

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Figure 4: Allen Laing (left) and Diane Victor (right) discusses her installation in the bronze Dome during the Joburg Joburg Exhibition.

Acknowledging that a total commitment by Urban Ocean would imply certain risks, we proposed a test phase: “Allow us the opportunity to prove our value – and that of the art world – by extending our lease long enough to host an art exhibition.” It required Urban Ocean to buy into the idea in the form of certain renovations to the rooftop spaces (etc.), but they would be given a fare percentage of commission of all sales. In addition, myself and Allen committed to delivering our first artistic commissions to the building as “in-house creatives” (Urban Ocean only pays for the cost of materials).

Kingdom Hideout Partnership

To our delight, Herman welcomed our ideas with open arms! He was generous in extending our lease and even showed interest in involving our inputs for ideas for some of their other buildings.

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Figure 5: Our new collaborative partners

Urban Ocean embraced the proposed name “Kingdom Hideout Partnership”, as it signified the intention to create a renewed “Kingdom” in the city center by creating a “Hideout” for creative and visionary people. It conveys a sense of an ordained plan of action and of the unexpected safety that is provided by Cornerhouse.

 

Joburg Joburg Exhibition: Responding to the Centre

In August 2013 we started organizing what would come to be called the Joburg Joburg Exhibition (link). The name was inspired by our apparent discovery that The Cornerhouse’s address was “77 Commissioner, Johannesburg, Johannesburg, 2001”. We liked the way it mimicked vernacular terms like “Bafana Bafana” and “Now now”, but other valid associations to the name include the similarity to “New York, New York” as well as a playful stabbing at the Joburg Art Fair for being hosted in Sandton (https://www.facebook.com/events/1448232308738963/).

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Figure 6: Joburg Joburg Exhibition on the roof

Beginning with the fantastic offers of involvement by Gordon Froud and Diane Victor, we kept adding willing and wonderful people that were excited to be a part of it. We gained the passionate help of Stuart Trent from Trent Gallery to be part of the curatorial and organisational team, which now consisted of him, myself, Allen and Gordon Froud.

Eventually the exhibition consisted of five smaller exhibitions:

  • A solo exhibition by Diane Victor
  • A solo exhibition by Louis Olivier
  • A sculpture exhibition (more than 20 artists) curated by Gordon Froud
  • A group show curated by myself and Allen called “Responding to the Centre” (see attached document, Joburg Joburg Exhibition Concept and Images)
  • An exhibition of “live sketches” made in the area by the Joburg Sketchers (link).

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Figure 7: Andrew Miller gives an opening speech

 

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Figure 8: The catering was delicious

Besides art we had two very interesting (and quite unconventional) opening speakers in Andrew Miller and Adam Golding, a tight live jazz band and excellent catering provided at cost by our two bright young chefs Joe Martin and Ruben Pretorius. In aid of promoting the event, 3 videos were made for free by the talented Pieter du Plessis (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYAZ_ZPDT3E; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6Xjf_wakF0).

The list of people who selflessly contributed to the exhibition’s success is long, but it is worth mentioning the financial and logistical assistance of Sune Basson, the administrative help of Kory Li Shukrani (who also warmly fulfilled the role of hostess) the sharp sound engineering of Fritz Gunter and the jump-in-and-help-out attitude of people like Jhono Bennett (more on him later).

johan and allen

Figure 9: I (right) and Allen on the night of the exhibition.

Joburg Joburg Exhibition: Responding to the Challenges

Pulling off this exhibition proved to be a great learning experience, in addition to being very exhausting and at times stressful. I think one of the greatest lessons we learnt is to be flexible with vision. On the one hand this means clarifying a vision and knowing what you want, while on the other hand it’s important not to be too precious about it so as to adapt to unexpected challenges. Quite often these adaptations translate into something better than envisioned.

Email invite graphic

Figure 10: Graphic used for email invites

Sometimes plans work, while sometimes they don’t, but you always learn in the process. For example, we organized and marketed the opening to have two distinct arrival times. The reasoning behind this was to maximise the efficiency of space by distributing the visiting public across a greater span of hours. As we expected, the more mature and serious appreciators of art came through during the day, while a younger and more exuberant crowd followed in the afternoon. The plan therefore worked well, except it was not as easy to translate that earlier crowd into art sales as we assumed it would be. The interest in buying was there, but had we known then what we know now about (for example) the dynamic of a large crowd in our space, the interest would have transformed into action far more efficiently.

Probably the worst hiccup to the event was the fact that it rained on the opening day. But this, along with other problems (like some isolated issues relating to parking), were not enough to prevent the exhibition from being a greater success than we imagined. Around 450 people showed up and enjoyed the 100 plus works from altogether 40 artists. We were able to sell R100 000 worth of art (a large portion of this is attributed to the sale of Diane Victor’s work) and we received positive responses both from the attendees and newspapers.

 

 

New Faces and Newer Plans

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Figure 11: Cool Akio from KoolOut Entertainment

In the time between our initial proposal to Urban Ocean and the exhibition opening, the situation on the roof had changed somewhat. Urban Ocean had signed a lease for some of the apartments on the roof to become the new offices of KoolOut Entertainment, a nightlife brand and events company focused on hip-hop, funk, soul and jazz. This meant that certain spaces could no longer develop in the way we envisioned, and the rooftop’s purpose would need expansion to serve a wider scope of interests. This would prove to be another of many instances where adaptation to new circumstances produces new opportunities.

Another change to our initial plans came after some interrogation with the help of our friends Antheay Pokroy and Louise Van Der Bijl from Assemblage artist run centre. We concluded the Gallery would not be able to function in a conventional commercial sense, because of its unfavourable location for that kind of foot traffic. Ideas with the most potential were identified to be the Artistic Residency coupled with an Exhibition Space that operates on an event-per-event basis.

Jhono and Linzi

Jhono Bennett is an architect we met shortly before the exhibition, while living nearby (in 87 Commissioner – link). Jhono runs an organization called 1 to 1 – Agency of Engagement (http://1to1.org.za/), a non-profit entity that develops spatial design strategies with those living in poor or unsafe areas of South Africa.

When the time came for Jhono to vacate his flat I took a chance and recommended to him a space on the rooftop of The National Bank Building – which actually connects to our rooftop (The National Bank Building was built almost as an extension of Corner house). The spaces I offered him to look at were essentially storage rooms, designed to bypass apartheid laws and accommodate black workers on the building (lower income staff of Urban Ocean’s actually occupy some of these rooms today) and do not have their own water or ablution facilities – everything is communal. Their windows, in mimicking storage space, are too small to show a potentially beautiful north facing view.

To our pleasant surprise, Jhono leapt at the idea! He saw it as an opportunity to not only stay in a stimulating environment very affordably, but also to engage with the interesting urban dynamic of learning to live (and improve) these rooms that has such a loaded history. Similar to me and Allen, Jhono made a deal with Urban Ocean to stay cheaply, while agreeing to a certain amount of architectural work for them.

Jhono Bennett

Figure 12: Jhono Bennett, clearly over-joyed at the combined awesomeness of his new flat and his orange.

By Jhono’s initiative the one remaining empty “slave quarter” was quickly filled by one super interesting dame: Linzi Lewis, also known as Liliana Transplanter ((Http://ambush-gardening-collective.blogspot.com/), is not only a guerrilla gardening ‘ethnobotanist’, but also a very talented dancer and artist. She jumped aboard and made a similar agreement with Urban Ocean, becoming part of a refreshed vision to create a rooftop garden – in this case very much pushed forward by Jhono’s skill and impetus.

Lilly billboard

Figure 13: Lilly is cool; in fact they had to put her on a billboard just to deal with how cool she is.

<Soon to follow is More on the Residence, Gardening and how the current vision for Joburg Joburg emerged – watch this space!>

 

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