You are Here

Keg de Souza & Zanny Begg
Artspace, Sydney
8 October - 6 November 2010

 

Widely exhibited locally and internationally, You Are Here cleverly present their political work accessibly and playfully. Projects by the collaborative duo are non-medium specific; Emeraldtown is a sum of parts, community interactions, documentary, event and gallery-based installation. The installation at Artspace directs the viewer’s path, beginning with the oversized golden vault door, fixed ajar, that leads one into a darkened room featuring a video projection and light sculptures. The video projection shows the artists’ intervention, ReMake Estate, in which one of the many abandoned houses in the American Midwest town of Gary is sealed off with the outside painted brightly. The artists commission a local airbrush artist to create a mural, they plant a picking garden with community members and, toward the end of their project, hold a party at the site. The video is an assemblage of this footage, interviews with Gary residents and excerpts from the 1978 Motown film ‘The Wiz’ (starring Gary’s most famous son, Michael Jackson).

Beyond the pop mash-up veneer, reasons for sustained attention to this work are apparent. The installation weaves a narrative by employing elements from the town’s past and present. Residents talk of the many reasons for their town’s notoriety. In brief, the socio-economic decline proceeded when Gary’s first African American mayor Richard G. Hatcher was elected in 1968. There was a simultaneous mass relocation of the predominantly white, affluent and middle-class population. Closure of many businesses and a steep rise in unemployment lead the town to become a one-time crime and murder capital of the US.

There are specific critical concerns for this kind of work that can be termed ‘interventionist’, ‘activist’ or ‘relational’. When a community is employed as the subject of an artwork there is the potential for it to be represented in a politicised or skewed way. This could be in order to present an opinion or convey a position rather than involve idiosyncratic voices or create noteworthy art. Critical scrutiny of work involving and intervening with communities must continue on a case-by-case basis, parallel with its growing popularity in the global art world. As with You Are Here’s work, lightness of touch and self-consciousness are key strengths.

At Artspace, an installation-based narrative is created about this town that could otherwise be known as just another setting of sad news stories. The installation Emeraldtown is dependent on process; interactions with people and place. Splices of ‘The Wiz’ film interlace in a narrative with the video documentary and the playful vault door. Whilst making this work the collaborators noted that, ‘you must remain open to the specifics of the place and the new relationships that you build there, otherwise you are just cutting and pasting something that could really have been made anywhere’.1

In introducing a panel discussion in Sydney recently, philanthropist John Kaldor stated that the 22nd Kaldor Public Art Project artist, Santiago Sierra represented ‘the re-humanisation of art’.2 Sierra’s controversial art explores the politics of labor in jarring works. In the past he has paid different types of workers to carry out poignant or demoralising acts to create his artwork. Sierra’s recent NO, Global Tour (2009) has a literal title. A minimalist sculpture of the word ‘NO’ traveled around Europe in the tray of a ute. When the artist was asked why this word, he replied because ‘No’ was enough; that he was tired of flying around the world, seeing the terrible things humans do and knowing that we are smart enough to change, but we don’t.3 NO, Global Tour is a simple act of negation.

The artists of You Are Here share a similar focus on socio-economic issues but work toward a different end, creating complex affirmations. If ‘the re-humanisation of art’ is a concept that can hold water then it should certainly be applied to the work of You Are Here. Their recent local and international, artistic and curatorial projects, including Cities Without Maps – Kota Tanpa Peta (2008), and There Goes the Neighbourhood (2009), show great flexibility in creating work focused on the survival of communities. Importantly, though, the artists show no misconceptions that their intervention, ReMake Estate will have great or lasting impact on the town of Gary.4 The micro-gestures of a mural and picking garden simply celebrate the site of ReMake Estate that previously had blended with many other depressed abandoned homes. Rather than a projection of a utopian future, Emeraldtown is a narrative about survival involving hopeful interactions with people belonging to a certain place. 

notes: 

1. You Are Here (Zanny Begg and Keg de Souza), email correspondence with the author, 16 November 2010.

2. John Kaldor, Introduction to panel discussion ‘Labour and Art-making in Indigenous Australian Communities’, 
15 November, 2010, Instituto Cervantes, Sydney.

3. Santiago Sierra, in panel discussion, ‘Labour and Art-making in Indigenous Australian Communities’, ibid.

4. You Are Here (Zanny Begg and Keg de Souza), in interview with Daniel Tucker, 15 September 2010.