“From green balconies and rooftops to car-free city blocks and the expansion of cycling infrastructure there is so much capacity for change. And the response to The Commons was extremely encouraging in the sense that it obviously touched on a topic that many people are feeling urgently about and are actively looking for outlets to express.”-Gretta Louw
Born in South Africa and raised in Australia, artist Gretta Louw moved around quite a bit both internationally and within Germany after graduating university. She relocated to Munich, where she lives today, in 2013.
We first learned of her custom campaign The Commons via an image on Instagram of the billboard: “Imagine every parked car is a tree.” We immediately had to look up who was behind these signs and write to her. The messaging in her campaign is simple and clean, practical as well as profound and we valued learning more about her work through this feature.
Pedestrian Space: Do you think part of the disconnect we experience as societies is forgetting what is important and of value – that, for example, we would benefit enormously from having more trees than parked cars?
Gretta: I think so much of daily life and the shared experience in the 21st century is based on this idea that things have to be the way they’ve always been or that certain aspects of society, city planning etc simply cannot be changed. With The Commons I wanted to question that, in a sense to throw all of the preconceived notions out of the window and ask the questions: How would we like to live? How could public space serve our communities better? Certainly during the pandemic lockdowns I think a lot of people have woken up to the enormous importance of public green spaces, these shared non-commercial areas that allow city-dwellers access to nature.
Pedestrian Space: When did you first conceive of the campaign and what was the process like developing the messages?
Gretta: I was commissioned in early 2020 by the City of Munich to present an ephemeral public artwork and I’d already proposed the idea of a sort of anti-advertising advertising campaign in public space. Then the Corona virus hit Europe and I was working on the campaign in the midst of the first lockdown last year. My focus naturally expanded from the impact of commercial intrusions (through advertising and mobile devices) into public space towards including an appreciation of the nature of and significance of public space itself.
Pedestrian Space: I really like the photos showing your billboards and people pausing while walking or biking to read them. There is the of provocation of thought (one of the main purposes of billboards right?) but also the invitation to reflect on the very realm people are moving through when they read the signs: public space.
At the heart of your campaign is the question: “Do the public spaces we inhabit reflect our priorities, realities, and values — and how could public space be transformed for social good?” How do you visualize societies committing totransforming public space for social good in coming decades?
Gretta: I think there are so many opportunities for positive transformation – on both a small and a grand scale. It can be disheartening sometimes, seeing how slowly politics and socio-cultural attitudes change, which makes it even more necessary to focus on what we can change right now but also the larger scope for metamorphosis that exists. From green balconies and rooftops to car-free city blocks and the expansion of cycling infrastructure there is so much capacity for change. And the response to The Commons was extremely encouraging in the sense that it obviously touched on a topic that many people are feeling urgently about and are actively looking for outlets to express.
Pedestrian Space: One of the billboards reads “When you plant public space, you harvest public health.” You mentioned that you were working on the campaign when the first lockdown in 2020 occured and your campaign was launched in July 2020, just several months later. Can you share more about how the pandemic affected your messaging?
Gretta: Definitely, it was one of the most dramatic shifts of the last century, so making a public artwork in the midst of that time it felt essential to address the pandemic and its affects. I wanted to keep it positive though, not to play into the hands of Corona virus deniers and the like, and also to direct the energy of the moment towards something constructive.
Pedestrian Space: How has response to the campaign been locally? Internationally?
Gretta: The response has been amazing. So many people have reached out to me on all channels and let me know that a particular message resonated with them or expressed how they were feeling during the chaos of 2020, and more generally of course it’s been great to see the connection to many ongoing action groups engaging with the transformation of public space. I purposely didn’t attach my name or any other identifying information to the billboards and posters in public space – I wanted them to speak for themselves and not act as ‘marketing’ for my practice, however tangentially, so it was actually very surprising to me to have so many strangers reaching out to me directly about the project. I think that’s a real testament to how much willingness there is to pursue positive change – both here in Munich and really all over the world.
Pedestrian Space: I think it is important to note that the project itself was funded by the City of Munich’s Department of Art and Culture. How do you see the City of Munich valuing public spaces as a common and social good? Any thoughts on improvements for the coming years?
Gretta: Yes, it was amazing to have the institutional support and I applaud the Department of Culture’s boldness in commissioning a work like The Commons. Munich has an incredible resource of public space in the beautiful Isar River that runs through the city. It’s something that I’ve loved since moving here. Having not grown up here, I didn’t realise that it was only a decade or so ago that the city embarked on a process of renaturalising and rewilding the banks of the river and it’s hard for me to imagine – seeing now how central this green public space is to life in the city – how life would have been before. I think that’s an amazing example of forward planning. On the other hand, rent and property prices in Munich have been sky-rocketing in recent years, which means that fewer people can afford adequate living arrangements (or, for creatives and freelancers, adequate working spaces) so I see a real potential for crisis on the horizon for the city in that regard.
Favorite street in your city of residence
Gretta: I like the streets around my studio in the Glockenbachviertel; there’s an abundance of cafes and restaurants and very few chain stores.
What is your favorite mode of moving around your city?
Gretta: Bike, I ride everywhere, even in the snow.
Any noteworthy pedestrian spaces in your town or city?
Gretta: The entire length of the Isar promenade through the city is stunning, and hugely varied – from natural pebble beaches to urban promenades, and green lawns.
Any thoughts on how walkability, bike access or public transport could be improved in your city?
Gretta: Coming from Australia, the biking infrastructure in Europe generally is far superior. Here in Munich it’s fairly good but there are still roads that don’t have adequate biking lanes at all and along the main cycling routes the existing paths probably need to be expanded to match the growing bike traffic. Also, any urban cyclist will probably tell you that being forced to cycle past parked cars is a horror – not least because of the risk of car doors suddenly flying open as you’re passing.