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Art | Design | Cities

Art | Design | Cities | Rory Hyde & Alan Pert

Where are we now? The practice of art, design, and architecture seems to have entered a twilight zone—the old world has gone, but the new one is yet to come into focus. We invited a group of practitioners, thinkers and doers to outline how they are responding to this moment. Together they trace the outlines of a new way of working, one that cautiously addresses the present, while hopefully preparing the ground for whatever comes next.

—Rory Hyde and Alan Pert

Voids

Empty shops are wounds. They pierce the body of the capitalist city, rendering visible its instability and the crisis of small business. Since the evolution of the department store, the mall, the big box store and more recently ecommerce, it has been clear that the standalone business in the strip is increasingly precarious. Despite this, bricks and mortar still dominate retail across the globe. They remain familiar to us, the local shop serving community and we feel their absence. While there are strip shops in every city that seem to be perpetually in crisis, during the pandemic these closures proliferated at an alarming rate and this collection of over 1400 photographs documents this escalation.

The project began during Melbourne’s seventy-seven day lockdown in 2021 and ended when it did. Given that Melbournians have endured more than 250 days in lockdown—the longest period anywhere in the world—the project acted both as a type of lockdown diary and a panacea. The images were taken by pressing my phone up against the shop window thereby dissolving the glass’s reflective properties and giving the images the appearance that they were taken from inside. I only took photos of shops that had For Lease or eviction notices posted on them and the bulk of these are empty shells with few traces of their former life, bar the skeletal remnants of their interior design—the odd hanging rack, light, shelving system, floating counter, wallpaper, painted background, sink, or chair. In the shops that abut another, there’s always a door leading out back.  Sometimes there are piles of things left behind or still to be moved, residual and forlorn objects stripped of their context. There are also a number of indistinct images in the series where the shop windows were covered by plastic, paper, curtains, timber and so on, which made it impossible to capture an image of the interior. These were shops with For Lease signs, where the owner or agent understood that the abject image of vacancy described an end, when they wanted instead to describe some possible future.

Every shop that closes has tentacles that reach deep into the heart of our communities. There are the obvious economic and social effects; the livelihoods of the business owners and their employees, their families and the supply chains that rely on them functioning, to the landlords who similarly might rely on the rent. Less obvious is the symbolic effect that this emptiness has on the character of our streets, on our public spaces that were largely abandoned during the pandemic, save for clusters of homeless people, tradies and the odd masked queue for coffee at a café window. When occupied, the shop window is like a vitrine of objects in a museum that, as Walter Benjamin taught us so poetically, animates the recent past and prophesises a collective future. When empty, time appears absent.

Despite the relentless repetition of this archive, the empty shop remains a beautiful image too. Beautiful as a ruin often is. Beautiful precisely because it isn’t smooth, rather it is worn out and melancholic. In an odd way, the empty shop image is similar to that other contemporary image of insecurity that proliferates so broadly; the selfie. The selfie too lacks expression and is inherently insecure.1 Perhaps these voids accumulated here act like spatial selfies, images taken to act as reminders of this moment in time and nothing more.


Notes

1. For reference here see Byung –Chul Han. 2018, ‘Saving Beauty’ Polity. 2018. 12
2. All images courtesy of Callum Morton and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne


An Open Air Love Letter To Melbourne | Robert Buckingham
 + Superpositions #3 Damiano Bertoli, 2019. Terrace of Obmra restaurant.

An Open Air Love Letter to Melbourne

Walking through the city during Melbourne’s first major lockdown in 2020, curators Robert Buckingham and Fiona Scanlan were deeply affected by the depressed state of city centre.

Their response was to create UPTOWN (15 December 2020–28 February 2021), a uniquely Melbourne initiative designed to reactivate the city and encourage people to look anew at the current state of the important connections Melbourne has with its visual artists.

 + Death of a Disco Dancer The Huxleys, 2020.

UPTOWN was a 24/7 open-air exhibition that re-imagined the streetscape as a large outdoor gallery. It featured artwork by twenty-six artists in vacant shops, on billboards, in laneways and in the windows of local businesses at the top end of Bourke Street, from Parliament House to Exhibition Street. Created in just two months, the project received massive support from the local art and design community and was made possible through a public/private partnership with City of Melbourne, local businesses, property owners and corporate sponsors.

The facade of the 19th-century Hotel Windsor was emblazoned with photographer Polly Borland’s portrait of Nick Cave in drag and drawings by Alasdair McLuckie. The windows of the dilapidated Job Warehouse fabric outlet were occupied by textile sculptures by Elizabeth Newman. A gigantic hoarding across the former Metro nightclub hosted a seminal image by Bill Henson of an ethereal young woman floating above a nocturnal skyline.

 + Untitled Bill Henson, 2000-20001. Installed on the exterior of the former Metro nightclub, photo: Simon Schluter.
 

The artists selected were all from Melbourne and the artworks addressed aspects of their relationship to the city. The Borland image of a gussied-up Cave, for instance, was as an ode to the generations of expatriated creatives who once watered at The Windsor: Borland and Cave both moved to Britain, following in the footsteps of Melbourne illuminati such as Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer and Leigh Bowery. But it was also a testimony to cities as sites of reinvention.

The large scale billboards by Henson, Damiano Bertoli and Kent Morris and an evocative laneway poster installation by Destiny Deacon contrasted with intimate interventions such as a video work by James Lynch amongst a bookshop window and cartoon-like drawings by Kenny Pittock in out of the way corners.

 + Man and Doll Colour Blinded and Dolly Eyes Destiny Deacon, 2005, 2020.

Finding the artworks placed throughout the street and how they changed from morning to night was part of the adventure. Vacant shops had after-dark screenings of photographs of 1980s nightclubs by John Gollings while installations by performance artists, The Huxleys recreated a dystopian disco with costumed mannequins, Louise Paramour responded to the joyful exuberance of Myer’s annual Christmas windows and Eugenia Lim questioned both the city’s history of failed public sculpture and its relationship with Asia.

 + Wikileaks dress and Joyful dress Elizabeth Newman, 2013. Installed in the windows of the former fabric warehouse, photo, John Betts .

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) was a key of supporter of the project and commissioned Kerrie Poliness to orchestrate a community drawing on the steps of Parliament House, at the top of Bourke Street. This saw 200 locals colour in Poliness’ intricate geometric pattern that cascaded down the grand staircase.

Apart from a dedicated website, another key initiative to help visitors navigate the exhibition was partnering with ZOME, a new AR wayfinding app. The artworks, artist interviews and local histories were available via a QR code or by download and now exist as a permanent on-site documentation of the project.

UPTOWN is an example of how the impact of COVID-19 inspired the curators to rethink the traditional exhibition formula and find new ways to engage with audiences. It showed the enormous goodwill that exists for collaborative projects. Most importantly it highlighted the importance of creating connections between visual artists, their urban environment and local businesses to rebuild cities as spaces for creative interaction and cultural production.  


Notes

1. The artists: Peter Atkins, Damiano Bertoli, Polly Borland, Danica Chappel, Su san Cohn, Destiny Deacon, Yanni Florence, John Gollings, Louise Hearman, Bill Henson, Janina Green, Lou Hubbard, Eugenia Lim, James Lynch, Alasdair McLuckie, Viv Miller, Kent Morris, Elizabeth Newman, Louise Paramor, Kenny Pittock, Kerrie Poliness, Steven Rhall, Elle Shimada, The Huxleys, Lisa Young, Constanze Zikos.


Rethinking The Social Studio | Dewi Cooke

Rethinking the Social Studio

If this pandemic has shown us anything, it's that we can, if forced to, rethink all the old norms about how we live and work.

For us at The Social Studio—a vocational training organisation for creatives from refugee backgrounds—reimagining work means we’ve had to reconsider what our fashion school looks like when traditional modes of teaching are upended. And as a manufacturing social enterprise accustomed to working in a highly scheduled way, we’ve also learned to pivot—fast.

Here, the philosophical blends with the practical. How do you deliver remote classes to students who don’t have wifi? How do you keep them inspired, connected and motivated through the world's longest lockdown? And how do you support workers to feel safe and secure when the world feels anything but?

For us, the answers come down to a simple principle: above all, be human. In all our interactions with our staff and community we acknowledge the monumental challenges that the pandemic presents and we scale our expectations accordingly.

This plays out in different ways. COVID has exacerbated the digital divide that existed within our society, so we've done whatever we can to meet our students where they need us most. We've delivered mobile broadband sets to those with no wifi, and we've put recorded Zoom sessions on YouTube for those who can't make our live classes. We check in daily over phone, text, WhatsApp, email; we’ve organised drops of emergency food supplies and even sewing machines.

For months last year, one of our teachers set up a makeshift cutting table in his backyard, FaceTiming with students while simultaneously working on the same patterns they had at home. He did this on cold days, sunny days, windy days and rainy days. “Working from home” took on new meaning in his hands.

Likewise our manufacturing staff became a PPE-making workforce overnight when, in 2020, there was first a global shortage of medical scrubs and then, the Victorian government mandated facemasks. These items are now core to our operations and even allowed us to temporarily increase staff at a time when other businesses were contracting. This pivot was entirely new for us, but from these challenges has bloomed beautiful opportunities.

We’ve been forced to reassess, retool and remake ourselves more times than I can remember. But through it we’ve tried to keep the human purpose of our work at heart. Creativity, community, opportunity—in whatever the circumstances.


Notes

All images taken by and courtesy of Dewi Cooke


 + Reading Space: The Common Room Nicola Cortese, Stephanie Pahnis and Lauren Crockett, 2022.  Installation, Australian Centre of Contemporary Art. Photograph by Alex Reilly.

Public Absence

Public culture is in perpetual flux. This has been accelerated as a consequence of the pandemic, which transformed collective social rituals and the ways we inhabit space. This is at odds with the state of architecture, which is typically one of permanence, unable to keep up with the pace of the world around it. We were given the opportunity to propose an alternative to this relationship within the “Reading Space” as part of ACCA’s recent exhibition, 'Who’s Afraid of Public Space'. Our proposition, The Common Room is a space that was designed to be reconfigured, added to, and archived through the collective agency of those who engage with it.

 + Project development during Melbourne's lockdown , 2021.
 + Project development and testing at the local park during Melbourne’s lockdown , 2021.

The project was developed over a time where our sense of physical spaces has been completely disoriented through the ongoing effects of the pandemic. In a recent online workshop with Masters of Architecture students at Melbourne University, we asked students to come with an image that represented public space to them. The general sentiment was that public spaces (that aren’t the local park) felt like foreign territory after almost two years of not being able to frequent them. This widespread loss of recall has added further complexity to our task, as we attempt not only to challenge the known conditions we are critical of but also speculate on the ways that we might re-inhabit public spaces after a period of absence. 

Our desire for The Common Room was to create a space that encourages softness, slowness, and a sense of agency over a shared cumulative archive. Form and colour have been carefully considered to provide subtle cues for users to participate in reconfiguring the layout to suit the needs of users of different ages, abilities and engagement levels. Materials were selected with the intent to soften the institutional feel of a public gallery. The project itself is collaborative, as the contents of the exhibition library were nominated by members of the general public through an open call for resources.

 + Online project collaboration and development , 2021.

 + Contributions to the library were nominated or donated by the public in Reading Space: The Common Room Nicola Cortese, Stephanie Pahnis and Lauren Crockett, 2022. Installation, Australian Centre of Contemporary Art. Photograph by Alex Reilly.

Now the project has materialised, we have been able to witness how visitors responded to the space. What we saw was a sense of calm, slowness and comfort. The space acting as an intuitive resting zone rather than a space that traditionally is a thoroughfare. In this sense, it’s was an opportunity for us to test not only how the traditional qualities of a gallery can be subverted, but how it can be used to trial new forms of post-pandemic public space.

 + Reading Space: The Common Room icola Cortese, Stephanie Pahnis and Lauren Crockett, 2022.  Installation, Australian Centre of Contemporary Art. Photograph by Adam Curtis.


Notes

1.  Reading Space: The Common Room by Nicola Cortese, Stephanie Pahnis and Lauren Crockett, December 2021 - March 2022 at ACCA as part of ‘Who’s Afraid of Public Space’


Building A Regional Art Museum During A Pandemic | Rebecca Coates
 + Shepparton Art Museum Exterior John Gollings

Building a Regional Art Museum During a Pandemic

How do you build a $50M art museum in a global pandemic? And why does it matter?

In February 2020, I flew back from the States. While away we had received a phone call from my father-in-law, a professor of statistics with expertise in epidemics. COVID-19 was ‘the one’. Even at that stage the math modelling said that things would get ugly.

Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) was in the middle of a once in a lifetime building project: a $50M new art museum that local Council, philanthropists, state and federal governments were supporting with the ambition of creating an arts and cultural space in regional Victoria that would be ‘more than an art museum’. It would bring people together and foster pride. It would reflect both our rich Indigenous culture and people (Shepparton has the largest Aboriginal community in Victoria outside Melbourne) and the wide variety of cultures that now call the Goulburn Valley home (Shepparton has the most diverse ethnic population in regional Victoria). Those around Australia were keenly watching this signature project for Victoria’s fourth largest city in north central regional Victoria. The project was nationally significant: the expert jury for an architectural competition endorsed by the Institute of Architects had selected a design by internationally recognised architect Denton Corker Marshall.

Promising great things, we originally planned to move into the building in October 2020, and to share the purpose-built new arts and cultural space with co-tenants Kaiela Arts, Shepparton’s local Aboriginal arts centre and gallery space, and Greater Shepparton’s Visitor Centre. The building design was bold and ambitious, and would change the face and perception of Shepparton within the community and beyond. Art, artists and culture were changing the game in a way that other infrastructure projects, however worthy, just couldn’t do.

That was the theory, but on the plane back from the US that February, I wrote the first draft of the Shepparton Art Museum’s pandemic plan. Senior colleagues said we were over-reacting. But on return, I found that my colleague’s Paris based sister had contracted the virus while on holiday in Venice. This was my first personal contact with the virus that had locked down China’s city of Wuhan and changed our world irredeemably.

SAM’s COVID plan was embedded into Council’s pandemic plan, which hadn’t been touched since the SARS scare in 2002. The new plan asked the new SAM building and art museum to play an essential role in connecting with community. Arts and culture were seen as key to renewal, although we didn’t then know that the arts and culture sectors would be profoundly affected for a prolonged period, notwithstanding a record level of federal government funding for the arts.

In Shepparton, our library and the art museum stayed open longer than in many other areas of Victoria. But the Melbourne hotel quarantine fiasco changed the landscape: Shepparton’s arts cultural venues closed to the public, and like so many others in the country we began what became a 20 month period of Zoom, team meetings and remote working.

Galleries and art museums had limited access to their own buildings: collections staff were the only ‘essential’ staff allowed on site, to care for collections, check shrouded exhibitions and artworks, and make a sweep for bugs and other unwanted visitors. Removed from both our galleries, collection and arts community, I realised how often I got up from the desk between meetings and slipped off to the collection store and galleries to ‘chat’ with artworks and artists (in absentia), and to welcome our visitors and community in the galleries as I passed through. I missed my tribe. Like all our other colleagues, SAM ‘pivoted’ to maintain a connection with our communities, ‘went digital’ with our exhibitions and artist commissions (with little or no resources and less expertise at that stage), all with a small staff of around 14 who were also working on the biggest capital works project in SAM’s—and Council’s—history.

Supporting artists and our community became our priority: as many artists lost work but were not eligible for Jobkeeper because they were contractors. Exhibitions went online, with mixed success, until we all got desperate and online was better than nothing. SAM EDULAB, our major educational initiative, with artist Nadia Hernandez leading immersive workshops and activities, went online and became a sanity-saving resource for home schooling families and many others. Sarah CrowEST’s Art Wall commission became a digital project, with artwork available for all to download and use as a virtual Zoom backdrop. A series of podcasts went viral in the US, while workshops and practical art classes had followers in Europe and Japan.

Nevertheless, building continued as one of the few industries permitted in person in Victoria. For the remainder of 2020, I was allowed to make four on-site visits to check key milestones in the art museum’s construction. One highlight was arriving on site to see two huge flags hanging from the scaffolding: the Builders’ Union flag, and Australia’s Indigenous yellow, red and black—the first time this flag had hung so visibly from such a significant construction site in Shepparton.

Of course, the October deadline for completion of construction came and went. Glass from China didn’t get on the boat. Other key building materials were scarce. We pushed back opening to March 2021 by when—the Federal Government assured us—Australians would be vaccinated and things would be ‘normal’.

We moved into the new building and offices in early February 2021 and like most new owners started working through the building defects—life had an unreal feel of architecturally designed comfortable camping. We began to move our collection. Although some in Council had suggested hiring a truck and co-opting volunteers to build community and save some money, we engaged industry experts to work with us, and an Indigenous owned organisation to boot, and began to move over 4000 items, many of them fragile ceramics. Council pressured us to open before installation of artwork had been completed—how hard is it to throw a few pictures on the wall?—so we opened the ground floor of the new building and the SAM shop was up and operational before Easter 2021, in a brief pause between Victorian lockdowns. And with inevitable cost pressures, Council had descoped a number of building features deemed non-essential: museum standard gallery lighting; lights and shelving for numerous ceramics display cabinets; and most of the ceiling hanging points for sculpture. Fortunately, funds were forthcoming from Creative Victoria for an additional scope, which included these essential museum requirements. They also included a commercial kitchen fit-out to make the commercial opportunity more attractive for a severely COVID affected hospitality sector, and an Indigenous Sensory Playspace and Healing Garden in front of Kaiela Arts, and the building started to take shape as a fit-for-purpose art museum and cultural precinct.

SAM’s role in a pandemic was to connect community in a period of intense uncertainty and change and bring a little joy to a world where much seemed to have been taken away, leaving just the grind. Shepparton’s lockdowns highlighted this need for connection, particularly when one outbreak put over half the museum’s staff into 14-day home isolation. A generous philanthropist supported us to send out over 400 art packs to families most at need as Shepparton’s COVID cases and families in isolation skyrocketed.

But a global pandemic couldn’t stop us planning a spectacular opening program for SAM. We designed it to celebrate our strong and proud Indigenous community, the Yorta Yorta people, and all those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who call the Goulburn Valley home. Programs of Indigenous art and artists were either co-led, or supported by a Custodial reference group and extensive consultation. Support through Creative Victoria and a Learning and Engagement Partnership with the University of Melbourne had enabled us to develop this work over five years, contributing to the development of an Aboriginal Engagement Plan. We strengthened Indigenous representation across the organisation by increasing opportunities, representation, and voice: at a governance and Board level; across staffing and operations; through exhibitions, collections and programs; and by setting clear engagement priorities and targets. RISE funding supported a new two-year Indigenous trainee program, increasing SAM’s Aboriginal staff from one to ten. One outcome is the profound Lin Onus exhibition, Lin Onus: The Land Within, the first time that this important south-east Australian artist has shown on country.

Shepparton is also home to a rich and diverse multi-cultural community. Ensuring that the art museum became a place for all required creative thinking, and going out to bring people in. A new Ambassadors and Volunteers Program, supported by the Buckland Foundation, actively partnered with local organisations working with Shepparton’s various communities to ensure that SAM was a place where all people could see themselves reflected. Education resources were written in a range of languages, with strong visual imagery used to ensure that the art museum is a place of diversity and inclusion.

The Urbach Foundation supported an exciting new Artist-in-Residence Program, loosely inspired by the Kellerberrin International Art Space in Western Australia that had such an impact on a generation of contemporary artists. The new building includes an artist’s studio and living space on the ground floor. Our program would bring artists to Shepparton to work and live in the art museum itself, surrounded by a unique culture and landscape.

It had been a rather longer road to opening than anyone imagined, but it was worth it when SAM opened its doors to a patient and understanding public, on 20 November 2021.

COVID had thrown up many challenges that were missing from the original risk register. There are things we never want to have to do again, such as curating collection shows online for a building we had never worked in. There are other things that the pandemic has reminded us are essential to our lives: the value and importance of art and artists to bring us together, share ideas, and feel connected. As the world slowly opens up once again to opportunity and hope, we look forward to welcoming everyone to an amazing new building and inaugural program in a unique space in north-central Victoria.

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