Over the past 10 years there has been a rise in artists working within social practice in Australia. This is in line with global movements by artists who are often working outside the museum/gallery confines, instead activating these projects in ‘public’ space. Although ‘public art’ is not new, artists are working in public spaces and audiences are experiencing art in public spaces differently to the bronze statues and large sculptures born out of city planning from era’s gone past. Artists are creating temporary and often participatory projects that involve community members and audiences as a way of investigating pressing social and political issues. Through working in public spaces, they are enabling new relationships between the citizen and the civic authority.
In broad terms, ‘public’ space can be many places: parks, streets, shopping centres, the internet, airports, etc. Although some of these places are in fact ‘private’ entities, we generally think of them as social, shared, open and accessible. While we do in fact ‘share’ these spaces the political and social frameworks are actually quite different. The post 1989 movement towards neo-liberalism and the terror epoch post 9/11, has signified a change in the public sphere to what has rapidly become a place of commerce, consumption and surveillance.1 The spaces we think of as ‘for the people’ are to a large extent undemocratic and removed from our control.
Although many artists working in public space under the umbrella of socially engaged practice are not necessarily responding directly to the politics of public space, the activation of public space through their work draws out complex and critical responses to how art and artists can address this very issue. The existence of participatory, socially engaged art projects in this realm redefines the political, social and at times economic relationships within that place. In his book, ‘Spatial Aesthetics: Art, Place and the Everyday’, Nikos Papastergiadis argues that art participates in the political “through its own internal process of extending the language of resistance and representation.”2 Meaning that art opens a new dimension to how we think and engage with the world, further expanding our understanding, in this instance to the power that underlies how we occupy space.
Working in public space provides a different forum and context for the artist. The artist can delineate and activate zones of power that would otherwise be part of the civic churn. In this essay, I will look at two projects by Lara Thoms and The Lot (Heidi Axelsen, Hugo Moline & Adriano Pupilli). These artists each create projects that engage with public space in different ways. However, a similarity that runs through their work is that they both examine how the power of the collective ‘we’ uses and occupies ‘public’ space.
Melbourne artist Lara Thoms was engaged by C3West in 2012 to create a two-stage project at Westfield Hurstville in Western Sydney. Titled Ultimate Vision – Monuments to Us, Thoms negotiated through the politics of two commissioning bodies, Westfield Hurstville and Hurstville Council to create a space within the shopping centre for teenagers that examined youth visibility in the area. Despite being one of the core demographics for the centre, spending time there after school, on weekends, and during school holidays, teenagers were regularly asked to ‘move on’ if they congregated in groups of three or more. Contrary to this, retail organisations (including both stores and shopping centres) dedicate large resources to marketing and forecasting toward teenagers. This created a disparity – teenagers were both a target market for retailers but also somewhat excluded from the shopping centre.
For the first stage of the project, Thoms created Hub of Democracy, a temporary structure in the centre of the shopping complex exclusively for teenagers. The space looked like a ‘pop-up’ concessional store and contained teenage-friendly activities, for example, table tennis, free Wi-Fi, couches to hang-out and a voting ballot for various topics including ‘best time, person, smell and music’ – using the same type of sensory categories employed in marketing strategies.3 For three weeks during the summer school holidays, a demarcated piece of the Westfield was handed over to local teenagers to inhabit for as long as they wanted (during opening hours). The voting booth was key in this occupation, providing a small amount of democracy in a seemingly public space otherwise tightly controlled.
Following Hub of Democracy, the winners from each category of the ballot were announced in at a special ceremony at the centre. Thoms then worked with the same teenagers to create Ultimate Vision – Monument to Us a series of what curator Anne Loxley describes as ‘subtle and at times indistinguishable interventions into the retail and marketing spaces of the mall.’4 Numerous retailers in the shopping centre altered their window displays to feature the various ‘monuments’ dedicated to the ballot winners, including replacing pictures of fashion models with local teenager Thomas Kim who was voted best person ahead of famous footballers and other celebrities. Implementation of these ‘monuments’ proved difficult with not all the retailers and centre management supporting them. Some of the ‘monuments’ opposed the fundamental commerce for businesses, for example, free water (voted best drink) or playing rap (best music) throughout the centre – the free water ‘monument’ deterred customers from buying drinks from food and drink vendors and the rap music was deemed antisocial for shoppers, hence bad for business.
The tensions created in the relationships between the two stakeholders, the artist and the teenagers testify to the complex politics of ‘public’ space. An attempt to temporarily reterritorialise the shopping centre to shift the power in favour of local teenagers made evident how little control we do have in these ‘shared’ spaces.
In 2015, during the very public debates about the NSW State Government selling off state-owned social housing properties in Millers Point and the equally contentious support for the development of Barangaroo, Sydney-based collective The Lot created a temporary public installation to invite public feedback to these actions and proposals for alternatives. Unauthorised Access was situated in the heart of the working-class Sydney suburb. Overlooking the iconic terrace houses and Barangaroo development, the installation was a viewing tower positioned in the only piece of ‘public’ land in the area not owned by the State Government.
This work was part of an exhibition Shelter Union, which I curated at UNSW Galleries that articulated the pressing need for alternative living solutions in the face of ever growing economic, environmental, social and political pressures, and an imbalance in global equity. Although the work had a presence in the gallery, the public intervention was an opportunity to temporarily interject into the very space that was being contested by residents and government officials. The small parkland that housed the installation is zoned as part of the City of Sydney which enabled the project to infiltrate a highly political atmosphere.
This work did not necessarily suggest a physical alternative for living spaces, rather questioned the morals and ethics around the development of cities and who decides where and how we should live. In this instance, Barangaroo was being developed without public consultation and the residents of Millers Point were being forced to leave their homes and communities for economic reasons – being that the State Government planned to sell off the houses commercially to the highest bidder. Placing Unauthorised Access within the vicinity of these contentious spaces enabled the artists and other contributors to temporarily occupy the space being taken away from the people of Millers Point, and also Sydney.
The installation itself was made from common construction materials – scaffold, plastic scrim, plywood, and ‘caution’ signs, to blend in with the Barangaroo building site. Unlike regular construction sites, rather than keep people out, the viewing tower invited people in to inspect the surrounding area from a vantage point. The installation acted as a meeting point, where discussions with local residents and advocacy groups occurred. Informative flyers were dispersed detailing the social fallout of the financial decision to sell the land, in turn inviting the public to submit their own ideas for how the land could be used. Anonymous submissions were made with suggestions such as ‘stop the casino, give back Sirius, high street, windmill st [street] back to social and public housing’ and ‘how about a giant wrecking ball knocking tenants one way and Dalgety Terrace houses the other way, as they will surely pull them down once we are all cleared out.’ These proposals were displayed publically on a scrolling LED board for passers-by to see. Over six weeks, the installation stood amongst the Barangaroo construction site, resident’s protest signs and middle class couples inspecting properties to bid on. For a short time, this work created a junction for discussion and reflection on the politics of public space and regained ‘ownership’ of an area vastly out of the public’s control.
Although these projects are largely symbolic in their attempt to redefine public space, they do in a small but significant way draw our attention to a globalised issue we currently face. These gestures made by artists ask us to consider the power dynamics of public spaces and our right to our city. In Australia, we are lucky to be able to move freely within our country, but little attention is given to the limited capacity we have to decide how our cities and public spaces are used. Art projects such Ultimate Vision – Monuments to Us and Unauthorised Access enables us for even a short moment to make a mark in public space that alters the power relationship.
Setha Low and Neil Smith, preface to Politics of Public Space (New York: Routledge, 2005), vii
Nikos Papastergiadis, Spatial Aesthetics: Art, Place, and the Everyday (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2010), 19
Toby Chapman and Anne Loxley, Aesthetics of Stealth (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2014), accessed March 11 2017, https://www.mca.com.au/artists-and-works/c3west/ultimate-vision-monuments-us/aesthetics-stealth/Chapman and Loxley, Aesthetics of Stealth.
Lucy Ainsworth is a curator and writer based in Sydney. She is currently Curator & Exhibition Coordinator at UNSW Galleries, UNSW Art & Design. Her...