A Wicked Problem

Shane McGrath discusses art, gentrification and housing affordability with Keg de Souza through her work, Redfern School of Displacement.

Capital not culture is driving gentrification

SM: How does gentrification link into your work, including the idea of things not being evenly distributed? How did a Redfern site change the ways the work responded to gentrification?

KdS: I can see how things are unevenly distributed in the park across from my house, where elderly public housing residents and new Redfern residents rub shoulders. A strip of cafes has opened up on the other side of the park. In the background are the public housing towers. The government has said they must go, and residents have already received eviction notices. They no longer fit in with the new vision for Redfern.

This description of my inner city neighbourhood can resonate internationally, but Redfern is unique: so unique that it has been described by urban designers and theorists in social planning as a wicked problem, one too difficult to ‘solve.’

Redfern School of Displacement explores the gentrification of this complex area through a series of ‘excursions’ called Redfern–Waterloo: Tour of Beauty, hosted by SquatSpace (a collective of which I am a member). The bus and bike tours of these inner Sydney suburbs initially ran from 2005–09, highlighting sites threatened by ‘revitalisation.’ The latest tours organised for the Biennale mark their 10-year anniversary.

A decade on, some people view the area as gentrified, but the plans for the area have only just begun. The Block — a centre for the Indigenous community — is about to see construction begin on a major mixed-use development. Waterloo has been earmarked as the site for a new metro station with corresponding high-density construction.

On one of the recent tours, the group met at The Block with Jenny Munro, an Indigenous activist who set up the recent Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy. At the base of the Waterloo Towers we met Ross Smith, a local public housing activist. The tours emphasise the voices and the agency of each speaker, and provide the tour groups with a chance to learn from their perspectives on urban transformation and the impact on the local residents.

A shift in thinking starts with discussion, and moves into active organising.

SM: When people talk about the role of art and artists in gentrification, money and capital often drop out of the discussion or become secondary — as if gentrification is just a matter of hipness and desire. How does cultural production relate to the business of development and speculation?

KdS: We can look at Carriageworks for an example in Redfern. These rail yards, which historically brought many Indigenous and working class people to the area, have now become a multi-million dollar art centre, attracting a whole new demographic. A ‘creative hub’ such as this is used to sell property, and the cultural capital that artists bring to an area is part of the shift of capital upwards. Gentrification is about making money but it’s also about social control, and artists are often used to soften the process. Developers use galleries and public art, both signifiers of urban change, to smooth transitions. But to be clear it’s capital, not culture, which is driving the process.

I have often heard people say that when artists come, the area gentrifies, as if artists are some magical force of urban development. I think the role of artists in gentrifying an area has a lot to do with what the artists bring to the area: do they get involved in the local community or do they only frequent the new cafes that seem to have arrived simultaneously? Is the work they are producing relevant to the community? I want to consider the space in which artistic practices can exist between and against the market and the state.

SM: Often discussions about housing affordability seem to really be about how middle class people can keep buying quarter-acre blocks. Can art help us imagine other forms of housing, community, home-making?

KdS: The Redfern School of Displacement has really been about creating a space that could house discussions and help us to hear different voices — highlighting the marginal, political and experimental. The RSD takes place in a temporary structure built from salvaged and collaged tents, creating a place for dialogue and action to occur ‘outside’ of hierarchical institutional spaces. I think art can offer platforms to shift dialogue. In this case, it is about steering dialogue on housing away from the dominant middle class focus on purchase and ownership towards the basic necessity of safe and secure housing. I believe that a shift in thinking starts with discussion, and moves into active organising.

Keg de Souza (b. 1978, Perth) is an Australian artist with a specific interest in inflatable architecture, food, film, mapping and dialogical projects to explore the politics of space.