After eviction SquatSpace became the moniker for an artists’ collective, comprising Bonetto, de Souza, Ihlein and Quick, with Jimmy Sing and Dave Toecutter, that was determined to artistically address issues of housing and autonomy.5 Following interventions in urban space, such as unReal Estate (2002) for Newcastle’s This is Not Art festival and SquatFest (2001–10), an annual short film festival presented at squatted venues that included the Sydney Dental Hospital and Sydney Park Brickworks, SquatSpace established its most significant initiative, the Redfern–Waterloo: Tour of Beauty in 2005. The initiative was initially prompted by the blatant centralisation of power in the Redfern-Waterloo Authority, a NSW Government body charged in January of that year to drive drastic planning decisions and subsequent redevelopment projects within one of the largest and certainly the most historically contentious public housing sites in Australia. Its form was borne of the artists’ explicit avowal that they did not wish to take on the role of artistic interpreters of the realities of the gentrification process as it affected local residents. Designed as a walking, cycling and mini-bus trail through the area and stopping at locations of significant meaning to the gentrification issues at play, the Tour was run over a dozen times in its initial phase of activity, 2005–09, and was showcased as part of the 2009 exhibition, There Goes the Neighbourhood, presented at nearby Performance Space. The exhibition was accompanied by a publication that placed SquatSpace among local and international artist-activist peers, and was made freely available under Creative Commons.6 Of genuine recent art historical importance, There Goes the Neighbourhood is one of the most substantial takes on art, social issues and community activism ever produced in Australia. The exhibition articulated social equity concerns by employing similar artistic strategies to that of New York artist, activist and critic, Martha Rosler, in her seminal exhibition, If You Lived Here… (1989), in which she addressed the problem of homelessness through a presentation of objects, images and notes that challenged the representative form of the social field in art, in a SoHo gallery.7 Since then the Tour has run on an ad-hoc basis as circumstances called upon the artists and opportunities arose.
Over April and May 2016, the Redfern–Waterloo: Tour of Beauty was incorporated into the program of activities of the 20th Biennale of Sydney, prompted by the inclusion of Keg de Souza’s site-specific installation, We Built This City, and accompanying Redfern School of Displacement, a platform for conversations centred on marginalised voices and the perspectives of those threatened with displacement in the area. The Tour that I attended on a rainy Saturday afternoon saw a cohort of people, mostly unknown to each other, gather inside de Souza’s tent construction at 16 Vine Street, located adjacent to The Block. On the Tour I listened to Redfern’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy leader and activist, Jenny Munro, fiercely tell of her community’s struggles against displacement from The Block and the surrounding neighbourhood; Alice Anderson and Alexander Turnbull, spokespeople for the REDWatch community group, outline recent and future repercussions of Urban Growth NSW’s redevelopment program for the Central to Eveleigh rail corridor; and long-time Waterloo resident and community activist, Ross Smith, distilling his ongoing demands for equity and access to safe conditions for public housing residents. Then, with more than a little surprise and interest, the Tour was invited inside the seventeen-storey Joseph Banks tower (erected 1974) by Billy McPherson, well-known Redfern resident, community worker, actor, filmmaker, boxing trainer and bus driver for the day. Standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers in Billy’s apartment as he generously shared the intimacy of his home and stories from his life — aided by a hand-drawn family tree, blue-tacked to the living room wall, that outlined the research he had undertaken of generations of his Aboriginal forebears and descendants — was a timely reminder that the rhetoric of internationalism that accompanies every biennale does not preclude the exchange of diverse perspectives the closer its parameters get to its own backyard. Asking if and exactly how the Redfern–Waterloo: Tour of Beauty is ‘socially engaged art’ is not an interesting question. Instead, thinking of the trajectory of both the application and meaning of the catch-all term, one is compelled to question the convenience of the art world’s semantic reconfiguring of the social in political and economic climates that are increasingly disowning civic responsibility. In the realm of urban planning, for instance, others have noted that:
the discursive move from ‘public housing’ to ‘social housing’ signals the decline of social citizenship [as] … not simply a renaming of public housing, but rather a name giving — social housing — to a new form of post-welfare state low-income housing to be provided by the non-government and private sectors.8It follows that just as the ‘social’ in contemporary art is tested by the motives and consequences that arise from artists’ strategies of engagement, if we are to passively accept the ascendency of neoliberalism upon human relations one can only dread what might become of ‘beauty’.
Pedro de Almeida is an arts manager, curator and writer and has been Program Manager at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, since 2012. His current postgraduate research focuses on art projects in social housing estates in Australia and internationally.
1. Sue Williams, ‘Redfern squatter seeks to take ownership of terrace using arcane law’, Domain, 9 June 2016, http://www.domain.com.au/news/redfern-squatter-seeks-to-take-possession-of-terrace-using-arcane-law-20160608-gpcp8t/
2. This is actually to say that Sydney became more like a former version of itself, mirroring the construction and speculative land boom of the 1880s, only this time with no corresponding bust on the flip-side brought on by nervous overseas investors.
3. For a good summary of this history in the context of Sydney’s artist-run gallery scene, see Amy Griffiths, From Then to Now: Artist Run Initiatives in Sydney, New South Wales, MA thesis, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2012, p. 127–130.
4. See ‘The Broadway Squats’, Direct Action 174 (2001) 6, for a run down of the events leading up to eviction. Accessed at http://www.australianmuseumofsquatting.org/?p=808.
5. SquatSpace is a non-hierarchical collective of individuals and others who contributed to the gallery in the Broadway squats. Likewise, the 2016 Tours were led by Bonetto, de Souza, Ihlein and Quick, all of whom have been recognised as principal members since circa 2010.
6. For wonderful filmic historical documentation of the 1970s battle by residents to save the area from further slum clearance and redevelopment by public housing authorities see Tom Zubrycki’s 50-minute documentary Waterloo (1981).
7. Zanny Begg and Keg de Souza (eds), There Goes the Neighbourhood: Redfern and the Politics of Urban Space, Breakdown Press in association with Performance Space, Sydney, 2009. Available at http://www.theregoestheneighbourhood.org/TGTN-eBook.pdf[^8]: Dallas Rogers and Michael Darcy, ‘Global city aspirations, graduated citizenship and public housing: analysing the consumer citizenships of neoliberalism’, Urban Planning and Transport Research 2:1 (2014), p. 83.