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Erroristas, Group Etcétera Workshop, Sydney 2007 Erroristas, Group Etcétera Workshop, Sydney 2007

Speaking to a crowd of mainly artists and activists (and activist artists), their appropriation of a familiar anti-terrorism campaign slogan as the title of the show was clearly chosen not only to voice dissent at our government’s insidious, US-style Neighbourhood-Watch strategy, but also to confirm that socio-political change can or may occur through a discursive process. After all, to say something about something is to involve oneself in the immediacy of a moment, be it political or otherwise. This was a project about both local and global participation, political discourse, protest and activism.

The curators assembled an impressive array of artists, groups and collaborations across three main venues including the Argentinean Group Etcétera, the collaboration of German artist Dario Azzellini and the Austrian Olivier Ressler, Taring Padi from Indonesia and Contra Fil from Brazil. Elucidation of the contexts and political moments in which all of the artists variously work, was handled through a freely distributed newspaper, with texts commissioned by both exhibiting artists and external writers. Without this document I would have been lost in the complexity of such an international exchange. If You See Something, Say Something brought together provocative practices and while viewing the works in their various locations, I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t important that I agreed with everything I saw and heard.
Redfern Mapping Project, Squatspace Redfern Mapping Project, Squatspace
The exhibition at Gallery 4A was split between documentary film and photography, and traditional painting and printmaking in the service of social change. Indonesian group Taring Padi’s works on paper were installed in the entrance gallery, juxtaposing sharp woodblock prints of struggle and military violence with paintings of utopian dreams in which people live collectively, in harmonious rural landscapes. Upstairs Zanny Begg had installed a series of Flemish-style portraits and a map, exchanging traditional subjects of wealthy traders or landowners for representations of young Australian environmental and political activists. Rather than depicting trade routes, the map located sites of activist movements and their connections to others around the world. While I understood the logic of this exchange, I found the representation and identification of particular people in Begg’s paintings (some were masked) to be strangely at odds with the spirit of movements that champion the cause, rather than the individual.

Reflecting this notion, opposite Begg’s paintings was a wall and shelving unit covered in printed paraphernalia relating to upcoming events and workshops connected to the project as well as propaganda, protest march details and environmental action material. Next to this was Sydney-based multidisciplinary artist David Griggs’ installation of his photographs of homeless people, youths, dogs and ephemera on The Philippines’ streets. The photographs were taken and exhibited like snapshots, scattered on a poorly made, low plywood table surrounded by totemic objects including a blackened head with a cigarette in its mouth and a black cobra poised to strike. Grigg’s combination of the quotidian image with death-metal symbolism created a potent atmosphere of everyday antipathy with a seething undercurrent of anger.

At Mori Gallery Begg and de Souza’s curatorial gambit appeared to revolve around the intersection of various artistic, research and performance practices involving public space. In one corner, local artist collective Squatspace created a playful and interactive map project about their ongoing, two-year (and counting) reality-promenade Tour of Beauty, a bus and bike excursion around the suburb of Redfern. Including a video document edited from various tours, the comfortable zone created by Squatspace enabled members of the audience to participate by drawing images from their memories and community connections onto the fabric map of Redfern that covered the floor. Rather like hobo graffiti, symbols of personal experience accumulated over time—love hearts on street corners, dogs in the park—while the Tour of Beauty video examined the broader implications of ongoing infrastructural changes to Redfern as they continue to impact upon Indigenous welfare and claims to the land as well as inner-city housing for low-income earners and families.

In the early stages of the Tour of Beauty project, members of Squatspace identified themselves to the Redfern Waterloo Authority (the NSW government agency responsible for the re-zoning and planning in Redfern) but were unsuccessful in securing a RWA spokesperson to speak as part of the tour. Despite this, the RWA used a photograph of Squatspace member Keg de Souza (wearing her Squatspace uniform) as the cover girl for their annual report, revealing an embarrassing breakdown of bureaucratic process and communication, but turning up subversive trumps for the Squatters. I found this report by chance while looking at the doodles on the map and it highlighted the fact that the most intriguing works to be found in the exhibition were examples of subversive practices that had insinuated their way into the social fabric they critiqued.

This was certainly the case with Perth-based pvi collective’s most recent performance project, Loyal Citizens Underground. Shown as a video document at Mori Gallery, the group had its members, uniformed in green and gold, handing out Code of Conduct cards and gently reprimanding unsuspecting shoppers and pedestrians in Perth’s CBD. Concerned with the effects of the Australian Government’s anti-terror legislation on monitoring civilian activity in our public spaces, pvi tested the policing of these and other behaviour-restricting laws in real time with a crack team of helpful vigilantes. The LCU not only busted grannies crossing the street in diagonal lines but assisted them to perform the task correctly. “We are holding your hand to increase your confidence when crossing the road.” The sense of familiarity I felt when viewing Australian responses of bewildered compliance to such paternalism was quickly blown away by the documentation of a “poop attack” and protest installation against the HSBC Bank performed by Etcétera, screening loudly in an adjacent room.

It goes without saying that I was instantly drawn to the work of some of the Australian artists in this exhibition. I understand the language and the context instantly, but I also understand poop. The absurdist installation of a toilet in front of the Congress building in Buenos Aires by Etcétera during a vote on the national budget in 2002 was followed by the more direct action of slinging actual shit and rotting vegetables at the building itself, attracting participation by angry members of the public. The documentation of live acts by the Brazilian group Contra Fil was less visually and symbolically accessible, requiring a (readily-available) translation. The translation publication Programme for the De-turnstilation of Life Itself was a bound collation of press material about a turnstile monument that the group initially installed in a town square. Gradually this document revealed the turnstile’s co-option as a symbol by students and other groups agitating for social change, and also its filtration into the local vernacular through cartoons and (probably not surprisingly) advertising for a banking corporation. I was unclear reading this whether it was the group’s intention to critique the diluted agency of the “movement” it initiated.

I left Mori Gallery after viewing the technically clunky, yet deeply soulful and melancholic video work of Al Fadhil from Iraq that considered the psychological terrain of his ravaged country through a photo-essay documenting empty public spaces and impoverished homes. The beseeching voiceover described scenes of suburban desolation and of families—all of whom have lost a child or another loved one—retaining only a small shred of hope for the future.

Fadhil says, “to remind ourselves that we once had a garden, we fill our houses with flowers. Plastic flowers”. This was a solemn ending to an experience of works that positively agitated for alternatives to current political and cultural situations. Fadhil’s work was a meditation on the acceptance of despair in a world that needs to open its eyes and ears to such stories.

If you see something, say something, publication, exhibitions and workshops, curators Zanny Begg, Keg de Souza, Mori Gallery, Gallery 4A, Chrissie Cotter Gallery, Sydney, Jan 26-March 3

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 46

© Bec Dean; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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