From The Blog

Speech: Art in the City’ for the Australian Institute of Urban Studies

“…Creative life is something to be recognised as central to human health.” This is an excerpt from Paul Grabowsky’s keynote...

“…Creative life is something to be recognised as central to human health.”

This is an excerpt from Paul Grabowsky’s keynote speech on ‘Art in the City’ for the Australian Institute of Urban Studies seminar…

Cities. They define the lives of the great majority of Australians. Indeed, most Australians live in one of the two cities of Sydney and Melbourne, with the rest largely concentrated in urban conglomerates of varying densities. Perhaps not surprising. The sheer size and physical nature of our continent, the distribution of its water resources, its geology, climate and topography, make it one of the areas on the planet least suitable for the types of cities developed in more temperate zones. The whole question of adaptation of European expectations to the physical realities of settlement in Australia has revealed both certain ingenuities in problem solving, and definite disconnects between planning models and the environment.

The ecology of the human mind forms the background to these words. By this I mean the inputs that feed us, the way these are processed, and the outputs they generate. Cities are of course eco-systems with direct links to the natural eco-systems thatsupport them; the ecology of the human mind in my view, while of course to some degree physiological, and, as neuroscience is discovering more and more, to some extent materialist, even arguably determinist, nevertheless still contains a high degree of mystery, a complex web of memory and imagination on the one hand with chemistry and biology on the other, that continues to define us, for better or worse, as human beings.

A critical determinant of humanness is the ability to imagine the world outside of its immediate use as a source of survival and procreation. An incredible ability to depict the world around us can be dated back to at least 80,000 BC, as recent carbon dating of caves in France attest. That these beautifully rendered ritualistic depictions of animals and humans happen on cave walls at a time which predates cities by tens of thousands of years is an indication of a literally primal desire to surround our environments with expressions of the ability to conjure alternate worlds, or aestheticize our experience.

To beautify our surroundings, but also to use them to articulate our questions about the purpose of existence; as cities began to take shape, these questions stood at the heart of them. Ancient cities in Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, Central and South America were often built around temples, where a ritual god-king was the centre of a cult based around astronomical observations, and in which objects of art, of fancy, accompanied the (often violently dispatched) ruler, with his or her consort and entourage on their voyage to the Other Side.

Classical civilisation produced cities full of expressions of a new appreciation of the human form, the power of the public to be a political voice, and the spectacle as communal entertainment. What we now call ‘art’ was everywhere to be seen, whether as mosaic, wall painting, funeral portraiture, statuary, or in the elegant rhythms of the airy architecture of public buildings. We know of Rome that there were large slum areas, with shoddily-built multi-storey dwellings which regularly burnt down, and of which we can only speculate about the degree to which art or performance spaces may have been present, but there is no doubt that the need for urban spaces which reflect the creative urge has a long history.
Cities show little sign of disappearing. Of course, they are growing, both out and up, and in this growth some of the established facts about life in cities seem to reinvent themselves. For example, the wealthy occupy the high ground, (in the form of high rise, high density housing with a view) and the poorer the outer fringes. This is an ironic inversion of council low-income housing in some cities which created huge concrete towers with what must be some spectacular outlooks amongst the various scenarios of struggle. I suspect that in choices in which the creative life is considered, considerably more is expected of those with higher levels of disposable income in factoring in art in urban planning, but this maysuggest a conservatism in the understanding of what creative spaces are and where they could or should be located.

The creative life is in the public domain. It is essential to our sense of who we are. Art posits various parallel realities and belief systems. It navigates the zone of our dreams, of the symbology that attempts to articulate our deepest understandings of love and mortality. It achieves this by developing languages outside of the speech of naming, describing and doing which greases the wheels of our daily lives. It also exists outside of our immediate time and space in a feedback loop linking the maker of art with its receiver, irrespective of the amount of time separating these people. It is therefore a transcendent activity, while being located within a specific time and place in terms of its gestation.

Being essential human activity, it is therefore critical to our health, particularly our mental health. In traditional aboriginal societies, those in which ceremony still plays an active role, art is the driver. Music, dance, chant, story-telling and visual art, both on the body and using other media, help to dissolve the frontiers between past and present, summoning up ancestor figures and spiritual totems, infusing an initiate with a sense of identity which is beyond the simply here and now. This is a spiritual ecology which has everything to do with a natural one, in which a person, her place, her family, her people, the systems which support her both materially and in an other-worldly sense, are all part of an interlinked system perfectly understood by each individual, located in language both ancient and current and resulting in a sense of a complete person in a clear set of relationships with an environment.

We also have this sense of place, but in an entirely different way. Our experiences are linear, fragmented, often reactive, driven by factors largely outside of our immediate environment, whether economic, political or spiritual. Indeed, one could say that we take an awful lot on faith, while not existing within the kind of mytho-poetic structure that gives faith its order in conscious reasoning. Our urban planning often takes on a philosophical rationale in hindsight in a kind of teleological paradox. This may be the only reasonable way to plan, as a set of reactions to ever evolving and changing situations in a constant state of flux, but plans are plans, and today’s blueprints may well become tomorrow’s outcomes.

The idea of art in our society is undervalued. We know this because of its bad press, the sense that it is the domain of self-indulgent, pampered egomaniacs, heedlessly peering into their own navels, or worse. Perhaps it has to do with our early history as a series of penal colonies, Benthamite social experiments or refuges for dissenting Protestants; perhaps it has to do with the notion of post settlement Australian history as being a class struggle between poorly educated working people and slightly less poorly educated self-made entrepreneurs against our wild and forbidding natural backdrop. Sport seemed a far better metaphor for the struggle to survive, followed by war, in the construction of our national myth.
In our early urban planning, the spaces set aside for art in its various forms mirror its role in the Mother Country, places designed to instil civic values, with art being part of the theme ‘Civilization’, rooted in ideas of canonical achievements, a ‘Great Men, Great Deeds’ view which informs the columns and architraves of our art galleries. Concert halls, rare enough in the 19th Century, were scarcely present; town halls usually filled that purpose. Public art followed through on this theme, with men standing atop pillars, frozen exemplars of our noblest aspirations.

Art’s poor standing as a marker of communal health remained floating around the bottom until well into the 20th century. It is to Adelaide’s great credit that its patricians had the vision to map out a festival over 50 years ago. It was by no means an obvious choice, and it set its bar very high right from the outset. I believe that decision was amongst the most important for raising the profile of art as a useful social activity in Australia, even if its target audience was, and to some extent remains, the well-healed. The fact that art is not only the domain of the wealthy is proven by the immediate emergence of the Fringe as a response to the conservative approach taken by the main festival.
Another result of great impact was the commissioning and construction of the very infrastructure which drew the nation’s attention to the festival, and which still bears its name.
All of which brings us to the current situation. Are we serving the arts sector effectively and to what extent are we factoring it into our planning deliberations? Are we yet convinced of the centrality of art as an indicator of our society’s health and wellbeing, or is it still the drip-fed add-on at the bottom rung of our increasingly stretched budgets? And what of art itself? What are its needs, what is its audience, how is it encountered, how will these questions be affected by exponential digital growth?

Art, being the expression of people at a particular point in time, is always an expression of the values, aspirations, hopes and fears of that time. The old Anglo-European models to which I have alluded were rooted in a world-view largely underwritten by faith in God, the Queen and the Empire, the knowledge that one’s labours in this world were rewarded in the next, and that, frankly, it was better to know one’s place. Don’t forget it was during this period that in some parts of Australia indigenous people were classed under ‘flora and fauna’.

The 20th Century certainly changed all that. We discovered that among other new and undreamt of technological capacities of our own invention was an ability to cause death and destruction on a hitherto unprecedented scale, that ideas born on the darker side of the 19th to 20th Century divide particularly with regard to racial selection saw their most egregious realisations; therefore the civic values espoused by prior generations became exposed to a far greater degree of moral relativism, and with that came various new views of art, and the place of art in our lives and our cities. Technology has played a huge role in all of this, both in the way we view and experience art, and in the way we live.

One result of the information technology explosion is the degree to which we are perpetually seeking to be entertained. It is almost as if the chaotic complexities surrounding us force us to seek constant distraction. Everything is very available at the touch of a screen, which raises interesting questions for artists about the nature of art versus entertainment, and therefore where and how art should be made.
The first, and most obvious, answer, is: on the streets. The emergence of street art during the last thirty years, with its origins in mural and graffiti, essentially an intervention into or onto a space via slogan, autograph, obscenity, or in its recent manifestations, elaborate and technically ambitious image, has enlivened cities by drawing our attention to their forgotten surfaces, alleys and backlots.

The desire here is not necessarily for permanence, and here these artists of the ephemeral are tapping into something very deep: the idea that the work of an artist is as much about the process of creation as it is about a conclusion in the form of one or another ‘works’; this sense of a trajectory spanning a lifetime of actions, linked to walls and alleys as ceremonial spaces casts its resonances back to those Cro-Magnon cave paintings, or to works created in the sands of Central Australia. That artists will occupy or intervene in spaces is now a reality every town planner should take into account. That cities are full of unoccupied rooms of various kinds in buildings that have outlived their original commercial or industrial uses is also true. The very artists using walls and streets as their canvases, energising spaces through these interventions, are those who could inhabit inner city spaces as studios. But why only the inner city? There are semi-industrial areas in many places that could form a linkage between the visual arts community and the wider city, if we go back to my original premise that the creative life is something to be recognised as central to human health. Of course education over several generations would be necessary to engineer the kind of quantum shift in priority I am talking about, but the possibility of access to space for the purpose of making art in places usually written off shouldn’t be denied.

Of course, while I have focussed on visual art, it is equally makers of music, theatre and dance who would benefit from this reclamation of space. Artists need each other; they may think in seclusion, but they need the stimulus of each other, observing practice, sharing ideas, before retiring to the creative incubus.
Hence the idea of the precinct.Art gains by mass; the great artistic centres of the world, whether New York, London, Berlin or Tokyo all benefit from wide use of reclaimed space, often, but by no means always, with the sanction and aid of city planners.Particularly in Berlin’s case, this has resulted in rents being kept low as an incentive to attract artists, not a bad idea in a city with an already well-established infrastructure at the top end of the scale. And their audiences should in the first instance consist of their peers, or those of their generation. Art aims above all to communicate; in order to achieve that it needs to speak in the vernacular, and if in so doing it speaks above and beyond its immediate constituency, it becomes great art. And it aims to provoke, to challenge, to reinvent itself. Each generation believe they are creating ideas for the first time; most will find their origins in the roots of human experience.

This art of the now, of the moment, certainly challenges the traditional spaces, rooted as they are in the needs of a prior generation, and becoming tied to the economics of popular entertainment to survive. Symphony orchestras fall over each other to play rock n’ roll shows, and there is no lack of artists in mid to late career happy to hear their old songs tarted up for the big night out. Meanwhile their subscriber bases become older, as young people scratch their heads at the relevance of a performance paradigm from out of the distant past. Galleries need their blockbuster shows, and the opera and ballet companies only survive through massive public subsidy, money from taxpayers who often can’t afford the ticket prices.

But we continue to dance, act, make, compose, write, in ever increasing numbers. Our planners should be actively engaged with art, theatre and music schools, observing trends, discussing with young people how they see their careers, their contributions, their value, and the messages they are trying to convey. We should also look at areas of the city that lend themselves to these kinds of activity.

As an Adelaide Festival director, it has always struck me as remarkable that in Port Adelaide we have precisely the type of area I am talking about, with warehouses, disused plant and workshops, which might as well be on the moon for the willingness that many of our patrons show to venture out there. I don’t know what it is about Port Rd, but it doesn’t lead to a wormhole to the best of my knowledge. Yet it is this sense of the centre of the city with its Festival Theatres now forty years old and starting to show it, as the locus of all things creative, that excludes the possibility of other locations in the imaginations of the citizens. The art of the future, especially performance based art of the non-commercial variety, is crying out for spaces which don’t force paradigms onto the outcomes, but which can be adapted to suit the artistic vision.

Some of the most interesting things I have seen recently support this claim. In London two productions spring to mind. One was an opera, “The Duchess of Malfi”, with music by Germany’s composer-du-jour, Torsten Rasch, staged in an abandoned office block east of London’s Docklands. The audience were let in small groups, and we wandered around the building in semi darkness, ‘discovering’ the opera in various tableaux, finding ourselves suddenly seated amidst the orchestra, every detail of every room playing to the opera’s theme of madness. Inscrutable to a degree, but fascinating, and fun, and what a use of the space. The final scene was held in what must once been an exhibition space: a gigantic room, in which we saw, for the first time, the full orchestra assembled (about 80 players), and, also for the first time, the full audience, a few hundred people. In another drab council office in Bethnal Green,was the remarkably titled “You, Me, Bum Bum, Train”, in which each individual spectator became the hero in a series of highly entertaining setups, at one moment giving the half-time address to a trailing gridiron team, at another fronting a press conference as a politician answering corruption charges, hosting his own book signing, delivering a funeral oration. As you can see, theatre is changing, and the idea of interactivity is becoming increasingly attractive, as is the search for new and interesting performance spaces.

In Essen, Germany is the most remarkable conversion I have ever seen. Now under the protection of the UN, the Zollverein is the coal and coke processing plant of one of the world’s largest coalmines in Germany’s Ruhr valley. Gigantic industrial buildings of the late 19th Century, these are the epitome of both technological vision and environmental degradation. Closed in 1965, the plant has been reinvested by the surrounding forest, and the buildings now stand in a park, rusty and strangely beautiful. They are totally given over now to creative projects, and with spectacular results. Not that Australia doesn’t have similar facilities; I can think of power stations in three states now converted into performance and gallery spaces. But surely this is the beginning. The old buildings are starting to look like dinosaurs, and their programming, always with an eye on the bottom line, has ceased to make them players in the future direction of the arts.

Destination architecture, when it works, will always add something to a city. I never tire of seeing the Sydney Opera House, which is at once a work of art, and home to performance, but what an unfortunately Australian story surrounds its building, the result falling far short of Utzon’s original vision, and still deeply flawed in some of its intended uses. I can’t help but always return to my original theme of the need for the centrality of art in our societal journey to be understood. With its paramount place fixed firmly in our minds, it will form part of our visualising of urban environments at every stage of planning. We will all have a stake in seeing these things through, and the idea of art as a reflection of the civic values of the self-respecting contemporary city will cease to be the seen as the wishful thinking of the resentful, or the cry from the wings of a fringe interest group but rather as the natural expression of the mainstream. Art is the unique expression of our humanity.