Situate Provocateur, David Cross shares the highs and lows of making public art.
The Lord Mayor is apparently two minutes away, the dignitaries have assembled and the power generator for one of the air blowers has died because of the rain getting under the plastic sheeting. I am wearing, like all the volunteers on the project, a garish orange t-shirt that has the curated project We Make This City written in bold letters. A Koori guy who has been watching us set up and who is clearly drunk comes up to me and in a very soft but determined voice says ‘Boss I want one a those shirts’. I try and brush him off with a ‘I am sorta busy at the moment’ kind of deferring comment but he is having none of it. With a bit more annoyance he tells me again ‘Boss I want one of them shirts!’ At this precise moment I am ushered by a couple of guys in shiny suits to meet Clover. We exchange pleasantries and she then moves to the microphone setup out the front of Kinsellas to launch the work.
During the speech my friend sidles up to me and spends the whole two minutes tugging on my shirt. Clover then introduces me to say a few words and I step forward with my friend still attached to my t-shirt. He lets go to avoid the limelight but when I finish, and before the applause has died down, he is back in his favourite lobbying position attached to my t-shirt. It is an effective strategy to be sure and when I decide that resistance is useless and get him a t-shirt he firstly complains it’s the wrong size and we swap it, and finally, when he realizes the ill-fitting prize is his, he smiles for the first time. ‘I’m Sydney’ he says shaking my hand, ‘Sydney from Sydney, good eh?’ He disappears into the crowd with his t-shirt that can be seen from outer space and I never see him again.
An hour later we are de-installing the work after the launch. I am removing the water weights that hold the inflatable structure down in case of sudden wind gusts when a guy passing through Taylors Square asks me what this thing is. I tell him it is an artwork and for some reason this flicks a switch and he goes off. ‘A fucking artwork!!! This is not art its shit! My tax payers dollars funding this shit!’ The initial ten second tirade does not seem to be doing justice to his anger so he runs at me and spits on me twice. He then tells me he is 64 and that he was going to go and ‘get his mates and come and beat the shit out me’. More than a little surprised at the reaction, I decide to ignore him and at this point another artist friend arrives and tries to placate him. The entire scene is watched by the invited guests still chinking their champagne glasses in the upstairs bar at the nightclub that overlooks the square. He walks off still screaming invective into the night. I never see him again.
Lloyd used to drive trucks. ‘All around Australia mate, used to take 14 hours to Melbourne before they fixed the road.’ Lloyd needed to tell me to be careful. ‘Bloody idiots around here mate, they will fuck ya work before you know what is going on. You need to keep an eye on it’. He probably tells me this ten times in-between anecdotes about driving trucks. In a funny ‘old blokey’ kind of convention we have to talk not facing each other but looking at the work the whole time speaking out of the corners of our mouths. Salt of the earth Lloyd, and sharp to boot. He just needed to give me some advice from a locals perspective and, as if I was slow on the uptake, give it again and again and again.
By the second day, one thing has become very clear, the work is attracting a lot more attention to the square and as a result the regulars who sit on ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and in the outside beer gardens are, to varying degrees, placed in the limelight as well. For the regulars, the work poses something of a challenge to negotiate (a huge inflatable has suddenly gone up in their backyard) and they seem at first bemused and curious but there is the definite sense that their assent, not the City of Sydney’s, is necessary/essential for the work to proceed. A complex process thus ensues where a good number of the ‘locals’ begin a dialogue with me, or members of my support team. For some, it is through a range of school yard gags “the worlds biggest condom” and it is important we laugh and validate them. Others need to experience the work. It is the latter who pose the most interesting challenges and potentially the most comic moments. Risk and humour in an oscillating accord.
Mark is heavily built, tattoos all over his body, missing teeth and very unstable on his feet. He seems to have brain damage in tandem with alcoholism and at my first encounter with him he was having a fit and needed medical assistance. Two days later it is hot in Sydney and Mark, drunk and dismissive of the attendant’s attempts to explain the rules of engagement, walks up the ramp while a little girl is about to go through the work. He collapses at the top and almost takes the attendant with him. Mark fails probably every health and safety protocol I agreed to: palpably drunk, polluting the structure, and many more but, crucially and tactically, we let him ride. He emerges at the bottom soaking wet with a look of toothless incredulity. Instead of getting off he lies almost catatonic soaking in the water like a five year old blissed out in the bathtub.
He gets up, falls over, and staggers back towards his mates on Gilligan’s Island. When I think he has gone to dry out, a shout comes from the volunteer at the top of the slide. Almost instantly Mark comes flying out the end of the structure head first and lands on the concrete. He decided to dive at speed head first down the slide resulting in a very messy end. It is irresponsible of me to let him engage with the work but there are two mitigating factors: Mark is enjoying himself; and if I did not let him on there is the real risk of getting him offside and getting violent or sabotaging the work in some way. The risk is borne out later that day when he tries to beat up an old man in the square and then, immediately after, chases a musician setting up for a gig after the muso dismisses with a wave Mark’s request for a cigarette. A full blown incident then takes place when a woman at the pub counter-attacks by chasing Mark with a bollard and in rage tries to crack his head open. All of this malarkey because Mark did not take kindly to being dismissed. A hastily convened team meeting takes place where we decide to bin the safety first public art rule book and activate a more pragmatic, if seat of the pants, street diplomacy.
Maybe ten minutes later Mark is again back in the action picking a fight with Rob, the most charismatic and eloquent member of the Gilligan’s Island Tribe. Rob has a similar appearance to Mark (the tatts, some collateral dental damage ) but is something of a clown prince reciting poetry and constantly gesturing with theatrical flourish. But he has a lightning temper and when Mark strays too far in harassing one of our crew (a woman), Rob flies into a rage and threatens to rip Mark’s head off. They start to square up just as a little girl comes down the artwork. Oblivious to their screaming, she gets off the work with a huge smile and goes back for another go while her very anxious mother looks on. Joy, laughter, obscenities and nascent violence all wrapped around an artwork attempting to hold its ground.
I first meet Michael, caring for Mark when he is having a fit. Michael has long curly hair and looks a bit like a 80s magician. He is tanned and has an air of care about him like he is a social worker cum hippie. The second time I meet him he is completely different. The calm is gone replaced by a kind of manic theatricality. He is wearing a bra and a bathrobe and flashing his insubstantial assets to the Gilligan’s Island crew and to passing traffic. When the fashion show finishes he runs out into the Flinders St traffic and jumps on the back of a rubbish truck. As the truck takes off he surfs along the ground with just his shoes at speed in full traffic and we cannot watch. He lets go and slides across two lanes of oncoming traffic before running back to the crew: graceful, dextrous, and totally mad in equal measure. Over time he becomes more and more agitated and is walking at speed through the square deliberately smashing the barricades we have set up to protect the power generators. Where he was in the preceding days completely respectful of the work, it is now annoying him and he needs to push against it. I leave for an hour and we I come back an ambulance is pulling away. Michael has broken his arm. The next day he is back in a hospital gown and the police are trying, unsuccessfully, to reason with him and get him to return to hospital.
Judging by so many happy faces and the presence of what from the outside looks like a City of Sydney fun fair ride in Taylors Square, you could be forgiven for thinking the actual work looks anything but a risky venture in public art. Hundreds and hundreds of people have engaged with the work and it has generated a devoted following from every kid living within a two kilometer radius. While it would be spurious to claim this is in fact deceiving, there is certainly a tension that continues to surround the work, between pleasure and the constant anticipation of something going awry. The artwork couches participatory art practice in a package of generosity and civic pleasure, which proves to be a valuable, or more to the point, essential calculation.
Yet to be able to investigate risk: the risk of the audience not knowing what happens inside the work, the risk of thunderstorms and wind gusts blowing the object across Darlinghurst, the risk of it being slashed like a Lucio Fontana canvas for the sheer destructive joy, and the risk of an inebriated local throwing up in the work, the artwork has to function as a sort of Hansel and Gretel house of allure. By drawing people in with its juvenile canary yellow colour, inflated form and the potential of something fun, the work managed was allowed to be. Point and counterpoint, push and pull.
The lack of control in the public sphere is at times overwhelming. Whether it is council ‘control freak’ risk assessors consistently churning out the default mantra of ‘no, we cannot do that’ or anarchic residents expressing themselves with unfettered abandon just about anything can go wrong. But this, I keep telling myself, is after all what makes public art so potentially engaging.
Drift was a participatory installation that navigated and reconfigured the popular water feature in Taylors Square in 2011. Part artificial wonderland, part physical ordeal, the worked asked audience members to rethink our experience and understanding of the urban environment. Using water and an inflatable PVC structure as principal themes and materials respectively, the work sought to push against the grain of Taylors Square as a gritty urban site with decidedly mixed results.