By Invitation
Iseeyou (above ground) in Johannesburg

Iseeyou (2013) is a short film essay by Simon Gush depicting Johannesburg’s representations of mining. The film deftly questions what is at stake in the visibility and invisibility of labor.[1] The title invokes the name of the Industrial and Commercial Workers, widely known as (ICU founded in 1919 by Clements Kadalie (1896-1951). The artist seeks to parse out the nature of work itself in its political and ideological dimensions, with considerable self-reflection. Gush made his way to Johannesburg, we read, in search of work, a repeated point which aligns filmmaking with the manual labor that is the focus of the film.[2] In this film statues and other commemorations are windows into underlying social phenomena and stimuli for abstract reflection, raising matters that are profound and troubling. Here I would like to take up the filmmaker’s challenge to think about work, its representation, and its relation to the urban landscape.[3] Under what circumstances might work be visible, and with what impact? If statues promise a certain kind of visibility, what does this imply about statues as a medium and the physical space they occupy?

Johannesburg was founded in 1886 following the discovery of gold, rapidly industrializing to become the country’s and the region’s economic heartbeat, now a metropolis of some 8 million people. Even after the eclipse of the mining industry by other sectors, it remains the unofficial financial capital, home of the stock exchange and the corporate sector. It is hard to imagine any city in which urbanization and industrialization have been more closely tied. Beyond its centrality to South Africa, the Reef and its mines have since its beginning been a labor magnet for surrounding countries such as Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Johannesburg’s combination of wealth and size have made it the epitome of inequality: proud civic architecture shares the same space as poverty, homelessness and occasional xenophobic violence. The apartheid government tried to enforce spatial divisions as tightly as it could (Lemon 1976), and the legacies of apartheid endure in the metropolitan landscape. Such factors have made Johannesburg a favorite of urban studies and cultural studies (e.g. Nuttall and Mbembe 2008; Langa 2020).[4]

Gush’s 2013 film intervenes in the politics of memory, a framework that has evolved drastically in the post-apartheid era and indeed in the eight years since its release. To be sure, the new political order has sought to change urban landscapes both by new constructions and by name changes. Nonetheless, city centers such as Johannesburg continue to be marked by monuments from the colonial and apartheid eras. With one exception—Andile Msongelwa’s kneeling mineworker (2013), described below—all the statues chosen by Gush are pre-1994. By contrast, other aspects of the cityscape reflect the subsequent era of ANC-led dominance between then and the present day. Thus, featured buildings such as COSATU House, headquarters of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, date back to the 1980s, a period in which black labor organizations were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, whereas now they are close to or even part of government. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was founded by the current national president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Having begun his political career in the unions, he was the main ANC negotiator in the historical political settlement of the early 1990s, and thereafter entered the corporate world before returning to politics a wealthy man. Such anomalies quietly permeate the urban landscape surveyed by Gush. For example, at the time of the 2012 incident at Marikana in which police killed 34 striking miners, then Deputy President Ramaphosa was a director of Lonmin mines and is known to have telephoned the police chief the day before the massacre, urging a crackdown on the strikers. That involvement did not prevent his elevation to the presidency five years later. Furthermore, two years after the release of Gush’s film, the heritage landscape came under intense and often violent scrutiny with the Rhodes Must Fall protests (2015), focused initially on the University of Cape Town campus but quickly spreading to other campuses and urban centers. This movement ushered in a severe crisis for the South African state, given the breadth of youth protests against poor service delivery, the slow pace of political change, and the persistence of inequality. About events such as Marikana Gush is notably silent, focusing instead on the everyday experiences of Johannesburg’s workers and inhabitants and on the visual experience of the city any visitor might have. Implicitly this silence urges a longer view of the urban landscape, with the result that subsequent events, such as an apparently unsuccessful attempt to burn one of the main statues depicted in the film (March 2021), are subsumed within a broader arc of history.[5]

The art of work

Parker Image 1 - Gush_Miner_1.jpg

Image 1: Simon Gush, Iseeyou, 2013, (film still). Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam.

Viewers arrive in a city founded on gold. Gush’s survey of monuments opens with a bronze colossus, The Miner, four times life-size, which greets everyone approaching from the direction of the airport on what is now Albertina Sisulu Road (see image 1). At 9m tall including the base, it is one of the country’s tallest monuments. Commissioned by the Johannesburg City Council to mark the centenary of the city in 1988 and designed by Tienie Pritchard, it depicts George Harrison, supposedly the first discoverer of gold on the farm Langlaagte.[6] The gesture is extravagant: with right foot far forward and resting on a slightly raised platform, the male figure is naked above the waist and wears the long trousers and boots of a miner. With pickaxe in its left hand and knapsack on the right hip, the figure looks upward with sharply tilted head at a rock triumphantly held in the right hand: gold, ‘a monument to aspiration’ (0:39). Gush’s opening frame dwells on the statue for all of 20 seconds, its only movement—and thus the only sense of dramatic time—coming from the traffic in the lower register, much smaller than the colossus. The camera then approaches the statue from different angles, eventually close up. Overall, the overdetermined visibility of The Miner invites comparison with the Statue of Liberty, but unlike the American colossus the face itself is out of view at any angle from below, being pointed upwards at considerable height. In effect, this invisibility of the face deracializes the monument as seen from the ground, and now gives it a chance of surviving the current impetus to decolonize monuments. Likewise, conceivably its bulking size will protect the statue from the kind of neglect and destruction that have befallen the Langlaagte site, which has been curated as George Harrison Park.[7]

Parker Image 2 - Gush_Miner_2.jpg

Image 2: Simon Gush, Iseeyou, 2013, (film still). Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam.

The Miner is the first of six main statues canvassed by Gush, interspersed with other monumental features of the built environment: these are either architectural, such as the Chamber of Mines building, via the decorative roundels on its façade depicting miners (3:48),[8] or else large-scale mining equipment redeployed in the Central Business District as urban adornment, such as Kumba, a retired iron ore truck of Brobdingnagian proportions which was "proudly donated by Kumba Iron Ore," and the Langlaagte Stamp Mill (7:44). At Gold Reef City, a former mine-turned-amusement-park, the life-threatening dangers of mining are sugar-coated as the banal thrills of a visit to the "Tower of terror," as announced by a painted sign at the top of the headgear.

Statues predominate in the film, from both before and after the end of apartheid, providing a sense of continuity that implicitly questions that political transition of the 1990s. David McGregor’s Monument to the Miners (1964), a trio of bronze male miner figures, a white foreman and two black workers, was intended to represent a typical underground scene from 1936, and is located outside the Johannesburg Civic Center (1963). The three bronze miners, facing west towards Langlaagte (6:27), marked the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery as a belated commemoration that simultaneously celebrated the high modernism of the newly built Civic Center.[9] All three figures are depicted in bronze covered by a black patina. McGregor’s realistic treatment confers ‘heroic’ status on the miners that resonates with Soviet public art of the same period (6:49). The uniform blackness of this group is not easily explained. Certainly, the premiership of Hendrik Verwoerd (1958-1966) saw the high noon of segregation, and an elaborate raft of legislation was in place to prevent racial groups from mixing in all aspects of life and even on the theatrical stage. If this statue somehow bucks the trend, is it because the mining context, so palpably unequal, subtly encouraged the subordination of racial divisions to the logic of the free market? Or was the corporate sector whimsically suggesting a benign version of apartheid, as expressed in the specious euphemism ‘separate but equal’? Contradictions within racial ideology itself, as well as its complex relation to the economy, leave such questions hanging, both in the historical reconstruction of the 1960s and with reference to our own times.

Despite significant political change since the 1960s, mining monuments continue to be, in Gush’s presentation, a telling index of the country’s economy and social attitudes, even if obliquely and ironically. Johannesburg’s economic transition from mining to manufacturing to service economy is emblematic of much larger trends, and monuments reflect these changes from its origins to the twenty-first century. In this context the final scene, in which Gush films the digging of a hole alongside a road he repeatedly traveled in making the film itself (12:02), is a coda that moves the focus from mining per se to manual labor in general, an unexpected twist on the theme of underground visibility. This unremarkable moment of suburban life is subject to defamiliarization, particular since no laborer is shown, merely sand emerging from the deepening hole in a certain rhythm. Work is divested of worker. Gush reflects: "[B]ecause we see less and less work directly, images of work have become nostalgic." Images, both photographs and his photograph-like films, "capture something about a simpler time," that is, from a different economic regime. Far from the turbulence of labor unrest in the 1980s and 2010s, labor is unexpectedly the domesticated subject of museum display (9:02) and tourist leisure.

On the pavement outside the Chamber of Mines is Andile Msongelwa’s statue of a solitary miner who kneels while drilling (2:00). Inaugurated on 7 May 2013, it reflects the agreement between the Chamber and trade unions (National Union of Mineworkers, UASA and Solidarity) at the end of wage negotiations in 2007. The statue itself expresses their agreement to "recognize the role played by mineworkers in developing the economy" of the country, including mining towns and areas providing labor:

We salute these economic heroes who risked their lives to make Johannesburg one of the most economically vibrant cities of the continent. We value their contribution to the economy and will strive for quality education for our children and the development of skills of mine workers to enable them to play their rightful role in the continuing economic development of mining communities, labour sending areas and of the country as a whole. (2:19)

"Heroes" is the key word here, given that the kind of heroism involved is far from the political narrative expressed in the Long March to Freedom, a collection of some 100 life-size bronze statues (out of an intended 400-500) of struggle leaders beginning with Nelson Mandela. This was originally set up in Fountains Valley in Pretoria but is currently in Century City, Cape Town. If the inscription above is itself testament to the politics of recognition, its detailed coverage allows Gush to explain the wordplay of the title. Visibility is not an unqualified good: on one hand it can mean political recognition, but on the other hand invisibility can maximize collective bargaining power:

[The phrase] I see you [expresses] an idea that highlights an interesting ambiguity about visibility and representation. To the unrepresented worker, the union might be saying ‘I see you, I see how you are treated, you are not invisible to us.’ But the power of invisibility is also part of the power of the unions. You are no longer an individual who can be singled out, but part of a unified voice, a crowd. Because of the power of the collective, invisibility can be as valuable as visibility. (5:13)

Several of Gush’s early works explore the idea of work in different aspects: Red (2014, with James Cairns) is a full-length documentary on the extended wildcat strike at the Mercedes Benz plant in East London in 1990, in the course of which workers undertook to build a red Mercedes Benz 500SE for the newly freed Nelson Mandela.[10] Calvin and Holiday (2014) explores Geneva’s urban landscape in order to reframe the Protestant work ethic: the architecture of John Calvin’s city gives clues about values. Lazy Nigel (2015) involves the mining town of Nigel on the East Rand: via warehouses, amusement parks and other scenes from everyday life, Gush measures the dynamics of work and leisure. He is struck by the difference of the social space after the end of the working week.[11] Here especially he reveals a photographic technique that is reminiscent of David Goldblatt: a larger black-and-white landscape with a static outer frame that includes closely limited internal movement. For example, a lengthy view of COSATU House is framed by the taller buildings on either side, and the camera angle is such that the changing traffic lights are at the bottom of the frame but not the traffic, audible via the soundtrack, below (4:43). The close-up of COSATU House that follows immediately is framed in such a way that the sole moving part, a car in the distance, has minimal impact on the overall image but nonetheless invests it with a sense of passing time. All these video essays make use of white noise, inconspicuous circumambient sound, from traffic, wind and other sources that are typically not visible in the frame itself. In one case, the sound of a jackhammer outside of the frame brings the kneeling miner statue to life, located outside the Chamber of Mines building (2:03), with traffic noise added.

Iseeyou canvasses monumental faces as indexes of social and economic relations around the work. Faces are means by which Gush’s camera can offer an angle on practices of economic life and the thinking that underlies them. As a variant on South Africa’s rich tradition of documentary photography and photojournalism, typically focusing on human subjects as directly as possible, Iseeyou pursues a more oblique approach. As Gush puts it, "[i]mages of work are created through its public representation to ennoble the act of labour." But there is something misleading in public art, just like Pierre Nora famously distinguished between "places of memory" and "milieux of memory," where the former are more arbitrary whereas the latter are more organic, continuous and deeply rooted (1989: 7).[12] Nora suggested that places of memory (for example, statues) paradoxically mark failures of deeper-seated commemorative practice. By this reckoning, explicit commemorations can mark the absence of deeper collective memory and thus perpetuate that absence. Gush seems on such lines to suggest that monuments may be considered dead on arrival, their unveiling in unintended effect absolving and blocking communities from more meaningful, ongoing acknowledgement. The passage of time of, say, McGregor’s The Miners, merely intensifies this dynamic.

The film essay rests on a central paradox that becomes explicit at the end: all the monuments, in fact all the footage, is above ground, even though the central topic is the mining activity that happens underground. The digging next to the road is seen only from the side, so that viewers can see the sand being piled up with rhythmic shoveling, but at no time do we see the digger (11:58). The city’s ground level is, by this reckoning, an expression of what happens underground. Via Gush’s camera, the urban landscape with its colossal monuments and high-rise buildings directly expresses underlying economic development and social attitudes. The Marxian distinction between base and superstructure finds literal expression.

What might all these monuments mean to those dwelling or working in the city? There is a general sense of indifference, with passers-by paying no heed, and no direct interactions between humans and monument, neither reverential nor hostile. In a telling instance, at Gold Reef City a black man with the shambling gait and baggy clothes suggestive of low economic status walks from an entrance towards the camera (5:52). Obliquely in his path is the statue of a white man (looking towards the camera) who digs joyously, if a bit manically, a successful or at least hopeful prospector. As the walking man approaches, he turns his head to look in bemusement at the prospector’s statue, as if wondering why it should interest the photographer. Apart from the skin color, the hat on top of the prospector’s statue marks his status in the mythology of Johannesburg. The black man is the only human in mid- or close range in the film (see image 3).

Parker Image 3- Gush_Gold_reef.jpg

Image 3: Simon Gush, Iseeyou, 2013, (film still). Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam.

Both artistically and politically, two precedents appear to be relevant. First, the use of photography as an exposé of mining is in South Africa connected with Goldblatt. His series On the Mines dates to the 1960s. Goldblatt reflects that, growing up in the Reef town of Randfontein, the mine complexes were his first areas to explore in the company of his camera (Goldblatt and Kent 2018: 96). From 1965 Goldblatt briefly photographed underground, but the majority of the project involves persons, places and equipment above ground. Goldblatt would become the doyen of South Africa’s documentary photographers, developing a distinctive style of black-and-white documentary photography that shaped the world’s view of apartheid social conditions.[13] A second debt is to the German-language film, Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (1995, Workers leaving the factory) by Harun Farocki (1944-2014). This depicts the simultaneous massed exit of workers from factories at the end of the working day. It ranges from very early French footage from the 1890s, followed by later material from 1920s Detroit and 1930s Germany. Farocki is a role model in his use of the of film essay medium to explore histories, attitudes and ideologies, in this case around the central economic phenomenon of labor.[14]

The distance between Iseeyou and these divergent precedents is telling. In both cases, Gush’s inner-city statues seem strangely detached from any experiences of labor. Goldblatt’s images tend to emphasize individuals or small groups in poignant, often reflective, moments as well as physical installations above and sometimes below ground. Iseeyou looks instead at conscious choices in the representation of labor, and in this sense opens up semiotic space between signifier (monuments) and signified (labor, in Gush’s calculus). The focus is thus, beyond how mining is represented, on whether it can be represented at all. Then there are political ramifications: to what degree do the unions ‘represent’ labor? What Goldblatt and Gush do have in common is a focus on attitudes and everyday practices rather than newsworthy events. This is what Bourdieu called habitus and what Goldblatt called Structures: thought-worlds and ideologies that may be expressed in physical form but just as easily in gestures, typically subconsciously. In the second comparison, Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik focuses directly on the humans involved in labor, using the departure scenes as a focused cross-section to juxtapose different histories. In Gush’s film there is no knock-off time: the menial labor of the mines has morphed into the clock-free activity in the city created by the products of mining. Gush’s camera hints at a longer time span in which not only statues have changed but no less cityscapes and economies. To see work, in Gush’s formulation, is to see capitalism itself: to sense a contrast between its outward manifestations in architecture and monuments on the one hand and the human experiences involved on the other. The latter are much harder to capture but, via the thematic focus of this film and others, they appear in locations of everyday life, coming into focus via the camera lens.

‘Sculptures pervade the landscape’ (3:19)

An underlying tension of the work is the disparity and representational disconnect between Johannesburg’s urban landscape and the mines themselves. The anomaly is sharpest when large-scape mining equipment appears in the city center to serve in its decontextualized form as public art (e.g. 1:09), or when the Chamber of Mines building depicts mining scenes in the delicate ornaments on its façade (3:48). The immediate mining landscape is one thing: David Goldblatt’s series On the Mines was first published in 1973, accompanied by Nadine Gordimer’s text, both highlighting the lives of people working in and around the mining industry in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when gold was the main motor force of the South African economy. Born and raised in what is now the west Gauteng town of Randfontein, Goldblatt began his career by focusing on the mines as well as their social and environmental impact. An updated version of On the Mines would be the last exhibit in which he actively participated in 2018, the year of his death at the age of 87. It would be no exaggeration to say that On the Mines did much to create a visual canon of South African mining per se, one focused on peri-urban sites of extraction and mineworking.

The economic landscape is another, less well-defined phenomenon, in which visibility is not a given and the role of the photographer is less obvious. Gush canvases the metropolis rather than the mines themselves for insight into mining and its impact. As he aptly claims, mining "has defined [the city of Johannesburg] both historically and today" (4:08). The cityscape reflects multifarious economic and social changes, and in a superficial sense only nostalgic and sanitized notions of mineworking are still in evidence. The statues that ostensibly represent labor fail, furthermore, to stimulate awareness of the labor that put them in place, let alone mindfulness of the economic order which they denote via the logic of either metaphor (e.g. figurative statues denoting labor in the abstract) or metonymy (mining equipment repurposed as massive urban landmarks).

Statues may proffer acknowledgment of labor but in reality they fail to command the attention of people who pass by them in daily life. They are no longer the inevitable medium of public history they may have been, say, in the aftermath of WWI. Overall, Gush shows that commemorative gestures are closely tied to blind spots and may even be characterized by them. There are at least three reasons that work is not meaningfully visible, monuments notwithstanding. First, the economy of Johannesburg may have been built on mining in recent decades (within the lifespan of the monuments, in fact) but has largely moved on to other sectors, largely leaving its semi-skilled and unskilled labor force in the lurch. Second, the new political order has subsumed mining and other labor unions but is in many ways adrift from the workers they claim to represent. As Gush tellingly notes in relation to McGregor’s The Miners, "[such] images seem to capture something about a simpler time, when politics seemed more defined and power easier to articulate" (11:37). In this comment he hints at the capacity of photography itself, given its ability to juxtapose, reframe and contextualize. Third, just as urban topographies and economies have changed, so too has the visual field in which statues continue to exist. The passer-by at Gold Reef City may offer a poignant suggestion of this point (5:52): apartheid’s work-leisure division is momentarily destabilized when a white digger (prospector) is casually observed by a working-class black person inside a tourist complex, even if the cause of that person’s presence is not specified. In contrast to the storied conflicts around public art, the significance of the prospector statue remains a dormant question, only momentarily and unexpectedly raised when the passer-by glimpses the camera and then triangulates the gaze. His glance is fleeting, his path unchanged: the possibility of meaning is suggested only to be left unresolved.

On the question of the role of art in the public sphere Gush’s answer is merely the beginning: "For a city founded as a mine camp on a gold reef, it seems natural that such sculptures pervade the landscape." (3:37) Indeed, statues do pervade the urban landscape, but they also underperform as sources of insight into the system that put them in place. Whereas the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements, which took place in 2015-17 and thus postdate the film, often set their sights on monuments from the colonial and apartheid eras, the monuments here are tied to ordinary persons who are typically unheralded and out of sight. Though Gush is not explicit on the subject, there is more than a hint of skepticism about trade unions that claim to speak on behalf of workers yet create power monopolies of their own. Such doubts are only deepened by Ramaphosa’s ascendancy despite the massacre of Marikana. One role of art, Gush suggests, is the foregrounding of otherwise unsung "economic heroes," to use the oxymoronic terminology on the plaque accompanying Msongelwa’s kneeling miner (2:37). But viewers also see that there are some unexpected gaps between this goal and its realization.

There are further questions concerning urban space in so far as it is defined by public art. Iseeyou implicitly asks viewers to question what the public domain is, a question that is as relevant to Johannesburg as it is to any evolving cityscape. The representational dynamic is subject to a pervading upside-down logic: underground mining is celebrated above ground, as if Johannesburg’s civic life is above ground even when its economic life (or at origin) lies below. The film gives no hint of human interaction with the monuments, neither celebratory nor hostile.  Indifference prevails, in marked contrast to the Rhodes Must Fall moment, which is still very much with us. This cumulative impression gives Gush’s already punning title an additionally ironic edge: in the end, labor itself is invisible and so are its supposed monuments. His camera offers some resistance to this trend, albeit subtly and by poignant evocation. It hints above all at the possibilities of awareness. Whereas old-style statues on university campuses and in city centers have generated angry chants and speeches,[15] to the degree they have remained in place, Gush’s statues have merely heard the sound of passing traffic.[16]


Bunn, David (1998) ‘Whited sepulchres: on the reluctance of monuments’, in Hilton Judin and Ivan Vladislavic, Blank _____: Architecture, Apartheid and After. Rotterdam: NAI, n.p.

Chipkin, Clive M. (1993) Johannesburg Style: Architecture and Society, 1880s-1960s. Cape Town: David Philip.

Freschi, Federico, Brenda Schmahmann and Lize van Robbroeck, eds. (2020) Troubling Images: Visual Culture and the Politics of Afrikaner Nationalism. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Langa, Molose (2020) Becoming men: Black masculinities in a South African Township. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Lemon, Anthony (1976) Apartheid: A Geography of Separation. Farnborough: Saxon House.

Nora, Pierre (1989) ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de mémoire’, Representations 26.1: 7-24.

Nuttall, Sarah and Achille Mbembe, eds. (2004) Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


[1] Timings are in keeping with this version: https://vimeo.com/78477616. Iseeyou and other films are on Gush’s own website, https://simongush.net/simongush/

[2] E.g. "While I write this, I am working multiple jobs." (1:40); the Monument to the Miners was located on his way to campus (3:21).

[3] Some parts of this essay overlap with a lengthier one entitled "Faces of History," in preparation.

[4] Whereas much of the earlier architecture was demolished in the 1960s and 1970s, there are new moves to preserve or even rebuild historical structures such as the old laundry building: https://mg.co.za/article/2016-05-24-the-battle-to-rebuild-joburgs-historic-laundry-buildings-has-finally-been-won/

[5] https://www.news24.com/news24/SouthAfrica/News/see-metro-cops-disperse-group-trying-to-pull-down-mining-statue-in-braamfontein-20210312

[6] Details are recounted at https://www.miningweekly.com/article/the-statue-that-might-have-been-2016-06-03. Pritchard’s bronze work had gained fame by the 1980s, winning him many government and corporate commissions for portrait statues: http://tieniepritchard.co.za/.

[7] http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/depressing-visit-george-harrison-park

[8] See Chipkin (1993: 16, 130).

[9] https://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/bldgframes.php?bldgid=8765 The installation was a combined gift from the chambers of mines of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

[10] Red has been the subject of a conference, the proceedings of which were published in Kronos 42.1 (2016) and Social and Cultural Geography 19.4 (2018).

[11] https://vimeo.com/114681962 "Looking at the factories, I often wasn’t sure if they were closed for the weekend or had closed down completely." (2:11)

[12] Bunn (1998) writes eloquently on the ‘reluctance’ of South African monuments.

[13] The work of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) from the Depression era would profoundly influence Goldblatt and other photographers, black and white, many trained by him.

[14] In Lazy Nigel Gush explores the physical setting after the workers have departed for the week rather than dwelling on the moment of their departure.

[15] Freschi, Schmahmann and Van Robbroeck (2020).

[16] I thank Simon Gush for conversing via Zoom on September 1, 2020, and Rolf Michael Schneider for his comments. All opinions expressed in this essay are my own.

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The Right to the Creative City

In 2002, Richard Florida, an urban studies scholar then at Carnegie Mellon University, published The Rise of the Creative Class, which became a surprise best-seller. In 2005, he followed that book with what he called a "prequel," Cities and the Creative Class.


Florida’s key insight in both works was that "creative" people were transforming not only the economy, but also cities themselves. His work was taken up by city planners and public policy makers who were attracted to the idea that catering to creative people would lead to an economic enhancement of city life. The U.S. government seemed to endorse the idea in 2010, when the National Endowment for the Humanities published Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa’s white paper, "Creative Placemaking." Cities throughout the world built museums, created arts districts, and introduced amenities and policies intended to attract "creatives." Indeed, MIT dubbed Florida "the world’s most influential thought leader" in 2013.

Florida’s ideas were met with criticism as well as praise. Critics on the left, such as Jamie Peck, maintained that the "creative city" was little more than a justification for neoliberal governance, widening inequalities, and the gentrification of neighborhoods. In 2017, Florida himself seemed to accept many of these criticisms, retreating from his earlier work in a book tellingly entitled The New Urban Crisis.

This Colloquy, jointly curated by a scholar of performance studies and a scholar of urbanism, explores the impact of the creative cities paradigm in cultural policy and scholarly thinking. We join Peter Marcuse, Andrew Herscher, and Johanna Taylor in renewing Henri Lefebvre’s spirited plea to establish a “right to the city.” In critically examining the "right to the creative city," we are particularly focused on how this rallying cry has affected marginalized communities, including communities of color, the unhoused, and LGBTQ communities. We ask, "How has the creative city paradigm transformed both contemporary cities and artistic production, and how have marginalized communities asserted their right to the city by deploying creativity in new ways?" In its treatment of these issues, the colloquy bridges some core concerns in contemporary humanities with the worlds of cultural policy, art, and urbanism.

The Colloquy grows out of a project based at the Stanford Arts Institute devoted to Creative Cities. Under the directorship of Phelan, the project hosted two residential fellows each year between 2016 and 2019; their fields included art history, public policy, U.S. history, and geography. The fellows were: Andrew Herscher, Johanna Taylor, Gülgün Kayim, Sam Franklin , Nicholas Gamso and Magie Ramirez. Several of these fellows have contributed to this Colloquy. Creative Cities also launched an interdisciplinary working group that met every few weeks from the fall of 2016 through the spring of 2020 to hear works-in-progress talks. Moderated by Kahan, the workshop included talks from all of the Creative Cities fellows, as well as from a diverse cohort that included architects, curators, artists, urban planners and designers, literary critics, anthropologists, sociologists, media scholars, and more. Many of the contributions to the Colloquy have been drawn from these workshop talks, and we believe these texts illustrate the complex ways cities, art, politics, economics and urban policy intersect.

Today both the concept of the "creative city" and the practices undertaken in its name are contested. Nonetheless, although Florida himself has distanced himself from the term, the idea continues to influence artists, scholars, and cities. We hope that this Colloquy will become a space for debating that influence from a multitude of political and disciplinary perspectives. We envision this as an ongoing conversation, and invite you to add your voice.

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