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Documentation of Crowd Theory–Port of Melbourne (2008), artist Simon Terrill Documentation of Crowd Theory–Port of Melbourne (2008), artist Simon Terrill
photo Matt Murphy
INSIDE THE SECURITY-CONTROLLED PORT OF MELBOURNE, AUGUST 2, JUST ON 5.30 PM: A BROODING SKY, AN EERIE SOUNDSCAPE, SHIPPING CONTAINERS, SCATTERED WEEDS AND PUDDLES, AND 160 WARMLY DRESSED ‘PARTICIPANTS’ COMBINE IN AN HOUR-LONG ‘MOMENT’—THE CREATION OF THE FIFTH IN SIMON TERRILL’S CROWD THEORY SERIES OF PHOTOGRAPHS. THE RESULTING IMAGE CONVEYS A SENSE OF THE TENUOUS RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN A MAJOR URBAN LANDMARK AND THE COMMUNITIES THAT SURROUND IT, AND THE IRONIC NARRATIVE OF A FROZEN ‘CROWD’, WHOSE PRESENCE IN THE PHOTOGRAPH TESTIFIES TO ITS COLLECTIVE AFFINITY WITH THE PORT.

Crowd Theory—Port of Melbourne is, for Simon Terrill, a kind of proposition: both an exploration of the physical space of the Port and a kind of documentary fiction based around the responses of participants to the location. While the scene is carefully constructed—the patch of earth sandwiched between West Swanston Dock and the Coode Island liquid storage facility appears much like a film set—Terrill is not interested in directing participants. Instead, he asks people to consider their relationship to the Port as they form the ‘crowd’ that he captures from atop a 6.5-metre scaffolding tower.

Between the endless beeps and clunks of the dock area and the dark silence of the Coode Island terminal, this crowd is restless, curious. The sun is about to set as people tuck into hot soup, compare gumboots, beanies and scarves, and watch the awesome display of cranes unloading a nearby ship. Four busloads of local residents, interested ‘outsiders’, port workers ranging from office staff to truckies and engineers, a few kids, amateur artists and sundry others have been shuttled across from Footscray Community Arts Centre—producer of the Crowd Theory series and partner with the Port of Melbourne Corporation for this image. As the clouds move in and the light softens, marshalls lead the crowd into the shot and the event begins to take shape.

Simon Terrill has worked with Footscray Community Arts Centre to create Crowd Theory images in four other locations: by the Maribyrnong River at Footscray (2004), at Skinner Reserve in Braybrook (2004), at Footscray Station (2006) and at Southbank (2007). The Footscray photograph won him the $10,000 KPMG Tutorship Award in 2005. Looming clouds have been a feature of all but one of the photos, throwing an enclosing moodiness over scenes of saturated colour and precise composition. The Southbank image stands distinctly separate, its participants both dwarfed by, and part of, a wall of high-rise windows and balconies.

The Port of Melbourne shoot unfolds rhythmically under bright lights: 10 shots are taken throughout the sunset hour, and during each 10 or 15-second exposure the slowly evolving soundscape gives way to a long, solid tone. As the shoot progresses, obvious fascination with the usually hidden landscape gives way to individual preoccupation with the next shot: what we will do, what we will think. Before each exposure, Terrill reminds us over the PA to spend the duration of the exposure focusing on “that one Port thought”—and everyone seems to take it seriously, embracing each extended ‘moment’ with a deliberate, small gesture in the midst of the scattered whole.

Terrill insists on the importance of allowing each person to respond and represent themselves as they choose. “I see the hour of the making of the picture very much as a ritualised hour”, he says, adding that his role at that point is simply to facilitate that ritual. For Terrill the final photograph will encapsulate “all that precision beforehand, and then, in a sense, the anti-precision of the crowd space.”

The process feels strangely unreal, like a cross between friendly gathering, facilitated trespass and private journey. The location itself seems part real, part artifice—another contradiction that Terrill is keen to explore: “that tension between the fictional image, the things that have gone into making that image, and the attributes which come from that place.”

Crowds, says Terrill, are formed both of shared experience and a kind of “unconscious group mind”, and this idea has been central to all five Crowd Theory images to date. The photograph selected for the final 1.8 x 2.4-metre print is the one he sees as capturing the ‘moment’ during the ritual in which a coherence begins to show itself in the pattern of bodies. Having employed the same process for each image in the series, Terrill says he’s learned to recognise that moment, usually somewhere towards the middle or end of the shoot, when participants’ uncertainty and exploration gives way to a kind of group energy.

Citing Elias Canetti, Terrill describes this ‘crowd-moment’ as being “one of the true moments of equality, where differences between people do drop away.” Canetti’s Crowds and Power, he says, begins with the statement that human beings’ primary fear is that of being touched. “The crowd situation removes that fear”, says Terrill, “and all these interesting things start to happen, psychologically. It’s quite beautiful, the idea of genuine equality, for that fleeting moment.”

Further threads feed into the overall project, with Footscray Community Arts Centre, the Port of Melbourne Corporation and the artist, not to mention the participants, all having an investment in the aesthetic outcome. For Footscray Community Arts Centre the project marries critical artistic practice with community engagement and for the Port Corporation it serves an important community relations function. The final shot seems to be horizontally layered: the ‘community’ almost floats in the middle ground, suspended between the chosen location and the massive port infrastructure behind.

There is also a paradoxical stillness—the hour-long ‘ritual’ was an hour of almost-constant movement as participants explored the site, talked to strangers, watched the cranes and the sunset. The image of the frozen ‘moment’ is indeed a fiction—the long camera exposure can’t be discerned directly in the photo, except for some blurring in the Panamax cranes on the wharf. Terrill’s humble crowd finds its feet and stakes its tenuous claim, both co-existing with and deferring to the mystique of the machinery and the process that goes on, 24/7, behind the wire fences.


Crowd Theory—Port of Melbourne, artist Simon Terrill, produced by Footscray Community Arts Centre in partnership with the Port of Melbourne Corporation, Aug 2, Port of Melbourne; Exhibition, Mission to Seafarers, Melbourne, Aug 28-Sept 28,

Urszula Dawkins is a freelance writer, editor and arts worker based in Melbourne.

See cover for the complete Crowd Theory–Port of Melbourne photograph.

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 49

© Urszula Dawkins; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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