Mabel Wilson and Mario Gooden in converstaion with Megan Murdock, Rashad Palmer and Sabrina Barker. Recorded on July 12th, 2013

MW: How's your stomach?

MG: Not sure if it is the soup or the fried calamari. I shouldn’t have fried food.

MM: It’s probably the fried calamari.

MW: How is your digestive track? Speaking of colon…


MM: How did you become interested in Johannesburg and what were your prior experiences doing research in the city?

MG: This studio started four years ago. The last two studios in Johannesburg looked at the kinds of leaps that have been made in terms of technology. We talked about inadequate infrastructure, the fact that there were very few landlines, and yet now everyone has a cell phone. We were interested in the topology or topography that is created when this kind of sudden change occurs.

MW: My studio last fall was looking at different forms of media and connectivity. Johannesburg as a city is a fortified enclave. How do you deal with cities that are literally designed to be that way? How do you break that segregation down? It clearly didn’t break down after apartheid. In some respects it got more fortified. So, do these new technologies actually move across space and connect people in ways that may change how people understand the physical landscape of the city?

MG: What both studios have in common is the research component. The use of data to analyze the city, to understand the “scape,” if you will, the media-scape. Johannesburg is a city that was designed to separate groups of people, as a mechanism for extracting natural resources. And it has only been a short period of time since apartheid, a little over 20 years. How does a city develop after that? And then I think, in terms of architecture, it’s really interesting that a lot of buildings are all covered up. The city still has quite a legacy of modern architecture that not that many people know about because they were built in the apartheid era. You can’t really divorce politics from the architecture.

MM: What do you think the benefit is in trying to do research in such a complicated area?

RP: It depends on who you are. There are people who came here with a lot of reservations in terms of what the area would be, that it’s going to be dangerous; while others are more relaxed without a lot of expectations. For me, not knowing much about Bree Street beforehand allows me to dive in and let things happen.

SB: Sometimes it is hard to know whether people are telling you the answers they think you want, versus what they really think. Especially being a foreigner and being an American, and all the assumptions that go along with that.

MW: Right, one problem in anthropology, for example, has been the reliability of the informer. People don’t necessarily tell you what’s going on.

MG: Another question the students posed to the traders along Bree Street was “do you feel that you belong to Johannesburg or Johannesburg belongs to you?” We had this discussion about the traders who are, for the most part, migrants. Since they do not necessarily feel it is their home, do they have a sense of responsibility for Bree Street? For them Johannesburg is a place for work. The city becomes a kind of mechanism for producing other things, but what about the production of the city itself? I guess this is the question that I have been thinking about: the contrast between the city as a place for work versus the city as infrastructure for community, for people who actually live here.

RP: It depends on who you are. There are people who came here with a lot of reservations in terms of what the area would be, that it’s going to be dangerous; while others are more relaxed without a lot of expectations. For me, not knowing much about Bree Street beforehand allows me to dive in and let things happen.

MM: Mpho Matsipa made the argument that Johannesburg, being an African city, is often seen as very different from other cities. But it is actually a typical city and has similar problems as other cities around the world. Have you seen things in other cities that play out differently in Johannesburg? Can you talk about some of the challenges of doing research here in the city?

RP: I think getting out of this area, Maboneng, is the most difficult. We do want to get out and see the rest of Johannesburg, but that requires scheduling a taxi. Socially, I haven’t really witnessed this, but I am trying to be aware of xenophobia. Supposedly it is an issue in South Africa.

MW: You didn’t get “Yankee go home”?

RP: No, but I was called a coconut.

SB: I have to agree with Rashad in terms of transportation. What surprises me is also security. Some neighborhoods look like fortresses. They had cameras outside, their own security guards and barbed wire.

MM: The city is divided into privately managed districts. Around the inner city different developers own certain areas. Policing on the street is done by private security. As a result, there is this weird condition where arbitrary rules govern how one behaves on the street. Even through there is no physical boundary, the experience on the street can be totally opposite between different districts. The unusual thing about the city for me is the contrast, where within blocks you have people in poverty and people who are very wealthy. I think there is a bit more of a gradient in the United States, but here the contrast is in your face.

MW: Yes, I agree, the contrast is there. There isn’t a gradient; it’s a wall between the have’s and the have-not’s. And the wall has barbed wire. I wonder what percentage of the labor force is actually guard labor? What would happen if the walls were to come down and everybody could move freely? Would it change people dramatically?

MM: Interviewing people who have real struggles in their lives is difficult because when people are willing to speak with us they think that we have the ability to help them. Do you think that Columbia can give back by being an agent to them or is it even important for Columbia to try to give back in a way?

MG: The short term answer is no. We don’t have a resolution for immediate issues but I think we are bringing another level of awareness beyond, let’s say, the boundaries of Johannesburg and even South Africa.

MW: Knowledge is power. It can always be productive, change happens when people know about things.

Work from Megan Murdock