Collingwood Arts Precinct
Photo essay by Tom Ross.
“[Art is] a hive of affective labour under close scrutiny and controlled by capital, woven tightly into its multiple contradictions. All of this makes it relevant to contemporary reality. Art affects this reality precisely because it is entangled into all of its aspects. It’s messy, embedded, troubled, irresistible... Politics resides within its production, its distribution, and its reception… a politics that is there, in front of our eyes, ready to embrace.”
– Hito Steyerl
When you’re foisted out of the early-twenties womb into the big birth-suite of the globalised economy, life isn’t actually so different. There are no job prospects but by then, you’ve been working an interlocking series of part-time jobs for ages while making ‘things’ – by yourself and with others – for free. Making free stuff is expensive. So yours is a willful naivety on matters of financial management: you max out credit cards to pay for gallery hire, props or flyers; your installations are built almost exclusively from the aisles of Hot Potatoes and hardware stores; and when rent time rolls around you wince and cross your fingers. But this is not about self-pity or regret. No one makes you make art. You’re here precisely because you choose to be. Art is a selfish act you share with others. You need art. It defines you. Without it, you’re lost without a nametag. And, through the accumulated will of the infinite acts of artistic compulsion by the dozens, hundreds and thousands of other people like (and unlike) you, culture is created as a living thing.
Art comes from life. It is not above or below it. Art feeds off the hormonal imbalances, the public indecencies and the glory of what happens out there in the world. Just like life, art is unjust.It can be socially awkward and creepy. But so can we. Within this discomfort, art tells us things that would otherwise take decades or lifetimes to drip-feed into consciousness. We need to hear what art has to say, even if we’re not quite ready. What happens in art drives innovation, experimentation and understanding, percolating and cross-pollinating through and across the work of designers, educators, filmmakers, engineers, architects, mathematicians, builders, scientists and many more thinkers and doers in between. Art is unruly yet exacting. It’s the lovechild of Bjork and David Attenborough, NASA and Laurie Anderson, or Willoh S. Weiland and Kamahl. Occasionally, art is sublime. When we stare into art’s eyes, we see ourselves reflected back – as equals or deeply at odds. Art points to that which is broken, the desires and anxieties we can’t articulate or afford to pay a therapist for. Art is about the spirit of readiness and the possibilities of the provisional, a rallying cry against the status quo refrain of ‘it’s too hard’, or ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
Right now, independent art practice faces a precarious future. Just as it is expanding and evolving into an evermore rich and unpredictable beast, the livelihood for artists in this country is shrinking. In response to the fallout from the recent gutting of Australia Council’s arts funding, Osman Faruqi writes that art must be valued, not just in economic terms, but as the “ultimate expression of who we are as a society.” Not investing in it is one thing – but not valuing and respecting art as a critical signifier and shaper of our identity is a serious and damaging side effect that will stunt the growth of our culture for generations. When we keep art in monuments, when we fossilize or ossify, we can only ever aspire to mediocrity. When Banjo Patterson remains patron saint of Australian culture, what message does that send the living artists and their millions-strong audiences of today?
Architect Lebbeus Woods believed in ‘freespaces’: sites without predetermined function that could act as “crucibles for the creation of new thinking and socio-political forms, small and large.” In Manifesto (1993), Woods is “at war with [his] time, history and with fixed and frightened forms…Tomorrow, we begin together the construction of a new city.” He was not calling for the wholesale destruction or disavowal of what is or has been; he was fighting for fluidity, experimentation, contemporaneity and the unwritten possibilities of the future. When Woods passed in 2012, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG wrote: “architecture is more mythology than science. But there's nothing wrong with that. There is, in fact, everything right with that… Architecture is about the lack of stability and how to address it. Architecture is about the void and how to cross it.”
How can architecture encourage us to make that leap together into the void? What infrastructure can be designed or improved to unite artists and audiences in a meaningful and ongoing way? Our vision for the Collingwood Arts Precinct is one of minimal interventions, precise incisions, accidents (of the artistic kind), evolution and creative collisions between artists and their public. The plurality of contemporary art and contemporary life calls for a design strategy that can accommodate complexity within a site with its own history and layering – a nuanced architecture that is equal doses pragmatic and poetic. In a gentrifying Collingwood, as culture becomes more dissipated and less diverse, CAP has the power to showcase and give visibility to the whole life-cycle of art – to make the artistic process less remote and more relevant to the social and cultural fabric of the city.
As a team, we bring a cross-disciplinary toolkit and an embedded understanding of the artistic process to our design strategies for CAP. The history of the site and the existing cultural ecology of the neighbourhood is where we begin our search to understand what already exists, what stands to be lost or gained in the site’s new incarnation as an arts precinct. Next, we focus on creating a two-way dialogue between CAP, the streetscape and the wider community through surgical incisions to frame warm and inviting entry points into the precinct. Then, we bring the public up and through the entire process of artistic production by increasing and encouraging circulation and a range of choreographed opportunities to view and engage with artists in the early, experimental and more advanced stages of their work. Our aspiration is to reframe and deepen the public’s engagement and understanding of art, not as a product to be framed and consumed, but rather, as a living, breathing and inseparable part of contemporary reality. Communal workshop and co-working spaces provide shared social sites and pooled resources for artists and the wider community, while a foodie-focused canteen serving convivial meals (potentially subsidised for CAP artists) to the public and the CAP community will be an important meeting ground for the cross-pollination and transfer of ideas.
Society advances not by freeze-framing its achievements in vitrines or demolishing what is old in favour of what is new. We learn and progress through the persistent and rigorous questioning of why things are the way they are and challenging who it is that asks and answers. We grow by honouring and connecting past histories to the larger story of the evolving present. Art needs feeding and funding but it doesn’t need ivory towers or in-jokes. If at first we don’t agree with what art says, over time and upon reflection, it usually turns out that art was onto something. If we’re willing to take a chance and walk with it a while, art gives us infinite return on investment.
 In the lead up to her Biophilia tour, Bjork and David Attenborough collaborated on a documentary that discusses the nature of music and the intersection between music, nature and technology.
 Laurie Anderson was NASA’s first artist-in-residence in 2003-2005.
 In 2009, Willoh S. Weiland undertook a Synapse residency at the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology. Here, she developed Void Love, a soap opera about astrophysics starring crooner and icon Kamahl.