For those unfamiliar with Urban Dream Brokerage, could you give us a wee breakdown of what it is you do?
Letting Space’s service Urban Dream Brokerage brokers the use of vacant space for innovative ideas that bring more public participation and sharing to our centres. We want to hear from anyone with a new idea and we then help broker a space for it, providing insurance and support.
It is, in essence, a way to expand the public commons: provide a way for citizens to take control of space and create innovative projects that are about providing more living shared spaces for exchange in our town centres. We started in Wellington and have now been running in Dunedin for a year and have run pilot in Porirua, which has generated other locally led longer term projects. We’re also working in towns like Masterton and others to see how we can empower citizens to take a lead in shaping their city centres.
We’ve enabled over 60 projects, many by artists but also many by other members of the community, finding creative high quality ways to bring people together. I was running through some of the ways some of these things have been described recently and they make for colourful reading: a People’s Cinema, a Moodbank , an Open Source Community Gallery, a Retro Games Lounge, a Political Hair Salon, an Indigenous Hawaiian Cultural Centre, a Vaudevillians Clubhouse, and so on it goes…
What were the motivations behind launching this project initially?
Letting Space had been producing public art projects in vacant and public space for a few years and we wanted to spread the love – help enable others to take action, as it were. Our bigger picture art project had become how we could enable new things to take shape that created more collectively-run environments.
On the one hand we were charged up by the question of the true potential of what art in public space might now mean – true commons space – and on the other a real personal political drive to do something in a time when we face environmental crises, public space and public anything is under threat and we are treated as individual consumers and have lost key ways to feel empowered as communities ourselves. The economic system we have is based on a totally unrealistic level of growth and creates enormous waste and inequity. We need to carve out new spaces to experiment.
As much as we love them, just experimenting in art spaces just didn’t really cut it for us any more, whereas the potential to really effect change in this space between things out in public with new dynamic ideas across disciplines did.
It’s great to see that you’ve expanded from Wellington into Porirua and Dunedin, has this been an easy move? Why these two centres?
Never easy! Trying to break the mould of how spaces operate is never easy, though some projects are far sexier than others to landlords. Every place is difference and has different needs so what we look to do (and the projects often look to do) is create a container for the community to actually dictate the needs.
The projects in these three centres have often been quite different from each other in terms of their focus. In Porirua we started by establishing an open source community centre in what had been NZ’s first McDonalds. That helped enable the establishment of a six week Pacific Island community project that was very brave in creating a Pacific village in the centre of Porirua. Since then – for a year now – Toi Wahine, a collective of Ngati Toa women artists, have been operating a really dynamic space, that’s now been joined by Toi Tane. There was a real need in Porirua, with a decimated town centre dominated by outta town brands and vacancies, to start to look at how it could reflect itself as a cultural centre, outside the walls of a great institution like Pataka Museum.
I write enroute back from a talk at Dunedin Public Art Gallery, where the need has been for less fine art driven spaces initially, but there’s a real desire to bring community into the CBD in new ways. Dunedin is a very cool place in terms of independent cultural practice, accustomed to working in different spaces. UDB was a good fit, to try pushing that into some new areas. We were asked, and now it’s up to Dunedin how it evolves – the brokerages have their own local steering groups.
What the social or cultural capital is that could be more visible really depends on the city – our city centres don’t always do a great job of representing our identity and our diversity, particularly when inner city living is increasing. That’s exciting to be involved in contributing to, even in small ways.
I’m sure you must come across some brilliant creative projects, has there been any recent or upcoming standouts?
Like any curator or producer it’s hard to play favourites. There are so many even just this year. I suggest people dive into the archive of about 70 projects at urbandreambrokerage.org.nz
I’m excited about artist Erica Skelenars play with technology through LCD screens and smartphones coming up in December in Dunedin. In Wellington, getting to play with a big concrete box of a space on Clyde Quay Wharf with some fantastic creatives has been a 2016 highlight.
Seeing projects like Moodbank – a place to deposit your moods – go on to iterations in Auckland and Whangarei has also been nice. But generally as they say, watch this space.
At Letting Space, we’re getting ready to launch a public art festival in the Hutt called Common Ground, with five artist projects commissioned and a bunch of vacant space work (www.commongroundfestival.org.nz). It’s all around the public’s relationship to water. As with any big new project, it’s very exciting but also challenging.
How does your selection process work?
This is absolutely key. While absolutely anyone can apply you’ve got to meet the clear criteria around innovation, public participation and also showing you’re ready (see http://urbandreambrokerage.org.nz/for-applicants/). Crucial is that the proposals are assessed by an advisory panel, who look carefully at how the proposal meets those criteria – and there are a many fiesty discussion, which are interesting in themselves for us conceptually. This happens online, employing the wonderful online consensus decision making platform Loomio, which has been an important part of Letting Space’s growth and ethos. The result for us is that openness meets rigour and definition – matching community and professional values.
Do you have any tips or suggestions for people looking to put in a proposal?
Read the criteria. Talk to our broker. They’re amazing empowerers. Really ask hard how you can involve the public more as participants and get them across the threshold, and do something truly unique that serves your community’s needs. Think outside the frame.
Cover image: Young Visionaries, David Cook and Leala Falesuega with school students, Porirua, 2015, image by Robbie Whyte