Beyond off-site

David Varga talks to Street Level directors David Cranswick and Kathy Cleland

Street Level is an artist run initiative located in Western Sydney. Now in its eighth year of operation, Street Level is operating as an ‘off-site’ project-based organisation supporting and advocating contemporary arts initiatives in Western Sydney. Recent projects include a machine art performance by Triclops International, Cyber Cultures Exhibitions 1996 and 1997, an architecture and design project and a community based internet project WestWeb.

DV Is there a sense of community with other Western Sydney arts organisations?

DC That’s one of the difficulties of working in Western Sydney. It’s not like you would just bump into someone in the street and there are so few venues for the arts, especially contemporary arts. But like everywhere else there are many communities.

KC Personal networks and contacts are very important. For example, Street Level is working with FilmWest, University of Western Sydney and Casula Powerhouse with our Cyber Cultures project. But Street Level also has strong links with inner city organisations such as The Performance Space who have been very supportive. Street Level is part of SCAN (Sydney Contemporary Arts Network—http://www.culture.com.au) whose other five members are all based in the inner city. These links are extremely valuable. Sometimes there can be a bit of a ‘ghetto-isation’ mentality towards Western Sydney from the outside, ie. art in Western Sydney is for a Western Sydney audience only. On the other hand there can also be a parochial attitude from some areas of local government and community art groups within Western Sydney. With other organisations like Casula Powerhouse, Street Level is trying to work across the region and with a national and international agenda.

DC For example, the previous director Con Gouriotis (now curator at Casula) undertook some wonderful projects. A show he brought in from Malta, Chants of Lamentation by the photographer Zamet, really hit a chord with local Maltese people. Street Level has also had a longstanding relationship with the Warburton Aboriginal community in WA through an earlier director Gary Proctor. So we are not just concerned about presenting work generated in Western Sydney and this sets us apart from community arts organisations.

KC It’s important to remember that Western Sydney is not an homogenous area. It covers such a vast area, geographically dispersed and culturally diverse. Check out on a map sometime the distances between Liverpool, Penrith, Parramatta and Campbelltown. It’s easier to get to central Sydney from some of these areas than to travel between them. Transport infrastructure is generally appalling. This is one of the reasons Street Level is very interested in exploring alternative strategies for communication like the internet and the world wide web. However it is still important to have cultural infrastructure for RL (real life) exhibition, performance and screenings and we don’t see virtual galleries and spaces as being a replacement for physical spaces.

DV Are more Western Sydney artists accessing new technologies?

DC Yes especially as tertiary educational institutions have made significant investments in technology and are developing specialised courses in that area.

KC This is one of the goals of Cyber Cultures, to allow Western Sydney artists and audiences to experience first hand some of the best work by Australian new media artists and have an opportunity to attend seminars and discuss new developments in this area. The performance program also explores areas of hybrid practice and new sites, for example, Stelarc’s performance which includes real time performance with interaction with images and sounds from the world wide web.

DC It is interesting the amount of screen based work at a recent graduate exhibition of UWS Nepean postgraduate students. I guess it’s the case that if the institutions provide the equipment and training then there will be more but again the question of how people continue to produce and exhibit work once they graduate remains a serious issue.

KC Getting the equipment resources for Cyber Cultures has been a huge task and would not have been possible without the support of many like-minded organisations (SCAN, SIN, UWS) and the corporate sector (Apple) and funding bodies (AFC, NMA, ANAT). Getting this sort of support is not easy for artists just out of university. There is a desperate need for equipment infrastructure outside of the universities. This is a role Street Level is working towards.

DC We are more interested in the creative uses of technology in terms of art practice, not limited to computers on plinths. Installation practice remains crucial and the ability of artists to work with unusual spaces to create immersive and interactive environments is particularly interesting. For example most of the artists in Cyber Cultures have worked really hard to create installations (the computers are there but as part of an installation environment).

DV Tell us more about West Web.

KC The West Web project has been funded by the NSW Ministry for the Arts (our very first grant from the Ministry in fact). This project includes a public demonstration of the internet and the web with expert guides who will host a tour of their favourite sites and talk about ways of using these new sites for creative purposes. We are also working with Parramatta City Library, who will be hosting the first stage of this project, and with ICE (Information Cultural Exchange). The web demonstration performances will serve to illustrate some of the ways in which the web and the internet can be used by cultural groups and individuals (especially those who are geographically dispersed) to communicate with each other and also with other related groups both within Australia and overseas. Given the predicted power and pervasiveness of these new communication technologies, it is important that community groups and individuals in Western Sydney are informed about the technologies and can take advantage of the significant opportunities they represent at an
early stage.

DC The second stage of the project is to work with Western Sydney artists to present their work on the web. The other important aspect of this project is the development of a relationship between Street Level and a progressive public library and we feel optimistic about libraries in general as important sites for cultural exchange.

DV What other projects are on the board for Street Level in 1997 and beyond.

KC We are also working on a design project for a new space for Street Level, a project jointly funded by the Australia Council and CEAD (Community, Environment Art and Design). As a temporarily off-site organisation we are interested in investigating different strategies for operating as a contemporary cultural organisation. With this project we are working with four different groups of designers/architects to come up with concepts for four different options for Street Level.

DC It’s been a long term project and really I would like to thank CEAD for their support because we have been able to secure the services of some really interesting designers to come up with concepts in collaboration with us. These include a virtual on-line space with Graham Crawford of Exile, and a mobile space, perhaps a “Cyber Truck”, with Jesse Reynolds of Virtual Artists in S.A. Professor Peter Droege who heads up the Urban Design Dept of Sydney University (Olympia—yes, Olympia not Olympic—2000 project) is putting together a team to develop ideas for a purpose built space and architect Rod Simpson will be developing ideas for a retrofit space. In short we are getting some really good ideas for an appropriate cultural facility. The briefs are for the designers to be provocative and creative and to address our future needs. The designs will be exhibited locally in Parramatta, which is where we want to be located. It’s also the geographical centre of Sydney.

DV How do you see Cyber Cultures progressing?

DC Street level and its board have had a strong interest in screen based and digital technologies and in terms of the organisation’s long term development being involved in technology based projects is important. In a crude sense, it is about staking out territory or creating a space or site for future projects that are technology based. For a small organisation, new information technologies do offer significant advantages for us and our membership. On another note it’s amazing the difference working with recent information technology (as opposed to a spray can) has when it comes to negotiating with local and state government funding bodies. We were recently involved with ANAT’s Virogenesis project where we hosted Matt Fuller and Gomma and the cyberpunk hacker mentality sits very nicely within our scope of things especially in terms of what Gomma described as creating spaces or free zones for people to participate. The main thing here is that the idea of free internet access seems revolutionary or inconceivable yet universities and local government have servers that would be able to handle it. So the line back to contestation of public space, local and community identity is very clear and I think the next stage of Cyber Cultures is to develop these areas of community access.

DV How do you see the infrastructure of the west’s art networks developing in the future?

KC What infrastructure? OK, there is a bit but it’s very limited. Given the lack of venues and exhibition spaces, libraries are in a good position to play an important role as cultural nodes.

DC But really with the Olympics and the centenary of Federation due soon you might think it was a good time for some solid steps to be made in terms of infrastructure, but it’s hard. I mean if it’s not going to happen now, well when? We are expected to be self funding or people say “do stuff in Westfield”. Try telling that to the AGNSW, there would be outrage.

KC Well actually we would love to do something in Westfield. We did have visions of a Stelarc performance in the main atrium…something for the shoppers to think about! But doing off-site work in Westfield does not mean we don’t need our own space.

RealTime issue #17 Feb-March 1997 pg. 22

© David Varga; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1997