Interview for CAMOC News 01/2014 on The (In)formal City project

Marlen Mouliou from CAMOC News (Committee for the Collections and Activities of Museums of Cities) interviewed me for the January 2014 issue of their journal on The (In)formal City project. Here is the full interview:

Marlen Mouliou: Can you tell us a bit about the (In)formal City programme you organised in 2013? Its scope and outcomes?

Ares Kalandides:  The (in)formal city project is an exchange programme between Johannesburg and Berlin, where we are trying to understand how cities are made through different practices and processes. 20 participants (10 from Berlin and 10 from Johannesburg) share experiences and exchange visits to conceptualize a common methodology in researching those two completely different environments. We are coming to the point where we would reject the formal/informal dichotomy (just like the top-down/bottom-up one) and instead think of the complex ways in which cities are made. The programme is organised by the Goethe-Institut, funded by the Bosch-Stiftung and curated by myself. More information can be found here: http://informalcity.wordpress.com

MM: What can informal processes of city making teach to city museums?

AK:  What they can teach (to anybody) is that practically everything we do “creates place”, i.e. it contributes to real and presumed qualities of places. One very important element in the whole process are institutions (such as museums) where knowledge and experience are collected, condensed, translated and transmitted. I see city museums as initiators but also as key intermediaries that can play a facilitating role among different players.

MM: What are the elements that shape a good and successful collaborative urban initiative? Do you have a specific example of good practice, co-created by a city museum and other urban actors, to share with us?

AK:  Unfortunately you can only judge an initiative from its outcome. There is no magic recipe for success. Every initiative is part of the particular, local logic that is not really transferable. What we can keep in mind though are certain elements to look at and examine locally (our informal cities projects is trying to contribute to that); What are the individual motivations behind the actors of the initiatives? How do they interact and what power relations are they involved in? How are their relations to all types of institutions (museums, but also state, administration, laws etc.)? What is the role of facilitators if they have any? How are the connected to different geographical scales from the local to the global.

MM: Can city museums play an active role in the formal planning of a city?

AK:  They can play an active role in the formal planning of a city because of the role as “urban condensers” (as mentioned above).

MM: Can city museums play an instrumental role in creating strong brands for their cities?

AK:  This depends very much on what visibility is given to the museums. City brands are complex processes that take place in people’s minds and can only be marginally influenced strategically. A city museum is first of all a brand of its own; Yet, through synecdoche, pars pro toto, it can lend its power to the whole city. We see this happen with other museums (Louvre-Paris, British Museum-London), why not city museums?

MM: There are many divides between North and South Europe, not only because of the current economic and social crisis. Even in the cultural sector, the participatory model of urban collectivities is not so common in the South compared to other countries in northern and Western Europe. Would you agree with this observation and if yes, how do you explain it?

AK:  Yes, I share the observation, but we have to understand that such participatory models have developed over time and they are embedded in a different understanding of what is public sphere. I first need to recognise the existence of an abstract public sphere (some kind of understanding among people who have never met and will never see each other, yet still need to decide together) before I can participate in it. On the other hand collective action can function at a very small level among people who meet face-to-face and we see this working well in Southern Europe, too.

MM: Few months ago, CAMOC implemented a day’s workshop in one of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro during its annual conference, in collaboration with the Museu da Favela of Pavão- Pavãozinho and Cantagalo (http://www.museudefavela.org/). Our intention is to work eventually on a bigger scale project for the creation of a community website. Would you consider favelas as informal cities? If yes, a) how do you think creative industries might affect informal cities’ transition to formal cities (i.e. culinary activities, the samba schools, etc.); b) do you think city/community museums could play a role (like the Museu da Favela) in this process; and lastly c) what would be a relevant crowd sourcing platform for you to endorse this role for city museums?

AK:  Favelas are informal in the most traditional sense; they were not built officially, but were people’s solution to the lack of housing. On the other hand they develop and function according to their own internal norms, some of which are highly formal and show a high degree of organization. I don’t see the transition to a formal city as a desired goal. What is most important is to improve the lives of those in the favela. Everything else can simply displace them. Creative industries (as a particular type of business) is in my opinion not of central importance, but culture most certainly is. On the other hand, city museums can be important actors if they manage to engage with the local people and open up to them (i.e. lower their threshold).

 

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