The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art [ACCA] continues to explore the relationship between contemporary art and the broader social, cultural and political contexts of public space—at the Convent with
Who’s Afraid of Public Space?
Associate Producer ACF Programming
Heven-Lee Osborne talks about her experience working with artists Keg De Souza and why public spaces should be embraced.
What excites you about public spaces and how audiences engage with art and culture?
The pandemic has definitely prompted artists, producers, audiences to think about their surroundings and build art forms in expansive areas that provide impromptu interactions for their audiences.
These last two years have given us a new perspective and cause to change, to think deeper about our environments and surroundings. Public and outdoor spaces as a platform for arts, encourages audience interactions to happen outside of the traditional constructs of institutions and organisations.
ACCA’s project Who’s Afraid of Public Space? explores the role of public culture, the contested nature of public space, and the character and composition of public life. What came to mind when conceptualising work at Abbotsford Convent being a part of this project?
I am drawn to the accessibility of public art. Its pedagogical potential, so I was really excited to partner with the exhibition. During a lockdown, we couldn’t deliver much at the convent, but we were all able to research and work on this project, which reinforced its importance.
It was interesting to find out Who’s Afraid of Public Space? was conceptualised by ACCA’s Artistic Director Max Delany, Senior Curator Annika Kristensen and Curator Miriam Kelly before the pandemic! The last two years have shown us how pertinent public space is and how precious it can be.
I thought it was really smart, particularly during the pandemic, to be engaging with so many different arts organisations and artists dispersed around Melbourne, engaging with a mass of pilot projects pitched at being predominantly outdoors.
Public spaces felt like transient spaces before the pandemic, and the art within them was quite passive. Have you felt the shift in the perception of the art within public spaces and active engagement?
I hope so.
We have experienced a massive sociological change in the last two years—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Everyone was forced to slow down and notice their surroundings. I think—and hope—we are more receptive to our surroundings. Our newfound (or reintroduced) appreciation for public space is something I hope people hold on to the further we move away from being locked down.
When I think back to the years before 2020, we used to pass through public spaces without an understanding or awareness of the stories behind works, the ecology, the relationships, the people it’s built for and the people it excludes. We don’t often think about those things on a daily basis.
I hope our pandemic experience gives us the ability to continue to notice and interrogate those things.
You have been working with artist Keg De Souza during this project. Can you tell me about her work and what it aims to evoke?
Keg De Souza is a contemporary artist of Goan ancestry, based in Sydney on Gadigal land. A big part of her practice is looking at spaces we inhibit and their social context, creating work, predominately installation, that prompts audiences to engage, interrogate and learn. Keg de Souza’s ancestry and background feed a lot into her practice and investigation of perceived behaviour in environments. Keg de Souza has spent time in Sydney swatting and observing how people live together in informal housing and similar themes. Working with Keg, I have learned to appreciate how her observations inform her thought process on how we all fit together. I found her insightful, curious and open.
It added another layer of interest to see her bring her conceptual practice and ideas to the Who’s Afraid of Public Space? exhibition and precinct focus on the environment because the Convent is lucky to care for hectares of amazing green space.
Let’s talk about the grasses that make up her work for ACCA? What’s the story that underlines this work?
Keg had been doing research with Zena Cumpston (Barkandji), a horticulturist, about endemic plants. That research then became a focus on grasslands. Around 98% of the Victorian grasslands are extinct or have been removed for development—which is crazy!
I mean, when I think about grass. I feel like we see grass everywhere.
You don’t realise not all grasses, especially natives, are widespread. I was shocked by the significant loss of plant life, grasses in this case, and the idea of that relationship to the ecology surrounding the Convent (Wurundjeri land).
With Keg, we started exploring these ideas further, speaking with the Wurundjeri Tribe Council and consulting with Uncle Dave Wandin (Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung) to learn about the grasses endemic to this area. We tried to picture what it would look like if the grasses were preserved and learned about their benefits to the environment.
The experience of working with Keg on this project has flipped my perception of grasses.
Like many people, when thinking of grasslands, I had an idea of their negative connotations being unkempt, a fire hazard that’s potentially dangerous in the heat. In an urban environment, they get cleared to make space for development.
People would assume these grasses are a weed.
So, it was fascinating to have that perception changed through this project and start to see these grasses as a positive element that is perfectly harmonious with the space.
It is typical of Keg’s work to have a pedagogical theme of prompting people, young or old, to question and integrate the way they think about seemingly passive things. When we don’t interrogate the things around us, we assume. We risk the loss of the seamless benefits things like these grasses provide to our lifestyles and environment.
When bringing Keg’s work together, what also struck me happened in the consultation with Uncle Dave. During a broad discussion about the symbiotic relationships of the grasses and grasslands, it was interesting to learn that snakes who live within them act as a signal for us. The snakes show us that we are not invited in the grasslands when it is hot, and the snakes are out. When it’s cool, and the snakes have moved on, that’s when we’re being invited on to land to harvest certain grasses.
Those relationships risk becoming ignored as we move too fast to appreciate the connection. The colonial ideology and capitalist (rat race) mindset have pulled us away from the ebb and flow of our ongoing relationships with nature.
The experience of working on this project has been a lovely opportunity to stop and consider that.
If this project can help people consider their surroundings, then that’s a beautiful thing to create and give awareness to.
Why should people embrace public spaces?
Embracing public spaces and the areas around you is an important conduit and connection to your community and environment. Public spaces help inform us of where we live, what’s around us and the stories behind who we are.
If we don’t acknowledge or take in public spaces, we can shut ourselves off to our communities. Embracing public space is a key to understanding the cultures and society surrounding how we live our lives.
Who’s Afraid of Public Space? at Abbotsford Convent
4 Dec 2021 – 22 Mar 2022