(Par-re-buga or Pa-rai-bu-gah or Par-ri-beu-go – Tomorrow) 1
by Tessa Zettel & Karl Khoe
[Essay originally commissioned for the NIEA hothouse and published in HotHouse Report to the City, 2010, (eds.) Jill Bennett and Felicity Fenner, NIEA, UNSW, Sydney; also an extension of a presentation delivered at the Hothouse Symposium, Sydney Opera House, on 27 July, 2010.]
This paper is a response and challenge to the proposed future of Sydney mapped out in Sustainable Sydney 2030: The Vision. It puts forward a perspective on more dynamic and critically informed approaches we might take to city space and public art, based on our practice working between the fields of art, design, education, philosophy, history and science. Reflections on our past projects, each an experiment in testing the edges of what a future, futuring2 city might look like, are presented alongside an elaboration of ‘5 Redirections’ extending the ‘5 Big Moves’ structuring the City’s The Vision document. The redirections we propose are:
1. The City That Thinks-In-Time
2. A City That Can Feed Itself
3. The City Becomes Hyper-Mobile
4. A New Quality-Based Economy
5. The City Able To Reflect and Adapt
These Redirections contain within them several smaller propositions, prompts for the kinds of ‘micro-change’ enacted in everyday life – and ‘networked’ to facilitate broader shifts – that the National Institute for Experimental Art (NIEA) identifies as key to developing the curation or ‘care of spaces’ as a form of civic responsibility and transformative agency. Such moves could be made by a new kind of ‘public artist’ working in relation to cities and shared spaces within them, opening up micro-spaces (both physical and social) that allow other ways of being and doing to be imagined, encountered, absorbed into everyday life, and ultimately informing structural re-makings of the city.
1. THE CITY THAT THINKS-IN-TIME:
‘That event of time which is our lifetime gives us a totally inappropriate measure of worldly things in the medium of time. As a result, we human beings are extraordinarily bad at seeing things in time.’3
And so, to unpack the concept of the sustainable in relation to time, to the city, to design and to creative practice. The Vision takes as its reference the standard Brundtland definition of sustainability, which speaks of intra and inter-generational equity, precaution and conservation of diversity.4This approach fails to account for the question of time and human-centredness, which is key to understanding sustainability as rather an ongoing process of securing viable human futures. Such top-down definitions also elide the more politically uncomfortable but necessary task of identifying those socially and culturally embedded practices that essentially act to take away futures (i.e. maintaining the unsustainable trajectory of the status quo, in other words sustaining the unsustainable), and redirecting them towards establishing the rise and dominance of what we might call ‘agents of futuring’.5 Given the rapidly deteriorating crises of the many interconnected ecologies on which we depend, what is needed if we are to succeed in securing ourselves more time, or less finitude, is fundamental change in how we ‘think and act in the way we make our world and as we impose it on the world in general’. Considered as ‘to be, we have to be another way’, this is clearly a much larger and more confronting project than attempting to satisfy a diversity of (relatively) short-term needs, or simply adding ‘sustainability’ to the current economic paradigm of perpetual growth.6
‘As the future must be left open, our histories should act more like ceaseless iterations rather than authoritative narratives. We should teach history from the perspective of a future that can sustain us; and although we don’t know what that future looks like, we can continually propose new experiments in how we create future from the past.’7
gu-ru-gal: A long time back
To begin, we might remind ourselves that the place we now call Sydney was once thought and lived in ways that would seem alien, even impossible to its present-day inhabitants – ways that, with some circumspection, we could call sustained, sustain-able, in a responsive and highly sophisticated dialogue with the land and the interconnected ecologies that sustain human life on it. This memory of course brings with it a rupture, concentrated around a day, 222 years before this one, when macro change sailed into the city’s famous serpentine harbour, and in creating something (a little European colony balanced precariously on the edge of sustainment), destroyed something else (the livelihood and wellbeing, and indeed languages, of one of the oldest human civilisations on earth) – along with the very things that sustained both populations, including an ancient freshwater stream which now runs silent and forgotten beneath the CBD asphalt. That moment of violent upheaval and displacement (its effects still ongoing and contested) creates the conditions that at a fundamental level shape how we live in and occupy this place today.
We chose to start our Hothouse Symposium presentation here because invoking, enacting and interrogating a multiplicity of possible ways of being is an underlying thread of the work we do together, and a process that must happen on a much larger scale if we are to become a city with a future. Our disposition is one of ‘shuttling’8 – across time, culture and place – in pursuit of real and imagined points of intermingling, of exchange, of unexpected knowledge transfer and of generative tension or conversation.
Ihe-bar-na: The present
Forty-nine days ago, we two could be seen pushing a shanty-town-style food cart and native beehive past the Sydney Opera House, along the once-embattled promenade of east Circular Quay, past the ferry commuter and didgeridoo throngs. It came to rest and opened for business on the lawn in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art, once the Maritime Services Board office, or where even earlier sat the Commissariat Store protecting the fledgling colony’s necessary provisions, or where earlier still amongst the trees and kangaroo grass there was an unlikely dance amongst strangers. 9
Its windows unfolded, solar panels having soaked up the sun and paper lanterns aglow, passers-by were able to stop for free, freshly-cooked pikelets with native sugarbag honey, to the sounds of tiny native bees collecting nectar from nearby poppies and jacaranda. Some arrived prepared, bearing their own small plate as instructed by the artists. At certain times, louder conversations filled the space, with guests at a series of public picnic-discussions sharing other ways this place could be known: by the gleaning practices of hungry Europeans to whom the bush became in hard times a ‘supplementary larder’, by public housing tenants who lived up in the Rocks in the turbulent 1970s, by the futuring practices that could take place here in a city able to sustain itself beyond the next 20, 50, 200 years, and by broader conceptions of time that account for the vast forest valley stretching out 15,000 years ago into today’s deep harbour, when arctic ice kept sea levels 146 metres lower. All this as mouths puckered at the unfamiliar taste of the honey that stretching far beyond memory and up until 1810 when the first European beehives arrived at the nearby Governor’s residence, was the honey of this place.
2. A CITY THAT CAN FEED ITSELF
The city cannot hope to be able to sustain change without the ability to feed itself outside of globalised food systems that are inherently inequitable, exponentially resource intensive and unsustain-able given the impending effects of peak oil and climate change. For the first time in history, more people now live in urban than rural areas, while cities keep expanding and eating up surrounding arable land that might previously have provided food. In present-day Sydney, the dominant modes of what we eat, where and how that food is produced are essentially defuturing (e.g. industrial agriculture displaces biodiversity over huge tracts of land and relies on petrochemical-based pesticides, our food is often heavily processed and packaged, travelling vast distances to get to our plate). Moreover, if the food pipeline was suddenly cut off, the future of the city would be very short. So to be a sustaining city, Sydney needs to fundamentally re-think where, how readily and by whose efforts its food can be grown.
At a micro scale, our everyday practices both contribute to and are a product of this bigger picture. Food has become ‘dematerialised’ in that we largely have no direct involvement in how it comes to be, in the way that it is. However alternative narratives of food and super-local food production are largely left out of The Vision – an odd oversight considering how much emphasis is given to ‘green space’, which is arguably little more than an urbancentric romantic ideal of sustainability/environment.10
Many of our projects are attempts to envision rematerialised ways of relating to, acquiring and eating food in this city, by no means an easy or straightforward task. Most recently, Make-do Garden City was an exercise in both thinking-in-time and futuring food, experimenting with the limitations of a single micro-institution’s capacity to feed its staff and neighbours. Elsewhere, these investigations led to us writing and twice leading a new core subject (‘Eating the City’) at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW, where third year design students are asked to develop integrated design interventions that enable ‘futuring’ behaviours for specific communities around the everyday activities of producing, preparing or eating food in urban Sydney.
Brānyé – Yesterday
Make-do Garden City, 2010, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney
Make-do Garden City ran for 6 weeks, a long time to keep an edible plot growing and expanding inside the gallery – requiring much watchful tending and watering to make sure this impossible experiment in urban, indoor micro-farming would survive the duration. As the ebb and flow of pedestrians on Hay Street passed by our window, many would pause on their way to work, market, shopping or other daily city routines, pressing their face to the window to inspect, point and guess at the role of this little shopfront vegetable patch. Some of the tide would wash up inside and share their stories and our tea, and, if they came at the right time, take home cuttings of familiar plants with several names or a hand-made rice paper envelope of seeds, stamped with a woodblock image of Huang Zhouxing’s 1674 literary creation, the original ‘make-do garden’.
The free-ranging conversations we have in our own temporary garden hover around those of this ancient literary tradition, interpreted by Stan Fung as not just idealised places that ‘guide our efforts towards a better future beyond our concrete and less-then-perfect world’ but rather constructions of a complex to-and-fro space of historical thinking. Stan, who brings us regular gifts of yum cha treats, calls this conceptual movement a kind of ‘shuttling’, an idea we piece together with Tony Fry’s notion of the unfolding Sustainment to describe our own active disposition towards and across lived realities and possible future worlds.
Looping back, we recover other productive gardens grown wild and shadowy – those on the long-gone edges of Sydney that were managed and harvested by Chinese market gardeners who spent market nights in the boarding houses or ‘rookeries’ once filling the winding lanes around the gallery. From this rich humus sprout others recounted by visitors – one says our accumulation of objects recalls his grandfather’s chaotic balcony in Hong Kong, another proudly shows us a plastic folder showcasing his rooftop wetland in St. Peters.
The space we create here is restless in a literal sense too, animated by our presence as gardeners, hosts, interior designers, amateur historians, and artist-workers – building ‘living’ assemblages in the ‘Make Garden’ mobile workshop in response to exchanges we’ve had in the ‘Do Garden’. New constructions find their way onto the walls or the street outside, objects and furniture appear and are shuffled around to create different spatial and social interactions; over a few days a seed exchange takes shape, towards the end those sprouted into seedlings are distributed into homes across Sydney from an offering on the front step.
3. THE CITY BECOMES HYPER-MOBILE
Urban transport is a major area for redirection and futuring, but dealing simply with congestion, parking strategies and integration does not address the root of the problem in relation to cars and petrol and the reasons we move from place to place across the city. We might be better served by encouraging multiple movements within small distances to get the things we need. Corresponding to this, architecture and services should move and adapt as needed throughout the city too, which would mean things getting lighter, more flexible and collapsible, and also more shared – creating spaces that sidestep the distinction between the commodification of space (private) and the possibilities available in common spaces (public).
Ngíri wȧribaou – I will carry it away with me
Open Office for an Editorial Committee, 2007, Civic Park, Newcastle
One of our first collaborative projects in this vein was Open Office for an Editorial Committee, a four-day nomadic, open-air magazine production office produced for the 2007 National Young Writers’ Festival in Newcastle. Staffed by an editorial team that included curious passers-by, the dematerialised ‘office’ was an experiment in new forms of social interaction and in making do with less (only so much could be carried; powerpoints were in short supply), eliminating that part our workplace responsible for most of its resource consumption – the building itself. Each morning the office set up shop in a local park, assembled from a collection of modified everyday objects of mobility (suitcases, a portable BBQ, laundry trolleys etc.), and shifting configuration and function in response to weather patterns, sprinklers being turned on, or the inclinations of its users – eventually producing a finished publication and converting into a distribution stall at the festival’s zine fair.
As designed artefact, Open Office put forward a proposition for unexpected and lighter ways of using our urban public spaces, enabling these practices within a real-time ‘scenario of design’. Fry describes scenarios of design as ‘an exploration of how design could be other than it is’, able to open up debate on ‘objects of common and critical focus’ and to provide a space in which ‘ideas can be given a concrete form and dialogues or narratives of change can be rehearsed in ways that enable participants to re-educate themselves via critical confrontations with things as they are versus how they could be’.11 Such performative, exploratory practices (the terrain of artists as much as designers or planners) can be a platform from which to envision other ways of being and enact them in the present, as ‘micro-changed’ urban landscapes with futures.
4. A NEW QUALITY-BASED ECONOMY
‘A new economic and industrial ethos has to arrive wherein quality displaces quantity. As said, the mantra of continual economic growth within a finite system is hyper-myopic. What has to be prompted is a slow down of the productivism that has driven the relation to the material world from humanity’s inception. Clearly, this is an enormous challenge, but there is no choice but to rise to it.’12
The linked imperative of making things oneself and caring for things is another thematic omission in The Vision document. Two of its ‘10 Strategic Directions’ do mention the potential of culture, creativity and economies: Direction 6 (Vibrant Local Communities and Economies) and Direction 7 (A Cultural and Creative City). Unfortunately the objectives listed under each of these Directions fall far short of establishing an adequate sustainable framework of the kinds we have discussed above, concentrating on mapping and signposting cultural capital according to existing patterns of behaviour. In other words, these Directions arguably sustain the unsustainable through a commodification/(conspicuous) consumption of culture. Many of these objectives feed into the same myopic principle of continual economic growth that inhibits a truly sustainable vision to emerge.
To confront this, a shift needs to be made towards what Fry and others have called an economy of quality, which would entail the revaluing of a ‘new craft ethos’ and transition from an emphasis on cultural consumption to cultural production. Ezio Manzini has indeed argued that transitioning toward something like a condition of sustainment we would require the development of cultures that sustain practices of sophisticated material understanding.13 Valuing the work of someone who does what they do very well and forming a new economy around those that make, have (a) craft and have knowledge would be a more sustain-able system of exchange. Firstly by distributing agency and abilities to sustain through individual citizens, secondly by generating self-sustaining networks of these individuals, and finally by reducing the throughput of materials as quality things tend to engender care, i.e. remain in use for longer, become ritualised, be repaired, maintained and adapted over time.
The creative fields of practice (art and design, but also cooking, gardening, farming and other skilled areas of craft) are well positioned here to drive innovation around ‘processes of ‘reversed development’’, reinventing and reframing past practices, materials and skills to move forward in new ways based on ‘sustainment’ as a continual ‘transformation of the designing and exercise of knowledge, things, and making practices of the everyday’. There are many instances of initiatives of this kind happening locally already, one example being Spoke + Spool’s ‘Stitch A Ride’ sewing workshops for modifying clothes for urban cycling14
Gua-go – Soon, or presently
Making Time, 2010, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth
Thirty-one days hence, we will be on the other side of this continent, in another nation perhaps (Nyoongar country), staging an open kitchen laboratory where members of the public teach us how to bottle, pickle, jam and otherwise preserve foods. With a depression-era travelling preservation kit and collection of Fowlers jars, we will exchange our ideas on futuring or sustainment and colonial histories for the people’s once-valued pickling skills and surplus backyard produce. Moving between gallery and homes and public places of urban food production (both official and unofficial), our journeys and conversations will be traced in spidery lines on the jars slowing filling up for lean times ahead.
5. THE CITY ABLE TO REFLECT AND ADAPT
‘Confronting this situation is not merely an intellectual challenge, it does not just depend on more research, for it also requires the imagination to see things as they might be otherwise.’[Fry, T. (2004) ‘Urbocentrism to Hyperurbanism’, Design Philosophy Papers Issue 4, 2004 http://www.desphilosophy.com]
‘Nothing from my world requires much in the way of permanent infrastructure – you build and unbuild it as needed. You adapt what’s available to your needs.15’
For a city to be futuring, it must have multiple futures ready to hand – all of which are responsive and adaptable, and can be submitted to rigorous critical revision and reflection. To map out a singular vision, assuming one can follow a carefully managed plan, is to constrain our capacity to adapt to changing scenarios or to make use of the many diverse perspectives of those with the ability to see things ‘as they might be otherwise’. This means design will have to encompass much more than planning or prefiguration, in conversation with other imaginative and experimental discourses. At present the city offers few mechanisms for generating, discussing, and testing out a multiplicity of futuring ideas and practices. One strategy might be the creation of dedicated critical and imaginative space within the city, urban (re)imagination laboratories where experts and community stakeholders from a range of disciplinary backgrounds can come together to extrapolate, experiment with, and make public the various futuring practices and systems suggested by the Redirections we have proposed.
Such places would be geared towards supporting a new kind of creative practice, one that generates other narratives, possibilities and experiments in imagining and imaging sustainable behaviours at a practical, everyday level – from the scale of the object, the room, the shopfront, or the street, up to the building, the highway, the neighbourhood or village, to the connected global city – which can in turn be made public, as a richer, more provisional and more relational counterpoint to an official position characterised by The Vision. By this we hope to present (confront) the future presently, so that we need not wait 20 years to see if the future unfolds neatly as planned, but rather build the capacity to ‘think in time’ and adapt to circumstances as they change inevitably and unpredictably – and in so doing, help build a change community to lend its voice and energy to the overall project of sustaining Sydney into 2030 and beyond.
Wala – Then
Colony Collapse, 2010, Firstdraft, Sydney
Sunday 18th July between 12 – 3pm: Recorded in Firstdraft Gallery’s attendants’ book is a note next to one of the 11 strokes made to count the number of visits that day: ‘6 year old boy on a scooter. Whilst he didn’t quite grasp post-modernism or the intricacies of sustainability, he loved the idea of a portable beehive.’
Colony Collapse was our first project using live sugarbag bees, and carrying the kind of excitement you might get in a museum or a zoo, was an attempt to create visions of sustainment that invade ‘our conversations and dreams’ as Tony Fry called for a decade ago. On opening night a group of onlookers tried luring the bees out into their flowering greenhouse – huddling around the mobile apiary we’ve built in a retro-fitted wheelbarrow and colonial-style meat safe – in the hope of generating enough body heat to raise the temperature above the requisite 18 degrees. The climate remains stubbornly below, both inside and out, and our guests of honour make little use of their custom-built 24-hr access pipe to the sharp Sydney winter and the nectar pleasures of Prince Alfred park under-renovation across the road, apparently unmoved by its hoarding promise of ‘a new liveable green network in the heart of the city’.
Like most of our projects, Colony Collapse was about rethinking the city, materialising scenarios of other ways of being in a certain site. It leapt in a double movement backwards and forwards, between times of potential food scarcity or instability through re-worked objects: a meat safe, jam jars, salvaged timber and a modified map of Sydney, traced by Lieutenant William Dawes in the very first years of the Colony when the threat of collapse by starvation was both possible and imminent, and social and political relations with the natives were more fluid and reciprocal than they later became.16 Its arrival at the gallery was preceded by a hazardous journey through the city itself, a transient oddity in the everyday rhythms of rush hour. Hovering between the practical and the absurd, the real and the imaginary, this small apparition is intended to infiltrate the present and future lives of the city, prompting conversations and desires about what those futures might look like, and how we might together bring them into being.
IMAGE: Tessa Zettel & Karl Khoe, Gwago Patabágun ___ We will eat presently, 2010. Photo by Matt Venables
- This paper borrows a series of phrases from the notebooks (1788 – 1791) of William Dawes, documenting his extensive study of Dharug language originally spoken in the Sydney area (functionally lost within 2 generations), which he carried out from his hut at Observatory Hill in the Rocks, assisted chiefly by Cadigal woman Patyegarang. See http://www.williamdawes.org/ ↩
- In place of ‘sustainability’, a word now so pluralist and absorbed into rhetoric as to be effectively meaningless, Tony Fry posits instead such terms as ‘the sustainment’, ‘sustain-ability’ and ‘futuring’ – essentially describing an ongoing process of securing qualitative being or viable human futures over time. See Fry, T., 2009, Design Futuring: Sustainability, ethics and new practice, UNSW Press, Sydney. ↩
- Fry, T. (2008) ‘The Voice of Sustainment: The Gap in the Ability to Sustain’, Design Philosophy Papers, Issue 1, 2008. http://www.desphilosophy.com ↩
- ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Bruntland, G. (ed.), (1987) Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development , Oxford University Press, Oxford. ↩
- Fry (2009) ibid. p. 47. ↩
- ‘The global economic system is predicated upon the notion of continual economic growth, with production driving ‘consumption.’ The system has become totally disarticulated from meeting basic ‘needs’ of human beings (let alone the bio-physical conditions of human dependence).’ Fry (2009) ibid. p. 47 ↩
- Calvelli, J. (2009) ‘Unsustainable histories, models of practice’, Design Philosophy Papers, Issue 3, 2009 http://www.desphilosophy.com ↩
- Fung, S. (1998) ‘Notes on the Make-Do Garden’, Utopian Studies, Vol. 9, 1998 ↩
- See Clendinnen, I. (2003) Dancing with strangers, Text Publishing, Melbourne. ↩
- Jill Sinclair writes that ‘landscape design is implicated in resource depletion, climate change, and pollution of the soil and groundwater supplies. As cities have grown and technology has proliferated, so we have designed and maintained landscapes that depend on unsustainable practices to survive.’ Sinclair, J. 2009, ‘That faint semblance of Eden’: problems with landscape design history’, Design Philosophy Papers, Issue 3, 2009. ↩
- Fry provides a set of prefigurations necessary for ‘scenarios of design’ to be effective in this way, including a coherent change agenda, a deconstructive methodology and structuring modes of cooperation. See Fry (2009) ibid. pp. 152-155. ↩
- Fry, T. (2010). ‘Looking forward: craft at the perceptual crossroads’, Craft Australia Library: Reviews http://www.craftaustralia.org.au/library/review.php?id=looking_forward ↩
- Manzini, E. (1992). ‘Prometheus of the everyday: the ecology of the artificial and the designer’s responsibility’. In Design Issues, Vol 9 no. 1, pp. 5-20. ↩
- See www.spokenspool.com ↩
- Westbury, M. (2010) Cities of Initiative, cities as festivals, hammers and nails http://www.marcuswestbury.net ↩
- Refer to endnote no. 1. ↩