On the occasion of the world premiere of Street Vendors: Medellín, Tirana, Johannesburg, Yogyakarta a leporello has been published with texts by Margriet Schavemaker, Tejo Remy, Zef Hemel and Tijs van den Boomen. Please contact me if you would like to receive one.

Foreword by Margriet Schavemaker

From the geometrically displaying of hubcaps to taking a portrait in an outdoor photo studio, and a canopy tent almost flying away, the situations in Su Tomesen’s four-channel video installation 'Street vendors: Medellín, Tirana, Johannesburg, Yogyakarta' range from mundane to slightly absurd. The way in which Tomesen captures the daily life of street vendors in four seemingly very different cities is characteristic of recent social engagement in artistic practices. The films expose the correspondences between local situations and patterns on a global scale through similar difficulties that street vendors face in urban micro economies across the world. The physical space these vendors claim could even be seen as a response to the global capitalist homogenizing tendencies that shape cities today.

Via its monumental presentation and the formal, rhythmic similarities between the footage (the moving, pushing, stacking, cleaning etc.) the installation blurs the distinction between the documentary and the artistic. Presented in an art context some of the scenes can even remind one of contemporary performance art. However, the vendors retain their agency and viewers from all over the world are invited to explore and interpret their daily routines, meanwhile questioning and framing themselves, and the traveling artist, within this dispositive.

In this publication on 'Street vendors: Medellín, Tirana, Johannesburg, Yogyakarta' designer Tejo Remy elaborates on the improvisation and art of merchandise displays. On the other side, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Zef Hemel argues for street vendors as the cornerstones of public space, after which author and city researcher Tijs van den Boomen examines the bottom-up urban economies portrayed in 'Street vendors'.

Margriet Schavemaker is Professor Media and Art in Museum Practice at the University of Amsterdam and Manager Education, Interpretation & Publications | Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Make do

One of my designs once came from seeing a photo of an African woman who carried empty plastic bottles on her head. The packed containers formed a large circle - a whole meter in diameter - and were held together by a strap. This image always stayed with me and partly determined the solution I needed for the chest of drawers I designed in 1991, entitled 'You Can’t Lay Down Your Memory'.

A similar kind of rock-bottom simplicity touches me when I see 'Street vendors' by Su Tomesen. The high level of improvisation and 'make do with what you have' mentality are things that exist a long way away from our 'perfect' Western society, even though they might be the solution as to how to deal with all our stuff. Street vendors put large amounts of recycling into their trolleys and stalls, using the design code: form follows vendor.

The images that arise, such as a wall of car hubcaps, or a display of just rear lights, have, perhaps coincidentally, a strong graphic effect. The unique image created by clustered merchandise draped around a tree is just like the image of the woman with the load of plastic bottles on her head. These kinds of everyday images emerge from necessity and, for the vendor, a much-needed trade. Yet for me, they turn merchandise displays into art.

Tejo Remy designs products, interiors and public space

Street economy

In the violence of hypercapitalism, all attention focuses on the tip of the financial iceberg and the increasing inequality in the world. In the past year, the number of billionaires grew by no less than fifteen per cent. It is usually forgotten that the bottom of the global economy grows even stronger than the top. Not only do cities multiply everywhere in the world; particularly the number of street vendors is expanding rapidly on all continents. 
That is the subject of 'Street vendors', the latest film project by Su Tomesen. She accurately illustrates how street vendors in four cities - Medellín, Tirana, Johannesburg, Yogyakarta - daily set the urban space in motion by taking the streets and squares into their own hands. Tomesen brings a hopeful story about global urbanisation and a world economy growing strongly from below.

Rarely does the migration to cities promise glamour, success and wealth from day one. In fact, the immense gravitation towards cities precipitates in vast slums where destitute newcomers settle to try their luck. Urban growth goes hand in hand with the daily hardships of an endless number of individuals without education: every day again stalls are constructed and dismantled, and improvised displays of food or bottles and cigarettes, often awkwardly showcased on benches and walls. In the meantime, the vendor must remain merry and optimistic, make noise and attract attention to sell something. Street trade is the beginning of every urban economy. 
Selling things from home or a two-wheeler is the cheapest way to start a business. Entrepreneurship is an art you learn best on the street. The street is free and customers pass by daily, but the vendor does need to sell his goods, get a reasonable price, make a chat with this or that person and socialise. Street vendors build local networks and profit to the utmost from chance encounters on the streets. He who is a street vendor today can be a millionaire tomorrow.

However, ambulatory trading has a bad reputation and authorities generally look down on it. It has something anarchistic and undermining to work solo under the open sky, often without a license. Street vendors are a grateful prey of the authorities, who will always protect established parties and drive out the illegal ones with brutal force. 
Still, anyone who sees Tomesen's film can discover little harm in their activities. It is moving to see how, every day, they build up their modest enterprise and take it down again. The same ritual resonates everywhere in the world in an endless variety. That is economy, beautifully portrayed.

Zef Hemel, Professor of Urban and Regional planning at the University of Amsterdam

Heroes of the street

Perhaps the origin of human civilisation is found on the streets, with the vendors who drive their trade under any circumstances. Of course, there are older professions: hunter, fisherman, farmer, weaver. But with trade began the interaction between people; the exchange of products and services and, in their extension, of news, knowledge and ideas.
The city too finds its origin in street trade. All it takes to grow a city is a road and an obstacle, which can be a river, sea or massif. The bottom line is that people have to wait there, as waiting people attract trade, and trade attracts people. Sometimes a road obstacle grows into a city of millions.

In the affluent West, street trade has practically disappeared. Everywhere else, newcomers and old-timers are trying to earn a living within a few square meters. The lucky ones have a tin shed or another place to store their ware covered in plastic and tied up with ropes. However, most have to install their table, party tent, shelf, refrigerator, plastic crates, groundsheet, armchair, clothes rack, banana boxes, mobile display case, scale, flower buckets, typewriter, or mobile fairground attraction only to break it down again in the evening. Others go around with a backpack, transport bicycle, wheelbarrow, children's bicycle, cargo moped, shopping cart, violin case or filled plastic bags.

Street trading seems mobile and flexible, but that is just appearance. Especially when you depend on the street, it is essential to have a regular spot. Customers need to know they can find you on that corner, against that fence, under that tree, or on that ledge. Therefore, the mobile vendors have fixed routes along fixed locations too.
These locations are ambiguous; they belong to public space, yet at the same time they are partly privatised. Residents and sellers know who is where, and woe to those who steal someone else’s spot. Street vendors try to establish themselves: is it possible to leave things behind in the evening, claim an electricity house, or construct a small roof which, in time, takes on a firmer shape? 

From the other side, residents and government are pushing back, demanding vendors to clean up waste, keep sidewalks clear and evenings quiet, and not to beg or deal. Sometimes whole streets are brutally evacuated, shattering a reputation of years.
Street vendors need to preserve a vulnerable balance. They are forced into diplomacy and consultation, to give and take. They form the theatre of the street, are the point of contact, intermediary and social lubricant. Precisely their subtle appropriation of open space makes it a public space, and thus a city.

Tijs van den Boomen is writer and urban researcher