Boom! shake-shake-shake the room ...

By Linda Carroli
Arts Hub, March 2009

The arts has a push and pull relationship with urban development and land use, often clustering in unattractive or undesirable inner city areas for their accessibility, flexibility and affordability. After a cultural ecology and economy seeds, others pay heed. It's not just the artists and bohemian feel that are noteworthy, but also the social mix and street life. Others are also attracted to those places and eventually those cheaper properties become the focus of speculation, desirable redevelopment and investment opportunities, ushered in under the banner of urban renewal or urban consolidation. Policy, property and planning seem to conspire to reify this economic dynamic. Renewal isn’t benign. When I was involved in resident action groups, let's say 20 or so years ago, urban renewal wasn't supported by progressive social and affordable housing initiatives or consideration of community or design dividends. It was progress - everything stopped for it and everything was swept aside for it.

In cultural projects across Australia, geospatial economics and cultural landscapes are actively explored and exposed by artists, often in collaboration with local communities. Three current projects that stand out are SquatSpace located in Sydney's Redfern, the Renew Newcastle project, and an exhibition project Yellow Vest Syndrome at Fremantle Arts Centre in Western Australia. Each of these projects ride and resist the economic flows of booms and busts using markedly different creative and artistic strategies. Significantly, they also refuse the sometimes neo-liberal sting of creative industries, highlighting the incursion of other economies.

On the west coast at Fremantle Arts Centre, Yellow Vest Syndrome charts the intersection of economics, culture and landscape, Jasmin Stephens has curated an exhibition of 30 contemporary Western Australian artists. At the time Stephens instigated the project, Western Australia was riding the wave of a resource fuelled boom that meant prosperity for many. However, prosperity didn’t bring us happiness. Successive surveys and commentaries indicate that if, during the boom, we measured our gross national or state happiness, it would have been found wanting. Perhaps, as Mark Parfitt proposes in his installation Method as Outcome, happiness might be found in the quest for the perfect lawn as a lifestyle choice (in a state with such scarce water resources). As in Mike Gray’s photomedia work, that lawn would accompany a suburban privatopia encased by a McMansion.  This boom has resulted in unprecedented development, suburban land releases and gentrification, with Perth emerging as one of Australia’s housing affordability/property hotspots.

Stephens wryly observes that the yellow vest is a type of ‘state costume’. Costume, in this context, evokes the fake and illusory, perhaps a type of comedic dress-up or self-parody. The yellow vest is a standard issue uniform and, like most uniforms, it can both promote a particular identity and constrain other opportunities for expression and experience.  While the yellow vest is perhaps a symbol of progress and prosperity, it might also be appropriated for other ends. In wearing the vest, one assumes a kind of authority and is granted privileged rights of access to public and private space. Artist George Egerton-Warburton tested this theory when he donned the yellow vest, infiltrated the most expensive residential block in Perth and commenced work on his own building. Even though this intervention was intercepted, he had demonstrated that the hypothesis had legs.

It’s potentially based on the idea of ‘looking the part’ and all kinds of guerrilla activities and urban interventions are possible by appropriation or subterfuge. Through the lens of this curatorial premise, Stephens interrogates questions of value and progress. As in other parts of the country, the emphasis on economic growth can sometimes seem myopic and uni-dimensional. In the economic cycle, there is no boom without bust. If, as a country, the Australian people and its governments had placed value on social capital, environmental sustainability and cultural development, perhaps our current balancing act on the brink of recession and galloping climate change might seem less frightful. The currency of the vest as a symbol is not fixed and these changing circumstances might provoke a shift. During the recession, the yellow vest may well become a symbol of stimulus measures, employment initiatives, public works and natural disaster response.

Yellow Vest Syndrome feels like a wake-up call, the sort that artists issue as a matter of urgency, with such conjuring of the symbolic and disruption of the rhetorical. It also excavates other territories – the psychogeographies of our memories, our hearts and our lore. The evocative Fremantlestories.com is an online storytelling and local history platform, while east Pilbara artist Milly Kelly, whose skin group is Karrimara, captures and shares stories in her paintings for other Martu people. Like the land itself, this exhibition has great breadth and asks us to recount our narratives of place, to meaningfully recast our relationship with our country, and to imbue that relationship with deeper values of respect and care. It asks us to reflect on how we live, our way of life. Fremantle Arts Centre continues the dialogue on 14 March in a forum, Donning the Vest, featuring academic Dr Glenn Albrecht, curator Dr Robert Cook and artists Sarah Elson and Kelli McClusky.

During boom times, as Yellow Vest Syndrome acknowledges, progress seems unrelenting and inexhaustible. Booms, like the one we all enjoyed or endured in Australia, bring the kind of prosperity that accelerates urban development and property investment. The interplay of demand and supply exposes all kinds of market imperfections, and this was felt most bitterly in the housing market by buyers and renters alike. As prosperity prospers, finding a space to live, work or create in can be elusive for some. They might be shunted from the locales they were instrumental in creating, while others can cash in on canny or timely investments. The dynamics of property are just that - dynamic. However, there are ways of initiating urban renewal without ruinous social, environmental and cultural effects. There are also ways of promoting revitalisation without sending artists to do the dirty work of gentrification.

Over the past few months, I've received a steady stream of communiqués via Facebook, email and RSS feeds about Renew Newcastle instigated by Marcus Westbury. On the day of the launch his Facebook status read "Marcus Westbury is pretty pleased with this whole Renew Newcastle thing thus far". Clearly, the Renew Newcastle project has hit its stride. This is heartening news because Newcastle seems to have struggled to find momentum for renewal and revitalisation, to remix itself from an industrial city to a place with a lighter flavour. Nothing seems to stick - the mall doesn't work, the retail doesn't attract, investment is sluggish and the university moved out of town. With a surfeit of empty spaces, Newcastle was suffering from a bad case of 'donut syndrome'. Without people and trade, there is no city. A succession of cultural plans, revitalisation strategies and economic development initiatives don't seem to have turned the tide despite the successes of events like ElectroFringe and This Is Not Art.

Westbury was moved to act upon discovering 150 or so empty buildings in the city’s two main streets over a length of several kilometres. As an unfunded project, Renew Newcastle exists to bring transitional buildings in Newcastle to life again. Property owners are able to lend, donate or lease (for a nominal sum) their buildings to Renew Newcastle while they are untenanted or are awaiting development. Renew Newcastle has had most success in accessing buildings in the Hunter Street Mall due to common ownership. Having partnered with property company GPT, which owns a range of properties within the Newcastle CBD, properties are being made available in preparation for a major retail project.

Renew Newcastle's strategy for reviving the city's inner city area is to match artists and community groups with vacant buildings. Over a three month period, more than 100 submissions were received from local artists and groups wanting to be involved in the program. Initially, seven tenancies have been established and this includes a new photography gallery, a sound digital and media gallery, an animation studio/production house, a shopfront for children's art and craft classes, an architecture based installation exhibition, an online magazine and design hub, and a shop that will be home to artworks, origami and custom made creatures. Part property manager, part place manager and part 'distributed incubator', Renew Newcastle manages the short term use of the buildings, paying public liability and other necessary insurances and basic maintenance.

This project formalises a process that has occurred informally for decades. It presents a marked departure from a normative governmental approach that develops cultural infrastructure rather than collaborate to make best use of local resources. A distinctly ‘third way’ model resonates in the Renew Newcastle approach and it has ventured where cultural plans and creative industries strategies rarely go. There is a perspective that government facilities provide more security for tenants, even when they are paying commercial rents in publicly funded infrastructure. However, that view may be unfounded. In Brisbane, for example, the City Council has resolved to charge commercial rents for office space in the Brisbane Powerhouse. This has resulted in the displacement of an arts and disability organisation Access Arts which must now seek alternate accommodation in a city where there is very little affordable office space available for non-profit organisations. The issues of affordable office or studio space, flexible tenancies, reduced or subsidised rents and easy-in and out leases hit every city and town.

In Brisbane, community groups and arts organisations facing growing demand for services and unstable revenue streams are paying ever increasing rents. In response to this, a proposition was put to the Queensland Government by the State Government Community Forum for Greater Brisbane, of which I am a member, to collaborate with QUT to repurpose its Carseldine campus in Brisbane's northern suburbs as a social and cultural innovation and enterprise facility. The proposal also sought to establish resources for small and home-based enterprise in the area. Primarily, the Forum sought to respond to the needs of non-profit social and cultural organisations and to the needs of ever-expanding and poorly resourced suburban communities, particularly along Brisbane’s northern corridor. After issuing a call for expressions of interest for the site late last year, QUT officially closed the campus in January with no further information about future uses. Thus far, the proposal has been deflected by the government to the Community Forum with a deft backhand.

Acutely aware of the politics and economics of claiming urban space, particularly those desirable for gentrification, SquatSpace is ‘spaceless’. Their projects intercept the resumptive impulses of property development and the impacts of mega-events such as Sydney's Olympic Games. With humble beginnings in the Broadway Squats in 2000, this group of artists and activists organises events, coordinates projects and hosts websites that involve artists and communities in cultural experience. Rather than let South Sydney Council-owned buildings rot, those involved in SquatSpace moved in and made those buildings habitable. While the methods might be different, Renew Newcastle and SquatSpace share a commitment to using and fixing empty buildings and creating spaces for communities and artists who would be otherwise disadvantaged in the property market. The SquatSpace website narrates a terse relationship with the local council during the Broadway inhabitation: eviction, police, union support, barricades and, eventually, negotiations. Perhaps negotiation could have been the Council's first option rather than its last resort.

The group had also presented the project, unReal Estate, in Newcastle in 2002. Taking residence in a Hunter Street shopfront that was clothed in the garb of a typical real estate agency, the project posted listings of 'squattable' Newcastle sites in its windows. The unReal Estate office suggested that these buildings could be recycled. Unused buildings can deteriorate at a faster rate. An occupied building is livelier, safer and less likely to be vandalised, themes reiterated by Renew Newcastle.

SquatSpace practices a kind a ‘juggernautic urbanism’. The Tour of Beauty was instigated some years ago in response to the New South Wales government's establishment of the Redfern Waterloo Authority (RWA) to oversee development and planning in an area known for its low income residents and social housing. Such authorities tend to have powers that ride roughshod over the planning and heritage regulations. The Tour is presented a few times a year, including during the Sydney Biennale in association with the Ivan Dougherty Gallery exhibition Concrete Culture, and charts a route through Redfern and Waterloo with a view to creating awareness of the problems and challenges faced by local residents, including the impact of redevelopment and gentrification on the Indigenous community. Tour Guides also exposed the program of demolitions, including lost social housing, that is irrevocably fraying the urban fabric. SquatSpace's blog tells of the many lives of this project including a custom Tour for a group of geography students from Germany and an online documentary is available on YouTube.

Both Renew Newcastle and SquatSpace are non-profit organisations endeavouring to make a difference in and for their communities, each adapting operational models to form the partnerships required to gain some advantage in the flux of urban economies. What is most compelling about SquatSpace and Renew Newcastle is that they are driven by community initiative and the drive to occupy or inhabit urban space. This is how social innovation and community economics fills in the gaps of public policy, market forces and government programs. Together with Yellow Vest Syndrome, these initiatives highlight spaces of dissension erupting with emerging possibilities for our sense of place, community and culture across this country. 

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