Louise Granger et Victor Toutain – yakafokon collective
Louise Granger and Victor Toutain, two members of the yakafokon collective, look back at the project’s beginnings and reflect on their design and production work. They also discuss their upcoming residency in Germany, focused on children's play areas.
You co-founded the yakafokon collective in 2015, which brings together artists—particularly architects and urban planners—to develop creative processes. Could you tell us how the project came about?
First and foremost, the collective was about friendship and a group of people’s desire to try things out together. Our first project was the Use-It map for Rouen: we had travelled across Europe using several of these maps and we wanted to become part of the network and create connections across Rouen. That same year, we were involved in the Les Effusions festival that has been held in Val-de-Reuil since 2016. The residency and the festival were foundational moments for us, as we had to consider the spatial layout of the site when constructing the festival structures and sets. We were able to immerse ourselves in the practical aspects of the materials and the construction, while treating the work site as a space for discussion, friendship and learning.
These collaborative projects involve very different personalities: in practical terms, how do you approach the design and production work you take on?
There are a dozen members of the collective, each taking on different roles. We function as a cooperative so, even if we’re all spread out across France and elsewhere, we make sure we have bimonthly collective meetings. It’s true that we see this collective work as a series of discussions in which we all compare our professional experiences. But it’s also an opportunity to reflect on how we see the professional world in a different light. Within the collective, some of us come from architecture schools, some have a background in live performance or the restaurant industry, while others work independently or for agencies. We try to create our projects and then get together to make them a reality in our residencies or on site.
You have been awarded a Résidences Sur Mesure+ artistic residency grant by Institut Français. What does the grant mean for the collective today?
We were encouraged to apply by a friend, whose background is in live performance but who has an interest in architecture. We wanted to find somewhere we could work together collaboratively and we opted for this project as it gave us the opportunity to travel. Winning the award has made us eager to meet our neighbours, to respond to a collective curiosity around the extent to which children are considered when allocating public space. It is a recognition of our work, evidence that people believe in us and that interest in the subject is growing. The grant will also give us time to carry out research, enabling us to meet other people and teams who are exploring the same issues as us.
During your various artistic residencies, many of which have taken place in schools, what has emerged from your interactions with the children? How do you think they relate to architecture?
Our point of entry is usually the children's living environment and their experiences of it. The concept of architecture can still seem a bit scary and inaccessible to both kids and the general public. So you have to focus on listening, starting from a point of lived experience and feeling, to understand how they make sense of their space day to day. This enables us to value the children's own expertise regarding their environment, which is something we don't really have. We try to tell a story based on their feelings, their experiences and their memories. We’ve noticed that children love talking about their everyday environment, but they can struggle to name things. They do manage to evoke things, but we’re also on hand to help them use appropriate words to describe where they live, such as “apartment block”, which in their eyes means “house”.
Your project “Towards a Playful City: Children and Play in Urban Areas” explores urban playgrounds provided for children across France. What inspired this desire to talk about play areas and, in particular, their uniformity?
First of all, we really care about public space, about communal space, and we’re passionate about how children perceive our world. We want to put forward a fair, humane vision of the communal, while retaining our love for people coming together and having fun. In France, there are loads of recreational areas designed in very standard ways, and that was our starting point following our travels. When you compare this to other approaches to play areas—particularly in Germany—or to how children are allowed to play freely on the streets of Togo, you realise that adults look at children in different ways. Every adult takes children into account when in public spaces, not just the parents who are looking after them. We want to explain that areas for children to “have fun” don't all have to arise from a catalogue of objects.
You’re planning to begin a travelling residency in Germany in autumn 2021. How will you undertake your research on the ground? Will the pandemic impact your travel plans?
The idea is for six or seven of us to travel in a caravan, acting as a kind of “mobile office”. We will travel between Berlin, Hamburg and Hanover, setting ourselves up in adventure playgrounds and local parks, for example. Our aim then is to meet with children, the people involved in creating the parks and parents. The journey will also involve interacting with children who don't speak our language. So we want to work on translating shapes and objects, as well as putting together graphics to translate emotions and information. Our geographical proximity to Germany is an advantage, because we can make more concrete plans, despite the pandemic.
Behind all this is a desire to place children at the heart of urban planning projects. In concrete terms, how do you envisage this spatial reappropriation of towns and cities from their perspective?
At present, the work involves reflecting and taking action on public space. We have a real problem with citizens’ views not being seen as legitimate, their opinions not taken into account. In general, adults tend to cast an amused eye over things produced by children instead of taking them seriously. Their ideas are seen as utopian and it’s very rare for someone to take a real interest in them. So we need to find a way to get children into the places where decisions are made, by creating dedicated organisations. It is important to realise that reflecting and taking action on public space would make it more pleasant and more easily accessible to children. This would benefit everyone: a city where children can play in the street is a safer city for both children and vulnerable groups, and therefore for every citizen. We are campaigning for a move towards an inclusive approach that places children at the heart of urban planning, making towns and cities more welcoming for every inhabitant.
What kind of tools do you use when working with children? What role do these play, directly or indirectly, in your interactions and reflections?
We use some conventional tools, such as in situ sketching, drawing, mapmaking and particularly model making. Models are something everyone can make their own, they are manipulable and scalable. They are an ideal tool for interacting with children. We also use less conventional tools, such as photography, video, sound and writing. It’s useful to combine architecture with other artistic disciplines, because they give you another way of looking at it. We have done several residencies with Thylda Barès, an actor from the 2222 collective, and it’s so valuable to approach questions of space from a perspective different to that of architecture, through play and the body.
Have you got any other projects lined up after you’ve finished this one? Where do your jobs come from and how do you work with the people who hire you, particularly local government bodies?
We've already been invited by Rouen city council to take part in a working group on child-friendly cities after this project. In December, we are scheduled to take part in a conference on adventure playgrounds and play areas in public spaces, organised by TAPLA, a research programme focused on adventure playgrounds. We are working closely with Val-de-Reuil council, particularly on the project headed up by the La Bourlingue collective and the Les Effusions festival. We’ve spent at least a month there each year for the past five years now. We know the town well now and want to get more involved locally. We’ve also been collaborating with Maison de l'architecture de Normandie [Normandy Architecture Forum] for the past two years, which is used to dealing with institutional partners. The grant has really enabled us to forge relationships with particular geographical areas, and these are proving to be very strong.
The yakafokon collective is laureate of the Résidences Sur Mesure Plus+ of the Institut français, a new mobility programme launched in the autumn of 2020 to support French and foreign artists and collectives residing in France who wish to carry out and/or deepen their personal research during a 4 to 12 week residency abroad.
Victor Toutain, member of the yakafokon collective, will participate to the Focus Territoires et Arts (Territories and Arts Focus) of the Institut français, from 29 June to 3 July 2021 in Alès.
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