Next Wave Festival: Footscray

MAY 9-14 / 2016

About 6 km out of Melbourne’s CBD, Footscray is a quirky little suburb and community with great food and friendly faces. To be honest it reminded me of my current home in Fremantle, a landscape lined with cranes and sea containers. A sister city to the more established urban hub further up the river. Staying in this neighbourhood changed the way I see Melbourne as a city. A perspective which, prior to this trip, had been mainly been generated from exploration confined to North and South of the CBD.

The first 3 days in this part of town was spent in a friend’s backyard. I arrived with rain pouring down, the weather shifting pretty dramatically from the glorious sunshine on the weekend. Despite this, the setting was perfect for my camouflaged tent. Surrounded by houses on a few square meters of grass, the late 80s station wagon felt at home next to a veggie patch and a garden shed. Another bonus was that there wasn’t an expressway exit 20 meters from my bed with semi-trailers using their compression brakes as they exited onto the street, gently waking me at 430am. The city is obviously a loud place, but it hadn’t occurred to me that this disruptive sound went 24/7.

Although suburban Footscray was quite, with only a few people coming through, it did allow for some time to reflect on the project and where it fits within my practice as well as an arts festival. For a while I have considered the tent as an artist-designed shelter, and opening the campsite up for conversations was a form of research and exchange of ideas. To learn what other people are trying and to clarify how I fit into this 21st Century landscape. In the context of an arts festival or within contemporary art practice, I am unsure if this project fits the description of what is generally considered an artwork, though I strongly believe that the project is aligned with who I am and the objectives of my art practice. Living amongst permanent living shelters or houses in the backyard made me realise that the tent could happily exist outside of a festival context. Outside the realm of contemporary art.

Thrusting the work back into the public realm, I set up shop on the grassy slope at the back of the Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC). Wonderful weather returning, the next three days unfolded lying in the sun discussing the complexities of renting, history associated with place and the people that make a community what it is. A big focus for local residents was the recent increase of apartment developments as rapid gentrification starts spreading to the western suburbs. Concern was expressed over how this shift would impact the characteristics that makes the suburb so desirable: the diverse mix of cultures, the incredible food, the lack of multi-storey buildings, its small almost country town feel, and its affordability. With the increase in population in Australia, maximising density along already established public transport routes seems to be the most sensible way to address this problem. Building apartment blocks, arguably, has the lowest impact if they are done effectively and are accessible to the people that need it. While some see it as a negative, it is the possibility to effectively integrate new buildings into the existing history and heritage of a space. It has been done before, and it can be done again so long as the overriding  objective of construction isn’t profit.

Beautiful weather, haven't got a parking ticket yet...
Beautiful weather, haven’t got a parking ticket yet…

Exploring the pros and cons of renting seemed to dominate most of my interactions at FCAC. The power given to real estate agents with the sudden increase of interest in a suburb, another effect of the unstable property market and housing shortage in Australia’s capital cities, has left renters in an even more precarious position. The gratitude for securing somewhere to live for 12 months is often used against the people renting, the abuse of this power becoming the norm in the Australian rental landscape as the line of people wanting to live in an inner city location grows daily. Emotional blackmail, a lack of communication, profiling. Nearly everyone renting has a storey to tell. While renting gives one the freedom of not being tied down, it does come with multiple challenges. Hearing other people’s experiences reinforces the attractiveness of long term leases similar to those used in some Scandinavian countries, allowing a fixed 5-10 year lease agreement.

Walking down the main strip of Footscray, you can tell that the nearly all the shop owners have been there for ten, twenty, maybe even thirty years. While the Bircher Muesli in a shipping container cafe is pretty good, uber cool entrepreneurs moving in is the start of dramatic change to the culture and communities currently established in Footscray. For better or worse, its happening.

Shipping containers along the Yarra River.
Shipping containers along the Yarra River.