Viver a Rua (Take to the Streets) started with a call for public participation; a chance to nominate someone to be commemorated permanently by having a street in the city of Porto in northern Portugal named after them.
Anyone from anywhere in the world could enter but nominations were encouraged that have a connection to Porto. After the competition closed on 10 June 2010, a panel of judges chose a winner from the names and reasons submitted.
The winning nomination then became the name for a new street in the city of Porto.
Viver a Rua wants to engage a conversation in Porto about who we reward in society today, how we reward them, and to begin a discussion on a range of themes including citizenship, history, family, and civic pride.
Viver a Rua has been about offering the citizens of Porto the possibility to imagine what the city means to them personally and to think about it as a municipality made up not just of the great men and women who have contributed so much but also of the ordinary people, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, the disadvantaged and the forgotten.
During the 4 weeks that the competition was open, from 12th May to 10th June 2010, we held 6 workshops (with the themes of family, history and citizenship), worked with 20 performer volunteers in 5 separate street actions – talking to people and engaging them in the themes of the project, distributed 30,000 fliers, received thousands of hits on the website www.viverarua.com and accepted hundreds of nominations through the post and via the internet.
The new street was revealed as part of FITEI 2011 and has become a permanent legacy in the city, documented on all the maps.
The following interview by Joana Telo Alves was originally published in Portuguese in Rua de Baixo (with photographs by Diana Rui) in June 2010.
IF I OWNED THIS STREET
British artist Joshua Sofaer wants to name a street in Porto after an unknown citizen.
Joshua Sofaer is the creator of the project Viver a Rua. The idea is simple but revolutionary: naming a street of Porto after an unknown person. The British artist was invited by Núcleo de Experimentação Coreográfica (NEC) to design this project for Festival Internacional de Teatro de Expressão Ibérica 2010. Known for interventions that engage the public, this 37-year-old artist questions the power structures in place and invites people to think and act. He is against the production of instant celebrities. His most well known projects bring anonymous citizens into the spotlight: in Birmingham, he paid tribute to a nurse writing her name in a sign with lights; in London, the project Rooted in the Earth immortalized the names of five unknown people in carpet bedding. In each of these initiatives, Joshua Sofaer launches a debate, which is the premise of the project that he is currently developing in Porto: who do we want as role-models in our lives? And what makes people worthy of public tribute?
Speaking to Rua de Baixo, the artist regretted the separation between politics and the people and invited them to act: “The city is yours”.
In your previous projects, Name in Lights and Rooted in the Earth you exhibited unknown citizens’ names nominated by other citizens in lights and in carpet bedding in parks. How did the idea come up?
There was no grand scheme from the beginning, so in a way one has led to the other. I was interested in getting some kind of distance from the whole celebrity culture, especially in the UK, that is now everywhere. In the UK when school children were interviewed about what they wanted to be when they grew up, it changed from being a train driver or a nurse to being a celebrity, a job without a meaning. I thought this was really bad, so I wanted to engage a debate about who we want our citizens to be, who we want our role-models to be and what it means to be a citizen. And that’s how Name in Lights came about, it was to offer a kind of Hollywood mystique to an unknown citizen. It worked very well in terms of achieving both kinds of goals. At the time over 2 million people went to the website, during the competition, which was absolutely a massive amount. We really got some debate going and yet there was also a mystery about the name. In the end, the name in lights just kind of hovered there and people didn’t really know who she was and they had to do a bit of investigation if they wanted to find out.
You are talking about the sign with Una White’s name on top of a building in Birmingham. And who was she?
She was called Una White, she’d been nominated by her daughter, she’d come to the UK from the Caribbean in the 1960s and she’d worked as a nurse, she’d worked tirelessly for her community. And then Rooted in the Earth, which was the next project, worked in a very similar way, but ended up being very different. WhereasName in Lights is really focused on 16 to 25-year-olds, Rooted in the Earth was mainly for families and older people. It was the same concept, but it was planting out in carpet bedding, a very dense form of planting and we did five of those names, so it went from a kind of Hollywood vision to gardening. And then when I came to Porto to do a workshop in November, NEC said they wanted to commission me to come up with an idea for FITEI 2010. They wanted something that would have a social conscience and that would make big public impact, but nevertheless would cost next to no money, because they have very little money. That was a big challenge for me. The other projects were at least 10 times what the budget is for this one. Changing the name of a street costs nothing in one sense – of course the marketing campaign, people’s time, all these things cost money – but the idea is to try and capture people’s imagination and try and get a discussion going. So even if people aren’t nominating, just the fact that they’re thinking about it, what it means to live in a city where the streets have names of citizens and what justifies you getting your name as a permanent legacy of the city – these are the things I want people to consider.
I’ll be glad if we get a few hundred nominations [in Porto]. It’s quite a difficult thing to nominate someone. We are asking people to write a small essay. But whether or not they nominate, you can’t judge the success or failure just by the amount of nominations. Also, not nominating someone is a success in a way, because they may think ‘well, I can’t justify this, I don’t feel that I’m worthy of it or I don’t feel I know someone that is worthy of it’, and you’re forced to make that assessment.
How would you explain the project to the people working and living in Porto?
I would just explain what the project offers – which is a chance for you to nominate yourself or somebody else you feel is important to you and offer them a tribute. And why I’m doing that is because I want us all to think about the people that we value and how society as a whole values people.
Which street is going to be named in this project? Is that decision part of the project or is it going to be decided later?
It’s going to be decided later, basically. We are looking at a number of options. One is that it’s a brand new street in Porto. Another is that there are some streets that don’t have names in Porto and a third is that it would be something grander than a street, like a park. I’m keen for it to be a street, but let’s see.
Is one possibility renaming an already existing street?
Probably not an established street, but some streets in Porto have kind of informal names, or they’re not registered, like little alleyways and such. At the moment, we’re trying to engage dialog and keep it going. But the options are open at the moment.
Is the street plaque going to be special in any way?
In the long term, the legacy of the project is the map of the city – it will be the street name, all the maps of course will change, that’s a very important thing for me, the documentation. It’s just a normal sign, no explanation – that’s also really important to me. When working on Name in Lights and Rooted in the Earth a lot of the local contingencies wanted a plaque to explain exactly what the project was. I’m very resistant to that because I think if you explain something, you can explain it away. So I want the information to be accessible, if people look for it, to find out and so they go ‘Ahh, that’s what it is’, but actually I prefer it if there’s also quite a lot of questioning ‘who on earth is Una White, what is this, who is Lorna Jones, what is this?’ and in the street in Porto, ‘why has this street just been named after this person?’ I don’t want it to be immediately explained, because then people just switch off right there.
So there isn’t going to be any information under the name?
No. There are also a lot of streets in Porto, including the street I’m living on at the moment, that I can’t find any information out about, in terms of knowing who the person was. And when you search for it it’s super irritating in google because all you get is the map reference, you don’t get the biography. Whereas this time, if you search it, you will definitely get the biography of this person because it will be publicized and it will be out there.
Are you talking about the already existing websites of Viver a Rua and yours, for example?
You know, in Una White’s case, there is a Wikipedia entry now for Una White and there was never one before. There isn’t one for me, incidentally. I appear in Una White’s Wikipedia page as the artist, but I’m in red, which means there’s no Wikipedia entry for me. In a way, that’s quite interesting for me, also, that Una White has overtaken my concept to become the public’s visibility of it. So when you do projects like this, it’s disseminated far and wide and you don’t have any control over that in a way.
It will be out there – and if it becomes the subject to myth, that’s also quite interesting for me.
Do you imagine being able to do such a project in other cities?
I thought it would be impossible here, to be honest. What makes it possible or impossible is the flexibility or otherwise of the Town Council. Here I understood that the Town Council was quite conservative, so I was absolutely delighted and encouraged that they saw worth in this project. Porto also seems to be all about the streets, in a way. They want to have things on the street. I’ve noticed the book festival [feira do livro] is happening in the main city square [Av. dos Aliados]. I can’t think of any other city that I know that would put the book festival in the main city square. There seems to be a lot about being in the street, there are some shopping malls, but it seems to be much more about the streets. Relatively speaking those [shopping malls] are quite small. It’s interesting what they do on the top floor in Via Catarina, they make the outside street inside, it’s very kitschy and it’s a kind of Disneyfied thing, but the symbol of Porto for Via Catarina is the streets. You’re inside, but you’re outside, you’re in a kind of fantasy of outside. I mean, it is a city of streets, all up and down and up and down…
What do you think of Porto?
I think it’s incredibly beautiful. And it feels like it is at a little bit of a turning point.
In what way?
Well, it wears its history on the surface. You can see the stratigraphy of the buildings, some tiles have fallen of the walls, some new plaster work has been painted on some old, it’s all worn on the surface, so you see its history everywhere, all the time, but it also feels quite young, surprisingly. The first time I came was in the winter and I didn’t get that so much, I thought it was more of an older city, the population was older. But actually it feels quite youthful and I’ve got a sense of that now, the students, the university culture here, which I think always keeps the city young. It seems culturally very active. To be honest, I never knew anything really about Portugal, before I came. This project has brought me to Portugal for the first time and I’m really glad to have discovered it. I had a friend at school whose mother was Portuguese. It was just this funny language that he spoke with his mother and that was all I ever thought about Portugal, really.
What do you think will be the impact of Viver a Rua in Porto?
Well, one thing for me is that all the projects I normally do are over in a certain time – and this one, potentially, will exist after I’m dead, in a real way. And people will be living on this street, and things will go on, people will have arguements on it, and people will embrace on it, maybe even people will be conceived on it. So, in a way, the whole world, everything, is potentially possible, which is very exciting for me, conceptually. Of course it’s not an artistic virtue as such, it’s not something that I will create, but it’s something that this project will set in motion. What I really hope is that it really will happen. I can’t help but feel nervous, until it has happened, that it might not. My real hope is that it just happens, that it really just does happen.
Is there a political message in your projects?
I think that all work is political to a degree, in that it’s contextualized in society. I do see my work as political but with a small ‘p’, it’s certainly not party political. I’m interested in activating citizenship. I think that art practice, at its best, offers a kind of permission for people to think or behave in a way that they might otherwise not. So the worst side of art practice for me is the commercial side of the visual art market, but the best side of it is that it can be transformative. I find that incredibly powerful. I’m not making any grand claims for this work as transforming society, but I think in a small way it can ask people to step back form they way they usually encounter the city and then step forward and play a part in the community. Really, I think that’s what I’m interested in, it’s about building communities.
You said in your blog that one of the problems you have in this project is that people don’t really believe it’s going to happen.
That’s really true! And that’s one thing that I wasn’t quite expecting and that has been quite challenging. Even when NEC talked about it to their friends, they go ‘Oh, that’s great, but that’s not really gonna happen, is it?’ and they go ‘Yes, we really are going to change the name of the street, we really are doing it.’ I suppose people don’t believe that it is possible and that’s because they are politically disenfranchised as citizens. They don’t believe that they have any voice. And that proves the purpose and the necessity of the project, in a way, because it shows that people don’t feel that they have any say in the formation of their own city – which is tragic! This is really why this project, I think, is pertinent to Porto right now. So one way we’re tackling that, and it’s the first time I’ve ever done it like this, is to have this group of volunteers, of public communicators, going out and just talk to people about the project. The second question people ask is ‘Has city hall agreed?’ or “What does city hall think about it?’
I don’t feel there’s a sense of ownership of the city. Maybe this project can, in a tiny way, give them a sense that they can make things change.
Is this your way as an artist to reclaim the streets for the people?
Partly, yes. I don’t want to sound too grand about it, but I think that people should feel empowered. It is their city. The bureaucrats here are doing their job on behalf of the citizens. In the UK this kind of rhetoric is very strong at the moment because we’ve just had a general election – that these are elected members of parliament that serve the citizens, not the other way round.
Do you have a message to the people of Porto and the authorities in place?
Well, the message would be the same. It’s a message to the citizens, which I would ask the city hall to listen to: It’s your city. Play your part and you can change it.
Viver a Rua
Concept: Joshua Sofaer
Jury: Álvaro Costa, Álvaro Domingues, José Rodrigues, J. Pinto da Costa, Katty Xiomara, Manuela Azevedo, Maria Adriana Cunha, Mário Moutinho
Collaboration: Cheila Pereira, Cristiana Rocha, Diana Barnabé, Elsa Pinho, Filomena Nascimento, Isabel Valle, João Costa, João Pedro Azul, Joclécio Azevedo, Margarida Roseira, Mariana L. Ferreira, Simão Ramos, Sofia Magalhães, Vitor Alves da Silva
Art and Design Direction: Pedro Lino
Web design and Photography: Tomás Porto
Programming and Web Authoring: Francisco Leite de Castro
Translation of graphic material: Madalena Lima
Legal Support: GDA
Distribution: Rui Silva
Co-Production: NEC – Choreographic Experimentation Centre / FITEI – Festival Internacional de Teatro de Expressão Ibérica (International Festival of Iberian Expression Theatre)
Partners: Clube Literário do Porto, Companhia Instável, ESAP – Escola Superior Artística do Porto, ESMAE – Escola Superior de Música e Artes do Espectáculo, Faculdade de Belas Artes da Universidade do Porto, Espaço t e Fundação Serralves
Supporters: Dinamic Mancha, Casa das Virtudes Bed & Breakfast and Azeite Tojeira, AP Portugal
Distribution: APEL, Central Library of the Humanities Department of the Porto University, Sonae Sierra / Via Catarina, Architects Society, Plano B, S.P.O.T., Catholic University of Porto
With thanks to: Maria Alexandra Rodrigues