Situating the Public Culture CityLab


The Public Culture CityLab was a two-year platform for research, creative practice, and teaching. Its conceptual focus on urban culture studies was a response to a recognised need for theorisation and research on public spaces and public cultures in South African Cities.


Post-apartheid South Africa is filled with vibrant yet complex spaces, where the local, national, regional and global intersect in a myriad of informal, seemingly implausible and innovative ways. It is largely uncontested that South African spaces are still fraught with social, spatial, economic and cultural inequality, but ever increasingly, thinkers are moving away from Afro-pessimist perspectives of cities in the south being defined by crisis according to ‘western’, neo-liberal capitalist criteria (Pieterse, 2008; Nuttal & Mbembe, 2008). Our urban and rural spaces are teeming with inventive approaches to socio-spatial economic and cultural creativity – often emerging out of everyday practices (de Certeau, 1984). These moments of cultural action are inspiring a new form of contemporary scholarship on the magic and madness of post-apartheid spaces.


It is within this context that the Public Culture CityLab aimed to explore culture-led thinking and practice in and about our city-spaces.



Objectives and achievements


The CityLab aimed to provide a platform for thinking about artistic projects and processes that help define social innovation: new strategies, concepts, ideas and organisations that includes discussions on activities as diverse as micro-financing, the reformulation of the arts sector, and ideas on how to deal with the complexity of social problems that demand our attention. Focusing primarily on projects in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the Public Culture CityLab:


  • Coordinated a range of research projects in collaboration with identified cultural and academic actors
  • Developed collaborative projects and creative experiments in public space
  • Developed a seminar series and in conjunction with academic and popular education curricula


Through a preliminary scan we have established that there is indeed a rich reservoir of public art initiatives across the metropolitan region, but these processes have not been adequately documented or analysed. Moreover, the various initiatives have not been brought together for shared reflection and learning. The idea is not to restrict such convening and reflection to the art community but to prioritise geographers, architects and (urban) designers to enter into a dialogue with the artists.


In practical terms we envisage a CityLab that will meet regularly (every 4-6 weeks), initially structured around an intense review discussion of public art interventions. Once this avenue is exhausted, further CityLab seminars will draw on the research of other members of the Lab with an eye on generating synthetic findings and working towards a publication at the end of the process. However, given that the first six months of ACC Labs are meant to crystallise a shared research agenda, we cannot be too specific about how this will all unfold. The point of the Lab is to create a space for joint understandings and shared questions to emerge through a relatively open-ended but tightly managed process of exchange.