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Un Magazine 12.2

Public Art and the Politics of Surveillance

Blaklash Projects, people+artist+place

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8/26

Article

Warraba Weatherall, Single File (2018). Photos: Naomi O’Reilly.

Marisa's round table
Annerley, Brisbane

Amanda Hayman
This is the first time we’ve all been in the same room together, so I thought it would be good to start off with a little intro to the overarching project, Co-MMotion.
Jenna Green
We established people+artist+place in 2017 because we wanted to see more live art in Brisbane’s public spaces; in particular site specific, participatory and/or socially engaged projects. This year our focus has been producing Co-MMotion, Brisbane City Council’s 2018 Temporary Art Program. Through this opportunity we’ve been able to work with a brilliant group of artists and curators and together explored different formats for delivering temporary art in our city and its surrounds. Warraba’s work Single File (2018) is the fifth activation in a program of seven.
Marissa Georgiou
We are interested in encouraging audiences to have more than a cursory engagement with a public installation and value the meaningful conversations art often sparks. For this activation we approached BlakLash Projects, asking if they’d like to work with us to develop a project that engaged with an Indigenous artist to create a public activation.
Troy Casey
Warraba was one of the first artists we had in mind when you came to us with this brief. We knew he would produce a strong conceptual artwork for people to engage with, and he delivered. Single File is an installation that involves seven filing cabinets that sit stationary in the shallows of the Brisbane River at Kurilpa Point; a highly visible area with high foot-traffic.
Warraba Weatherall
Single File aligns with my honours research around colonial surveillance and how it’s not just specific to the colony, but is still happening now. It’s about surveillance and the lack of Indigenous agency within the archives. It comments on how the data collected assumes who we [Aboriginal people] are, our culture, and where we sit in this country. This takes away our autonomy and, in the long term, works to be a system of cultural genocide. I’m not talking about our own cultural knowledge. It’s the knowledge that we are conditioned to believe. This objective gaze is embedded through science and other fields of ‘intellectual’ knowledge that are so subtle. It’s taught within academia and other contexts and is reiterated so much over time that people forget to ask, ‘well, where do those ‘facts’ actually come from? Whose truths are they?’.

I wanted to talk about the subtleties of structural violence. I explore the psychology of colonisation, too. I am constantly reflecting and questioning perceived knowledge.

JG
Do you feel that you predominantly make work for yourself, or are you invested in how it might affect others?
WW
It’s for myself, it helps me to gain a deeper understanding of myself, culture and context. But it’s also for other people – to provide them a critique of a system they participate in. Western thought always has a binary opposition, and in line with current conversations about intersectionality we have to rupture two things to find what the intersections are.
AH
The symbology of the filing cabinets can be interpreted in so many ways, but knowing you as an artist and your family’s interest in museums and repatriation, I can see why you’ve chosen to de- contextualise these ordinarily banal objects, often found in collecting institutions.
WW
Building on my show from last year about Aboriginal deaths in custody, I’m really interested in institutional violence. My research looked at structural racism within the prison system, and this time I am exploring the archives.

My own belief system and contemporary existence is diametrically opposed to the colonial content and misrepresentations of Aboriginality held in the archives. I guess the filing cabinet is an object that everyone’s familiar with; it represents collected data and the housing of information. We’re all used to seeing them in offices, but I hope that seeing five in the river will prompt the enquiry, ‘what’s that all about?’. Similar to the subtle nature of structural violence, you’re getting a mundane object in a new space, which doesn’t make sense.

AH
Placing them in the Brisbane River also gives them additional attention.
WW
Well the brief was that it had to be in the water, but also water is rejuvenating, reproductive ...
JG
I’m curious about your decision to weight, rather than float, the cabinets?
WW
There used to be an old police station and a little jetty near the site. When there weren’t enough holding cells, police would chain up blackfellas on the jetty and the high tide would drown them. I’ve only heard oral histories but as far as I know, that’s true.
MG
When I saw the arrangement of the cabinets, I remember thinking, ‘wow, it looks like a memorial’.
WW
Yes, there’s also the repetition and mimicry of that. I also think about idioms; in my artist statement I use the words, ‘trying to turn the tide’.
AH
Being a street artist, you must be used to producing outdoor works. I like it because you can capture an audience that doesn’t necessarily step into a gallery.
WW
There are definitely opportunities to access people who are just walking by. I do believe there are benefits, but it can be hard to gauge the effects. I’m just trying to add to a dialogue. I can plant the seed but it’s hard to know whether it’s going anywhere.
TC
Kamilaroi mob are well-known for old tree carvings and sand paintings in public spaces. Do you think that your practice, especially temporary public art, is a continuum of that?
WW
Being a graffiti artist, there’s definitely a continuum. Aerosols as a continuation of ochres, reclaiming and occupying public space. It’s the same with knowledge – cultural knowledge today includes political knowledge, so it’s definitely the same continuum.
AH
It’s been a year since you had your solo exhibition – InstitutionaLies at Metro Arts. I was so impressed with the sophistication of your sculptural work, because prior to that I had only seen your two-dimensional work. I’m excited to see another sculptural work. Are you moving away from street art?
WW
Not at all, I don’t want to be boxed in that way. I’ll make paintings, sculpture, collage, whatever. Vernon [Ah Kee] always says that you use whatever material speaks to the idea the best.
TC
All the stuff you do is ‘hard-hitting’. It’s confronting, it’s about brothers and sisters locked up and massacres, and this installation talks about cultural genocide and repatriation – all heavy issues. What do you hope the audience will take away from seeing these pieces?
WW
Everything that I make has a strong undertone of black rights and injustices. There’s tremendous value in knowledge, so passing on that knowledge is the only thing I can do. Within today’s society there’s so many scare tactics within politics that people feel disempowered to make change. Sometimes that knowledge doesn’t do much unless you have a lot of people with conviction that are going to stand up and do something. I feel it is changing but, at the same time we’re [Aboriginal people] always in the periphery – never in the middle.
MG
Interestingly, people look for security in knowing things ‘completely/concretely’, and insecurity comes from the unpredictable – but perhaps we should feel more comfortable in unpredictable circumstances?
TC
It’s funny how you talk about sitting ‘comfortably’ because sitting on Country, just being comfortable with sitting in silence and accepting the things around you, is ingrained in who we are as Aboriginal people and comes naturally to me. I wouldn’t say that’s true of people who are used to very structured, organised, institutionalised environments.
MG
And public space, as well, is often so rigid in the way that it’s designed to move you from destination A to B, and even prescribed social actions, too. So many subtle ways that the built environment tells you how to act.
WW
My research started off with spatial and architectural violence, because early this year the government rolled out the Biometric Surveillance Plan. It’s all based on phrenology and body measurement stuff, how you walk, your gait. If there’s any cultural difference that shows up as an anomaly it’s flagged and monitored. Then there’s all the mechanisms of the media sidelining issues and voices, policing via the media. There’s so many links between censorship, visibility, invisibility, structure and agency.

Warraba Weatherall, Single File (2018). Photos: Naomi O’Reilly.

JG
How does the language you use to describe your experience and work affect the way in which your ideas and work might be received? I’m particularly interested in your repeated use of the term ‘violence’.
WW
I talk about colonialism, but not everyone thinks they are affected by colonialism. Everyone’s received violence, so they can relate. People are too accustomed to thinking in binaries and that violence is only when someone is being beaten up, but there’s so many variations to violence. If people are so shaken by the word, that says more about them. Johan Galtung, the principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies, has written a lot on the subject.
MG
It reminds me of that term ‘hostile architecture’ which is used to discourage homelessness or other loitering activities.
TC
The artwork location is surrounded by hostile architecture within a city that is colonised, controlled and surveilled all the time, so it is kind of perfect.
WW
Knowing the work would be in a public space I was tempted to decline this project. I’m getting to a point where I don’t want to do public art unless I have complete creative control over the work. Potentially the only way to not be censored sometimes is to choose to do it illegally.

Single file was installed in the Brisbane River from 8–16 September 2018 and was visible from the boardwalk near the Kurilpa Footbridge.

BlakLash Projects (Amanda Hayman & Troy Casey) produce arts and cultural events, public activations, and actively seeks economic opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creatives.

people+artist+place (Jenna Green & Marisa Georgiou) explore forms of contemporary public art through the delivery of socially focused projects.