WE ARE BEING SURROUNDED
Essay by Kim Anderson
“Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we stay away from all the noise and dust.”
(A letter from an early suburbanite to the king of Persia 539 BCE, written in cuneiform on a clay tablet.)
“The world is too big for us. Too much going on. Too many crimes. Too much violence and excitement. Try as you will, you will get behind in the race. It’s an incessant strain to keep pace and still you lose ground. Science empties discoveries on you so fast that you stagger beneath them in hopeless bewilderment. Everything is high pressure. Human nature cannot endure much more.”
(Atlantic Journal, editorial, May 16, 1833)
“[I] attribute the social and psychological problems of modern society to the fact that society requires people to live under conditions radically different to those under which the human race evolved.”
(The Unabomber, 1995)
Imagine stepping out of your cave and seeing as far as the horizon, tendrils of smoke rising lazily from the remains of last night’s fire where you cooked and shared a communal feast. Imagine discovering the tools to be able to build your own shelter – a rudimentary hut, and then a cottage, and then one day, a house. Imagine that house becoming part of a street, the street connecting to other streets and becoming a town. The town becoming larger, more densely populated, until it could be called a city. The buildings growing ever higher, the population more heterogeneous. Then imagine, as transportation improves, moving back out of the city and satisfying your craving for more space. And thus the suburbs begin to thrive, the air thick with the sound of lawnmowers and the smell of barbecues. But suburbia begins to lack a certain sophistication, a slight cultural cringe perhaps as we start to compare ourselves to other countries. And so the fast convenience and 24-hour-living of the city entices you to abandon your three-quarter acre block for an off-the-plan high rise apartment. First in the CBD, and then further and further outwards until the suburbs themselves begin to resemble the very thing they had tried to escape from.
The spaces we make for ourselves are forever evolving and changing, a constant cycle of growth, decay and regrowth. It could be argued that one of the most crucial elements underlying all our fundamental human needs1, constant through all human cultures and historical time periods, is space. Our physical surroundings undoubtedly have a huge impact on our psychological state: the environment in which we live, where we interact with others, and the intimate spaces where we go to be alone and dream. We need to belong somewhere, we need our own little patch of turf that is ours to govern.
But our spaces are shrinking, and rapidly. Massive urbanisation, economic globalism, multiculturalism, rapid change in transportation and communication technologies, secularisation, accelerating growth of the knowledge industries and the exponential growth of the population mean that the world is getting smaller. The amount of social and technological change that might once have occurred over a century or two is now being absorbed by a single generation. It’s like we don’t know what we want anymore, simultaneously desiring to be at the centre of everything while yearning for the lazy streets and big backyards of our childhood. In an era when we are embracing the increasing interdependencies and connection between people on a virtual level, we are at the same time retreating into ourselves.
A quick Google search brings up countless studies on the effect of increasing levels of urbanisation on our mental health and the corresponding rise in diagnoses of psychosis and depression. Noise, population density, claustrophobia, social isolation and low levels of social support, difficulties in finding housing – all contribute to psychological stress. Information overload and constant over-stimulation through technology means our identities are continually in flux, and we are increasingly unable to develop intimacy with each other. We block our ears with music to avoid speaking to anyone, and we avert our faces and stare intently at the device in our hand to avoid making eye contact. The individual is being dissolved into the mob of mass existence – we cannot find ourselves anymore.
As is their wont, artists tend to feel such things acutely - more often than not they are the "antennae" of society and are compelled to react in the best way they know how, through their own artistic language. Usually existing at the fringes of society where rents are cheap and the derelict and the neglected provide precious inspiration, they are finding themselves again and again priced out of the very suburbs they helped to make “trendy”. Suburbs such as Fitzroy, Collingwood, Carlton, Brunswick and now Footscray have always drawn people outside of the mainstream – displaced indigenous people, refugees from across Asia, Europe and the Middle East, students and of course artists. But the process of gentrification is continuing to reshape these suburbs, and long-time residents are being priced out, becoming economic exiles forced to make their homes elsewhere where eventually the process begins all over again. Ironically, the modernist flats that have replaced the crumbling terraces and workers’ cottages have come to be seen as vertical slums themselves.
We Are Being Surrounded suggests an impending sense of doom, of imprisonment and increasing claustrophobia. The eight artists in the show all grapple with the loss of a sense of place and belonging that has come with the rapidly changing landscape of inner-city Melbourne. The tension between the physical space we are surrounded by and the effect it has upon the human psyche runs through most of the works in the exhibition. Linda Studená and Carmen Reid focus more specifically on architectural elements, the confusion of facades and the conflict between anonymity and loss of privacy. We all live at such close quarters and our physical space has become cramped, yet paradoxically most of us feel isolated and empty. Alister Karl, Leah Murphy, Minela Krupic and Luke Perillo focus on the less tangible aspects of place – memory, nostalgia and a sense of longing for something we can’t quite recollect fully. The visual, tactile way in which we map a sense of place arises in Peter Davison’s work – the odd workings of memory to create a mental map, the surfaces and textures that stay with us long after the street names have faded. Rob Ball’s installation constructs a portrait of a suburbia that has gone to seed, where autonomy and isolation have replaced neighbourliness and generosity. His is a three-year project that explores the growing dysfunction in a contemporary suburbia where we don’t interact anymore, we keep our eyes averted and pretend not to notice our neighbours so we don’t have to wave. Ball’s work subverts this however with the proposition of a service – ie. cutting someone else’s grass – suggesting a scenario where social relations could potentially be revived.
In many of these works the domestic scenario we are so familiar with becomes slightly uncanny – objects and materials detached from their original setting, an absence of human presence within the work, a vague oppressive sense of unease that the unchecked growth of urbanisation will have dire consequences. These artists are attempting to stand their ground in an increasingly monotonous, bleak existence – but for how long?
The tall rectangular shadows are beginning to creep closer and closer to our backyards, blocking out the sun and leaving only a distant ribbon of sky far above. Instead of looking out at the horizon we are staring straight into our neighbour's window. And instead of forging the bonds that such close proximity might once have fostered, we are becoming more and more hostile, and fiercely protective of our own ever-decreasing space. The utopian cities of the future are fast becoming a nightmarish reality; we long for a simpler time, when life was bucolic, quiet and peaceful, when there was more space between us but also more social interaction, when we weren’t so anxious and paranoid and fearful. We are becoming surrounded by the thing we thought we wished for, only to find that it wasn't what it was cracked up to be. Now we are all alone in this together. The question is: how do we find a way out?
1 Manfred Max Neef classified the fundamental human needs into nine categories: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom.