The Comfort Zone- an experiment of art in a public space (a chapati stand) with Mo Siira


As part of KLA Art Labs I was involved with 2 workshops. 1 dealing with deepening our observation skills and a collaboration with performance artist Mo Seira about engaging with performance art in public spaces.

Sometimes we resisted being directed, but it seems humans seek to be told what to do. We are comfortable with that.  Making our own artistic discoveries is hard it seems.  People have lost their agency and wait to be given permission by someone to do something, anything.

We entered the local chapati restaurant (The Comfort Zone) located in Kansanga. Alongside customers, chapati makers, waitresses, and various small children is a welder working with machinery. The tent has open sides and a blue roof, is very noisy and congested. Eventually the sound reduces but i don’t know if anyone noticed. People come and go and change positions. As part of the lab we are exploring how the general public engages with Art in public spaces.

We were the guests but somehow we became the hosts. We occupy the space. Like refugees crossing borders we overwhelm our surroundings.

‘Lets invite her (one of the waitresses) to sit with us’. Members of the group ask the boss first before speaking directly to the woman.  She sits against a ply board partition. squeezed.  Shes been watching us as she passes. Someone must have made eye contact which gives us permission to impose our ways on others and call it inclusion.  How can this be art? We can’t just be in the space observing the happenings. How can we be present and just allow things to happen around us?

Im wondering to myself, how can I be heard but not speak?

I stand up and make a gesture. I point to myself.

I cover my mouth with my hand.

I pull my ears. All this is meant to communicate the statement

‘I will not speak, i will listen and observe’. I don’t know if anyone got it.

I sit back down and observe the participants. All men, one woman who sits behind me so I can’t even catch her in my peripheral vision. In front are the men. One in particular talks non stop. Making suggestions of possible actions to ‘engage’ with the people in the space. Not with the space itself, which is confined and noisy. I grow weary and try not to lean my neck too far back because when I do it gets knocked by passing occupants. Its irritating. All I can do is remain small, still and observant of the dynamics in the group. One guy is on his phone constantly. Others are seeking permission to do something by asking the question ‘what are we supposed to be doing? They seem uncomfortable, direction less.

This is a social experiment. In a meeting the previous day we sit with the performance artist Mo Seira to determine the ‘format’ of the event. He doesn’t work like that so all is redundant, not applicable to the work in which he works.

I’ve been asked to manage and direct the conversation today because it all seems so chaotic. I prefer to wait and see what happens especially as I’ve made gestures to say i will not speak.

I listen to as the conversation moves to the subject of gentrification. How if a place is nice, the locals won’t enter. They anticipate higher prices. Its more comfortable for them to stay beneath a tent with no walls, on uneven ground by the side of the road.  If we took the time to look we would see the view of the valley below.  We eat tasty Rolex (chapati with fried eggs and vegetables). This loosens the tongues of the group even more, progressing to a slowing down of speech……………for some.

I stand up, book in hand,  I’m not paid any mind. I sit down. I stand up. One man looks at me and says ‘yes, you have something to say?’. I sit down, ignored by the majority. I stand up and sit down, 9 times I’m told until the Black Russian declares

‘I think Ife has something to say’

The men turn their attention to me, i recite a poem. Written about my observations of the space and the people within it. No plan, no script just what i saw.

I quote the words of Mo Siira –

‘Public space requires improvisation, preparedness, feelings, energy and observation.

Questions of ‘does it work’ don’t apply, was it a mistake don’t matter when everything is essential. I sit down and from my chair say. This is your takeaway, answer these questions for yourself.

What is my comfort zone?

How do I deal with the unexpected?

What makes a space artistic?

What is art and what is not?

I stand up, circling on the spot. I smile and blow a kiss to our lunch guest. She responds and sends a kiss back.  I leave, departing to enter the light. Destination – the other side of the road.