Susan Milne & Greg Stonehouse, Bower, 2007-2008, corner of Regent and Redfern streets, Redfern. Commissioned by the City of Sydney through its development company, Landcom. Photo: A. Groom.
While the city was being force fed Vivid Sydney—a cluster of festivals designed by committees fat with funding and spin, and comprising so many different arms that nobody ever quite worked out what, exactly, the whole thing was—a quieter project about the future of Sydney was taking place in and around the hotly contested suburb of Redfern.
A waterhole for thousands of years for the Gadigal people; the first Aboriginal land rights claim in the country; home to an aging migrant community; a place of pride and autonomy for Aboriginal people; a place to hang out; a dangerous hub of state housing, drugs and crime; the controversial battle ground of the 2004 ‘race riots’; an eyesore waiting to be tidied up; a real estate opportunity.
Clearly, the identity of Redfern depends on whom you’re asking, and that’s something the curators Zanny Begg and Keg de Souza were well aware of in compiling the exhibition, publication and program of events that made There Goes The Neighbourhood. Focusing on Redfern, the politics of urban space and the global phenomena of gentrification, one of the risks they faced was to reduce current lived experiences to fixed cultural artefacts and they overcame this hurdle in a number of ways. It would have been inappropriate to present an exhibition of artistic representations of the themes with a one-way flow of information, and so a spirit of participation, discussion and self-examination ran throughout.
In Gary Foley’s opening speech (on the quasi-apocalyptic evening of 22 May in which it rained through the roof into the CarriageWorks foyer), he remarked that those who disown the brutality of Australia’s history—saying, for example, ‘we didn’t do it: it was the generations before us’—should realise they themselves will have to answer to what is going on right here, right now. The community of Redfern has almost disappeared in the last thirty years, he said, and we will have to answer to that.
Parts of the exhibition succeeded in putting visitors in a position of culpability, if only symbolically. Madrid collective Democracia’s video installation Welfare State (Smash the Ghetto) comprised spectator seating and the screening of footage of the 2007 destruction of El Salobral, which at the time was Europe’s largest slum. During the demolition itself, Democracia set up seating and arranged transport for people to watch the large-scale smashing of homes. The footage they took shows the crowds taking photos and cheering. By putting viewers in the same position they provided an uncomfortable reminder of our own tendency to be passive spectators.
In a similar move to highlight our inevitable implication in the ordering of the city space, Locksmith Project Space hosted an interpretation of Allan Kaprow’s 1963 participatory installation, Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hofmann. Any visitors who came over the duration of the program were invited to build, plan, arrange and rearrange the area, which was filled with an ever evolving collection of furniture, domestic objects, images and fragments of text. As participants co-operated or competed with each other to define the space, they formed a microcosm of spatial negotiation and neighbourhood politics. In the same spirit of assemblage and re-assemblage, puzzles and collages were included for participants to contribute to, and the rearrangement of vintage children’s picture books into pornographic stories playfully highlighted how the individual can position themselves as creator of meaning through the process of reorganising (though, of course it helps when there’s a character in the book called Dick).
Taking a more literal approach, the US collective Temporary Services also sought to draw attention to our involvement in urban planning—or rather, the lack thereof. Continuing from their past Public Sculpture Opinion Polls where they’ve surveyed people about their responses to public artworks in Chicago, this project focused on the cluster of huge metal spikes which were recently installed at the corner of Regent and Redfern streets.
The artists set up clipboards around the area and encouraged people to contribute their thoughts on the sculpture. These responses were then displayed in the exhibition. Opinions varied from admiration to indifference to disgust, and many remarked on the aggressive and imposing look of the monument, as well as the inappropriate nature of it being there, given that it was at the bottom of this same street that local Aboriginal teenager T.J. Hickey was fatally wounded: impaled on fence posts during a police chase. The project provided a platform for the sort of public commentary and community consultation that is usually lacking in urban planning, and it highlighted the way large-scale corporate artworks are used as part of the planned process of gentrification.
The inclusion of international artists in the program served to highlight parallels between the spatial struggles of Redfern and those of other parts of the world, but also confirmed how unique Redfern is. Providing a highly localised perspective, Sydney collective SquatSpace conducted one of their Tour of Beauty excursions through Redfern and Waterloo, inviting people to join the tour and hear from local residents and community leaders about how the changes in Redfern are affecting their lives. Walking tours were also conducted by several of the visiting artists in the exhibition (including Danish urban activist Jakob Jakobsen and the New York collective 16beaver) as a way to form experiential engagement with lived city spaces, and position people as agents of their own realities.
Curators Begg and de Souza were both residents of Redfern when they started 2016: Archive Project a creative investigation of the changes they were observing in the area (2016 is Redfern’s postcode and the planned date of completion). By the end of the first year, both found themselves driven out of Redfern to cheaper suburbs, making evident the speed at which these changes are taking place. Despite this, throughout There Goes The Neighbourhood Begg and de Souza were always eager to clarify that the gentrification process in Redfern is far from complete. Redfern is transforming quickly, but not entirely according to government plans. More than nostalgia for what is lost, the exhibition and publication reveals that it is hard to erase the history of a place, especially when there’s a community as resilient as that of Redfern. Importantly, the final chapter of the publication, Smashing Down the Furniture, embodies anticipation for what might be just around the corner with examples of triumph, optimism and successful artistic disruptions to the system.
In their introduction to the book, Begg and de Souza identify one of the main challenges with seeking to ‘bridge art, social issues and community activism’ as ending up somewhere in between ‘overly aestheticised activism and under aestheticised art.’ But whether we were moving furniture around a room, sitting in spectator seats watching the demolition of a slum, going on a walking tour or responding to the public sculpture opinion poll, There Goes The Neighbourhood was more than a stroll through a static exhibition space as distanced, inactive viewers. Rather than being self-congratulatory art that allowed viewers to stand back and disconnect from the politics, There Goes The Neighbourhood was a successful project that compelled us to ask questions about the way things are, and what part we will choose to play in the future of our urban existence.
There Goes The Neighbourhood was an an exhibition, book and forum held at Performance Space, Sydney and Locksmith Project Space, Sydney from the 22 May to 27 June. Artists included Daniel Boyd, Brenda L. Croft, Lisa Kelly, SquatSpace, You Are Here, 16beaver, Temporary Services, Michael Rakowitz, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, Evil Brothers, Miklos Erhardt and Little Warsaw, Jakob Jakobsen, Democracia, BijaRi, and a re-enactment of Allan Kaprow’s Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hofmann, coordinated by Lucas Ihlein.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 14, Futures, Winter 2009, pp 80 – 83.
A. Groom is writer who grew up in Sydney and currently lives in London. She recently edited an anthology on the theme of 'time' for...