Artist Ruark Lewis and writer/curator Jo Holder are undertaking a series of ephemeral art works that take up the idea and form of a public conversation. The issue under discussion here is the government’s policy of selling-off Public Housing in inner-city Sydney. Housing the Seafaring Nation is a series of artworks attached to the facades of two key public buildings in Millers Point at the foot of the Harbour Bridge, and one to the National Trust (NSW) Headquarters, as well as a round-table public discussion. Ruark Lewis said:
'Art can help create a wider public awareness. I hope that the act of artistic play will illuminate the human rights issues at stake in selling-off public housing in New South Wales.'
The artwork reinscribes the importance of Millers Point as the oldest continuous urban community in Australian/European settlement history. Around the 1900s the Sydney Harbour Trust (succeeded in 1936 by the Maritime Services Board or MSB) initiated a visionary rehabilitation project and created Australia’s first public housing community. Preference was given to the families who lived and worked on Sydney’s docks and wharves, in bond stores and warehouses and other maritime-linked businesses. Their families have fought and still fight to keep this working class heritage intact.
Today the quarter is a popular tourist precinct. Tenants once paid their rent to MSB officers in the building in The Rocks now housing the Museum of Contemporary Art. In 1982 the MSB gifted most of the Millers Point area to the Public Housing Department to manage and conserve for the future. The working harbour is now dismantled. Walsh Bay and most of the foreshores are sold and the harbour enclosed by walls of residential towers. But the Millers Point community remains the real thing. Now some public houses are being slowly sold to the private market on 99-year leases. Five large billboards are installed in sequence on sites of civic activism in Sydney. For example, in the 1950s a respected local man, Abraham Mott, inspired residents to found a welfare centre in the former Coal Lumpers’ Hall and build a baby health centre.
On Observatory Hill a monumental frieze on the parapet of the National Trust spells out HOMELESSNESS, the giant letters enabling easy reading by motorists crossing the Harbour Bridge.The Millers Point billboards recall the patterning of maritime pilot markers rendered as a kind of pattern poetry. These navigational signals are positioned along the shoreline to direct tugs pulling ships. Seagoing vessels are paradoxical symbols of temporary homes and homelessness, independence and interdependence. Seafarers, everyone agrees, are different. Beside the pattern billboards are two storyboards formed out of interviews and conversations with local people. These open-ended poetic works aim to reflect the area’s playful political language and spirit. Millers Point has a history of significant counterpoints between the dissident voice, the resistant voice and the government and the developers. This is not an isolated situation and clearly other unique inner-city communities are threatened.
Opening followed by
Cross Conversation: Round Table Discussion on Public Housing in Millers Point
Venue: Abraham Mott Hall
Date: Friday 20 March 2009 at 6.00pm
This project aims to build a platform for policy review and for the voices of residents and heritage experts to be heard. It’s the people who make the place. In 1990 the National Trust (NSW) proposed that the entire area be added to the National Estate for World Heritage listing. Prime Minister Bob Hawke said he was 'actively pursuing the matter'. In 2002 a Housing Department Draft Report on Millers Point canvassed ways to retain public housing and a conservation agenda. This trust has been betrayed. Houses are slowly emptied and run-down while new short-term tenancy contracts break down neighbourhood stability. Running parallel to stalled conservation history is the development agenda.
In 2005 the Housing Minister, Joe Tripodi, introduced an aggressive sales campaign for Millers Point. Ideas and debate on ways of keeping and conserving public housing and encouraging mixed-income communities in the inner city were ignored. The next minister, Cherie Burton, undertook to 'only' sell-off 16 more heritage properties. In November 2008 a large terrace at 59 Lower Fort Street was sold for $1.5 million. The new Minister, David Borger, said that the proceeds would go to 'five affordable housing properties in the inner west'. In the future this boarding house that accommodated six people on fixed incomes will become a luxury private residence.
Come along and consider and contribute alternate strategies and ideas to the sell-off. How can we manage heritage properties? How do we protect unique communities and places? What else can be done to keep these houses in public hands? Also invited are local groups and representatives, Councillors, housing and policy officers and heritage folk. As a record of this unique community action have your portrait taken by celebrated local photographer Izzy Perko. These portraits will be displayed in the Millers Point Festival in September 2009.
About the Artist
Ruark Lewis is renowned for his linking of art, poetics and political discussions. His method, which he calls 'transcription (drawing)', often takes the work of other artists—composers, poets, choreographers, anthropologists and fellow visual artists—and transforms it into abstracted text embodied in sculptural installations. He created RAFT with Paul Carte, for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and other commissioned works — for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 2006 Biennale of Sydney and Performance Space at Carriageworks. In October 2008 he created a commissioned installation for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche festival. This is his first work drawing on local voices to create a history.
Ruark Lewis interview on related public projects in RealTime, issue #87, Oct-Nov 2008 at www.realtimearts.net
Thanks to Myra Demetriou, Charles O’Connor, Linda Gordon, Doug Sutherland and Col Tooher for participating in the conversations; to Millers Point Estate Advisory Board (Mara Barnes, Ron Jennings and Col Tooher); Millers Point Residents Action Group (Millicent Chalmers); Darling Harbour ALP branch; the National Trust (NSW), especially Jane Watters and Louise Tegart of SH Ervin Gallery; Tenant’s Union and Shelter; for historic facts thanks to Margo Beasley, Coal Lumpers Union expert; Shirley Fitzgerald, City Historian; and Rosie Block, Mitchell Library Oral History Librarian; to SCC Public Art officer Eva Rodriguez Riestra; to Bartholomew Rose for studio art fabrication and to Garreth Steiner & Jesse Hindmash for installation and assistance; to photographer Izzy Perko for documenting the round-table.
The Artist thanks the sponsors for the funding of fabrication and installation.
Australia Council for the Arts and City of Sydney Council.