Who stole the Southern Cross? A cautionary tale for public art

Howard Freeman mural at end of Southern Cross station shopping mall

The best way to appreciate Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station is to close your eyes. Echoing calls for ‘Traralgon’, ‘Mildura’ and ‘Warrnambool’ conjure the image of a monumental rail hub in the southern capital of a great southern land. But open your eyes and you are in a very different world. In this ubiquitous brand-scape, every conceivable surface is covered by advertising clamouring for attention—hanging from the ceiling, around pillars, carpeting the floor, moving up escalator rails… How could this happen? And what future does it beckon for art in the public domain?

There were high hopes. In announcing the new name for the old Spencer Street Station in 2001, Premier Steve Bracks invoked the Southern Cross as a symbol for many shared stories—not only multiculturalism and federation, but also ‘democracy and freedom because it flew over the Eureka Stockade’. But there is not a Southern Cross to be seen in finally emerged. Despite being a public transport facility, the government has little control over the look of the station. Instead, the station follows the interests of a Private Public Partnership, involving the superannuation body Industry Funds Management, under the management of a private company, Southern Cross Pty Ltd.

There actually had been funds set aside for public art, but these were taken up by the relocation of the mural originally commissioned from the ‘state artist’ Harold Freedman in 1978. The mural depicts the history of transport in the first 100 years of Victoria and is now visible at the end of the extensive shopping mall, far away from the actual station. There are no plans for any public art reflecting the station’s new identity.

So what? The public has a better transport facility, and a bright new shopping mall as a bonus. Yet the story of public transport in Melbourne this century has been dominated by dysfunction, particularly violence against vulnerable minorities. The ultimate message of developments like Southern Cross is that the world is constituted by individual desires, rather than common interest.

It’s easy to forget that things could be otherwise. In 1978, the Victorian Government initiated the Transporting Art project, which commissioned 40 painted trams from artists over 15 years. City streets were adorned with mobile works by artists including Howard Arkley, Trevor Nichols, Gareth Sampson, Alex Danko, John Nixon and Les Kossatz. The program was initiated in the renaissance of public art under Rupert Hamer, which also saw the establishment of the Victorian Arts Centre, ACCA, Sculpture Triennial and Meat Market Craft Centre.

This ambitious period of cultural programming and infrastructure culminated in Federation Square. By 2001, Victoria’s public transport had been privatised, but the energies awakened by the painted trams resurfaced in a campaign of resistance by sacked conductors. Through performances like the Full Monty outside the GPO, conductors turned cultural activists argued for a restoration of human contact in public life.

Allied with this campaign, the Tramjatra project, led by Mick Douglas, established a solidarity between Calcutta’s endangered tram system and Melbourne’s transport resistance. For Douglas, Tramjatra was an expression of ‘globalisation from below’: the tram was a site of popular culture to counter homogenisation of urban life produced through advertising. Its most visible manifestation was a garish loud Karachi tram that trundled Melbourne’s city circle during the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Apart from these renegade projects, the privatisation of Victoria’s public transport has undermined possibilities for public art. As profit-based companies, the new operators have capitalised on their exposure to the city’s mobile population with saturation advertising campaigns. This is exacerbated by the Adshel structures through Australia that offer shelter in exchange for product promotion. In Melbourne, there have been some proposals to commission artists to adorn the new tram ‘superstops’, but the problems associated with introduction of electronic ticketing have meant the government is reluctant to be seen diverting its energies on non-essential activities.

There have been some private and local initiatives. For 20 years, Melbourne’s first Artists Run Initiative, Platform continues its program for commuters passing by through Degraves Street subway coming and going from Flinders Street Station. In 2005, the Committee for Melbourne initiated Moving Galleries, modelled on projects in London and New York, which features work by poets and artists in train carriages. In 2007 they produced 1440 posters to travel on 40 trains. This is better than nothing, but it is a relatively minor presence.

There is more activity beyond the CBD. Under VicUrban’s public art strategy, Dandenong City has introduced a broad program that seeks to connect its varied populations. The Sleeper Project with curated by Ian Haig features work by RMIT Media Department alumni. Video are displayed on LCD screens on station platforms, including redundant ticket booths. This include scenes of a indigenous plans (Dominic Redfern), banality of train experience (Tawale Solote), fortune telling (Martine Corompt), a budgie-human hybrid (Zoe Scoglio) and conversations between strangers (Cassandra Tyler).

Pedestrian arteries such as under and overpasses are now adorned with eye-kidnapping images. Anu Patel, an Indian artist now living in England, produced a design for the Noble Park underpass that offers a metaphoric connection between people with a flamboyant river design. Viachroma by Rowena Martinich covers the glass overpass at Dandenong Station with splashes of iridescent paint that illuminate with different angles of the light during the day.

But such developments face a particular challenge now that public imagery now has to swim in a sea infested by predatory messages. How to break through? One particularly incisive project from Dandenong entailed turning a defunct bus depot into a series of discrete works of art. Robbie Rowlands’ contribution was to make a series of cuts through the floor to peel back its surface. The effect is similar to the sculptural work by Nicholas Jones who wields a scalpel to expose the inner tissue of books. These seeming destructive acts open up a dimension of materiality beyond the spectacle.

So how can we cut through the advertising? Given the capital at stake, it may seem hard to imagine state and local governments holding back the tide of advertising. But elsewhere under the Southern Cross, one city has radically reversed the trend. In 2006, São Paulo adopted the ‘Clean City Law’ which prohibited all outdoor advertising. Suddenly, the biggest city in the southern hemisphere removed more than 8,000 billboard sites, stripped the buses and discovered the reality behind the glossy image.

The law against outdoor advertising was enacted by a conservative mayor in order to combat the rampant expansion of illegal hoardings. As you might imagine, the legislation was denounced by the advertising industry. Some raise the spectre of old communist East Berlin as an example of how drab life can be without advertising in the streets. But the ‘clean city’ has proved a hit with Paulistas. The city’s retailers have adopted alternative strategies, including colour-coding that add to the environment, rather than distract from it. The vacuum has been quickly filled by a vibrant new street art. The distinctive ‘straight tag’ calligraphy of pichação (dirty scrawl) has recently been recognised in an exhibition at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. As local design writer Adelia Borges says, ‘For São Paulo it is a wonderful thing. The city can speak!’

We urgently need to weave a fabric on which strangers can relate together. It may be a new medium, like screens that accept text messages from passengers. Or even something, old—a state artist for the 21st century who can lend their skill and creativity to craft an enduring image of the many cultures that come to form a city. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘If you board the wrong train, it’s no use running along the corridor in the other direction.’ It’s time to change trains.

Kevin Murray is Adjunct Professor at RMIT University and an independent writer and curator (www.kitezh.com). This article was originally published in Artlink issue Art in the Public Arena Vol 30 no 3.



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