Taking place for one loud, epic night in early March, Rumblestrip occupied a large disused urban lot near the centre of Perth city. Operating equally as an artwork and a party, Rumblestrip was imbued with a riotous end-of-times aesthetic and celebrated the world’s most demographically isolated city. As the heat from the day seeped out of the asphalt, the unnatural glow of peripheral urban illumination coloured a skyline still full post-boom with teetering cranes. Artwork by eight Australian artists included mobile gardens, a walk-in car cinema, moving micro-architecture, a reclaimed swamp and a girl gang on bikes. An intricate audio installation was generated live by composer Stuart James, creating a revving, throbbing soundtrack that ran through more than 20 speakers around the block. It was at once dark and luminous, critical yet joyous, weaving in elements of roadside signage, Australian cult cinema, wetland ecology and a blend of utopic and dystopic visions of what Western cities of the future might look like.
Rumblestrip drew on the distinct nature of urban growth in the West, where an obsession with car-orientated development has created a sprawl of freeways.
More than being the ‘City of Lights’, Perth really should be known as the ‘City of Cars’: we are a car people. Pushed up against the west coast we spread out along the Darling Scarp in both directions, sprawling into bulldozed scrubland with Dale Alcock plonk homes. The burbs bleed out in the morning along highways following the contours of concreted sand dunes, which bloat again in afternoon peak traffic. The automobile forms its own discrete, mobile biosphere; we eat, drink and sometimes fuck in them. Other times we die in them. We decorate them with ‘truck nuts’, pimp out with surround sound, and defend with roo bars, roll bars, and those engine-breathing-funnel-apparatuses for driving through rivers, which most city drivers will never in their lives do.
We are also a city desperate for a physical and cultural transformation, whilst at the same time accepting of the fact that we must adapt the urban spaces we’ve inherited. James Howard Kunstler’s description of sprawling suburban America—“There is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like no place in particular…. It has become a cartoon of country life, an abstraction of it, in many cases a mockery of it”—could easily be mistaken for a drive through Perth’s residential periphery. Like most cities that experienced their growth spurt in the mid 20th century, Perth’s urban form was dictated by the prevailing norms of urban planning – essentially to replicate a Los Angeles style infrastructure nightmare. Car orientated development has been the catalyst for the sort of low density housing we see in Western Australia, widely recognised to correlate with rising social costs, neglected public spaces and of course landscape fragmentation—or, as Kunstler described it “Suburbia is economically catastrophic, socially toxic, ecologically suicidal and spiritually degrading.” If Rumblestrip was to take on car culture, it needed also to address these flow-on effects.
Neil Aldum’s Clustertruck, 2016. Photography Eva Fernandez.
The form of the car itself was transformed many times in Rumblestrip. In Neil Aldum’s Clustertruck, a Toyota Hilux becomes a grotesque embodiment of governmental responses to urban congestion, where the cyclical creation of more and wider roads simply perpetuates car-dependency and the car as a status symbol. A car-yard style inflatable ‘sky dancer’ is trapped between the front and rear windows of the truck’s shell, which has been smeared evocatively with dirt and modified with a drag-car scoop. Hazard lights and helplessly flailing arms produce an anxiety inducing silhouette and spectacle.
In contrast, Simone Johnston’s Climatic Apnoea shows the car instead as a flaccid and absurd remnant. The car airbag, normally tucked inside the steering wheel ready to protect the soft fleshy driver, instead enveloped the entire car. Like a stranded whale, the blubbery, billowing form juddered under laboured breathing. Slowly inhaling, growing and reaching full stretch, a soft, pulsing disco of lights illuminated the form from within. The work was adapted from an inflatable hail protector, a recently developed product sold in the United States to guard against increasingly frequent, violent, car-denting hailstorms. Yet in Climatic Apnoea there is nothing to protect—the car has vanished and a flabby pile of deflating fabric is all that is left at the end of each exhalation.
Erin Coates, Eternal Boglap,2016, SUV wreck, 2-channel video projection, sound design Stuart James. Photography Eva Fernandez.
Our experience of this most western of Australian cities is strongly shaped by seeing and moving through it inside of cars. Acting as a wrap-around cinema screen, the car window provides us with a seated, glassed in view of the landscape that strongly shapes our ideas of it, frictionlessly zooming through a pastiche of buildings, billboards, power poles, trees and wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men. The relationship between cinematic vision and the moving image seen from a car has been explored in several of Erin Coates’s past works, and returned in Rumblestrip as a full scale SUV car-cinema. Eternal Boglap offered a ghetto-VR driving experience, with two opposing rear projection screens transecting a 4WD car body, the back screen simultaneously visible through a rearview mirror. Shot on a freight highway outside of Perth at night, the video in Eternal Boglap represents the West as an endless roadtrip, where the only element is a halo of bitumen lit by the car headlights. As the car hurtles down the highway, figures appear on the road, moving toward the windscreen at odds with the speed of the road. Spectres of ecological disaster and harbingers of resource depletion, they swagger, hover and shuffle towards the screen. Grim as they sound, these are not joyless figures, instead they revel in the chaos, riding tidal waves by kayak, glowing in atomic glory and teetering in high heels and absurd salvaged assemblage couture.
Neil Aldum, Lone Walker, 2016, Holden bonnets, repurposed tent, LED lights, insulation, wheels, wood. Photography Eva Fernandez.
Where the car rules supreme, pedestrian awareness is also an esoteric art. Aldum’s Lone Walker offers these threatened pedestrians liberation in the form of a mobile defensive environment. The upright walking capsule is made of 1970s Holden bonnets, a repurposed tent, and a whole lot of LED bling. Lone Walker is intended to give the pedestrian an armored and flamboyant mobility through the city, restoring the once privileged status afforded to the pedestrian as a kind of urban explorer and flaneur. Lined with silver insulation against the urban heat island effect, the walking capsule glides and spins on a metal framework and sturdy wheels, giving the resident walker not only safe passage, but a sense of frivolity and maybe even the potential for raging back against the road machines.
The atmosphere of Rumblestrip was apocalyptic and doom-laden, but was certainly not underpinned by a sense of helplessness. Quite the opposite: within the temporary dystopia, Rumblestrip offered its own irrational, inventive and irreverent responses, from When They Come We Will Be Ready—a collaboratively built, seven meter high watch tower guarding the final remnant of a wetland in Perth—to the massive, never-ending sunset, projected high up on a black wall of a neighbouring apartment building.
Neil Adlum, Ex situ, 2016, repurposed trolley, sheet metal, Australian native plants. Photography Bohden Warchomij.
Ex situ was one of a series of mobile gardens Adlum also created, which played with the idea of a future where the richly bio diverse south west of Australia is scorched, retrofitting an illuminated shopping trolley to house and transport a collection of native shrubs and creepers. The web of tar crisscrossing Perth’s coastal plain has had a devastating impact on native flora and fauna. Not only do transport emissions contribute to the seemingly intractable problem of climate change, but the roadways limit the movement of species across the landscape, further hindering their ability to adapt to environmental change. In the face of these stressors, ‘Ex situ conversation’, or ‘off site conservation’ is a practice now considered necessary in the anthropogenic epoch as many species cannot be protected within their own environments and will need to be extracted into modified or simulated conditions. Although suggestive of post-apocalyptic necessity, Aldum’s ark-like vessel speaks to our desire for survival and preservation, and our ability to create mobile and adaptable spaces in the face of seemingly insurmountable change.
In Shaun Gladwell’s three-channel video, projected onto a graffiti-covered garage wall, skateboarders take on Minimalist art. Time slows as the skaters glide over the smooth, angular surfaces of (what appears to be) sculptures by Donald Judd, Carl Andre, David Smith and Ellsworth Kelly. The defunct museum is revived as a site of urban play, where Gladwell’s favourite skateboarders are pitted in iconoclastic battle against his favourite Minimalist artists.
Slowly Western Australia is making strides (again borrowing from trends in the global West) by adopting planning strategies that will make streets safer for pedestrians, increasing housing density along transit routes and designing more inviting public spaces. A series of these programs branded under the ‘Liveable Neighbourhoods’ title suggests the State now acknowledges the constraints of car-centric development and their environmental, economic and social costs. But where bureaucratic changes comes slowly, the mess and noise of projects like Rumblestrip, that work directly with the raw material of context provided by a site beyond the white vacuum of the gallery, offer the sense of more immediate need, opportunity and risk (although working with disused spaces requires its own brand of bureaucratic wrangling). Like the audible roadside lines it was named after, Rumblestrip was a rough and loud call to wake up before disaster strikes, and a reminder that against what often feels like impending and inevitable social and environmental collapse, we still have agency and the opportunity to act, adapt, party and even thrive.
Rumblestrip was conceived by Neil Aldum, Erin Coates and Simone Johnston, and featured artworks by Neil Aldum, Erin Coates, Shaun Gladwell, Loren Holmes, Stuart James, Simone Johnston and the performance group Snapcat. www.rumblestrip2016.com