Tanks, Tetris and formation dancing hit the streets of Sydney in a collective public manoeuvre to shake up the CBD grid for Live Lanes – By George! One element of the annual ‘Art and About’ event showcasing contemporary art and culture in Sydney’s CBD, Live Lanes attempts to reinvigorate pedestrian level activity with ephemeral works in the city’s ‘forgotten’ laneways. Inaugurated in 2007, Live Lanes 2008 invited metropolitan-based Artist-run initiatives Reef Knot, Peloton, Firstdraft Gallery and Gaffa Gallery to curate and develop a series of works in public spaces.
The overall ‘Art and About’ 2008 program was a seemingly loose assemblage of newly commissioned projects as well as existing exhibitions and events throughout the City of Sydney region. Its mission articulated as ‘bringing art to our streets and public spaces’ possibly suffers from this amalgamation, which creates a homogenisation of agitprop arts activity and blockbuster arts events. Additionally, this barrage minimises actual impact (you cannot see everything) and heightens mythic perceptions of an abundance of cultural activity.
In isolation, Live Lanes was so chock-a-block with happenings that we were a little confused by its scope. However, Live Lanes did attempt to raise awareness and consumption of alternative arts practice by engaging the investigative methodologies of ARIs. Live Lanes deservedly acknowledged that ARIs patrol and explore the boundary lines between alternative and mainstream culture by creating innovative fringe activity. There were varying degrees of success and failure in this methodology, so we have focused on three projects and located them within a meditation on their relationship to site, in an attempt to provide conceptual cohesion to the project’s myriad elements.
Walter Benjamin, in his seminal and unfinished literary work The Arcades Project (written between 1927 and 1940), attributes the allure of smaller street-level spaces within a city matrix to the unfolding elements of chance and discovery. From these dense intimate spaces – of repetitive shopfronts, people and signage – emerges a dream-like montage of unending narratives. In these spaces of intimacy, artist Adam Norton strategically deployed three 11-tonne Saracen armoured personnel carriers for the Tank Project, under the auspices of Peloton. This was a deliberate attempt to confront and confound CBD goers on their own turf. The city’s laneways became waypoints of a Situationist patrol taking advantage of the daily timing of pedestrian movements and city events. Rounding a laneway corner, rushing to a meeting or deadline, the viewer’s personal security was confronted by the discovery of Norton’s camouflaged heavy metal objects.
The tanks operated as reminders that, besides the bombing of Darwin and the submarine attack on Sydney Harbour during WW2, we have not experienced urban warfare on our streets and the domination of an invading political or military force in modern Australia. Whilst some viewers admitted to having initially suspected a clever marketing ploy their scepticism quickly gave way to unease as they attempted to confront the possibility of military intervention.
Norton’s tanks were however displaced aliens amidst polished buildings (not shattered bullet and shell peppered facades) discovered by office workers and tourists (not casualties or armed personnel in conflict). In this tactical arena, the ‘tanks’ were no longer offensive or defensive and unlikely to fall victim to roadside bombs or enemy armour. Instead they became dormant characters in a confronting narrative of area control. ‘I felt one tank would be a novelty’, said Norton, ‘two would be a pair, but three would be a military event’.
There is an immediacy to Norton’s project that indicates a deep understanding of the necessity to simplify an idea when expressed in public space and evacuate the work of subjective idiosyncrasy in order to challenge the social and spatial dynamic of a place. Norton’s project, born of a Ballardian interest in the core meaning and fallibility of technological machines, reminds us of the pure function of weapons of war. Norton’s tanks were compressed into small laneways creating a claustrophobic placement of something that didn’t quite fit.
Compression was an effect also utilised by the Gaffa Gallery artists Kelly Robson, Ella Barclay, Adrianne Tasker and Ben Backhouse for One More Go One More Go. A series of large luminous cubic shapes – adapted from the retro computer game Tetris – were embedded above pedestrian height in Abercrombie Lane. Their smooth Perspex surfaces mimicked the city’s grids of reflective windows and designer signage. Though visible attachment systems undermined the illusion of the Tetris blocks literally ‘dropping’ into the laneway, the haphazard flickering cubes transformed the laneway into a space invaded.
The simulated attempt to fill Abercrombie Lane with Tetris cubes seemed to have failed due to its verticality and chasm-like spatial compression. Removed from their native 2D digital dimension and thrown into the CBD ‘playing field’ they simply did not fit, like remnants from a failed abandoned game. The Tetris bricks became wedged like large chunks of rubble dislodged by a wrecking ball from above.
Unlike the meticulously planned Melbourne CBD grid with its interconnected laneways, Sydney’s CBD grid developed in a haphazard manner. The minimal laneways that once existed were merged, severed and erased in a 20 year pattern of site consolidation that emerged in the late 1960s. This was epitomised by modernist high-rise developments such as the Australia Square building, which was simply built over small street networks. Many mourned the loss of these intimate spaces, in particular the Rowe Street arcade of specialty retail shops and fine-dining cafes that were demolished to make way for the MLC Centre. This transformation created an incongruity of scale between street-level pedestrian experience and the growing vertical CBD grid.
One More Go One More Go also critiques the construct of repetitive 9-5 gridlocked existence. As workers log out of their office networks and head for home, they enter a new level of the daily grind game that starts again the following day. Even downtime can be spent gaming in a ‘solitaire’ moment in one’s cubicle.
Reminiscent of a high school talent quest, Step by Step, choreographed by Jessica Olivieri and Hayley Forward, transported amateur dance from the bedroom and local community hall to the Curtin Place steps of Australia Square, as part of Firstdraft Gallery’s contribution to Live Lanes. Deliberately under-rehearsed and performed by an all-girl dance troop called the Parachutes for Ladies, the moves of Step by Step mimicked the city’s syncopation and its office workers in contrast to the terminal velocity of a Tetris game gone wrong.
Occurring on opening night after Mayor Clover Moore’s public address, Step by Step seduced onlookers with our secret affection for pop cultural flashbacks of chart topping boy band beats and formation dance. Set to New Kids on the Block’s 1990 hit-song Step by Step, the gold Lycra-clad dancers moved through a series of synchronised sequences as they symbolically ascended and descended the steps of success and failure.
Imitating the construct of the ladder-climbing power-dressing office worker protagonist, the performers seeming disinterest in exacting synchronicity and timing playfully interpreted competitive corporate power and ascension. Should we relinquish living for a career or get ‘footloose’? Inspired by the kaleidoscopic choreography of Busby Berkley’s musicals, Step by Step appealed to our latent amateur aspirations to perform in public – a secret desire for young girls experiencing the joy and horror of tap, ballet or Jazzercise formation dance classes. Syncopation, repetition and movement paralleled the rhythm of the city’s grid. This singular choreographed moment mimicked the larger composition of the city’s choreography – traffic lights, cars, pedestrians – and was ultimately subsumed by it.
Live Lanes attempted to reignite the public’s engagement with the laneway as a space of discovery and interaction. Occupying the metaphorical ruins of a labyrinth lost, Live Lanes began to rekindle a nostalgic return to these intimate laneway spaces.
Live Lanes – By George! was exhibited in various Sydney laneways from 4 October 2008 – 31 January 2009. The exhibition featured artists from Sydney Artist-run initiatives Gaffa Gallery, Firstdraft Gallery, Peloton and Reef Knot.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 13, Dead, Autumn 2009, pp.73-75.
Sophia Kouyoumdjian has worked in the arts sector for over 15 years across directorial, curatorial and exhibition management roles. Currently the Coordinator, Parramatta Artists Studios and...