Hotel Yeoville, a digital space to call home

#202 Check in to Hotel Yeoville. I spent Saturday morning at Hotel Yeoville, one of the most exciting interactive exhibitions I have seen. Hotel Yeoville is the brainchild of photographer and artist Terry Kurgan who has for the past three years championed this project to as she puts it to “make the invisible community visible”. Its aim is to create a social map of the migrant or immigrant experience of Johannesburg – to track the experiences of those who have travelled from all over and now call Joburg home. Ironically home is not always a refuge – and the exhibition uses popular social media technologies to create safe spaces in which the complex emotions people have about home can be articulated and shared.

And in this process these experiences link to create a virtual layer of community over the fracture created by humans moving from one place to another.

The exhibition is about place and placelessness, displacement and dat placement. It’s about using the Internet as a vehicle for forging a sense of belonging.

Kurgan’s initial research for the project yielded some fascinating insights – one of these being that authorities estimate that up to 50 percent of the population of Johannesburg’s inner city suburbs is ‘foreign’ and another, that in the three city blocks surrounding Hotel Yeoville, based in Yeoville’s public library, there are more than 40 internet cafes. Kurgan calls these “the glue of diasporic communities” as they provide often the only means of contact to homes away from home.

The project is the work of a research team based in Yeoville that includes the managers of many of these internet cafes as Kurgan emphasised early on that for it to succeed it had to have a strong relationship with people’s everyday life and practices.So the first step was surveying the cafe users – to find out what they were using the internet for, their dreams and desires and even the more practical issues around the hurdles of doing business in the inner city.

Hotel Yeoville was then designed around the needs identified by this research. As you walk into the exhibition space in the library there is a blackboard with the words ‘So where are you from?’, an invitation to add yourself to the conversation created when people write their answer and name. Two facilitators are stationed in the library to take people through the exhibition which comprises a series of booths, each offering a different way of telling your story. Instructions are carefully mapped out on the walls of each booth – the work of a Yeoville-based signwriter who originally came from the Congo – Mr G Melki, and who has left his likeness on one of the walls.

There is a journey booth in which you can pin your story to a Google map, joining the many other stories on the page. In this booth you can also use Google maps to locate the home you left behind. There is a photo booth in which you are invited to pose for four different frames which are then printed – one set for you and the other for the wall on which you can leave your photo and message.

William Kentridge had left his name and message there but not his signature – he’s probably grown wise to souvenir hunters and crazy fans. As one of his crazy fans I couldn’t resist one of my artworks hanging next to his.

William Kentridge leaves a trace but not a signature

Then there is a video booth to record a short piece about your life experience and a story booth to write a story prompted by an interesting array of opening lines to get you beyond the blank page. There is also a business booth that facilitates a growing online directory of free classified ads and business listings – usually these are plastered onto walls around the suburb.

Every person who takes part leaves a little of themselves behind and “every literal space has a virtual space” so each week as the blackboard and photo wall fill up, what’s on them is documented and archived online to make way for another series of experiences. Each week stories are uploaded onto the Hotel Yeoville site and the best of these are read out on Radio Today. The website is now a home to the people of Yeoville – with additional news and resources about living in the suburb.

Experiencing Hotel Yeoville

The project is an amazing realization of the interconnectedness of virtual and real worlds, of the off-line and on-line experiences and of how the web, when used for good, is geared towards social mobilization and is a ready vehicle for tackling social ills.

In short – if you want to understand what makes this city tick then this is one hotel worth checking in to. Inspired and inspiring.

* Hotel Yeoville is on Raleigh Street, between Fortesque and Kenmere Streets, Yeoville.

From the beginning of June the Goethe Institute will be sponsoring a soccer booth for the ‘soccer-crazy’ community of Yeoville to record their feelings and experiences of the World Cup. Visit the website here.

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