Interview by David McLeavy
Published June 2019
RESOLVE are an interdisciplinary design collective that combines architecture, engineering, technology and art to address social challenges. For them, ‘design’ encompasses both physical and systemic intervention, looking at innovative ways of working with communities as ‘stakeholders’ in the short and long-term management of projects.
RESOLVE is currently made up of Gameli Ladzekpo (GL), Akil Scafe-Smith (AS) and Seth Scafe-Smith (SS).
I first came across your work during a presentation at Bloc Projects as part of the unique Salon 18 programme curated by Kerry Campbell, and you spoke in length about different members of the collective bringing unique skills and insights into your creative projects. I wondered if you could let me know a little more about where you all come from in terms of your experiences and what has led you to wanting to work in the way you do?
GL: We’re all children of the city; Akil, Seth and Vishnu grew up in South London, and I grew up in North London, and then Luton.
Cities, like people, have so many layers. We’ve been the kids kicking ball in the cage, the struggling students, the strangers, the locals, the tall guys behind the bar, the can’t get-ins without three girls, the losers, the runners-up, the winners— the ‘artists’ is a new one we’re trying to get used too. These experiences, inhabiting multiple layers of the city, definitely shape our work.
Practically, as a design studio our work is about creating physical spaces. But, I hope, our mission is to amplify the quiet voices, the voices distorted a few layers beneath the surface.
We also studied in London. Akil and I met in our first week at UCL in 2011. We were friends a long time before RESOLVE started in 2016...
AS: We all have a real range of backgrounds which I think is the real strength in how we operate as an interdisciplinary, or perhaps even transdisciplinary, studio. My background is in urban design but prior to that I was part of this really forward-thinking degree called Arts & Sciences where I feel I was really exposed to interdisciplinarity as a concept, as a method, and a tool.
Gam studied mechanical engineering but his passion has always been technology and social entrepreneurship, with a range of start-ups and website designs under his belt. Seth’s background is in history, but has experience working on issues in the built environment from both the public and private sector. Vishnu is our friend, photographer and an is increasingly critical part of what we do. A lot of our projects so far have been temporary and have left no physical trace behind them, so archiving and documenting the forms and processes that constituted them is really key.
I think this breadth of skills and experiences engenders a really exciting way of working you know. All our projects, in some way, span a variety of disciplines and seep between their interstices, making us quite hard to tie down sometimes. Gam’s favourite comment made about us I think was when Phin Harper from the Architecture Foundation told us: “I always have a hard time describing what you do to people!”
That’s a perfect description by Phin Harper, and one that I share. But for me this is one of the most interested elements of what you are doing. I also think it is important that you are describing that you are all coming from various professional and educational backgrounds, as certain areas of the art/design/architecture world are hard to break into even with the traditional requirements for entry.
I wanted to expand on something that you touched on, in that most of your projects appear then disappear and may only exist physically for a short time. One of your recent projects in Berlin used a variety of common plastic grocery and farming crates to build a series of temporary structures. One of the things I found interesting about this was what happened to the crates after the project.
I wondered if you could talk a little more about this project, what happened to the crates and what your relationship is to waste?
GL: We’d been commissioned by Freo Majer, Art Director at Forecast Festival to create an installation for their Housing the Human Conference at Haus Der Kulturen und Der Welt, Berlin. Our project, Off Grid was a playful response to the austere mathematical models that explain human separation in cities. We made a dynamic, modular stage and meeting area in the foyer from farming crates, a plastic playground.
Once we’d figured out what materials to use, we needed to bring it to life with a programme of events. The Forecast team gave us the freedom to open up the space. Seth organised a research trip a few months prior to the event, where we came to meet people and understand the context.
SS: This project involved a lot of new challenges, but like all our projects, one of the crucial aspects was the people who were to engage with the space we engineered. Freo’s main objective was to create a space that generated excitement, intrigue and gave people the opportunity to engage with it throughout the weekend. Yet, at the same time, we had 2 hours in the afternoon to put on our ‘performance’ that was to really announce the space to the festival. We met with about 16 organisations or people firstly, each had different thoughts and some recommendations and eventually we managed to narrow it down to 4 collaborators who were keen to help us bring Off Grid to life. We then developed a programme around them, proposing 3 phases to the performance as a bit of contextual framework but largely working with the capabilities and offerings of each group. These included, an Afro-German artist called Thierno Diallo, an Afro-German band called Fulani, the migrant magazine based in Berlin called Nansen and a community group that works with underprivileged migrant children in Neukolln called Schilleria. In those two hours, each collaborator helped bring the space to life, igniting the space with their talents and stories that brought different communities to the forefront at the Haus der Kulturen Der Welt.
AS: We were keen to address our own ephemerality in Berlin as well as that of the installation and to do this we placed the afterlife of our materials at the centre of the design process. We began by mapping organisations and initiatives in Berlin who appeared to have some need for vegetable crates. Unfortunately, sitting at your computer only gets you so far in these situations and to broaden our scope we had to capitalise on tips given to us by actual Berliners and our existing friendship networks in the city. A great example of this is our relationship with Guerilla Architects, an amazing group who introduced us to an extensive network of independent farmers. We also found a number of amazing projects like Stadt von Unten in Kreuzberg and Himmelbeet in Wedding who are using the crates as we speak!
GL: The next day, people came into the space, dismantled the installation, and took the crates to new homes. It was cathartic to see the installation disappear like that. Gone in the blink of an eye.
SS: It was a crazy experience to see some many wanting customers who’d heard about these boxes, a perfect way to complete the project lifecycle. Not only this, it helped us really cement our thoughts on waste and alternative use. We’ve often used recycled material that can be deemed as waste but we always stress re-evaluating the use of the material to create a completely alternative prospect. Even with this, what remains is the idea of waste, because once we’ve finished with it, it can just as easily return to its ultimate end as waste. With the boxes however, not only did we promote an alternative us of the material, we were able to expand and diversify the life cycle by introducing another element. Who knows what has happened to the boxes now but that was really satisfying to enable that outcome through a bit of effort and some fortunate networks. We use so many different materials in our projects that it’s important to keep driving this continuous practical lifecycle.
You are all very generous with your work, in that you open up the spaces that you create to other collaborators, artists, musicians and more. I want to ask you to talk a little more about the social aspect of what you are doing. It feels a little as if you are activating space for people, almost creating a new ‘commons’ for them to occupy, which feels refreshing in a time where an increasing amount of space within urban areas is become privately owned. Would you agree?
GL: For sure, inclusivity is much more powerful than exclusivity. The world has enough private places you can’t get into. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, but I feel the zeitgeist moving away from individualism, and towards community. I’m glad the work feels that way, hopefully others' sense that too. We’re using art and architecture to create the ‘new commons’. Come as you are, maybe bring a few friends if their up for it.
AS: Agreed, I’d really like the audience for our projects to be as wide as possible and hopefully this year is going to present the chances to really push that. On the act of ‘opening up’, for me, it can be incredibly varied how we try and open different spaces for people. In Rebel Space, for example, its setting was a public park that never closed, so we really weren’t opening it in any physical way. Rather, we needed to find a way to translate that perception of openness to various groups at the same time; for students, 9-5ers, artists, community organisations, and ne'er-do-wells alike. For OFF GRID, we were smack in the middle of a pretty large art institution so opening up really meant reaching out, bringing in, and linking up as much as possible with different people before the actual project even began!
SS: I think it’s really interesting to raise the point about opening up through activation, because the situation you have at the moment, particularly in London is that there’s an absence of accessible space but an abundance of activity. Take Passageway, we simply had the access, we had to the key and the license to create a space that could be as inclusive (or exclusive) as we wanted it to be the rest made itself. A lot of the people we worked with stumbled upon the space, saw it was open and came in for a chat and next thing you know they were playing at the closing party. Its that process of activation that is really powerful for me, trying to capture the energy of a city or a scene and project it into your space can give you the opportunity to really watch a space grow and develop alongside a community of creatives that can form.
It seems like you work best when trying to find solutions to relatively complicated problems, whether that be to do with physical space restrictions or responding to particular contextual parameters. I wondered whether your approach changes when presented with a more open ended brief or when you may be invited to working within a gallery or institution, where you may have more carte blanche.
GL: I suppose the gallery, or institution is a new context we’re learning to respond to. But, I don’t think we treat a ‘gallery’ or ‘institution’ as any more (or less) sacrosanct than any other space, It’s just another type of space.
Of course we communicate the project in a way that’s appropriate to the space. Hopefully, like a polyglot, speaking the language of several disciplines, but communicating the same core message- community first.
For example, our project at S1 is called ‘The Garage’, because for all intents and purposes, the space is literally a garage. In the context of Sheffield, where people are pretty straight-talking, the language also takes on a poetic directness - they like to say it as it is! Actually Katie Matthews (S1 Project Assistant), who was born and raised in Sheffield came up with the name
SS: It’s definitely a different kind of challenge when presented with a gallery or institution, but like Gam said, our approach still remains. Sometimes, the message can be even more powerful in the context of a gallery or an older, more familiar institutions that people are used to seeing in the way we try and see things. Take Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt in Berlin for example, we were invited to participate in Forecast Festival who for a few years have been trying to change the perception of the space, bringing in new types of people and really pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in a space such as that. I’ve got a strong feeling that we appealed to the organisers because of our approach and we were encouraged to bring that to HKW - and we used that space, and that festival, as a platform for groups across Berlin that may not have had such an open dialogue with that particular scene. So even without our more familiar parameters, there's an overarching mantra that continue to resonate with us.
What are your plans for the future?
AK: The future is looking really exciting, climate catastrophe aside. All the projects we have coming up are looking at how to apply the practices and methodologies we’ve employed so far - creating rifts, opening up space, participatory design, re-appropriation and re-use, temporary intervention - but in a variety of new ways and sometimes intangible ones. We’re going to be diving into a lot of new realms, from asset-based community development systems in Poplar to social infrastructure strategies around the UK! All the close friends we’ve made along the way are playing a crucial role in helping us expand and operate in situations we’d never previously considered and for me that’s the most exciting part; the opportunity to truly be interdisciplinary. But whatever happens, we want to keep providing platforms and helping to realise the vision of those around us and the young budding creatives we meet who want their voices heard!
The other day an amazing young poet told me that the first time she had ever performed was at one of our first projects and now she’s going on to do truly amazing things and that gives us real energy man. We wax lyrical about ‘structural change’ all the time but I think we’re really approaching that event horizon past which, we might truly achieve that. Shout out all the friends and family that have been on this journey with us and continue to support us and hopefully we can keep doing you guys proud. Blessed love.
Recent projects include Off Grid at Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt, Berlin (2018); Brixton Bridge public commission with Farouk Agoro (2017); If These Walls Could Talk at Stockwell Festival, London (2017); Brixton Passageway in Brixton, London (2017); Rebel Space for the London Design Festival in Brixton (2016).
If you like this why not read our interview with Bettina Fung
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