Like a thump on the head

Michael Douglas

Fluid Architecture

Fluid Architecture

Fluid Architecture

I was standing with Lucy Orta and her husband and artistic partner, Jorge Orta, discussing the heart-like sculptural objects that were being made by the Fluid Architecture Workshop participants. Lucy and Jorge were bending over a dozen hearts on the floor when Lucy quickly straightened, accidentally thumping the back of her head against Jorge’s forehead. Moans of shock and pain came from them both as they assumed head-rubbing positions, followed by a terse exchange in French. It was a moment when fluidity froze and an artistic practice seemed distilled in unintended ways. Is this an art of the unforeseen encounter?

Lucy Orta has gained increased international exposure in recent years for her Refuge Wear and Nexus works that have employed the aesthetics of high-end outdoor clothing and adventure equipment to negotiate issues of refuge and homelessness. These works have involved varying degrees of participation by members of such communities, whilst Orta has driven the works’ conceptualisation and representation. After exhibitions in recent years at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts, Sydney’s MCA, and the Art Gallery of West Australia, the City of Melbourne invited Orta to undertake a residency project as part of their Community Cultural Development Program. This was a significant commission from the City Council’s Arts spending, and given the risk of unknown outcomes, one boldly undertaken.

Fluid Architecture took up residence in the currently disused, former military Drill Hall at the northern end of the city, and utilised it as the site for making, discussing, displaying and performing artwork over 3 weeks. Orta intended Fluid Architecture to create a “space in which ideas flow and evolve freely, constantly changing and fluctuating”, but it was also clear that some form of culmination communicable to a broad audience was desired by both Orta and the City of Melbourne.

So begins a project located to ride the tension between infinite process and fixed product; between ‘anything-can-happen’ chaotic idealism and ‘but-what-are-we-doing?’/’this-is-what-we-are-doing’ pragmatism, and between self-determining participative processes and imposed representations of participation. Questions of locating the project along old axes—of community art/contemporary art, art/design, and the rhetorically useful/ experientially useful—were beside the point as the project invited one to encounter its many tensions.

A number of elements were introduced by Orta to shape the fluidity. Firstly, 2 themes around which to explore making work: ‘nexus’—the Latin word for link—a theme which runs through much of her oeuvre, and ‘heart’—a theme Lucy and Jorge have been jointly exploring. Secondly, a core collection of collaborators was invited to participate and draw in other people. Core collaborators were: community artist at Carlton Housing Commission Estate, Geoff Kennedy, musician Tim O’Dwyer, documenters Catherine Acin and Nicholas Sherman, architect Dylan Ingleton, cultural theorist Nikos Papastergiadis, performer/ choreographer Daryl Pellizzer, and myself as artist/industrial designer. And thirdly, Orta had requested that a silver caravan (inferring temporary habitation and immanent mobility) be brought into the work-space, and that a large pin-up style wall be erected, on which to collect evidence of the process as events unfolded.

From there, the greater fluidity of the process commenced. A diverse collection of people dropped in, joined in and pissed off over the weeks. Traces of their presence were left by RMIT University students of Fashion, Industrial and Interior Design, and Sculpture; by residents from the Carlton housing estate and the St Vincent de Paul’s Ozanam Drop-In Centre; and by Victoria University of Technology (VUT) Festive Arts students. Those people who were brought into the project by one of the core collaborators were inevitably those who felt they could belong there, whilst one-time, off-the-street drop-ins or group visitors provided a constant source of variable influence. Levels of comfort with the situations people found themselves in were in constant flux.

One of the most successful workshop activities was on the first day when a range of people let their apprehensions fall aside, and formed pairs with strangers to create a physical device to link 2 bodies together using cords, fabrics, web-strapping and click-clips. VUT students explored the resulting Nexus works via improvised performance during the closing event. The musicians continuously recorded, processed and re-distributed 4-track sound, varying from calming/alarming heartbeat effects to the stream-of-consciousness ravings of Johnny Shakespeare, to the heavenly-aspiring gospel voice of Tupie—both big characters from the Carlton Estate. A shy guy walked in off the street and within 10 minutes had intimately entangled himself in webbing with people he’d never met before. Kids, pensioners, groovy students, down-on-their-luck blokes and warm-witted artists got into making organ-like heart shapes—all ultimately orchestrated by Orta into Arbor Vitea: a tree of life suspended in silver from the Hall’s ceiling. Designers, jewelers, architects, engineers and Orta wrestled over converting a symbolic heart-organ shape into a large, steel wire framed structure. The result was a sketch-line-like object that a performer writhed within and kids climbed all over at the closing evening.

There’s no doubt that a project exploring fluidity can frustrate expectations for clear direction and purpose, but this is to miss the potential. In an Australian political climate where fear of strangers is too easily provoked, encountering other people in a new situation and exploring ways of coming together has a timely resonance. The encounter is real and symbolic: its awkwardness can be avoided or it can be recognised with a thump on the head. Fluid Architecture picked up threads of Orta’s practice and unraveled them a little further. In the process, people were inspired to generously participate while others were unclear about owning the product of their labour. What is clear is that the practice prompts us to encounter it. And its effects in Melbourne? The Ortas encountered unexpected new links. Who can speak for others?

Fluid Architecture, Lucy Orta Melbourne Residency, Drill Hall, April 9-25

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 23

© Michael Douglas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002