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zURBS is an artist collective initiated by a group of fellow students coming from the 4Cities programme – an interdisciplinary master in urban studies. The course involves studying at 6 different universities in 4 different cities across Europe. Having studied in all these European cities and seen vast examples of “urbanism gone wrong”, the students decided that it was not enough writing critical articles about the current state of affairs, they had to take matters in their own hands and do something. Hence, zURBS facilitates collective, creative explorations for a wide range of participants, in order to build alternative urban imaginaries that investigate what urban space is and means.

The zURBS team, Sabeth Tödtli, Nina Lund Westerdahl and Cecilie Sachs Olsen, has just returned from a month in Switzerland and Germany where they have executed a number of workshops. The aim of the workshops is to experiment with different approaches to how we can re-imagine the urban through socially engaged artistic practice. In other words, the workshops focus on participatory processes where a broad variety of people, from local community groups to urban planners, from groups of elderly to school-children, are encouraged to re-think their urban surroundings through imaginative and creative means.

“We are working with so-called urban imaginaries – meaning the way we imagine our own city as the place of everyday life, the site of experiences, stories, traditions, continuities and conflicts. We want to show that no city can ever be grasped in its present or past totality by any single person. Rather, urban imaginaries differ depending on a broad variety of perspectives and subject positions. Through our workshops, we aim at making explicit how cities are palimpsest of real and diverse experiences and memories, and how they consist of a cacophony of voices, ideas, opinions and visions.”

In this regard, zURBS has conducted a series of workshops in cities such as Zurich, Basel, Ghent, Freiburg, Berlin, London, and now recently Nordhausen and Monthey. In total, over 400 city dwellers have been sent out in the streets in order to trace some of the various perspectives and imaginaries that their city consists of. In order to ensure a broad mix of participants, and not solely the normal crowd of art- and urban enthusiasts that tend to take part in these workshops, zURBS have developed the method of “netwalking”. This method entails walking around in the different neighbourhoods in the city, knocking on doors and, this way, getting in contact with specific organisations, institutions or groups that are located in the area. These are then invited for workshops, which are tailored to their particular group.

“The hardest thing is actually to convince people to take part. People tend to be sceptic when we approach them, asking: ‘why us?’. This is, an important question as citizens groups and local areas are often stigmatized by getting labelled ‘problem group’ or ‘problem area’. We try to avoid such stigmatizations, and hence rather focus on the population and city as a whole. We believe the potential of re-thinking our surroundings is not a privilege of urban planners or architects, but something we all are capable of. Only, too often we forget about or neglect this capability as we are constantly fed with the idea that there are no alternatives to present conditions. Therefore, we need to become more aware about the importance of actively engaging with and questioning our environment –that goes for all of us. Hence, we try to explain to people that we are not focusing on particular parts of the population or even specific places, but the city as a whole. However, this does not make it easier to talk people into participating, as we can’t argue for having a particular target group. However, it is an awesome, creative and inspiring workshop that we are offering people for free –why not take advantage of that? Unfortunately most people do not see it that way, and the process of recruiting people are often long and tiring.”

The activities of the workshops are various: a workshop may start with sending the participants on a treasure hunts searching the streets for hidden envelopes containing stories that evoke your imagination. Based on these stories, the participants search for objects and things that may be used to articulate the various perspectives and urban imaginaries connected to their city. These “findings” can be all kinds of things: from the well-used iron board neatly left behind on the sidewalk in a Jewish quarter, a crutch haphazardly discarded in a bush by a bar, a half-full glass of red wine forgotten at a sticky restaurant table, a glass splinter from a broken window in a red light district, an empty bottle of brandy placed in a staircase in a business district, a shopping receipt revealing clear intentions by listing dinner ingredients for two and then lubricant… The “findings” are assembled into different formats depending on the workshop. Sometimes the aim is to create an alternative city archive where all objects are labelled and put on display by the participants, as an alternative to the official city archive of the city. Other times they are used to build a “utopian” city model in which the objects from the present city are used to make buildings and places that the participants would like to have in a future desired city. Hence, it is not so much about the findings in themselves, as it is about the discussions, observations and stories they generate: the glass splinter was for example transformed into an excerpt of the air in ‘the frozen state’ of the city in which it was found, commenting upon its perceived conservatism; the shopping receipt became a popular conversation piece on dating and isolation among singles in the city, and the various alcoholic beverages stemming from a newly-built business district became part of an on-going critique of these areas as purely being of “work and play” for expats and business men. This way the findings help articulate and make explicit all the different realities that a city may consist of, and this way form the base of discussions on how we perceive our city and what we would like our city to be like.

One of the recent projects, illustrates that these discussions reach well beyond the frame of the workshops. In the small city, Monthey, in the Alps, zURBS involved a broad range of residents to create a model of Montopia –the Monthey of their dreams. On a 2 x 2 m plywood plate with the map of Monthey printed on it, the residents built Montopia out of objects they had found in the city. zURBS would go to all the places where the models had been placed on the map, take a picture of the place and then Photoshop the model into the “real” place where the residents had placed it. This way, a plausible reality was created out of people’s dreams and imaginations. The model together with these photoshopped montages as well as descriptions and explanations for each building were then exhibited.

“It was really funny, because ‘Montopia’ became the talk of town: politicians came to see us and discuss the ‘proposal’, teachers decided to include the building of Montopia in their geography classes, parents wanted to present some of the suggestions in the model for the mayor of the city at the next city meeting. Furthermore, the cultural commission decided that the exhibition should be permanently on display in the city, passionately working for it to keep having a life after we left the city. It was overwhelming! It shows that the workshops may become part of a wider political project that in turn may have social and physical consequences outside the realm of the workshop itself.”