Riotous Suburbs: Privatising public housing. Curator Jo Holder — 9 June to 7 July 2007

Exhibition 9 June to 7 July 2007

Artists & Writers: Mervyn Bishop, BLF & Patrick White, Ricardo Felipe, Ruark Lewis, MacDonald & Subritzky, Glen Searle, Therese Sweeney & Lizzie Duguid, Squatspace, Paul Wrigley, Adrian Wills.

Curator: Jo Holder

Roundtable: Lynn Turnbull, co-convenor REDWatch; Stacey Miers, town planner and convenor Residents of Woolloomooloo; Squatspace and others. A conversation on the vestiges and spin surrounding Sydney’s so-called ‘riots’ and art Sydney’s history of change and struggle architecture and urban planning.


Riotous Suburbs presents threads of arguments about the economics and politics of space, housing, distribution and access as governments turn to private market solutions to housing needs. The artists essay the protest and civil unrest that has shadowed a decade of privatisation and great comfort for some.

The choice of the term 'riot' raises questions of the ongoing controversy surrounding what did take place and why. 'Riot' suggests a more dialectical interplay. It lends itself to irony. Sometimes it’s better politics or more morale boosting to just camp it up and say ‘It was a RIOT!’ The criteria for the works selected fall into two categories: the particular and abstract.

Big housing estates in Sydney’s inner-city and southwest, such as at Bonnyrigg, Claymore and Minto, are being demolished or partially demolished and sold off. This came to wider notice after moments of ‘unrest’ or ‘public disturbance’ between youths and cops: Redfern in February 2004, Macquarie Fields in March 2005, Gordon Estate in Dubbo on New Year's Eve in 2005. Citing a ‘crisis response’ police shut down entire suburbs. In late 2004 the state seized absolute control of these ‘development corridors’ through new state corporations.

How did things start? Villawood was quietly disposed of in 2000. In late 2001, the Department of Housing started meeting with residents of Minto to discuss their proposals to redevelop the 1000 property estate. DOH didn’t fully disclose their plans or answer questions about relocation, community, tenure and possible affordable purchase, let alone trauma and grief. So Minto Resident Action Group was formed and in turn briefed Redfern/Waterloo residents (who formed REDWatch) and, little by little, word got out.



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Patrick White & Builders Labourers’ Federation (NSW), ‘Civilisation, Money & Concrete’, in The Builder’s Laborer, magazine Sept-Dec 1973. Photocopy, 2 panels each 67 x 48 cm. Courtesy: Sydney Trades Hall Collection
Ricardo Felipe, Barons Bar, Roslyn Street, 2006-2007. Digital print street poster. 29 x 42 cm
Therese Sweeney and Lizzie Duguid, Peppergrove Crescent, Macquarie Fields, 2007. Digital print on archival paper, 62 x 94 cm


Patrick White wrote in The Builder’s Laborer magazine in an article titled ‘Civilisation, Money and Concrete (1973): 'What seems to me to be overlooked continually by those who plan building development is the reaction of the ones who are most closely affected by the development—the human beings who are to be disposed of like sheep or cattle'.

In order to trace the geo-political, racial or class prohibitions that pose the most trenchant inequalities, artists work by consensus and collaborative modes of production. In this way, geographically ragged public art projects and sidelined community groups can be linked. Recent critical debate has renewed interest in such free-ranging, hand-to-hand relational aesthetics.

The best known analytic aesthetic activities are those generated by Squatspace who, over the past year and a half, have run a ‘Tour of Beauty’ around inner-city Redfern and Waterloo development zone with informed local commentary en route by REDWatch, Aboriginal Housing Company and other players. A similar idea of modest exchange informs Ricardo Felipe’s anonymous but beautiful street flyers documenting stages in the hypocritical gentrification and demolition of old Kings Cross.



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MacDonald & Subritzky, Green Movement, 2007. Digital prints on archival paper. 66 x 74 cm. Edition of 5, with 2 Artist Proofs. Fiona MacDonald is represented by Mori Gallery.
MacDonald & Subritzky, Orange Movement, 2007. Digital prints on archival paper. 66 x 74 cm. Edition of 5, with 2 Artist Proofs. Fiona MacDonald is represented by Mori Gallery.
MacDonald & Subritzky, Red Movement, 2007. Digital prints on archival paper. 66 x 74 cm. Edition of 5, with 2 Artist Proofs. Fiona MacDonald is represented by Mori Gallery.


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Adrian Wills, Writer and Director, When the Natives Get Restless, 2007 DVD. 28 minutes. Co-writer + Director: Albert Hartnett, Producer: Melissa Johnston. ©2007 Essential Viewing, Melissa Johnston, Adrian Wills & Albert Hartnett, Film Finance Corporation Australia Limited and the New South Wales Film and Television Office.
Mervyn Bishop, Untitled (Christmas, Gordon Estate, Dubbo), 2006. Digital print on archival paper, 90 x 167 cm
Ruark Lewis, The Distance of Tyranny, 2007. Object for agit-prop performance, Australia Day 26 January 2007, Gunnamatta Park, Cronulla. Timber and acrylic, with plastic billycart wheels, 350 x 15 cm


Photographers Mervyn Bishop and Therese Sweeney & Lizzie Duguid picture Gordon Estate and Macquarie Fields, respectively, as forensic landscapes wherein we seek details of utter singularity. Their riotous suburbs are ruins; we see fenced off, boarded up or demolished houses, empty cul-de-sacs and large trucks. In contrast to this conceptual crime scene approach, Adrian Wills’s documentary short-film, When the Natives Get Restless (2007), makes voices heard about being black in a regional town like Dubbo. In his tale of a stolen suburb, Wills shows the ongoing history of colonial dispossession.

Artists also look at rioters as abstract forces of institutional and ideological critique (large scale civil disobedience, anti-globalisation, anti-imperialism). Ruark Lewis, MacDonald and Subritzky and Paul Wrigley hone in on the symbolic power of our lurid media landscape of divisions and conflicts. MacDonald and Subritzky's massed movement posters, like Andy Warhol's earlier Mustard Race Riot (1963) satirise mass media’s propensity for spin. Paul Wrigley’s paintings of Macquarie Fields are removed from their origin in 60 Minutes coverage in order to be understood 'as a projection of class-consciousness—a middle class judging an underclass'.

Ruark Lewis, like Squatspace, uses public space as a platform to audaciously essay a revolutionary politics. Lewis’s mobile public artwork, Banalities For The Barricades is shown in Riotous Suburbs alongside a series of museum-style posters called Euphemisms for a Riotous Suburb. The latter collects contradictory ‘opinions of the people’ towards the grotesque race riots. Lewis himself, finally signs off 'as a former resident of The Shire'.

As parts of Sydney became wealthier and land more valuable, public housing enclaves stood out more and more. The bypassing of traditional accountability mechanisms by new government authorities and DOH diminishes the role for the public and acts as an exclusion mechanism. No research has been done to evaluate the impact of privatisation policies.



[1] Read, Glen Searle, ‘The Redfern-Waterloo Authority: Sydney’s Continuing Use of Development Corporations as a Primary Mode Of Urban Governance’, paper 2004.
Reviews the NSW government’s use of urban development corporations since the 1960s as an exemplar of the ‘new state spaces’. This is compared to their lessening use in other areas such as the UK.
View here (PDF)

[2] Shirley Fitzgerald, City Historian for the City of Sydney, ‘History you must be joking’, annual lecture of the History Council of NSW
View here (PDF)

[3] Exhibition: Strangely Familiar (Fiona MacDonald and Fiona Hall curated by Ricky Subritzky), UTS Gallery, 2006. Art Works
View here (PDF)

Artist's Links

Exhibition: Strangely Familiar (Fiona MacDonald and Fiona Hall curated by Ricky Subritzky), UTS Gallery, 2006. Strangely Familiar Art Works - 


Adrian Wills

Community groups, organisations & related exhibitions:

Minto Resident Action Group 

REDWatch-Redfern Eveleigh Darlington Waterloo Watch

More Than Bricks and Mortar Minto: a case study, 2007

NYU Exhibition: Exquisite Crisis & Encounters, 2007, on the vestiges and ramifications of the civil unrest in Los Angeles following the not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King murder in 1992.

Public Housing news and information: subscribe to Garry Mallard’s national Tenant Support Network

Aboriginal Housing Company (The Block, Redfern)

AHURI (Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute): specialising in housing and urban research and policy.

Department of Housing NSW, Living Communities Project

Remaking Multicultural Australia

The curator thanks the artists and Lynn and Geoff Turnbull, REDWatch, Stacey Miers, Peter Butler & MacFields RAG, Squatspace (especially Lucas Ihlein and Diego Bonetto), Barry Keldoulis and Sally Brand, GBK Gallery, Michele Asprey, Melissa Johnston, Boomalli, Ace Bourke, Hetti Perkins, Anne Kay, Lisa Kelly & Josie Cavallaro, Catriona Moore, Neil Towart, Jack Mundey, Susan Charleton, Dubbo Daily Liberal for its excellent reportage.

Local Related Exhibitions
It’s a new day, Artspace, 2006; Art, Activism & Environment, Campbelltown Arts Centre, March-April 2007; If you see something, say something, Mori Gallery, Gallery 4A, Chrissie Cotter, January 2007; Green Bans exhibition material from We love the Loo: Commemoration of the Saving of Woolloomooloo from Development, co-curated by Paul True, CFMEU and Neil Towart, Mary McDonald Community Centre, The Loo, 2006. Event concept and realisation Jeanette Ravet; Remembering Minto, display in Minto Community Library, curator Cathy Shepherd, 17 May 2007.