By definition, there is no master sketch for what such a thing might look like. It can only be an experiment.
-- Maggie Nelson
In Carceral Capitalism, Jackie Wang stares into an abyss of hopelessness, acutely aware that prison abolition is as implausible as the end of capitalism.1 But she persists, sharing her brother’s miscarried justice. The teenager was sentenced to life without parole, criminalised for his physical proximity to a murder he didn’t commit. She writes in the negative, gruellingly exposing the logics of capitalism, which find a new palpability in the over-policed geographies of COVID-19. Her book is as compelling as it is relentlessly bleak. There is no indication of a way out and the United States she wrote of in 2017 seems quiet and distant now, although a sense of revolution (as unclear and idealistic as it may sound) is one way to maintain some optimism. In this context, writing comes from the realisation that the world we find ourselves in has failed. We write with the hope that we will find justice again, that there is something other than the world that has betrayed us. And we might find it through creative experiments and other intangible outputs.
I started writing because there is something uncomfortable about the way that we live and I wanted to untangle the sadness that it elicited. But questions linger. Concerns that I’m attracted to writing because I failed at other things and replicating scenes from a series of failures feels gratuitous. I wanted a ‘real’ career, to see and make things that felt better than the rigid urban monotony we live in. I tried to build this career in urban planning, as it seemed an obvious way to begin drafting another world. Planners appeared busy designing new ways of living where sustainability, housing affordability, creative cities and even decolonisation entered the vernacular. For a brief moment it seemed like this world was opening itself to me, working at the intersection of art and land use planning. The bureaucracy showed interest in creative economies while acknowledging the failures of commercial revitalisation, intergenerational equity and even a desire for Aboriginal inclusion.
But in a strange environment, which metabolised the desire to improve cities too quickly, culture was inserted into the urban landscapes like wallpaper, an aesthetic distraction to hide the foundations just moments away from collapse. I attended meetings where murals by Josh Muir screened the detritus of the Metro Tunnel’s construction. Industrial areas of Brunswick were earmarked as state of the art fashion precincts where sustainable clothing ventures would end fast fashion retailers while creating tangible incomes for inner-north artists. The decaying former factories flushed with young blood busily creating clothes for the culturally aware professionals of the future. Occasionally it felt hopeful, but more often absurd. The city hid inequality behind a veneer of culture, as the distance between the bureaucracy’s perception of ‘art’ and its realities expanded.
In the office I observed other planners and policy makers become ‘experts’ in creative regeneration, place making, co- working hubs and enterprise economies. It became obvious relatively soon that lived experience or connection to creative practice was irrelevant. I hid that I was a writer with a loose arts practice because it seemed to aggravate their vision of the creative city. But I watched on with interest, and troubled bemusement, as the corporate attraction to ‘creative life’ replicated gentrification.
Vacant buildings in former industrial zones became new frontiers for mixed-use planning. A combination of bespoke studios spaces (architecture and graphic design firms, designer furniture makers) collided with start-up economies, cafes, bars and a smattering of residential dwellings to enliven and unlock the depleted former factories of a bygone manufacturing era. Artists, makers and entrepreneurs would be given access to affordable infrastructure, which had been idle, ensuring that they would prosper in a diverse city where diverse people and diverse economies coalesced.
It was called the Commercial 3 Zone (C3Z). In a team meeting, an over-zealous white guy in tight navy chinos introduced us to its transformative benefits. He had lived in Berlin, where the loose zoning laws had informed the small startup he developed with a group of artist and architecture mates. They imported goods to New York, had a website and an abundance of ‘Insta followers’. It was unclear whether they had ever generated a wage or why he was now working in the public service, but others in the room seemed relatively impressed. He handed out copies of the Planning Practice Note, which stated that:
The Commercial 3 Zone is a new planning tool which can be applied to help facilitate business growth and innovation in select parts of Victoria. It is a mixed-use employment zone, which is intended to facilitate the establishment and growth of creative industries, small manufacturers and start-up businesses. The zone promotes the creation of dense, economically diverse, affordable, accessible and amenity-rich precincts, which are attractive to new and emerging businesses.2
I wondered how the artists and writers I knew fitted into this diverse, affordable city with a growth in creative industries. We were new and emerging but I wasn’t sure if there was room for our creative intent. Or, as Oli Mould writes in Against Creativity:
[T]he ‘new’ creative city needs to have a veneer of ‘edginess’, appeal to hipsters and maintain a radical, progressive and perhaps even anti-capitalist aesthetic, all the while mobilizing these (now stabilized) aesthetics for the same traditional purpose: wealth generation for the elite.3
In this definition, we weren’t creative; we were artists that corporate re-branding devoured while mimicking our aesthetic.
After C3Z I started hearing colleagues talk about a former wool store and manufacturing hub in Kensington called Younghusband. Having just moved to the suburb, I was familiar with the large building along the train line, both quiet and absorbing. A collective of artists occupied a shed, occasionally hosting small events, but the majority of the area was eerily empty. Located next to the Allied flour mills factory, whose enormous yellow cylinder drums washed the street with intimidating presence, it was hard to imagine a mixed-use hub of entrepreneurs and galleries, even as policy makers gushed over it.
On a walk, I noticed a ‘For Lease’ sign on the exterior advertising creative workspaces with a-grade amenity. Apart from a photography studio and a few small businesses, there was little to indicate a thriving cultural hub in the low-key area. Its vacancy and decaying interiors, visible through broken windows, expelled a sense of terrain vague — an empty space yet to be forcibly transformed by the desire of architecture and urban design. There was something comforting in its undeveloped state; its misalignment with capitalism espoused hope in an incongruous urban environment unable to acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded. Its stillness peeled away the familiar layers of development. For a fleeting moment I could imagine a city in reverse, moving back to its pre-colonial form.
A Google search reframed what I saw. A website for Younghusband promoted development and rental opportunities in the ‘beautiful industrial village’, where a predictable urban cool was conveyed by images of people and cafes transforming the building into a ‘vibrant mix’. The website implied that a highly activated mixed-use hub was already generating social, creative and economic capital for Melbourne’s inner north. But the architectural renders and photoshopped interiors were inconsistent with what was visible. Its flashiness was as bizarre as it was comical, and helped to explain the excitement it had generated in the office. I wondered how planners would feel on site visits. Disappointed? Or slightly relieved that its emptiness allowed them to imprint their fantasies over the large heritage red brick walls? I tried to imagine my own vision for the building but struggled, realising that its emptiness felt closer to the truth. Still and uninhabited, it was a respite from cultural precinct planning, and the flamboyant website ominously illustrating its future.
An unopened email from a former colleague sat like a pang of discomfort I didn’t know what to do with. She appeared sociable when we worked together but there was divisiveness in her body language that represented the hierarchical nature of our profession, a hierarchy that was unspoken because the capitalist nature of success wasn’t fashionable. Planners like to appear sociable, to keep in touch. These civilities just never translated into collaboration or equity in the workplace. A few weeks later I noticed her post an article on LinkedIn suggesting how built environment professionals could become better allies in the wake of the Bla(c)k Lives Matter movement. I glanced through the article with its familiarly apologetic tone, which never touched on the issue because it was too unnerving to confront, until the concluding paragraph recommended that reading essays by people like Timmah Ball was an important step. I laughed, which was comforting, but it wasn’t enough to resolve how deeply irritated the industry had left me, how absurd the suggestion felt and how co-opted these essays I had once cared for now felt. I had never wanted to write these texts. I wanted to be a planner — until I entered the system and understood what that meant. But I still question if this anger lacks depth and if my fixation on rage, to only see these actions as a negative, is also a flaw.
When anger settles, I can see that writing against planning, creating in the negative, adopting a permanent critical position in order to imagine another world, is laced with irony. Rather than de-stabilising the settler capitalist goals of a fundamentally flawed profession, I seem to reinforce them. My name is used to ease white practitioners’ privilege, they are critical of themselves before I can be, they state the argument first as another way to win. But a self-critical awareness rarely incites change. As Alison Whittaker argues in the essay ‘So White. So What.’, a hyper awareness of your whiteness or the ability to quote Blak texts is unlikely to generate the transformative systemic shifts non-white people (and the non-white creators of these texts) hope for. From another view outside of racial equity, Maggie Nelson argues that any desire to change what we experience through creative practice may be futile. She writes:
[O]ne thing seems clear: whether or not one intends for one’s art to express or stir compassion, to address or rectify forms of social injustice, to relieve suffering, may end up irrelevant to its actual effects. Some of the most good-intentioned, activist ‘compassionate’ art out there can end up being — ineffective.4
I am swallowed by ineffectualness, flirting with the possibility of realigning myself with a profession that promotes inclusion while consistently erasing the ‘other’. I imagine inserting myself into the Victorian Planning Scheme literally not metaphorically. I am done with metaphors, subtle hints to the industry through essays, art and guest lectures. The only way through is in the belly of the architect. To physically slip into the schemes and acts that dispossess us in order to write a new zone from within. It is possible, I’ve seen it happen. Someone wrote the Commercial Zone 3, someone I probably studied with, someone who probably thinks decolonisation is awareness that Melbourne/ Narrm/Birrarung-Ga has been gentrified. But I hesitate for too long, concerned that if I enter I might never come out again. Curious to know if there are other map-making methodologies beyond the planning scheme that could lead to another world. I am lost, but writing is the only way to re-orientate myself. If I enter the scheme, the language of law, zones, overlays and provisions would distance me from the poetics that keep me sane. These poetics exist on the margins of policy and legislation but, as Audre Lorde proclaims, ‘Poetry is the skeleton architecture of our lives — the foundations of a future for change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.’5
I stay on the outside of the Victorian Planning Scheme and keep writing even if the words are manipulated, misinterpreted and occasionally used to reinforce the people who flourish in the world that I hate. In The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Nelson argues for a nuanced position, one which understands the absurdity and unlikelihood that comes from the expectation that critical arts discourse can transform a cruel and brutal world. She is right on some levels, but I remain fixed to the negative (searching for a blueprint for another world) because I see no other option. Because radical change feels as unreachable as it is unrelentingly desirable.
Timmah Ball is a non-fiction writer, researcher and creative practitioner of Ballardong Noongar heritage. In 2016 she won the Westerly Patricia Hackett Prize, and her writing has appeared in a range of anthologies and literary journals.
Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism, Semiotext(e), 2018. ↩
Oli Mould, Against Creativity, Verso Books: London and New York, 2018, 159. ↩
Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, W. Norton & Company: New York, 2012, 9. ↩
Audre Lorde, ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’ in Sister Outsider, Crossing Press: Canada, 2007 (1984), 93. ↩