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Making sense of place & relocation

Ilana Cohn: Campbelltown Arts Centre, Temporary Democracies

Ilana Cohn is a PhD candidate in the School of the Arts and Media at UNSW.

Brian Fuata, Privilege (House), Temporary Democracies Brian Fuata, Privilege (House), Temporary Democracies
photo Heidrun Löhr
Can a neighbourhood sausage sizzle qualify as art? What about a table tennis competition in a local clubhouse? When it comes to socially engaged community art projects, it can often be near impossible to demarcate the boundary between ‘art’ and ‘life’. This is certainly true of the works that make up Temporary Democracies, a series of site-specific art and performance installations located in the South Western Sydney suburb of Airds.

Currently home to thousands of individuals and families who rely on public housing, 70% of Airds will be redeveloped over the next 15 to 20 years with a large proportion of its population to be relocated elsewhere. Demolition is already underway, leaving vacant a number of houses and empty blocks of land. For Temporary Democracies, an initiative of Campbelltown Arts Centre supported by the NSW Land and Housing Corporation, curator Paul Gazzola has invited 13 artists to develop projects over the next two years that engage with the urban conditions of the area and reflect on the changes affecting this community. The first instalment this year saw a handful of Australian artists consulting and interacting with local residents as they developed works onsite over five days in August, using vacant homes and empty land as inspiration for their installations.

The scene I encounter on a bright Saturday afternoon initially feels more like a friendly neighbourhood street party than a contemporary art project. A small crowd is milling around a food trailer, chatting casually, hotdogs in hand. This is artist Robert Guth’s Mobile Cooking Hearth, a van that has been constructed by Guth together with members of the Airds/Bradbury Men’s Shed group using the remains of kitchens from demolished houses.

Cooking as art has been done before—most famously by Rirkrit Tiravanija who offered gallery visitors homemade curry and pad thai meals at his New York shows during the 1990s. But Guth has taken the extra step of moving out of a gallery setting and placing his work directly onto the street by creating a mobile cooking facility that will remain a permanent part of the Airds community. If sharing food is the ultimate communal act, Guth’s project shifts the meaning of art from aesthetic to social. It may appear decidedly lo-tech and anti-aesthetic, but as the afternoon wears on and my new friends and I pass around the tray of freshly baked lemon cookies that the artist has produced from the trailer’s oven, I experience firsthand the potential of this project to foster human relationships.

Tanya Schultz, Dreamers who seek treasure, Temporary Democracies Tanya Schultz, Dreamers who seek treasure, Temporary Democracies
photo Heidrun Löhr
Across the street, Elizabeth Woods has transformed the interior of a newly vacated house into a table tennis drop-in centre which she has called The Academy—What’s Your Game? It’s decorated with trophies and memorabilia, including photographic portraits of smiling Airds residents, and Woods is on hand to keep score for children playing enthusiastically. Meanwhile, the property next door has had its walls covered floor to ceiling by Tanya Schultz’s Dreamers who seek treasure, a multicolour wallpaper collage created using photographs of items that have been donated, lent and constructed by residents. Schultz tells me she set up an art and craft table in the Airds village shopping centre and that her wallpaper features images of the objects made by children who stopped by, as well as photographs of neighbourhood pets including Phil’s budgie and Pumpkin the dog who lives next door. It is unashamedly kitsch and playful, and the burst of colour it brings is eerily juxtaposed with the stillness of the empty house that we know will soon be torn down.

Brian Fuata’s Privilege (House) is the most artistically ambitious project of the bunch. The artist sits outside on a rectangular concrete slab that has been laid on a vacant block of land. His program notes state that he aims to “sonically reconstruct a recently demolished house.” His voice is projected from four speakers that face out towards the benches on which we are invited to sit around him. At one point he recites strings of seemingly random letters, before reading definitions of words that appear to be related to themes of place and location. His lone presence and echoing voice create a compelling visual and sonic image that feels somewhat like a poetic rendering of a Rachel Whiteread work: whereas the UK artist’s concrete casts make physically present the interiors of negative spaces we do not usually see, Fuata evokes a now-absent physical structure through abstract and ephemeral sounds.

Complementing these installations is Rebecca Conroy’s artist blog which can be accessed at As more material is added online in the months ahead, it looks to be a useful resource in framing the onsite events within a wider social, political and artistic context. By creating collaborative art with a community in transition, the legacy of Temporary Democracies may well persist far into the future.

Read “Live art from demolition,” an interview with Paul Gazzola and CAC director Michael Dagostino about Temporary Democracies in RT116.

Campbelltown Arts Centre, Temporary Democracies, curator Paul Gazzola, Heathfield Place, Airds, 13-17 Aug;

Ilana Cohn is a PhD candidate in the School of the Arts and Media at UNSW.

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 32

© Ilana Cohn; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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