On selecting a subject for an artwork
Proposition: that the most powerful way to rethink…’where the human fits within the problematic of existence today’ as Manning writes, is to create a life that addresses some of those lived problematics experientially. And to do so in the public gaze, as a work of art. In this case, by purchasing a house in a small country town and turning that experience into an ongoing art action.
It has to be said that the purchasing of a house is a large and hopeful business. Particularly if it is to become an artwork. A leap of faith one might say, as the constraints inherent in the property chosen (size, cost, history, place, a particular presence for instance) will shape the artwork it becomes.
Watford House in Avoca, with its two storeys, was both highly visible and unusual in an Australian countryside largely populated by single storey dwellings. Here, where land was once plentiful, only the wealthy would build ‘up’. That this dilapidated old house facing the river of a small country town in Victoria offered fantasies of wealth and glamour was clear from the numbers of cars that would stop to view it. It clearly had presence.
And it was in a little country town too far from the city to have become fashionable and thus somewhere where the introduction of an art project might be welcomed by those not interested in sporting activity1.
The house also had a notable past. Brought by ship from Hamburg as numbered planks during the gold rush, then assembled in the main street as accommodation for the pub, it was sold 20 years later and rolled down the hill to the current site.2 Watford House was thus itself an immigrant that had arrived in Australia by boat in 1852 and was now sitting on land that had been stolen in the late eighteenth century from the Jaara people3.
By 2005, after the Howard Government had demonised refugees who were arriving by boat for several years, that paranoia was extending itself to all immigrants. Ghassan Hage (2003) called this “the sensitivity of thieves”. He wrote “Australians are willing to fear the threat of strangers because we know this land has ALREADY been stolen.”
It seemed that Watford House, in its travels and current site, might provide a quietly potent challenge to the fear that Ghassan articulated so powerfully. If it could be repaired, opened, generate alternatives for a new interactive ecology, this house could become simultaneously both provocation and proposition.
On testing the great Australian preoccupation
Proposition: Because the project would necessarily be long term, involving extensive repairs, the house would need to owned rather than rented. But, to be purchased, it had to be cheap. And it was cheap4, having being officially declared ‘beyond repair’. This presented a nightmare of hard work but also the prospect of refashioning the house as an ecological model of possibility. What was unexpected though was the level of perturbation that the act of purchasing the house also created.
With an unerring artist’s instinct, I had blundered into the most conflict-riven of Australian obsessions – that of property ownership. So, to many, this project was a con. After all, the only reason to purchase property was as an investment or as a holiday home, wasn’t it? The house thus immediately revealed itself to be the perfect provocation – the subject for an address to not only a different way of living but also a different way of thinking about housing itself.
On waiting – a strategy that got out of hand
As my art projects occur in long series, I have always regarded the time between them to be a time of waiting. Waiting for the next project to take hold. But this project has itself been one of waiting. While, under the rubric of Okwei Enwezor’s The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis, there have been many activities – visiting international artists, community activities and exhibitions on and off site, I now recognise them to be diversions and distractions. It’s not to say that the project’s subtitle: Art, Place and Climate Change is not a serious focus but rather that the diversions and distractions have either become the artwork despite myself, OR that there has been something deeper, something other…
In the vegetable garden with Norie and Maria5
Norie asked “What are you waiting for exactly?” “To discover what it is that I am doing here”, I found myself saying. I had realised that all of the actions to date had been diversions, distractions, undertaken to reassure others that something was happening. All those artworks, the many residencies for other artists, the historically sound and environmentally experimental repairs to the buildings and grounds, the community projects I had led were really all part of waiting…
And then Maria began talking about the house as a challenge to the current international obsession with growth as essential for healthy economies. Here was a beginning… A few nights later, I woke to find the radio still on with a woman speaking of alternatives to growth economies. Of exchange and barter, of different living arrangements, of adaptation and reconstruction and sharing of labour and technologies and equipment.
On the benefits of discomfort
Soon after, I noticed how irritated I became when an artist showed me the graphics for the promotion of an event at the house. Suddenly the realisation was there in the language. Events were not at Watford House as she had written. They were with Watford House.
So here it was. Finally. My central proposition. The house was not to be a backdrop to activities, it was to be the subject. As I had first imagined when I identified its immigrant history. And further, as Bateson had suggested, it would be in the relationships between the house and all the other elements, including plants, animals, humans, the weather, time, that other ecological relationships might to be found.
1 Avoca is a regional town of less than 1200 people. This means that almost all public cultural activity is ‘home-made’. To engage with professional arts activities before the advent of The Avoca Project, townspeople usually needed to travel. I knew this from having grown up in a number of small country towns.
2 Townspeople still allude to its European foreignness by calling it the “Swiss House”.
4 ‘Cheap’ is of course a relative term. My family had to provide a loan and have continued to assist with physical work on the house in the subsequent years, along with many friends who have volunteered their time.
5 This story of an afternoon at Watford House is one of many that will contribute to a book about interactions throughout the period of The Avoca Project (2005– ) currently underway. Two artists and academics, Norie Neumark and Maria Miranda, were visiting in 2016 when this conversation took place.