'there goes the neighbourhood'

Performance Space, Sydney
23 May - 27 June 2009

Vast, vibrant, sprawling at times, claustrophobic at others, but always affectingly so, ‘There goes the neighbourhood’ was arguably the most important artist-driven project to take place in Sydney in a long while. In addition to a major exhibition at Performance Space, the project, organised by local artist collective You Are Here, took in a series of residencies, discussions, a substantial publication and a re-enactment of Allan Kaprow’s Push and Pull at local artist space Locksmith. All of this was intended to provide a critical perspective on transformations underway in the inner-Sydney Redfern area within the context of international responses to the global phenomenon of urban gentrification.

The project took its title from a 1992 single by Body Count, the all black hardcore band fronted by hip hop artist Ice T. For T and his cohorts, the state of the neighbourhood in question was a spatial metaphor for the band’s then-audacious gesture of fusing the lyrical content of urban, black gangsta rap to fast, aggressive, suburban white skate metal. As the title of You Are Here’s undertaking, it could not be more appropriate, for not only was ‘There goes the neighbourhood’ preoccupied with a certain spatial politics rooted in Australian race relations, but it also proposed a co-articulation of art and activism as significant in its potential (and its problematics) as Body Count’s synthesis of two racially coded pop-cultural idioms.

Any notion of activist art, of course, immediately poses the question of the function of the gallery, the reduction of properly political activity as representation, and the drafting of art into the service of communicating ideology. But this, as theorist Gerald Raunig put it while in Sydney recently, is to miss the point: such work is actually about the production of desire. In Performance Space’s reverb-heavy galleries, this manifested as a cacophony of seriously infectious energy. Not that any of the work in ‘There goes the neighbourhood’ was in any way boring, either. Much of the overtly activist work was executed as smartly as any hermetic art project.

But then, this much could be expected given the calibre of the artists included in the project. Ayreen Anastas and René Gabri of New York’s 16 Beaver group contributed a poetic video work from their highly engaged exploration of avant-garde aesthetic techniques, while White man got no dreaming, Michael Rakowitz’s sustained investigation of the politics of Redfern’s The Block, last seen in the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, was presented in its original Redfern Community Centre Version. Jakob Jakobsen of the now-dissolved Copenhagen Free University offered Normalising Copenhagen, an account of a major anti-gentrification uprising, that managed to both reproduce the intensity of the event and provide sober tactical analysis, as did adventurous Brazilian collective Bijari, with a strikingly edited video and flow-chart detailing clashes between hegemonic urban planning strategies and grassroots resistance, and Spain’s Democracia group, rebuilding the bleachers and mock sporting paraphernalia they constructed to allow the destruction of a Madrid slum to be viewed as an ironic spectator sport.

Such work provided an interesting interpretative frame for work more familiar to Sydney audiences, such as Daniel Boyd’s witty painterly treatments of colonial Australian imagery and photo-documentation of Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro’s Cordial Home Project, teasing out the more radical threads of work that often sits comfortably in museums and high-end commercial galleries. Important local narratives were referenced by the Evil Brothers’ cardboard ghost train, addressing the history of the Carriageworks facility occupied by Performance Space as, well, a carriage works, by You Are Here’s animations and even a computerised boxing game paying tribute to a host of local personalities, and by Lisa Kelly’s disarmingly tender nursery of London Plane Trees, a universally unpopular introduced species, grown from seeds collected in the immediate area. The expression of such narratives was at its most direct with the inclusion of Squatspace’s Tour of Beauty, providing a platform for active discussion of contentious issues within the evolving Redfern-Waterloo community, and most striking in Brenda Croft’s extraordinary 1992 photo series Conference Call, documenting not only members of the local Aboriginal community, but also the now vastly altered cityscape.

But the dialogue ‘There goes the neighbourhood’ initiated between issues specific to Redfern and broader patterns of gentrification was most beautifully illustrated in the work of Chicago’s Temporary Services. Their Opinion Poll simply and neutrally solicited public responses to Susan Milne and Greg Stonehouse’s Bower, a public sculpture installed on the corner of Regent and Redfern Streets in 2008, with a remarkable number of respondents reminded of the violent death of TJ Hickey inflicted by Bower’s metal spikes. If the work tapped into Sydney’s favourite pastime of critiquing public art, it also underlined the sensitivity of the political and spatial politics at work in the local community.

This complexity was further reflected in the quite remarkable Ship of Fools by Miklós Erhardt and Little Warsaw. This elegantly shot and edited video hidden in a dark corner of the exhibition documented the re-enactment of a building occupation undertaken by a group of anarchists as part of the Italian social centre movement. Rather than attempting to restage the event, the occupation was constructed as a propositional game for a group of actors, teasing out the motivations and group dynamics of the squatters in a consistently self-critical manner. As a work of art it was compelling, and as a discourse on the nature of politics as a complex of interpersonal relationships, it was utterly convincing, perhaps the finest example in the exhibition of the reflexivity that art can offer activist practices.

Importantly, ‘There goes the neighbourhood’ included an information centre devoted to documenting, but also to acknowledging, the significance of grassroots activism within the Redfern community. Aside from its particular function as an archive of the present, the centre also highlighted that the point of departure for ‘There goes the neighbourhood’ was the very ground shared by art and activism, that of self-organisation, and the remarkable energy it can produce. If there is a political function for art, it starts here.