Untitled (Dear William) | 2014-15 | In-progress

The study area is approximately one square kilometer of the Northbridge district of inner-city Perth, Western Australia. Lying between Lake Monger in the North West and the Swan River to the East, the area was once wetlands through which flowed a complex of waterways sacred to the area’s indigenous inhabitants. Indeed many sites within the study area retain great importance for the present day Noongar Aboriginal community. Since colonization by Europeans in the 19th Century, Northbridge has received successive waves of foreign migrants, and although many groups have subsequently moved on to more ‘desirable’ neighborhoods, the area preserves strong links to the Italian, Greek, Arab, Jewish, Chinese and Vietnamese communities.

Unusually for Perth, both residential and commercial properties sit side-by-side in Northbridge, and the area is known city-wide as a popular culinary and nightlife district. No doubt due in large part to the latter of these two associations (but likely also due to White-Australian prejudice concerning ‘ethnic’ neighborhoods) the William Street area has a reputation for being crime-ridden and unsafe. However, despite this image problem, in the last five or six years a number of highly paid professionals and young middle-class families have begun moving into Northbridge, attracted by the area’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, century-old worker’s cottages and easy commuting proximity to Perth’s Central Business District. A local authority redevelopment program that included the sinking of both a major freeway and the railway line at Perth’s nearby central station were no doubt also major contributing factors in this most recent transformation of Northbridge’s demographic make up. This influx of wealthier inhabitants, combined with Western Australia’s succession of mining-based economic booms, have significantly contributed to rising property prices, causing some long-term residents to move out of Northbridge. Indeed, what became apparent from the start of my research is that, through immigration, the area has renewed itself every 10 to 20 years. And with every period of renewal can be associated a certain amount of amnesia: each wave of new arrivals is generally only aware of who was living in the area when they themselves arrived, but are largely oblivious to previous cycles of inhabitants.

Nigel-BENNET_Untited-dataI began my field research by directly approaching people on the streets and asking them to answer a short survey. As I was being hosted by FORM, a local not-for- profit arts organization, they also assisted by carrying out a mail drop to every business and residential address within the study area. The pamphlet explained who I was and what I would be doing and invited residents to participate in my project. In the preliminary stage of research, participants were encouraged to consider their connections and relationships to the William Street area and what it means to them personally. The first question I asked participants was:

“Please provide me with a photo, quick drawing or short written description of 3-5 places in the Central William Street area (see map) which have particular significance for you, your family, friends or the local community in general. These places could be public or private, well known landmarks or hidden corners of the neighborhood (even private spaces that other members of the community do not have access to). I do not need to know your reasons for choosing these places, it is sufficient that they hold some importance or significance for you.”

However, from the initially disappointing responses I received to this question it became apparent that, in order to guarantee receipt of data reflecting the neighborhood’s many previous incarnations, I would need to open up participation in the project to former residents, thus ensuring that members of those social groups that over the past few decades have been ‘pushed’ out of Northbridge would also have an opportunity to tell their stories. Thankfully, as more people began to volunteer for the project in response to the leaflet drop, the type of respondents I encountered became more varied and the quality of data improved. However by this time I had already made the decision to augment the simple written survey format with more in-depth recorded interviews. The combining of these two research methods ultimately proved to be quite successful and after a couple of weeks I began to unearth many interesting stories and anecdotes about the William Street area, from the very recent to those dating as far back as the 1940s.

In stage two I then asked a second group of participants to reinterpret the data submitted by the first group in a way that made most sense to them. Respondents looked through a printed booklet containing some of the data given to me in the first phase of the research. These data mostly took the form of either place names/descriptions or short paragraphs of text recording memories of incidents that had occurred within the study area – although a few respondents in phase one had also chosen to give me photographs of locations, and these were included in the booklet too. Under each item was a blank space for round-two respondents to write down whatever comments were triggered by the data they saw above.

Finally, after approximately one month of fieldwork, I began to pass the information acquired in stage two onto a third group of participants who were asked to react to or interpret this data as they saw fit as “actors” in staged narrative photographs. Although some participants chose to re-enact the data given to them in a more or less literal way (allowing for their own subjective interpretation of that data), others took the data merely as a trigger to suggest memories from their own lives, or indeed strongly refuted the data they were given. In effect the process was a little like a game of Exquisite Corpse in which a piece of paper is folded and first one person draws a head, the next a torso etc. What emerges at the end might be somewhat monstrous, but I believe that it genuinely reflects something of the psyche of all those involved in its creation.

My objective was that this body of work would speak of the area as it is at present, but as Heidegger teaches us, the present is made up of everything that has ever happened in the past. This posed an ethical dilemma, as, were I to show something deemed negative about the area that had occurred in the past, this could be construed as misleading if this phenomenon were no longer to be found in the study area (and anyway, who decides what is ‘negative’ or ‘positive’?). But if I were to ignore this element, I would be creating an equally inaccurate image of the area by denying its past.

The matter was further complicated by the realization that, as all the photographs would be reenactments, all would reflect the past: indeed the moment any photographic image is created it has already become the past. What would it mean in practice to separate past from present? At which point does present become past? Could the past be defined as all events that took place before my arrival? I.e. events that I could not verify with my own eyes as being ‘typical’ of the area. But that would mean that I, an outsider, would have final say as to what is and is not ‘typical’. Given that the entire collaborative process was put in place in order to avoid just such a scenario, this did not seem a satisfactory solution. In the end I decided that if  respondent (A) gave me a specific piece of information, then it was up to respondent (B) to tell me if this was valid or not. The three-stage process would effectively act as a filter, allowing historical information to be ‘corrected’ if another participant disagreed with it further down the line.

More problematic, however, was that I very rapidly discovered that when a person is left to tell stories about their life, they of course do not recount typical, everyday scenarios but rather they speak of the extraordinary. What this meant in practice is that, while I found myself working in an apparently very safe and friendly environment, during my research people frequently told me stories around themes of violence, crime and drug abuse. Not that these problems do not exist in the neighborhood, but I think we can safely say that neither my superficial impressions of the area nor respondents’ horror stories could be considered the ‘true’ description of Northbridge (indeed, anyone seeking for such a description will only ever find disappointment). This again highlights the limited validity of any findings such a project can bring us. The only antidote of course being a full disclosure of working methods, preconceptions, prejudice etc. so that the ‘end consumer’ of the research might make their own judgment as to the work’s merit. As I wanted such a disclosure not to exist merely as an appendix to the work, but rather to form an integral part of it, towards the end of my stay I also began documenting the limits of the geographical area and those individuals who were excluded from participating in the project purely due to the (mis)fortune of being located on the wrong side of the field’s external boundaries at the time I encountered them. These images will form the boundary markers of the completed installation of the work.

Parallel to the creation of photographs in the above manner, l I had my production-base in a pop-up studio space on Newcastle Street in Northbridge that was open to the public during the daytime. Some examples of the photographic works the participants and I had produced thus far were on show and all visitors to the studio were encouraged to intervene on a giant map of the William Street area, annotating it with data relevant to each specific geographic location: either by attaching their own photographs, or by drawing and writing directly on the map itself – in this way much of the original map disappeared under layers of local stories, opinions and anecdotes to create a new cartographic document plotting the collective experiences and memories of the local community.

Additionally, people living or working in the William Street neighborhood were invited to bring me an object holding some special significance for them, which I photographed in the studio while they waited. This item could be anything that the participant deemed important or symbolic and I was bought all kinds of objects, from a pair of silver spoons that – on the instructions of a psychic – were dug up from a back yard in the area, to some rocks from the Australian outback. Each participant was asked to fill-out an information-tag for their chosen item – giving rudimentary explanation as to why the item was chosen and by whom. I then photographed these items isolated in a ‘neutral’ manner similar to the way in which museum exhibits or ethnographic artifacts are cataloged.

The textual data, community-collaborative narrative photographs, still-life photographs of resident-submitted objects, and fragments of the participant-intervened map/collage will be presented together as one unified body of work in the form of a large scale installation. While I will not literally incorporate street names or other geographical information within the work, text, photographs and other data will be presented in such a way as to serve as a kind of atlas, plotting both the physical William Street area and the internal worlds of the neighborhood’s inhabitants in relation to their local environment.

Nigel-BENNET_Dear-William_installation-plan_RGB

Through choices in framing, mounting and installation of the works I also plan on reflecting chronological data regarding the events depicted in the images and text.