‘Chop shop’ initiative and how it informed the project I had a Dream

In 2011, Donna Kukama, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, and Georges Pfruender created a first set of ‘chop shopping’ actions in or close to selected malls in Jeppe Street, Johannesburg – a trading area in the inner city, largely organised by Ethiopian and Eritrean traders. Regular police raids subject this area to duress. The shopping spaces and adjacent streets allow for a wide range of economic activities, legal and illicit, attracting masses of customers on any business day. Some of the articles on sale had gone through processes of reassemblage and/or of relabelling.


The ‘chop shopping’ actions occurred because of a year-long interdisciplinary practice-based urban research project in Jeppe, with researchers and students from the Schools of Architecture, Law, and the Arts at Wits University, Johannesburg. The term ‘chop shopping’ designates the reassembly of car parts, often obtained in illegal ways to be brought into a second cycle of existence, without acknowledging the sources of the original parts. Survival economy, which covers a large territory of the globe, creatively engages with disassemblage/reassemblage in regulated and unregulated ways. These activities happen in a context of rules and protocols that are subject to continuous negotiation and renegotiation.


The project replayed the vernacular practice of chop shopping in the field of art, allowing protocols created by the production and trading of goods to inform various actions and performances: reassembled objects and stories were brought into public circulation. Reconditioned and redesigned goods were exchanged against stories and stories could be the beginning of the chop shopping process for a new object. As many stalls and shops specialise in clothes (the majority from China), the chop shop team took as its first topic for concrete action the disassembling of second-hand clothes and their reconditioning or restyling into new objects, some of which then became non-wearable items.


The assembly line was a core working principle for all chop shopping actions: the participants would disassemble/reassemble elements collectively in regulated sequences along and around tables. They were thus absorbed by concrete questions as to what kinds of tools, protocols, and seating orders were to be established to start production. Through setting up a concrete working environment, the operational principles were tested: what happens if you sit here and cut away the collar? Is the next person in line actually able to engage with this alteration and make it the new starting point of his/her intervention? The collective art process in this context was less concerned with questions about a fundamental creative act than with ‘what can I make of a thing you left in my hands?’ This step-by-step procedure allowed for co-production, in which each participant developed an understanding and ownership over a part of the production and, with her/his part, entirely changed the outcome of the final product. These step-by-step actions allowed for a thinking of the collective, not in a circular but rather in a linear mode – the theorising of which we consider still ‘under construction’.

Objects emerging from the chop shop processes, once declared ‘good for circulation’, would then acquire the label ‘chop shopped’ and be offered for trade. The customers’ capacity to acquire specific chop-shopped items was determined by the quality of the stories they provided in exchange. These exchanges were organised in a mall and on the street. A short film presents the core principles and the objects brought into circulation by the chop shop team:



Interview with Dorothee, who contributed to I had a Dream from the start of the initiative (with further participation by Donna Kukama, Mwenya Kabwe, Khutjo Green, Tshego Khutsoane, and Samuel Dematraz who were involved in specific parts of the I had a Dream project):


Georges: What about the link between chop shop and I had a Dream?


Dorothee: Chop shop developed in relation to the Jeppe Street project, driven by an interest in narrative – anecdote, fictionalising – as part of the environment and about how we interact. The notion of the anecdote, allegory and so on, and then the story competition were introduced by you, Georges. It was about how one thing is valued against another – commodity exchange and the idea that commodities compete against one another. For me the stories were more important than the notion, but I think you, Georges, were more interested in exchange, the values of different things – where stories are valued more than things – but they are paramount to survival, where it is vital to make connections. Chop shopping is about trying to infiltrate a different value system, for example, a story for a product. Repurposing different things could result in a new element that could then enter an existing public and create a new currency.


I had a Dream came from you, Georges, in relation to chop shop – to investigate the dream in relation to the idea of exchange, new kinds of currency. For me who works with imaginaries, dreams are quite real things. I selected photographs taken in relation to dreams found online.

A manifesto was created that was also considered to be subject to processes of ongoing chop shopping exercises – to be expanded, altered, and renewed at any stage, informed by realised and unrealised projects.

Images: G. & N. Pfruender

Video on chop shop; Amel Belay - click to play

The title I had a Dream – a clin d’œil to the famous speech of Martin Luther King – situates the dream in the past: a past so recent that we still sense its essence. But, as we try to take ownership of it, we are aware that in the process we lose a part of its substance and simultaneously create something ‘other’ – something which ultimately will have to stand on its own, uncertain whether it will be able to carry the profound truth which the dream might have revealed to us.


The title also refers to our immediate environment, Johannesburg, which, in 2012, seemed to us at such distance from the promised place in a rainbow nation, fervently called for in the immediate post-apartheid years. For many South Africans, the idea of a shared collective ideal had become a dream deferred, or maybe a dream set aside. Though we did not want to create through our dream project a direct political comment, we were aware that it was deeply influenced and coloured by this very context – a context in which we constantly pondered about our position as ‘visitors’, as ‘privileged outsiders’.

Georges: Were the dreams you sent in your own – I thought some of them were your own?

Dorothee: No, they were all found online. I selected them for their resonance. I was interested in how they described spaces, how they could be translated into movement – how they became vocabulary for another kind of narrative. 


I liked the absurdity of the space in which chop shop took place – it doesn’t exist anymore. The decor and furniture from the restaurant is there but the owner has gone back to Ethiopia. I almost wish that chop shop would never be reinstated. So many elements were fantastic just as they were. It was entirely absurd, entirely non-capitalist, but did not necessarily have much of an impact. The image that is created in my mind, I liked.

Georges: What about the absence of authorship in chop shop? People were there by chance and each one found a space that was productive. And you spoke about the dreams that you sent and brought into circulation. We’ve been thinking about authorship and the question of authority. Maybe it’s an interesting thing for an artist – not to step away from responsibility – but thinking it in another way. I remember two things: (1) if we want to describe processes related to dreams we should think about the playfulness and not harness it with theoretical things. What does theorising mean in this context? (2) What about delimitation and authorship?


Dorothee: There are so many directions . . . finding out for you and FUNDBÜRO what is really at its core. Authorship is not only about delimitation and authority. It’s about subjectivities and the notion of shared ownership and a known connection. The notion of the bricoleur – repurposing – interpretation, translation, and moving away from the original voice.


Georges: All these protocols to create new possibilities to regroup and rethink stories – it’s not just assemblage, but also that there are different people intervening at different moments like an assembly line. Authorships have to recede.


Dorothee: It’s the same way as you set rules for a field or game. There are variations but rules give it a structure. It reminds me of an architect in Johannesburg who uses a program with algorithms based on DNA. You give it rules and a foundation and then you watch it. It feels random but it’s not – it’s finding its forms.


Georges: Thinking of protocols as generative – replacing authorship?


Dorothee: Depends on what is at stake. If it reflects where connections and relations are and how we see them authorship doesn’t matter in this context, but it remains important in that you set up the questions. Authorship steps back but you are actually very present as authors – not as an authority – but as building the basics. Authorship could become more mobile.


Georges: Authorship has so many shapes. Generating principles – facilitating different types of narrative.


Dorothee: This project goes on exploring authorship.


Georges: We still remain with the same type of responsibility – by shifting something, making it more complex at the end of the day you can say that you are not necessarily owning things – you are inhabited by things. No matter whether it’s collective authorship – at the very end of the day we are still committed to certain things.


Dorothee: The question of authorship as individual, whether collective or disfigured – is interesting in relation to our current world – there is the responsibility: you have to remain responsive and acknowledge your own complicity in being the author. So, who, for example, is the author of the ANC (African National Congress) – or of how we understand the current crisis? Read the New Age (mouthpiece of the ANC) and the Star (a daily newspaper that tends to be critical of the ANC government) – the authors say the same thing but they look different. Does the project intend to reposition how we think dreams and the subconscious?


Georges: The project has developed its own object – it has opened suddenly that liberating but quite frightening space where you say that dreams are probably the single most generating force that allow us to be in the world. They create through their own magic the second reality that makes us aware of this reality. Otherwise we could not be outside. The more one does it, revisits it, the more you have the feeling that dismembering them and reorganising them on the chop shop principle – it’s like fragmented elements of something far more important, and corresponds in odd ways to the logic of the restitution of our own dreams.


Dorothee: If you consider that every dream is linked to a very particular person even though there may be certain similarities – but it is linked to certain lived experiences – then something is taken away from the dream, it becomes less. The problem with playfulness is that it can become just about imagination and magic rather than the specificity of the dream and its social consequences – even though you can chop them up there is a search for something that is cohesive and it returns to something that has resonance. The form itself needs to cohere. It doesn’t have to have a beginning and an end.


Georges: Tobie Nathan (2013), in his book, talks of the dreams that may never be interpreted/revealed – the kind of space we all know should be considered utterly private and taboo to any further manipulation. Then there are those dreams we intuitively know can be shared, or which at times we feel that we have an obligation to share. Many societies have activated the collective space for the dream – Western Society since the late nineteenth century has tried to individualise it.


Dorothee: In the context of the industrial revolution and following the logic of emerging capitalism, you could look at this phenomenon as a reversible process. New strategies of collective dreaming, or dreaming for a collective, could emerge and be considered anchorage points (mobility at large scale which introduces new possibilities).


Georges: Nicolas Baduraux (one of our French partners) is, for example, trying to understand migrants who have very little agency in the French environment, and who have been keen to participate in a dream project. He would like to think about groups and the way they would wish to share, exchange dreams. You link dream and life but there is another element – they are fragments of our memory that we access. We never have an entire narrative of a dream – these extracts, brought to ‘daylight’, come out distorted by the very formats we possess to retell them. The logic of a dream possesses dimensions of spatial and temporary fluidity that we struggle to represent in an account. Detaching the dream from the living beings are processes we do as we reconstruct the bits we remember, and thus ‘exteriorise’ to allow them circulation, also in new contexts.


Dorothee: It wouldn’t be interesting. It would be without history, without anchorage.


Georges: It wouldn’t be like a map that would attempt to reproduce in a one-to-one mode reproduction of the entire territory, but rather it would allow us to discover the shapes of the ‘archetypical’, or at these the shapes we find have an echo potential within the universe of our dreams.


Dorothee: Each dream has a specific tone, colour, and all these elements one is interested in as an artist – you need that mobility to come up with a particular project – to make sense of something. It goes back to an architect using processes that are quite playful and exploratory. Take for example Bernard Tschumi, an architect who created follies – how he arrived at them is really interesting, moving away from thinking of architecture as functional, but rather as a consequence of events and cinematographic narratives. He takes a piece of writing, layers something else, and it becomes the beginning of a design. Transcribed into a space, it would then give birth to a structure. Something that is very specific to dreams. There is no hierarchy. It’s not just about a tool. There’s a strange logic in the illogic: a structure that doesn’t exist on its own terms but comes through the human element. If we were to replace the content of this project with something else would the questions be the same?


Georges: The protocols were stronger than the matter. But the doubts come when the matter is stronger than the protocols. When dealing with dreams – dreams resist in so many ways, and most importantly, by their very ephemeral nature, they resist categorising – as you stated, dreams are an emanation (or a further declination?) of a life lived and a life in its potential. Remember when we said we can’t talk about the initiative I had a Dream without a political dimension? What does it mean to collectively dream? In what ways does it mobilise us? In reference to the recent major developments in North Africa, we are told that this occurred as a realisation of a collective dream – something belonging to a young generation. At this stage, it seems important to acknowledge that which we have not yet started thinking about – that which is not yet addressed in the present shape of the project – that which still seeks a possible format and context.


Dorothee: The role of FUNDBÜRO in synthesising certain things. The Chinese think of night as yin time – structural time in our daily rhythms. The spleen is responsible for absorbing things, for example, so it’s absolutely crucial that we sleep and dream but that it’s active – in rest there is a lot of selective activity in the balance of what is needed. It shifts the notion of the dream that is entirely random.

Drawings: Georges Pfruender

Video of performance of chop shop principles; Samuel Dématraz - click to play

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