Working Together Towards What?

The projects of the Design for the Living World class are not just about creating new spaces for a community; they are also about initiating a shift in identity and a new feeling of local collectivity – in this case within the neighbourhoods of Soweto – as well as a global feeling of interconnectedness. We are part of a larger movement that emphasizes and experiments with local self-reliance and new ways of becoming organized both as a society and a locality. Nine Urban Biotopes is, at its core, an approach aimed at bringing about a new feeling of togetherness by initiating long-term artist exchanges. Many artists are already connected globally and feel themselves part of a global community, while the local residents of Soweto mostly do not.

Why Can Work Bring About a New Form of Collectivity?

In the leftist Marxian tradition, there is an underlying assumption that collective identity is actively produced by the way people live. A large part of life consists of everyday work, so in order to understand collective identity, one first needs to understand labour and labour relations. For Karl Marx, it was the exploitation of the working classes, which was inherent to the economic system of capitalism, whereas for neo-Marxists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, it is the shift towards a post-Fordist production from which they derive their claims about greater societal changes. This line of thought essentially translates into: what and how we work is who we are. Thus, societal change can only come about with a change in how we work and how we work together. However limited this definition of collectivity might seem – looking only at labour obviously leaves out many other parts of the human experience – it is helpful in the case of the Soweto project to keep the Marxian claims in mind.

Unlike Karl Marx, it must be remembered that we are not planning a revolution of the working classes against the exploitative bourgeoisie. Neither are we hoping for the evolving, qualitatively hegemonic post-Fordist, immaterial production to change our global society. Instead, the Design for the Living World class connects globally yet works very locally, both within and with communities. In my opinion, working together with local residents means that we aim to push for the idea of more self-reliant, collective work. Ultimately, this work forms a new political subject.

What Examples of Change Occurred through Our Work in Soweto?

The theoretical claim of creating identities by working together worked in practice as follows.

After two weeks of planning with community representatives from Orlando East and Noordgesig, we began working every day on what was to become Ubuntu Park. On a Saturday morning, we and approximately eighty residents started by cleaning the space of the trash that had accumulated over many years. After that, two or three of us would go to the plot every morning. Over the next month, us students worked alone for a total of less than four hours, since there were at least two local residents waiting there for us almost every morning at nine and more people joined in during the day. On an average day, there were about fifteen neighbourhood residents working with us. Of these, a group of approximately five was there every day. The work was always strenuous and the sun was scorching. Nonetheless, our mere presence and the will to change the space into something that the community could use provided the local residents with enough motivation to work long hours without payment, just for the common goal.

This common goal could not have been outlined without the collective labour itself. There would be no value in what was to become Ubuntu Park if it was not built collectively by the people who would become its actual users.

Digging holes, mixing concrete by hand, and laying bricks gave us the time we needed to connect with each another and communicate in ways, which would be impossible if we had met on the street or in an office.

The mere fact that a group of students had travelled thousands of kilometres to lay bricks and dig holes in the sun on a no man’s land in a township of Johannesburg conveyed the message that our efforts were of global importance. Our conversations with our fellow workers made it clear that we were not only making a bench, we were developing a new way of addressing an issue that we had selected together and in a way that we had defined together.

It did not matter so much what we were building or whether the barbeques would actually be used later or not, whether the benches and tables would be destroyed in a month or two, or whether the stage would ever host any performers. What was important was that we were working together: an impossible combination of a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, a young man who hardly ever spoke a word but worked the hardest with the fewest breaks, an unemployed construction worker in his sixties, a thirty-year-old weed dealer, a drunkard who earned money mowing lawns in the neighbourhood, and two slacky art school students from Europe.

The work itself allowed us to overcome what would otherwise be insurmountable barriers, and it was work towards a common goal that created a spontaneous collective. Never discussed aloud yet always present, the collective goal and the shared work formed an identity which transcended race, education, and wealth, and was united positively by the desire to take things into our own hands. If something bothers you about the place where you live, you can change it without much money or assistance – this was our collective idea that was shaped through the work which connected us. Thus, collective work not only formed a spontaneous collective; it also changed our relation to the locality and the social and political structures we found ourselves in. By being productive and working collectively, a new political subject formed spontaneously and became self-determined – a subject that becomes active, does not rely on authorities, works in a group, and connects with others.

What and how we work is who we are.

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