The Edge: The Urban Conga on Tour

August 09, 2013 7 min read

Remember Mark Perrett from Tips for Architecture School? We caught up with him after his tour to see what he is up to after graduating.

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Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do

Mark Perrett: Designer. Musician. Writer. Educator. Tumblr Blog Aficionado. Polymath. I am the Co-Founder of the innovative community-building organization The Urban Conga [Editor's Note: you can read my interviewe with The Urban Conga's Co Founder Ryan Swanson here].   I have just recently earned my M.Arch degree from the USF School of Architecture and Community Design. I love people, and I find our interactions with one another fascinating. With everything that I do, whether I am making music, writing a book, or building an installation, I always design with an overtone of togetherness. I believe that interactive opportunities should be plentiful, accessible, and encouraged in any public setting, and we all have a lot to learn from each other.

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Novedge: What is The Urban Conga?

Mark Perrett: The Urban Conga is a widely connected team of "awesome-makers" activating urban spaces by fabricating and deploying interactive installations. Using innovative tactical urbanism practices, The Urban Conga stimulates urban spaces through exploration, activation, and above all interaction. The objective is to spark conversation between the public realm and the human body by using installations as a common ground for interaction. The Urban Conga is a movement promoting a “conga-line” of innovation revitalizing our urban public spaces. We wish to collaborate with artist, musicians, architects, designers, and fun enthusiasts worldwide creating a team of people with like-minded passions to better our communities by making them more engaging.

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Novedge: You just wrapped up your very first Urban Conga tour. What was your favorite stop?

Mark Perrett: This is honestly the hardest question to answer. Every city has special moments I know resonated differently with all of us on the trip. I guess if I had to choose I would say New Orleans was a personal favorite for me.

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When the Conga Tour started, we knew that we were going to activate public spaces across the nation, but we didn’t know how the people we met along the way were going to change our lives. In New Orleans, through a friend-of-a-friend contact, we met up with Ward “Mack” McClendon, Executive Director of the Lower 9th Ward Village Community Center and Jordan Pollard from the Make It Right Foundation. We knew that New Orleans was still in need after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and we knew that there were going to be large areas of dead space within the urban communities we could help activate, but we didn’t realize how desperately the area still needed help. In preparation of our Activation Event that evening, Mack and Jordan showed us around the Lower 9th Ward and told us about the lack of infrastructure and basic civic needs such as schools, banks, and parks.

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People are still stranded out of state who do not have the means to come home, but their homes are being repossessed because the grass is growing above 18” high, and even when money is used to provide aid it is done poorly and un-designed. What surprised me the most was how the people we met were all so positive and friendly among such adversity. Even Mack himself was smiling and laughing with us after telling the story of how he lost everything in the storm. We returned to The Village and spent the day having fun, playing music, hanging swings, and deploying our installations into the surrounding neighborhood. We saw how happy everyone was just to be together. Families who had never met before were letting their children play together, kids and adults were using our 3rex connectors to make crazy constructions they had never imagined possible before, and people were coming out of their homes to come join in on the fun.

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Novedge: What surprised you the most during this tour?

Mark Perrett: The Conga Tour brought us to Tampa, Tallahassee, New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Every city had their own cultures, social standards, and urban infrastructure, but every city had a need for interaction in their own way. The most surprising thing on this tour was how powerful interaction can be for a community. Every culture is different, but we all share simple principles which bring us together. Our public spaces should manifest positive influences, civic innovation, education, role models, variety, fun, and happiness. With The Urban Conga we create a platform for people to interact at a human scale on a regular basis. Through our installations we provide a common ground for people to work together towards a common goal. As we made our way across the country we truly found how brutally simple it is to make a difference.

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For example, we allowed everyone to draw on our car “The Conga Mobile” to leave a piece of themselves with us on our journey, and the joy and sense of community that brought was profound. We had people who were young, old, wealthy, privileged, disabled, and homeless all drawing on the car at the same time. It didn’t matter who you were, writing on someone else’s car was pretty cool. And that simple act, giving something of yourself to people you’ve never met before, is a true act of love.

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Novedge: What is the biggest challenge and what can you learn from it?

Mark Perrett: The biggest challenge is getting people to accept that they need to break from their normal routine and interact with their city more. People have the time of their lives playing with our installations, but there is a noticeable resistance at first. The problem is many people do not realize that there is even an issue. Realizing inconsistencies in our lifestyle only comes along when we are faced with adversity, or have some time to stop and think about things, but most of the time we are too busy to even make a sandwich for ourselves, so making time for fun or sharing ideas and experiences with others is out of the question.

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Plus, we do not feel the need to fill any void because of how “connected we are” with the world around us through social media. “Who needs to go outside and interact with people when I have 147 other things I can do today right here on my phone!” Don’t get me wrong, I am actually in love with technology, and an avid social media user, but I think that we need a healthy diet of the physical world and the digital world together. By working with The Urban Conga for over a year now I have found that many people don't have the opportunity or make time for the opportunity to do things like have to sit down at dinner with friends outside or show up to a destination early to check out what the surrounding area might have to offer. From this trip we have learned that it does not take much AT ALL to make a difference. Cities do not need billion dollar reforms, most of what is already there has the potential to do amazing things, it is the people that make the difference.

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Novedge: Why interactive installations?

Mark Perrett: “Design has to work. Art does not.” – Donald Judd. Directly after The Conga was formed, there was a revolving conversation for a while in the studio. “Is static art more effective in public spaces than interactive art?” Static art has a place within urban design, but interactive installations are simply more engaging. They use game dynamics, and allow YOU to become the artist. It becomes more than something interesting to look at as there is a performance aspect added when you introduce an interactive element into a work of art. The Urban Conga uses these interactive installations to help provide moments of public space stimulation. We want to activate your life almost on accident, Serendipity Style. :) We are more concerned with the “in-between” spaces in urban environments and believe that interactive installations are the most effective way to bring life into the streets and the streets back to the people.

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Novedge: What's next for The Urban Conga?

Mark Perrett: Currently we are working on a variety of projects collaborating with TEDx Orlando, The American Association of Community Colleges, Vertical Tampa Bay, City Hunter USA, and Downtown Partnerships Nationwide. We are excited to be working with our new design team in Los Angeles, The Urban Conga L.A, and look forward to building many more installations. Another main goal of ours is permanence. As of today, The Urban Conga only has pop up installations, but over time we would like to find ways to keep our installations permanent. We have found ways to create Interactive Infrastructure by converting every-day single function items into multipurpose tools for community building. Some of our set-backs involve funding and permission. Permission we are less worried about, but as of right now we are doing all of this out of our own pockets. To give a little perspective, we had to sleep in our vehicles one night on the trip to save money for gas to bring the installations across the country, but if there is one thing we all learned on this trip, it is this: what we are doing with The Urban Conga is bigger than all of us. I am excited for the future and look forward to many more installations and collaborations.

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Thanks so much for your time, Novedge, it is always a pleasure!!

 

Interested in joining the movement? You can reach The Urban Conga through their website and on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter and Vimeo.

And don't forget to check out my previous interviews with Mark Perrett and Ryan Swanson.

Related articles

Interview with Mark Perrett, Founder of Tips for Architecture School: "Take what you have learned from one genre and apply it to everything else you do in life"
The Edge: Ryan Swanson and The Urban Conga
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