A project initiated by

Gap Filler

“The external version is a term more like 'joyful participation'. We’re trying to grow an understanding that ways of being a good citizen aren’t just voting."

Based in Christchurch, New Zealand, Gap Filler began in 2010 with a group of volunteers seeking to make a difference in their city following a natural disaster, and has developed since then into a full-time organisation dedicated to creative urban regeneration. Its team of seven includes two co-founders, Ryan Reynolds and Coralie Winn; similarly, four members of the board of trustees have been with Gap Filler from its inception. Registered as a not-for-profit charitable trust, its annual turnover is in the region of $600,000 (NZD), of which roughly 50% is received via grants and philanthropy, and 50% commercial fees.

Mission: people shaping the place they live

When Christchurch was hit by a major earthquake in September 2010, Ryan Reynolds and a group of friends decided that “bureaucrats from Wellington don’t know better than people who live here” what form regeneration should take, and set about turning “vacant, privately owned land where buildings had been demolished, into temporary public spaces, with a high level of involvement and participation from local businesses, local community groups, local residents, etc”. Six months later, Christchurch experienced an aftershock that, because it was closer to the city, caused more damage – and Gap Filler went from being a self-funded, informal project to a registered not-for-profit organisation. In that time, says Reynolds, it has carried out “80-odd projects, each one quite different from the last”. The consistency lies in the mission: “We’re looking at ways of getting people more actively involved in shaping the place that they live” – not just in response to disaster, but as a political tactic of “active citizenship”.

Not that Gap Filler use that phrase in a public capacity: “The external version is a term more like ‘joyful participation’. We’re trying to grow an understanding that ways of being a good citizen aren’t just voting or participating in local government consultation processes: there are many other proactive ways that you can sniff out your community, see what’s lacking, and take power into your own hands to change it. There’s a really strong advocacy role in what we do – and 70-80% of that is by example. People look at our projects and think: I could do that – and they do, in their neighbourhood.”

Reynolds believes fun is vital to that sense of possibility. He used to work as part of a theatre ensemble who had “a more earnest, consciousness-raising strategy for provoking social change”, but with Gap Filler the aim is “changing behaviour without needing to change minds”. He points to one of the group’s most enduring projects, the Dance-O-Mat: a sprung dancefloor placed in vacant sites, with its own speakers and lights and coin-operated machine through which to play music. “If you can get people spontaneously interacting with strangers and dancing in a public site, you can change their behaviours and associations.” That in turn changes how they respond to more official consultations about public space.

The many forms of participation

All of Gap Filler’s work invites public interaction. Sometimes the form it takes is simple: “Our first project was just rolling out some astroturf and putting a bunch of potted plants to create a temporary public garden, and inviting people to play music or read poetry or whatever.”

“Our first project was just rolling out some astroturf and putting a bunch of potted plants to create a temporary public garden, and inviting people to play music or read poetry or whatever.”

Sometimes it is technically complex, as in the case of “a giant joystick that sits on the street corner and people can jump up and play a video game on it”. Generally it aims to be “relevant or topical”: an outdoor photography exhibition charting the regeneration of East Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall contributed to a wider discussion about “heritage and what to do about damaged heritage buildings”.

But Gap Filler also invites participation at much earlier stages of its process, in two ways:

1: Working with communities of interest

“Our most common way of working is that we come up with a very broad concept for a project – cycle-powered cinema, for instance – and get offered access to a vacant site, then invite certain groups we think might be interested in that concept to join us. In that case, we rang cycle advocacy groups, the local film society, talked to a few cycle groups about curating a programme of bicycle-y films. That’s our usual methodology.”

2: Working with specific ethnic community groups

Another mode of finding communities to participate in its projects sees Gap Filler approaching specific groups with whom it wants to work, “before we have any particular concept or ideas, and we develop everything in partnership”. One instance of this is the Diverscity strand of programming, developed in response to the realisation that “we hadn’t much participation in our projects from certain ethnic groups”. These works begin with an invitation, Gap Filler approaching specific communities to say: “We’d like to do a project with you, that reflects your culture, or what’s important to your identity; we have no ideas: what do you think?” The only stipulation is that the project “has deeper or different forms of engagement” than what’s usually found in food festivals or events that involve “consuming”. Already Gap Filler have worked with the Chinese Cultural Association to create public ping-pong tables and the Nigerian Association on an outdoors strategy game based on mancala; it’s now collaborating with the local Fijian community to create “public hammocks or relaxing chairs that are better than benches”.

Animating place

As befits an organisation whose “mission extends beyond disaster recovery”, Gap Filler also works internationally, “in Sydney, Melbourne, Copenhagen, San Francisco – the richest and most liveable cities around”. Here the focus is on “creating strategies for local participation. In general, we take the line that we don’t deliver projects in other places because an understanding of the context and local participation are our two key platforms for any action.” Instead Gap Filler prefer to mentor local artists, “guiding them through a process of creating a public project with community in mind”.

Far preferable are the rare commissions that invite Gap Filler to support the redesign of public space, working alongside landscape architects and local planners to think about “placemaking and activation and community participation” before the landscape is fixed. One such in Auckland, working with a government development agency on a waterfront project, has shifted Reynolds’ ambitions for what might be achieved in Christchurch, if Gap Filler stopped being “just a group following the processes that other people set out”, and instead took more of an advocacy role with planning agencies.

The problem of labels

Gap Filler avoids labels in two ways:

1: Don’t mention the arts

Rather than align itself with the traditional arts community in Christchurch – which, says Reynolds, was largely “unwilling or unable to think outside the fine arts and gallery system” in the aftermath of the earthquake – Gap Filler has preferred to think in terms of “creativity or creative practice, and social practice”. Reynolds believes that this “strategy to not affiliate ourselves with any arts” widens participation, and that people give the work whatever label “they need in order to see themselves being part of it”, whether it’s art, community development or tactical urbanism.

2: Against ownership

Gap Filler’s work exists in the commons in myriad ways: it tends not to emphasise authorship of its own work, preferring “people just use it”; and it inspires lots of similar projects, both by organisations and individuals, which are sometimes misattributed as “a Gap Filler” (to the frustration of the organisation being overshadowed!).  As a “grassroots agitator” group, it actively seeks to inspire others, and currently is preoccupied with making public rules around building structures in public space. “We’ve become experts in the Department of Building and Housing regulations, and what structures can be built without applying for permits,” unsurprisingly by building an array of such structures; from that, Gap Filler has developed “our own idiot’s guide to the building consent guidelines that we can share with people – and sure enough, a lot of people have followed suit.”

Challenges

Gap Filler faces two key challenges in its practice:

1: Notions of quality

It’s central to the accessibility of Gap Filler’s work that it often has a “lo-fi aesthetic”, which Reynolds says was more readily accepted in the short-term aftermath of the earthquake, but “now that we’ve got glitzy new shopping-mall buildings going up, people are saying ‘we don’t need that lo-fi crap any more’. As a culture we’ve so much accepted quite technical definitions of quality: well-engineered, long-life materials, slick things means quality – whereas I could point to a lot of our cheaper and less engineered projects that deliver much stronger social outcomes.”

“As a culture we’ve so much accepted quite technical definitions of quality: well-engineered, long-life materials, slick things means quality – whereas I could point to a lot of our cheaper and less engineered projects that deliver much stronger social outcomes.”

2: Funding conditions

Although its avoidance of labels and categories initially worked in Gap Filler’s favour, because “the national arts body wanted to fund us, the community development organisations would fund us, the urban design agency would fund us, and so on”, more recently it has become a detriment – because funding bodies again want to fund within their labels. It’s even more problematic that: “We get funded to create new projects. Nobody funds us to maintain existing projects or ensure their ongoing use and relevance, or to decommission them.” As a result, Gap Filler is losing money on all its most popular and enduring projects: “Every time we try to get rid of the Dance-O-Mat because we get given notice on its site, there’s outrage: we have to find another site, pack it, reinstall it. That costs thousands – and nobody pays for that.” Gap Filler now specifies when working with partners that projects will be temporary, to ensure that it is able to sell a project on, or “gift it to a school or another community group”, rather than having to “continue to look after it as a public asset”.

What next?

Increasingly Gap Filler is seeking to partner with planning and landscape architecture firms to make “activation or community participation part of a tender process” for design work. In a personal capacity, Reynolds is also “loosely involved in setting up a new property development company, exploring how you can get better community outcomes in property development”, and hopes that Gap Filler would be able to collaborate with this group, even if that were “limited to things like the activation framework or peer reviewing the designs.”

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