I had the Victoria Street Resident Action Group and the squatting there in 1973 on my list of future posts. It was a critical experience for me and I have already talked about it before but I thought the whole event needed a bit more detailed discussion. Before I could get the time to do it the problem solved itself in the form of this interview by Iain McIntyre which I did last October 2011 for Community Radio 3CR in Melbourne. It’s long but it has pretty much the whole history of my involvement in the group. It can be streamed from www.australianmuseumofsquatting.org or it can be downloaded as a podcast.
Posts Tagged ‘right to the city’
Victoria Street Squat
The Barricades was written in January 1974 for The City Squatter,
the newspaper we published within a few days of the massive police raid that closed down the Victoria Street squat and forced the Resident Action Group out of the buildings we had occupied for most of 1973.
The complete text is at the end of this post.
Throughout 1973 I had been engaged almost full time in activities around Victoria Street, Green Bans and the resident action movement. This had been a straightforward development for me. In 1971 my work had at first been about involving the art audience in the art work through games that required them to interact with the work or with each other in some way, or created some sort of physical involvement with the gallery or other space – I’ll post some of these works later. This evolved from an engagement with the physical spaces of the art world and later led into an engagement with its infrastructure both in recognisably conventional ways (eg editing the Contemporary Art Society Broadsheet) and less conventional ways (eg in late 1971 entering the Contemporary Art Society annual art prize with a letter to the judges saying I deserved the prize because I had received more publicity in the preceding year than any other entrant). I was also writing to people suggesting ways they could alter their living spaces and around this time I began to write my New Artist essay for the NGV’s Object and Idea exhibition. It slowly occurred to me that if I could still be regarded as an artist (as it seems I undoubtedly was) then there were others who were also involved in manipulating the social relationships surrounding the use of space and the city on a far grander scale than I could and that was the NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation. I started saying that they were the greatest living Australian artists and I started including things about their activities in the CAS Broadsheet.
At the same time that I was developing my contacts with the builders labourers, Victoria Street, Potts Point, near where I lived in St Neot Avenue, virtually exploded into warfare when Frank Theeman, a developer who had bought up a large stretch of the street, began a vicious process of forced evictions and demolitions. At first I was only slightly involved but then got pulled in completely when Arthur King, the main organiser of the resident action group, disappeared – kidnapped by the developers thugs and held in a car boot for several days as we later found out. From that point on a group of us, mostly Push members, set up headquarters in the former stables at the rear of one of the buildings. For months we fought an ongoing battle against the developer, eventually setting up the first large scale squat in Australia since the Great Depression. In January 1974 we were eventually forced out when hundreds of police and “security” thugs moved in and arrested us all, smashed everything usable in the street – every kitchen and bathroom, every window and door – and erected a barbed wire fence around it all.
The barricades article was written a few days later. At the same time I co-wrote another article In Memory of Victoria Street with my close friend Teresa Brennan and the publication also contained articles by Wendy Bacon, Anne Summers, Roelof Smilde, Darcy Waters, Sasha Soldatow, Liz Fell and others that detailed our research into the corruption behind the development. This research was the beginning of the wave of investigative journalism that over the next few years exposed the rampant corruption in NSW politics and the police force.
This is one of those things that has far more significance for its author than is obvious because in writing it I finally got clear in my head how political activism could be understood in terms of my previous more conventional activities as an artist. It was not in any way a theoretical paper but rather an example of how you could apply art world skills to other situations and so it opened up a way forward for me even though I did not know of anyone else who was thinking the same way – of course now via the internet I would instantly be able to find hundreds of people all over the world doing the same thing but then in 1974 in Australia it was a lonely and isolated position.
This “review” told the story of one aspect of the squat’s history and contained useful information about how not to build barricades yet it also gently satirised the art world and the uselessness of the products that it produced. Something I had been thinking about was that most of the objects in museums had an earlier utilitarian purpose (eg religious altar pieces, political and religious propaganda, topographical or personal documentation) before ending up as objects of aesthetic contemplation. In a gently satirical way I treated the barricades as if they were sculptures, more comforting aesthetic decoration than utilitarian protection, as events proved. Because the barricades were pretty useless they could only be seen as art for art’s sake. Had I been an Art & Language member I probably would have written a lengthy and incomprehensible theoretical paper about this, but my more activist inclinations led me to write this parody of an art review.
Nonetheless, as I said, it was personally important because it really marked the point where I stopped feeling any need for validation from the art world, from this point on for me the art world just became another audience segment, occasionally worthy of attention but no more worthy than any other audience segment. Political activism I now could see was just one of many activities you could undertake as an artist if the activism created cultural change. But it
would will be hilarious if when my copy of “The City Squatter” containing this article itself one day resides in an art museum thus completing the cycle.
The illustrations were not by me, ironically my drawings were too spindly and arty to reproduce well, they were redrawn for publication by Val Hodgson, an architecture student member of the group. The lettering may have been a Letraset novelty font but it may have been hand lettered by Jenny Coopes, I’m not sure now. I have been told by friends in London that this article achieved brief world wide fame when it was reproduced widely in urban squatters publications in the UK and Europe but I have never seen any evidence of this.
Then passed along the order
That a fortress should be made
And soon, with planks and palings
We constructed the stockade.
We worked in teeth set silence,
For we knew what was in store:
Sure never men defended
Such a feeble fort before.
from ‘A Ballad of Eureka’ by Creeve Roe, 1901
Work began on the Victoria Street barricades early in December, and continued for three weeks. It commenced with the indications that squatter Cox’s appeal was to be dismissed, and that police action against the rest of the squatters would probably follow.
Initially we had fantasies that our work would compare with that done by French architecture students in 1969. They had taken over several derelict buildings and rebuilt them as community centres for migrant workers. When the authorities moved in they were so well barricaded that the buildings had to be demolished around them.
While the Victoria Street barricades were aesthetically pleasing and structurally decorative, they were comparatively useless, as even the strongest only lasted an hour and a half. You may learn from our mistakes.
Nine houses were defended but the amount and type of barricading in each house varied, depending on the occupants’ attitude.
The most determinedly barricaded houses were nos 59, rear 111 and 115. Nos 59 and 115 are large early Victorian mansions. The rear of 111 was a small brick duplex.
The only vulnerable French window (opening onto the front verandah) was boarded up and braced with 9″ x 2″ Oregon (Diagram A).
The front door was similarly but more massively barricaded. It had several braces, but was not as well built as the other. It collapsed after only twenty minutes of chopping and pounding by the thugs. Once these barricades had been erected the only access to the building was through an exterior staircase at the rear. A barricade (Diagram A) was nailed into position there when we knew the thugs were on the way. Unfortunately they never went around the back.
All barricades were built with holes in them to allow us to fend off the thugs with long poles. This idea was pure romanticism (as some said all along). The only squatter foolhardy enough to try this was smashed in the jaw with his own pole when a thug hit the other end with a sledgehammer. A layer of corrugated iron nailed to the door would have been a better idea.
The only vulnerable window in the building was nailed up with one inch plywood (used for concrete formwork), and braced against a nearby wall with 4″ x 4″. Some of the doors had barbed wire nailed to them, but since the thugs used axes this was a waste of time and materials.
These flats had the advantage of being fairly small and were completely barricaded with scaffolding. There were already iron bars on the windows, and these were backed with 1″ ply (which it is almost impossible to chop through: it must be sawed). The ply was supported with scaffolding (Diagram B).
The front door, which opened into a narrow hall, was blocked by removing a brick from the-wall on either side and inserting a bar into the space (Diagram C).
The building was impenetrable, so the thugs knocked a hole through the roof into the top flat, and there tore up the floor to get down into the bottom flat. This took over an hour and a half. Lesson: The roof is the ultimate weakness on an otherwise well barricaded building.
A scaffolding frame was built around the front door of 59. Its horizontal bars were bolted into place at the last moment. (Diagram D.)
The outside of the door was armoured with corrugated iron to prevent its demolition and protect, the scaffolding. The windows were all nailed up with ply and braced against the opposite wall with scaffolding to take any pressure. (Diagram E.)
The upstairs verandahs were strung from top to bottom with barbed wire.
The thugs got in through one of the four french windows, barricaded as in Diagram A, skew nailed and butted into the window reveals, and braced twice. It did not collapse but was chopped to pieces in approximately 35 minutes. We had optimistically supposed that the thugs’ conditioning would lead them to come through the better barricaded front door — six feet away. It didn’t. A layer of corrugated iron and possibly hardwood instead of oregon, would have slowed them down considerably.
The only tools necessary for the job were a tape measure, a hammer, and a good cross-cut saw. A chisel would be useful but not essential. Tin snips and pliers were used for the corrugated iron and barbed wire. A spanner and hacksaw were used on the scaffolding.
The timber was mostly scrap from city building sites (dismantled formwork, etc.). In lieu of sympathetic builders’ labourers, it could be scavenged in the street, from old fences and buildings which have been partially demolished. Corrugated iron came from the roof of a burnt out building in the street. Although scaffolding made by far the best barricades we used it sparingly. It cannot be used efficiently in every case, and impossibly large amounts would have been necessary. If you hire it, you will lose the enormous deposit required, because after the battle you can’t dismantle your scaffolding and take it with you into the paddy-wagon. If you ‘borrow’ it, like we did, you can lose the friends who ‘borrowed’ it for you. Perhaps the best idea would be to ‘borrow’ it directly, but don’t get caught.
It is far more important that a barricade should be well-built and braced than that it should look intimidating.
The barricading was only one small facet of what Victoria Street was all about, but it illustrates some of the elements that made it work.
1. The best solution to any problem was always the immediately improvised one, within the limits imposed by all the available materials, people, etc.
2. The most direct contacts were the most useful, e.g. going straight to the men on the job sites rather than union officials.
3. Possibilities were discussed rather than decisions made. When necessary, people made their own selection from the available options, e.g. the people in each house made their own decision as to how much barricading they were able or wanted to do, and how they would do it.
4. Don’t rely on ‘experts’. Help from builders labourers was well intentioned but not much use. We knew what our problems were better than they did, and we came up with better solutions.
Categories: 1970s, Aesthetics, Propaganda
Tags: 1974, activism, Anne Summers, art for arts sake, cultural change, Darcy Waters, Green Bans, Jenny Coopes, NSW Builders Labourers Federation, public space, right to the city, Roelof Smilde, Sasha Soldatow, Teresa Brennan, Val Hodgson, Victoria Street, Wendy Bacon
Comments: 1 Comment.
The Murdering Stools
This probably seems an odd thing to start with but there is a reason. They illustrate a problem both with the way my work is seen and the general misunderstanding of what an artist does.
First, what are they? They are a set of ten stools made of recycled varnished plywood with painted blood stains and hand prints on nine of them.
The plywood was part of several ute loads of plywood pre-fab audio visual stands that came from an AV hire company that rented them out for events like Melbourne Cup parties.
They were getting a bit old and shabby and were due for replacement in July 2007 but rather than dump them one of their employees Peter Jackson (himself an artist) sent out a message on the Network of Uncollectable Artists message board for any one interested to come and take them away.
In the end I was the only one who wanted any so I got nearly all of them. I gave some of the plywood away but in January 2008 when Mickie Quick invited me to participate in the Gang Festival I decided to make some stools by modifying the stands. I reduced them in size and reshaped them while retaining the structural slotted construction. I then screwed them together, added four small glue blocks for rigidity and then painted them or rather I splattered them.
So what I did for the Gang Festival was some painted furniture? Well, no, actually I was doing something else entirely (although when I’m feeling mischievous I tell people that all I do these days is make painted furniture out of recycled wood, I like the way it sounds so folksy kitsch). The call out that Mickie sent me said
Gang is seeking visual artists interested in having their work included in the lane ways surrounding Peace Park and Pine St.
Gang takes its name from the Indonesian word meaning alleyway or small side street and commenced life in 2005 as a celebration of the deep links between independent art spaces and collectives across the two countries…. The kampung street festival is a celebration of the fringe and the marginal, and the creative spaces generated by artist run initiatives.
Our focus this year is on sustainable environmental arts practices … The specific brief for the outdoors exhibition is to extend these themes of reuse and rubbish in the Sisa exhibition to include questions about what and why we consider a thing “of use” or “useful”. What makes a thing of use? (use/ful) What makes a thing no longer of use? (use/less) How do we determine the right usage of a thing, a word, a street, a day? Why do things become under utilised or over utilised?
That easily covered the recycled plywood bit, but my real concern was the use of public space which was at least implied in Mickie’s email. My interest in the conflict between community, corporate and political control of urban space went all the way back to the early 1970s when I was active in green bans, resident action groups and squatting. In the 1990s I had spent some time working in Jakarta where lane ways are used as extended living areas then in 1999 I spent several months in Boca Raton, Florida, the extreme opposite where the only public space is the highways and even shopping malls are so controlled they almost have a dress code (if not a skin colour code). I became obsessed with issues around public space particularly the right to just loiter and the government and private attempts to deny or control it. I was obviously not alone in my interest because it was around this time that Sean Goodsell produced his designs for park benches, bus shelters and later picnic tables that could convert into sleeping places for homeless people. I was a particular fan of a (now disappeared) website The Anti Sit Archive that was filled with photos of devices to prevent public sitting.
Above all loitering is an issue about the commons, that everybody owns the city and has a right to be in it and it is one of the many small battles that must be fought against the creeping totalitarianism of western society. That is why I made the stools, so that visitors to the festival and the lane way exhibits could sit down , hang around, chat and basically comfortably loiter in the street. The artist’s job is not necessarily to make stuff, it is encourage adaptive cultural change so to the degree that I made a “work of art ” it was not a bunch of stools, it was to be people loitering, the street converted into a place for socialising and the stools were just the means to that end. Incidentally I notice that recently someone in New York had a similar idea.
But it was not to be. The night before and the day of the festival was non-stop torrential rain. The whole thing just got added to my list of “What Didn’t Happen”. In fact ultimately the stools first public appearance was in my later 2008 exhibition at Mori Gallery called Grave Goods. There they joined another set of stools made for a completely different reason and one of the most amusing aspects of the opening was the way people stood and looked at them rather than sat on them.
At least I sat on one of them and on occasion I still use the tables from that exhibition for big lunches.
Finally, why the blood stains? Because we live in a murderous world plastered in blood and shit, but mostly we are blind to it.