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.