Lab Project

Conakry Play Urban

CONVERSATION Francois Duconseille & Baerbel Mueller
Francois Duconseille, Baerbel Mueller

BM: I would like to start our conversation by reflecting on the notion of scale. And I would like to start by quoting Hannah le Roux: "Scale is not a limited concept, it overcomes borders" and "in reality, scale is collapsing, making the nano into the global, and beyond." I am interested in understanding how you perceive the world around you, as a person, but also – and that is hardly separable – as a creative, a scenographer, an “urban actor.” 


FD: There are all these scales from the nano to the global, but the one that matters most to me as a scenographer and an “urban actor” is the very first one, called Scale 1:1, the scale of the human body. To tell the truth, I don’t know any others directly. I can imagine them and admire representations of them – impressive scientific images of the infinitely small or the infinitely large – but I always return to my own scale as a six-foot-tall biped. I use the information my body produces, and my awareness of what a spectator feels, to design the spaces and the actions to be projected into them… like a base, a common ground that can produce imaginings of the other scales that have inspired human stories since the dawn of time.

Scenographers and architects have scale models too – scale tools, pathways to reality. The joy of using them taps into our childhood, when our bodies were small and we loved to play with objects smaller than ourselves, to enlarge the world beyond our reach. A scale model is a magical object whose power needs to be controlled, whose limits need to be understood; you have to know how to play with it, how to project yourself into it without losing the sense of real scale – the one that will make sense when the project is eventually presented to an audience. What’s fascinating about the scale model is that it allows us to invent possible worlds beyond our reach. For the time being, I’ll stick with the real world I live in, with the ground beneath my feet in the cities I walk around, looking to meet other bodies on the same scale as my own.


BM: Very interesting to hear how you seem to be embodied on a 1:1 scale. I truly perceive the world around me in shifting scales, permanently zooming in and zooming out. This is not predominantly a bodily experience, obviously, more one of the mind and emotion, and imagination. It is very much my lived experience and in our time, we are hardly ever 100% in just one place for one moment. It is all so connected and interdependent and other places are inscribed in me, not just as memory, but rather actively with me all the time – the same with people. And this mental, emotional, spatial and temporal connectivity also manifests itself through a simultaneity of scales. Further, we are all passionate about and influenced by maps, satellite images and drone shots. When I navigated our neighborhoods in Conakry for example, being very much in the space and moment with all of my senses, in between, these satellite images popped up where you see Conakry as a shape, extended out into the ocean at one end and the surrounding landscapes at the other, and how the city and its hinterlands and riverbeds and vegetation, and the mangroves meet in a beautiful meandering way. Or I am reminded of working at the Ebute Metta Railway compound in Mainland Lagos, and you are standing on the rail tracks, and you know that they are leading to Kano, deep into the continent, and that opens up other dimensions or perceptions of space and place.

This actually leads to what I would like to talk about next: the concept of punctual urban intervening, which could be summarized under the notion of urban acupuncture, which has been one of the central motifs to collaborate on in Conakry, a strategy we are both very used to.


FD: The question of the body present in a space – on its own scale but mentally traversed by numerous other dimensions – interests me above all, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in other scales. If you consider the way I prepared the Conakry residency for the non-Guinean guests, the first stage was to produce a document with satellite views of a selection of potential sites. With these images and maps, the various participants (directors, scenographers, students...) could project themselves into the neighborhood’s urban spaces and see where their project could best be “brought to earth,” and the festival organizers could imagine the spatial and temporal connections and flows between projects. In a sense, this locating on a map is comparable to the practice of acupuncture, which identifies the points on the body where needles should be put to stimulate the flow of vital energy. But, as Michel de Certeau reminds us in L'Invention du Quotidien (référence à préciser), if the city can be seen from above – a strategic viewpoint – it’s from below, in contact with the ground, that one can understand how the inhabitants appropriate it and tactically use it, and envisage an intervention. So you have to set the map aside and get onto the terrain to meet the people who can help you introduce your actions, by their side, with full awareness of local issues. Such people are essential to the organicity of an artistic action in an urban context. In Conakry, our “magic pass” was a certain Souleyman Bah, one of the people occupying the Kaporo farm, a huge plot in the center of the neighborhood used for all kinds of “informal” activities (craft workshops, garages, bars, stores, hairdressers, car washers, building supply dealers...). In what seemed to be a chaotic and inaccessible space, he quickly helped us find the interlocutors our projects needed: the owners of premises, construction material suppliers, craft workers able to make various objects... Our meeting with him helped us take many of our artistic proposals to this plot of land, which gradually became the festival’s epicenter and, in return, generated considerable economic benefits for the inhabitants.

We can also think about the impact of occasional urban interventions of this kind. We’ve held several “Urban Scénos” events in remote neighborhoods whose inhabitants have no access to the kind of artistic and cultural activity aimed at wealthier audiences. The residencies are limited in time but they have a tangible impact on the people, their perception of the place they live in is lastingly altered. This stems primarily from the fact that we live and work in the neighborhood and present our projects to the inhabitants. To use the metaphor of acupuncture again, a simple action in one place can have significant wider effects, if it’s well prepared and performed.


BM: I try to apply the “acupuncturing the city” strategy in almost all my projects when operating in urban environments, at least conceptually. My earliest project of this kind was “listening Kumasi” (2000-2002), an imaginary project for the city of Kumasi in Ghana, based on the idea of creating spaces for communication, spread throughout the city like acupuncture points, and related to each other by invisible traces. The project was an attempt to read the city from within, to intervene actively, and to imagine space-generating strategies. It was based on the concept of capturing a variety of Kumasi´s spatial, cultural, and social characteristics through a subjective selection of striking urban points and fields. They were read as micro-systems of characteristic energy levels with catalytic effects on the urban fabric, and were interpreted as dormant potentials. Subsequently, I read these as sites for intervention and conceptualized and designed participatory, programmatic, physical, and acoustic spaces – all with the aim of creating radiating and healing effects on their respective context, as well as on the entire city. Then, five years later, Faustin Linyekula, as an artist, and I, as an architect, identified our mutual interest in the conception of decentralized spaces for art and cultural life, and Faustin invited me to Kisangani, his hometown in the DR Congo, to begin collaborating on “acupuncturing” it. The vision for his Studios Kabako was to create a network of spaces dispersed throughout the city, as opposed to just one monolithic centre. We understood each of these waypoints (or potential hubs) as infrastructure, as material body, as social space, and as gesture and paradigm for the community in which it would be embedded, and from which it would be radiating. Three sites and situations were selected over a longer period of time. We conceptualized and designed spatial interventions and architectures with a specific programmatic focus, responding to the needs of Studios Kabako and the characteristics of the respective neighbourhood of Kisangani. The overall question was: “Is it possible to dream of impact on the scale of a city?” (Faustin) and the main objectives were decentralization and working from within.

With the Univers des Mots, I was excited to experience a decentralized theater festival in a city such as Conakry, in regard to the acupuncture strategy, connectivity, contextual approaches and visibility. To observe how directors and scenographers would work from within, and especially how the actual people, the citizens, would be involved and react to what was going on in their direct environment, both in the process of making, and as audiences of pieces and performances. On an artistic level, I was truly fascinated by how some of these locations were worked with, and by the power and beauty of minimal gestures: the conscious arrangement of smaller objects, or light, additions to highlight an existing spatial situation, or subtractions to focus and concentrate the attention somewhere specific, or on the actors, performers. And I was curious – and this refers to your Michel de Certeau citation – how these would include or exclude the performative of the daily lives around. We were also critically questioning if engagement and the radiating effects we would wish for are truly happening, or if we just claim them. How alien, how invasive are you? How responsive, how contextually can you operate? And what does contextual mean then, if not provocation and surprise? On top of that, the protagonists involved were Conakry-based artists, artists from other West African or African countries, and Europeans, all with different starting points and aspirations.


FD: This questioning is essential as it touches on the ethical foundations of this kind of project and of the “Urban Scénos” in particular. In this respect, our participation in the Univers des Mots festival doesn’t match our usual way of connecting our projects to urban contexts and their inhabitants. Although, to my delight, plenty of the performances generated the kind of aesthetic fascination you mention, we fell far short of our goals due to a production context beyond our control: in fact, we were invited by an association called “La Muse,” which supports the Univers des Mots project, to help them set up a theater festival, traditionally held in dedicated indoor venues, in a Conakry neighborhood. Our role was to help them plan how to take theatrical productions into people’s homes and courtyards and into the streets and squares of the urban environment, but the initial project was significantly scaled back due to production difficulties and differences of opinion regarding contextual approaches that arose between us and the organizers. 

So, to answer your questions, I’d rather refer to another project, more similar to what you experienced in Kisangani with Faustin. It’s one of the most successful “Urban Scénos” events yet, both artistically and in terms of the connection with the local people at the residency location. It was conducted in 2012-2013, in Dakar’s Ouakam neighborhood, with the choreographer Andreya Ouamba and his dance company, “Premier Temps.” One of the fundamental aspects you mention about the Kisangani project was the time devoted to developing and setting up a project in that kind of context – and, I’d say, in every context. It’s a period of time that can’t be compressed, when you make contact with the places and the people, develop a sensitive understanding of how things work there, take the time for meetings and exchanges, acquire mutual awareness of what’s important and what everyone wants. It’s a time for establishing complicity and mutual respect because, as I said before, successful human connection is central to the artistic success of the kind of project we both have in mind… to such an extent that for the first Scénos residency in the New Bell neighborhood in Douala, when we didn’t know how this new experiment would turn out, we didn’t ask our guest artists to produce anything – we just wanted them to spend three weeks living in the neighborhood alongside the inhabitants who were their hosts. In the end, all the artists participated in a three-day festival that brought together the vast majority of the local people, who found it really hard to understand why so many foreign artists were suddenly taking such a generous interest in their neighborhood! We allowed ourselves this long preparatory period in Dakar: the project was set up over three years, with a number of visits but also some intense awareness-raising among the locals by the “Premier Temps” dance company, whose members were living on-site. So when the artists arrived in Ouakam for a one-month residency, the people were ready for them, in a sense. After that, the fact of living in the neighborhood and mingling with the inhabitants facilitated the acceptance of a project that would otherwise have been seen as “alien.” Another principle of “Urban Scénos” is to create direct economic benefits for the local community, by living, eating and drinking on site but also by hiring inhabitants and associations to help the artists and make objects (accessories, scenic elements, etc.), which all helps to foster true integration. For Dakar, we asked the “Bitcaves,” an Amsterdam-based graphic design collective, to help us communicate around the event. Rather than producing conventional communication tools, they decided to create a small ads newspaper featuring the festival program and a presentation of each artist while also providing an “advertising” space for local social and economic players, with a layout design combining the artistic projects and everyday local life. Ouakam Annonces was printed in 10,000 copies on the presses of a local daily called Soleil. It was widely distributed a few days before the festival opened. This communication tool was, above all, a wonderful way of bringing the artists together with the spectators who, in many ways, became participants in the project.      


BM: Beautiful approaches and simple, powerful strategies to engage! Indeed, the ethics or appropriateness, impact, and sustainability of a project are strongly dependent on the motivations of the joint forces behind it. And each collaboration is of a different nature, parameters need to be set anew each time. As you said, it is very much about time and presence and continuity. Architects are mostly very bad at that. [a]FA has been quite successful in creating and maintaining long-term relationships, engagements, and projects. But its biggest challenge is still facing the notion of time – on many levels. As architects and researchers, we always come from outside, and we always operate within a (tight) timeframe, which has potential, but is also very limiting. Hardly ever do we speak or operate from within or over extensive periods of time; even more so when coming from afar. Compared to other professions, what is considered a long (field) research phase for architecture or in architectural education is mostly laughable, and there are a lot of pseudo participatory projects happening as well. What we did in Conakry was an ad-hoc intervening, for which it felt best to me to declare it as this from the beginning. Nevertheless, or maybe even because of this, challenging the notion of context was the most relevant topic to me. This tension between a contextual approach and the aim for visibility, or the claim to create a surplus…   


FD: [a]FA made an appropriate tactical choice in Conakry – and probably the only viable one, in view of the short time you had on site. It’s interesting to see how strongly you connected with the context, without wanting or being able to work on it – because it was impossible to ignore – and how the portico-style object you made was a means of engaging with both the neighborhood and the festival. Your contextual approach came into being through the act of making, which was probably something new for your students, an enriching experience that will stay with them. At every stage of its existence, the portique reflected the reality of everyday local life: construction materials, manufacturing, negotiation, inclusion in the festival, logistics, transport...

To conclude, and to return to what you said about the temporality of architectural projects, it seems to me that we share the same feeling of insufficiency, the same frustration at not being able to spend enough time on the projects we initiate, at rarely being able to go back and continue what we started. I’d love to go back to Dakar, Kinshasa, Port-au-Prince... to create new residencies on the strength of the previous ones. One day I’d like the project we dreamed of for the Kaporo farm in Conakry – which was really only just begun in the fall of 2019 – to come to fruition, with the help of the inhabitants.