Satellite dishes become colourful dots on grey façades in Sweden
Satellitstaden is a public arts project that relies on community participation to make an artistic installation using satellite dishes in Fittja, a public housing estate located in Botkyrka municipality 30 kilometers south of Stockholm. It is a research-driven artistic project undertaken during one year and aims to study the importance of satellite media in the lives of immigrants and issues in cultural integration. The main part of the project consists of
colouring several satellite dishes in the area in close collaboration with local residents. It is led by Swedish-Brazilian artist Isabel Löfgren, in collaboration with Swedish artist Erik Krikortz, and in partnership with several local organisations, including Residence Botkyrka, an artist residency located in the area.
Media connections between home and homeland
Over two-thirds of Fittja’s population of 7500 people is of foreign origin, with over 50 countries represented, all religious backgrounds and tens of different languages and dialects spoken in its streets. Hundreds of satellite dishes dot Fittja’s concrete façades and represent an important lifeline in the connection between home and homeland and the importance of transnational media in this community’s everyday life.
Yet satellite dishes are condemned by some local authorities all over the country for violating building codes, for being aesthetically displeasing, and with the gradual adoption of digital television technology, these objects may soon be phased out altogether. In Fittja, satellite dishes are tolerated while local administrator’s currently try to find less physically and aesthetically disruptive technologies that may suit the diversity of channels needed to support the cultural and entertainment needs of the community. However, this is a hard task as the diversity of countries and languages represented require the reception of many international channels that no single commercial package may be able to cover.
More importantly, satellite dishes in these Swedish estates have become a marker for ethno-cultural segregation in the public eye, due to immigrant populations finding themselves increasingly being pushed away into satellite cities in the peripheries of large cities. The media often claim that satellite dishes are one of the causes behind issues in cultural integration in an increasingly conservative political climate in Sweden and beyond. In the past few years, Fittja has been portrayed in the media negatively as a crime-ridden zone, something the local population resents and which they feel does not adequately reflect the actual living conditions in the area. During an interview with a Lebanese participant in the project, she stated that
"the image of Fittja may be negative, but life here is not negative."
The leading motivation for this project is thus to engage the community in creating a positive image for the area through this public arts installation in a variety of means and open up possibilities for community participation using simple yet effective artistic means.
Autobiography of a [segregated] city
Satellitstaden consists of an onsite installation, an online interactive feature and a performative element.
For the onsite installation, we invite residents to pick a colour for their satellite dishes from an assortment of 9 bright neon
colours. This colour is, in fact, a custom-made waterproof textile cover installed over the satellite dish, and is free of charge. In return, we ask for a short interview and that they recommend the project to a relative, friend or
neighbour in the area. The participant decides which part of our conversation can be made public, corresponding to their colored dot on the project’s online interactive map (currently in production - see
www.satellitstaden.org). These short statements then become a collective message that reflects the voices of members of the community as they express their views on several issues. These statements include views on the importance of satellite media in their lives, words in
defence of being able to keep the satellites on their balconies, their views on living in Fittja or why they picked that particular
colour. The last element will be a series of walking tours of the area through the colored dots with local youth reading these collective statements to the public.
Forming the network
The logic behind community participation in the project is akin to the dynamics of digital social media -
"liking 'the idea and "sharing" it with friends. As participants recommend each other to the project, local social networks are formed - social
"constellations" that make visible those existing and durable social bonds of friendship, kinship or proximity in real life.
Finding participants is always a challenge in projects that require a high degree of participation such as this one. Buy-in from the local society is achieved over time by finding the right channels, understanding the local social structure, spending time in the area and building trust. In the beginning, the artists were invited by the local administrator, Botkyrkabyggen, to present the project at the
"Neighbor Hour." People were
sceptical at first, asking many questions, but eventually warming up to the idea as a satellite dish is indeed something everyone owns and is a striking feature in the local built environment. Other strategies included sending letters to residents, hanging posters in common areas, conducting workshops at the local youth center, and setting up a project website.
When a local newspaper decided to publish an article on the project, more participants joined spontaneously, and even more people followed by recommendation. The network of dots across the area thus began to form mostly by word of mouth, and a total of 65 people are now part of the project. Because of the
colourful aspect, in some cases children were the ones persuading their parents to contact us.
Working closely with local organisations was also very effective. The colored textile covers were produced by a local seamstress who also runs an organisation for unemployed women. All the women who attend this organisation eventually became participants and recommended their family members to join as well. It was also important that the project used local resources as much as possible, from the local copy shop, to catering, to producing the actual project materials.
Moreover, living in the area during the execution of the project was very important. It helped build trust around the project, made the artists visible and available for casual meetings to occur on the streets, and allowed them to fully engage with the inner rhythms of the community on a daily basis.
At the end, the onsite installation became a collective endeavour where each participant plays a vital role - and this revealed the ability of the community to actively transform their living environment through an artistic gesture over the landscape in which the whole community can also take part. According to some participants, it has energised the area with a bit of
colour and difference from the dull gray and brown concrete. It was important that both the artists and participants share the same goals in the project with a simple proposition that is easy to understand and to communicate: to make Fittja as
colourful as possible and lift it from years of façade deterioration, to change the perception of this locality both from inside and outside, and stimulate community participation from the bottom up.
For more information, please visit www.satellitstaden.org
by Isabel Löfgren