Making Cities: Claire Malakia & Creative Placemaking
My name is Claire and I should probably start by introducing myself and why I was asked to give a talk. I’m an urban planner, researcher, photographer - these are a few choice descriptives. But, I’m mostly at the moment a PhD candidate at University College London within the Bartlett School of Architecture, exploring street messages and creative place making. This research is particularly focused on west african urbanism, however over the last few years I have also run projects in London, which meet at the cross sections of both this research and my own artistic practices.
While I could make this talk quite academic & theorized, I have to be honest, I wanted to take this opportunity to give a more playful and personal talk, because the reason that I do most of what I do is, quite simply, because i’m trying to find my own sense of belonging and place.
I’m not from London, and I’m not entirely British. I’ve been here about ten years, so I do consider this a home by adoption. In this time, I’ve come to realise that I am shaped by and I do have the capacity to shape this city, by choosing the ways I move through it, opening myself up to and responding to its spaces and surfaces.
Essentially, I’m interested in the act of wanting to claim a space as one’s own in a rapidly urbanising and what can often feel like quite impersonal city. This is either by looking at surfaces for other people’s messages or marks, or leaving my own.
But what do I mean by this very ambiguous term “street messages”?
I don’t know how you experience London, but I spend a lot of time walking across it. When I first moved to London, I started to take pictures of graffiti and street art, and it was from these walks and from paying more attention to surfaces, that I realised that what was making me stop, look and take a picture, was not only graffiti and street art, but everything within and beyond what would fall in this remit.
This included things like; large murals, calligraffiti; (illegal) community murals; stencils; portraits; paste ups; stickers; slight alterations - like adding whiskers to part of a crumbling wall to create a cat.
It’s important to look down, as well as on walls, and over the years I have developed a real fascination for construction signs, written on roads. Unless you’re a construction worker, these make little or no sense to your average person, only really make sense to those doing the works, but removed from that context, take on entirely different meanings. Question or exclamation marks can leave us unsettled, words like ‘bam’, ‘drop’, or ‘stop’ almost grounding, and ‘here’ reminding us of a very present here and now.
Another obsession, is looking for more anonymous text based interventions. So, for example in morocco (2014) alongside a portrait sat the sentence “la stupidite humaine a des limites”, which means human stupidity has limits or “Make your own reality” (2015) in London.
Often with text, I feel like these are instructive, challenging and awareness raising of a present. Here in Paris (2014), you have two people intervening - the person that wrote “Love is Dead”, and a second, who has amended the sentence into “Love is not Dead”.
Questions are some of the most powerful stuff I’ve come across have often been questions posed into the void. We don’t fully understand why they’re being asked or know the appropriate answer.
Below is one of my all time favourite images, written in very small hand writing on the side of wall in biro off Brick Lane. And I think it particularly strikes me because it appeals to my approach to urban planning. We may live between rigid, structural frameworks and elements, but within them plays out our imagination, creativity, and very emotional experiences.
By showing you all these images, I wanted to expand on the varied ways street messages intervene into habitual paths and routines, opening up new ways of seeing and feeling the urban environment. These examples have been a mix of legal and illegal, of graffiti and street art, but also of the more impulsive act of grabbing a pen, chalk or spray can and writing on a surface: a sentence, a word. An individualistic desire to connect to others, connecting empathically. I think this final image, brings us nicely into trying to understand what creative place making means.
It took me a while to realise that I was doing this terrible thing where I had taken a buzz word, creative place making, and started using it without actually taking the time to stop and understand what I actually meant by it. Taking to google, I found plenty of definitions (and three different ways of spelling it), but I felt that most of these definitions worked for more publicly, commissioned pieces of work, and didn’t encompass the illegal, the unsanctioned, the scribble.
With time, I’ve also realised that I don’t think that we can come up with a single definition for creative place making. Instead, I believe that it can mean very different things depending on intent of the maker. Being a graffiti writer, a street artist, an artist commissioned to do a public work, a community running a project, or the individual who impulsively writes on a surface, are all in an act of creative place making, their intention may vary - to connect, to create a sense of community, to beautify an area, to vandalise - but their desire to create a mark and leave a trace is the same.
Over the summer I ran a workshop in an attempt to create a definition for creative place making. It was during the workshop that we began deconstruct and then reconstruct each word. What this meant was that when we recombined them they revealed new understandings. So for example, creative place making also became: Innovative environment building//Chance transcient curating//Ephemeral attachment consciousness. It was through this process that I came up with a tentative definition, “the act of creating something (anything! - from a beautiful mural to writing your name in pencil) that connects you to a physical space for a moment. In that moment, that space is yours and forms your identity”.
Is it a working definition? Yes. Creative place making, is also not a process with an end point, but the constant transforming, defining and re-defining, and curating of public spaces, by artists, communities, and by individuals.
My own practice has been massively influenced by this research, by other people, and informed how I try and create a sense of place and belonging in London. I moved her at 19, and in those ten years, you know, life happens - you fall in love, you have your heart broken, you break a few hearts, you lose people, make a few mistakes, do a few good things. And these emotional spaces play out in our homes, indoors, in our internal personal worlds and minds, but the backdrop is always the city. I began to feel fundamentally fragmented between my private self and my public self, by the vulnerabilities I wanted to share, the connections I wanted to make with strangers through them, and in not trying to close myself off to the world.
A number of years ago, I began a project called itsprsnl, which started as an exploration of the cathartic process of confessing & letting stuff go, but has with time become more about trying to ground oneself into a moment, almost as a mindfulness technique.
More recently, I started playing around with asking question in public spaces. By asking a simple “How are you?” A question we often ask, but not always listen to the answer. I haven’t gotten much back other than a “great” and “how about you”, but by leaving chalk and inviting people to respond, this allows people to connect in an entirely different way, never meeting the person who asks the question, never knowing if they will see the response, and in this way do not really answer to anyone but themselves.
These projects have been some of the best things I have done, and the connections I’ve made with complete strangers incredibly powerful. With the itsprsnl project, I eventually wanted to step out of the anonymity and see if I was connecting with people in anyway, so I set up a twitter handle and a tumblr, and while the feedback was sporadic it was often incredibly moving. As a result of that project, I was invited to do a performative piece, where for three days I had to confess everything I had onto a blank wall. I almost had a nervous break down afterwards, but during this time, people began to contribute to the wall - and it dawned on me that by allowing myself to be vulnerable and share these, allowed others to do the same.
I hope that this leaves you feeling inspired to leave this bar, and see the walls in a different ways, looking for the small subtleties of a mark, a word, a poem, or even to explore your own sense of belonging in this city by marking its surface. By paying attention to the walls, to the graffiti, the art, the street messages and construction signs, we create space for experimentation and play, and we create the opportunity for place and belonging.
Claire Malaika is a toxic brew of West Yorkshire and Southern French, having spent her formative years growing up in Africa. These experiences have irrevocably impacted her perception of the world and have resulted in an insatiable curiosity in how people live the social experience, the formation of identity and community, the environment and sustainable development, the appropriation and re-appropriation of everyday life, and the different mediums of art which explore these tangible divides.
Trained as an urban planner, Claire is currently a part time PhD candidate at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, researching the role of street messages and creative place making as a tool for social transformation, with a particular focus on West Africa, as well as a photographer.