Public art, river dreams

Keith Gallasch talks to Zane Trow

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Of all the arts-centres-on-riverbanks in Australia, Brisbane’s Southbank is one of the most distinctive with its string of performing arts venues, a museum, a major gallery, shops, restaurants, a rainforest garden, cafes, a very popular pool and artificial beach, university faculties (including music and visual arts) and, just a block back, a stylish shopping and eating strip replete with IMAX cinema. There’s also the nearby entertainment centre and exhibition halls. And there’s still room for more growth, which will include the new contemporary art home of the Queensland Art Gallery.

Millions of people go to Southbank every year, just passing through, promenading, having an after work drink, on their way for a swim or to see a show or enjoy a street market. This is a great potential audience for the very latest in public art, something that in Australia has been pretty much limited in the public imagination to sculptures, and a fair few controversies among them. Southbank Corporation, which manages the area, has appointed Zane Trow, formerly Artistic Director of The Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for Live Art, as its Director of Public Art. Selected by and working to a brief from the Public Art Advisory Committee (visual artist Jay Younger, Queensland College of the Arts, art theorist Rex Butler, University of Queensland, both from Brisbane, and Melbourne architectural reviewer and design consultant Joe Rollo), Trow has embraced this unique opportunity with his customary passion, planning a 3 year program, the first stage of which will be launched in April this year.

Trow explains, “South Bank Corporation Public Art Committee has developed a policy and I’m the implementation. It will be a mixture of research into permanent works and a time-based temporary installations program, a lot of which is focused around the Suncorp large screen. This is work that will be in the public domain. It’ll be free, sophisticated work with high level production values. There will be 2 or 3 temporary installations a year involving sound and image with performance and durational components for some of the time.”

Trow declares that there are already very good local new media artists working in the direction he wants to go and with whom he is eager to work—artists like Keith Armstrong and Lisa O’Neill of the transmute collective, Igneous (James Cunningham and Suzon Fuks) and Di Ball, as well as international artists he’d like to have working on Southbank. For local artists, says Trow, “it will certainly give them the opportunity to work on a large scale.”

Although he won’t launch his program until April, Trow offers a taste of things to come: he’s bringing UK DJ and sound artist Scanner back to Brisbane, this time to present his large screen performance-remix of the soundtrack of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville with his own score, to be presented late night, outdoors. The event will be accompanied by a impromptu sound/image performance from local artist Lawrence English, I/O 3 and improviser Mike Cooper.

Trow also offers an example of a major work he is pursuing with Elision, Australia’s premier new music ensemble, and, potentially, UK composer Richard Barrett (who collaborated on the company’s Dark Matter in 2001) and leading Australian new media artist, Justine Cooper.

“Allowing key artists to come together to work on a large scale and allowing them access to a large screen and a performative environment,” says Trow, “is unusual in Australia. While there are large screens in this country, a lot of them are tied to special projects for festivals, or for open air film programs, or occasionally in museums. There’ll be one in Melbourne’s Federation Square, which I’m sure ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) will put to good use…but it’s rare to allow artists really playing with performance installations to get their hands on a resource like that. It’s in situ, a very good one, it’s digital—so it can take a line straight out of a laptop or a DVD player—and it’s mobile. There are about 4 locations for it I’ve identified so far, including floating the screen on the river on a barge for a river-based installation. Having it as an asset is fantastic because you don’t have to go to a ridiculously expensive commercial hire company and ask how much it’s going to cost a day. You’ve actually got the thing and a team of people here who know how to use it.”

Trow’s 3 year program includes works he’ll be commissioning, “a couple in partnership with existing events and linking to the Millennium Arts Project.

“That project is a major capital investment by the state into a renovation of the Queensland Museum and the State Library and the development of the contemporary gallery of the Queensland Art Gallery. That gallery will open in 2005 and will be a great opportunity to work within the precinct on ideas of contemporary culture and public space. It all seems to me to be very pertinent to think about the relationship of the public domain with the Feds circling around the idea of charging for admission to gallery spaces…Clearly the philosophy here at Southbank is about protecting the public domain, having a space in the city that is purely about relaxation and recreation, and creating art happenings in it for the interest and amusement of the general public.”

Trow is pleased to be working with a committee that is “thinking away from the idea that art is good for you or educational…We seek to place contemporary and broadly radical art in public space. It might even be easier putting such innovative work in the public domain, rather than sticking it indoors in arts centres and charging. It’s an opportunity to practically engage with ideas of contemporary art and popular culture. That’s what excited me, the prospect of being able to reach out into those areas with artists playing with communications and ideas.”

There are other aspects to Trow’s vision: he wants to encourage sound artists in particular, especially given there’s a new sound system going into Southbank soon. As well, he’s eagerly developing partnerships with festivals (like the Queensland Biennial Festival of Music). The Public Art program will also represent the Corporation in connection with the Percent for Art scheme, which requires developers to allocate funds for artwork on their sites, and the Melbourne Street development which Beth Jackson, formerly of Griffith Artworks, is working on for Southbank, planning permanent artworks.

Trow is looking forward to “twisting up the whole idea of public art” and getting past the inhibiting bureaucratic vision of it that Rex Butler has critiqued so well. “There’s no assumption in our policy,” says Trow, “that Southbank should behave like anyone else…It’s not an arts organisation. It’s a state corporation set up to manage a public space and the thinking here is about public culture and how you can change with the times, dealing with public art, with the business community, with tertiary educational developments…the mix of people is unique. There is a lot of good thinking about activating the river and integrating the entire precinct.”

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 26

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003