Outside a grocery store in Zurich, Roland Roos is fixing a broken sign. The plastic cover has cracked: the sign that once said “Denner” now reads just “Denne.” Roland gets up on a ladder, disassembles the broken sign, and replaces the cracked plate with a fixed one.
An employee steps out of the store and nods approvingly at him: “Oh, finally there’s someone here to repair it! It’s about time.”
But Roland doesn’t work for Denner. He isn’t a repair contractor, just an artist. He isn’t getting paid by anyone. He hasn’t even asked for permission to fix this sign—he just did it.
From 2008 to 2010, he traveled, fixing things that no one else was willing to fix. It started when he was invited for an artist’s residency in Bratislava, Slovakia, in 2008. In the middle of downtown Bratislava, there is a dilapidated hotel, its spartan architecture a relic of a time when the socialist regime, as one architect put it, “concretized.” The Hotel Kyjev is a “hulking structure” that reminds a lot of people of harder times. Many people want it torn down, but it is still a functioning hotel. So the city asked ten artists to discuss what to do with the building.
The symposium raised many complex issues but was ultimately inconclusive—Hotel Kyjev is still slated to be demolished. Yet the residency gave Roland new perspective on the importance of well-maintained public spaces to a community’s self-image. While in Bratislava, he came across a piece of concrete that had been torn up in the middle of a walkway. He put up a caution tape barrier, to keep people from tripping over it. Later, he found and fixed a broken door. There was something satisfying about seeing something wrong in the community and making it a little bit better. He decided to embark on a new art project, something he calls “Free Repair.” “I just had a feeling,” he explains, “that I would like to start repairing some broken things without asking people for permission. And then when I got back to Zurich, I kind of developed an eye for broken things. I started to see broken things all over.
He fixed one hundred things this way: street signs and lights and benches, playground equipment and discarded furniture. He looked for things that were wholly neglected. He says, “If something is broken and nobody cares about it, that’s really interesting to me. You walk around and you see a little thing broken and nobody really feels responsible for it.” He’d figure out what he needed to fix something—a wooden part, a plastic sign, some paint of precisely a particular color—and come back with the tools to do the repair. Sometimes he’d fix on site, sometimes he’d do the work back in a hotel room or his workshop.
The goal of Free Repair wasn’t solely to fix individual broken things. Roland wanted people to see that anyone can take responsibility for the broken things in our midst. Why do we live with broken things? Why don’t we choose to repair things when they break?
Roland’s experience fixing the Denner grocery store sign was typical—he never asked for permission, never told anyone what he was doing or why. In fact, in the two years of Free Repair, nobody challenged him at all. He came in, fixed an item, and for the most part people ignored him. People might approach him and talk to him about other things, but he was never once asked about the work he was doing.
Today, Roland has ended the official Free Repair project. But he still fixes his own things, and he is bewildered by the many people who would rather throw things away than fix them: “A lot of people are interested in repairing, but when it comes to a broken thing, they often decide to recycle a thing and then try to get a new one. I'm always kind of surprised that on the one hand, their interest in repairing is so big but only a few people really go into it.”
Even though the repairs themselves initially went unnoticed, the project has since gained Roland some positive attention. Now Roland is known as the guy who performs random acts of repair. A woman from Berlin, for instance, had a bad bike brake. One day, she parked her bike in front of her workplace and came out to find some Good Samaritan had fixed it. She found Roland online and sent him an email, suspecting it might be him. It wasn’t. But, he says, now “people have a sense of what this project is and maybe there is someone out there working on something similar.”
There have been a few similar projects. Richard Ankrom, a Los Angeles artist, installed a much-needed freeway sign on the 110 Pasadena Freeway. Free repair cafes and fixers collectives (like this one in New York) also perform random acts of pro-bono fixing.
Roland’s projects today involve using recycled materials. “The main goal of Free Repair was to work on something but not create something new. I really try to find ways not to use new material,” he says. In a recent project, he recruited friends to help him transport a car from Italy to Switzerland piece by piece.
“I have an interest in kind of trying to understand things,” he explains—and repairing something is one of the best ways to understand it. “As soon as I start working on broken things I kind of develop an understanding of things in general.”
To see more pictures of Roland’s work, check out his Free Repair website.