(The relevant gallery for this text is Bowden. The footnotes are in the pdf.)
During the 1980s I was living in a working class cottage in Bowden. I worked part-time at Conroys Smallgoods factory to finance the photographic Bowden project, and studied initial for a BA in philosophy and visual arts, then an MA on history, modernity and photography. Adelaide — was my chosen home: chosen to stay, to work, to live here. It grounds me in the local and vernacular. I was provincial, without any sense of missing out born of a fear of being in the wrong place. There is no right place. If we view artworks from the perspective of the aftermath of Duchamp’s Fountain or Warhol’s Brillo Boxes throughout modern art history, creativity happens everywhere making use of what comes to hand.
I wandered around Bowden-Brompton and photographing the working class suburb, developed the black and white film in my darkroom and read books on aesthetics and politics. I struggled with Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory; confused by recent French theory (eg., Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, Lacan); deeply puzzled by Mary Kelly’s Post-Part Document and scratched my head over Stelarc’s Body Suspension with its metal hooks into his skin. The times felt like the social democratic world we knew and took for granted was becoming history. If there was a sense that modernism had driven the politics and art strand of a realist photography underground into the unconscious, then there was also an awareness that there were still forms of art or of experience that were non-commodified — ie., Adorno’s notion of the negative or the Left’s ideas of subversion or struggle against capitalism.
My realist approach to photographing everyday life was seen as belonging to the past, to the drab 1940s and 1950s. Documentary realism was constructed as the caricatured ‘strawman’ version of realism as a simple referential naivety — positivism’s transparent window on a stable world — by modernists post-object art avant-garde and postmodernists. This caricature functioned to dismiss realism from the art world as a hopelessly simplistic, naïve and compromised photographic practice. The art world had moved through modernism and onto postmodernism and I was looking back over my shoulder at a time when the critics where talking about the end of art history. The anti-aesthetic was in vogue.
My contact with the art world was minimal: viewing exhibitions at the Developed Image and engaging in conversations about the post-object art at the Experimental Art Foundation. It was in Adelaide that I became aware of the cosmopolitan origins and intellectual backgrounds of the diaspora of German and Eastern European émigré modernist and experimental artists, architects and designers who were pivotal to the development of modernism in Adelaide and Australia.
In terms of the spatiality of Adelaide, Bowden is less than 4 kilometres from Adelaide’s CBD, and adjacent to the Adelaide parklands. The location was similar to the inner, middle class suburbs like Parkside and Kent Town, and yet Bowden had become an industrial zone with its contaminated land during South Australia’s shift from an agrarian capitalist economy and society to an industrial society in the 1930s. The Bowden-Brompton of the 1980s was an industrial suburb with a mixture of housing, factories, shops and small offices and warehouses.
Adelaide’s history was one where the suburbs west of the city of Adelaide and the parklands, such as Hindmarsh and Bowden, had been earmarked as industrial areas prior to 1945, primarily because they were in the vicinity of the road and rail links between Adelaide’s CBD and Port Adelaide. The industrial origins in the 19th century lay in the small cottage industries supported by both residential and industrial expansion. As the more noxious industries moved into the area in the early 20th century, the wealthier residents began to move out. The inner western suburbs of Adelaide continued to be earmarked for industry in the 20th century by the modern urban planners.
The residential architecture in Bowden prior to its recent gentrification consisted of cheaply built working class cottages. These buildings of modernity were dark inside, full of salt damp during the winter and hothouses in the summer. This housing had no insulation, and there were few street trees to provide some shade from the summer heat. In the 1980s these cottages were still situated amongst plastics factory, three foundries, building companies that specialised in building panels, warehouses, and delis. Peter Strawhan in Thanks, Mum recalls growing up in Brompton circa 1936:
“Home was one of a row of detached workingmen’s cottages in East Street, almost in the shadow the giant gasometer that dominated the skyline. The stench from the gasworks was all pervading. My maternal grandparents lived nearby in Chief Street. They had managed to rear their brood of seven children in a tiny cottage which boasted two underground bedrooms … Across the road was a tannery. which offered some competition to the gasworks in generating the always-present noxious odours.”
Bowden/Brompton in the 1980s was a dumpy and dingy industrial suburb, the local foundries were still dirty and polluting and a lot of the land in Brompton was contaminated by industry: eg., the toxic cocktail of chemicals dumped into the old pug holes under the houses. Pug holes were dug for clay to build bricks, then filled with rubbish from the various companies in the area with the toxic cocktail spreading where there was groundwater. Peter remembers this as his local playground.
The condition of this industrial urban space was known in the 1960s. Nothing was done, even though Adelaide saw itself as as an enlightened garden city. In the imagination of a class conscious ‘civilised’ Adelaideans in the eastern suburbs in the 1980s Bowden as an older western industrial home of the working class represented the grotesque horrors and terrors of urban life, with its shady characters and their irrational, uninhibited desires and passions. It was seen to be a place that you ventured into at your own risk. The earthy and gritty character of industrial Bowden embodied the urban myth of it being a threatening, sinister urbanscape, and a foreign place. The depressing character of sub-standard dwellings, combined with noise, odours, dirt, smoke pollution and heavy traffic, meant that Bowden was defined as Adelaide’s slum. Slums, for many middle class Adelaideans meant an incidence of disease and delinquency, the threat of disorder, crime, mental illness, alcoholism and death. Bowden became the place beyond the pale that was supposedly haunted by savage beasts and evil spirits. What happened in the shadow lands behind the Gasworks at night was crime, not romance.
In Bowden the main stream working class culture with its militant egalitarianism included many post-1945 European migrants (Greek, Italian, Yugoslav), who were attracted to the area because of the low cost of housing. Though industry expansion quickened after the 1940s, Bowden-Brompton was still a residential area in the 1970s. By the 1980s the official view of Bowden-Brompton was that these suburbs were old industrial areas, and that industry expansion could take place through purchasing the adjoining residential property. Bowden remained a deformed, urban space and its working class residents were marginalised, excluded from progress and denied a more liveable urban area.
The working class was expected to accept this as their residential properties were seen as outworn and obsolete. They had reached the end of their economic and useful life, and their low property values encouraged the intrusion of factories and businesses. The substandard housing was considered to be only worthy of demolition. The concerns of the working class for better living conditions for themselves were ignored by the state government. Even though there was limited room for industrial expansion in Bowden, and industry was moving to Adelaide’s northern and north western suburbs, the former Hindmarsh Council, which had been captured by industry, had little interest in greening the suburb, improving the quality of the environment, or urban renewal. The state government, in turn, had no conception of urban infill with higher density housing close to the parklands. This only emerged in the mid-1990s.
For the then Hindmarsh Council urban redevelopment of the land in Bowden meant redevelopment for economic purposes which, in turn, meant industrial expansion. That meant an opposition to Bowden becoming a more liveable urban area. The market ruled and, consequently, there was little understanding of the social purposes of human cohabitation through supporting a working class community that saw Bowden-Brompton as a home. For these residents modernity meant industrial expansion, displacement and homelessness. The wreckage of historical progress and the present as a locus of loss led to an anxiety of belonging and a sense of homelessness. The implication was that there could be no community for the residents if their world was treated as the mere collection of manipulable objects by the calculative utility of economic reason. Hence the conflict between residents, the council and state government over industrial expansion.
The initial spark in conflict between residents in opposition to government and business was the US inspired report, the 1968 ‘Metropolitan Adelaide Transport System (MATS)’. This proposed modernist circuit of freeways required major property acquisition, and it identified Bowden-Brompton as the potential site for the four-level spaghetti central freeway interchange with many flyovers. The inference from MATS was that the residents were dispensable. The acceptance of the MATS plan by the state Liberal government had resulted in the compulsory purchase by the Highways Department of over 300 houses. These houses were destroyed, or allowed to fall into disrepair as the MATS plan was fought.
The MATS plan was shelved in the 1970s by the Dunstan government which had been elected on a policy that opposed the MATS plan. The MATS owned land and houses in Bowden was sold around 1980, with much of the housing in Bowden-Brompton being annexed by industry. The result is the dissolution of the community framework and tradition of experience that connected private and public experiences through memory which enabled residents to have a sense of place. The conflict started to ease with new low income housing and the emergence of cooperative housing with the Hindmarsh Housing co-operative. The cooperatives were initially set up to provide housing for people at risk of losing houses to industrial development. They were able to buy land to stop further industry expansion, green the area, and build housing for those who wanted to live co-operatively.
The convergence of community and government concerns in the late 1980s resulted in a rezoning the Hindmarsh council area as residential, noxious large scale industry relocated, and the promotion of housing co-operatives. Quietly, in the background, the small industries started to vanish along with its workers. The imagining of a future urban space as a home placed an emphasis on working class community form of political activism, and this activism saved Bowden-Brompton from becoming a polluted industrial park. The fightback for the development of the housing co-operatives was a politics of urban renewal to rebuild and strengthen the local working class community. This, in turn, helped to reconstruct through memory a more cohesive meaningful experience of modern life from the ruins of an absent past that had been suppressed by the myth of progress and the phantasmagoria or consumer spectacle of industrial modernity. The future is linked to the insignificant past.
The condition for overcoming the negativity of the present was through accepting change, linking back to a broken-backed social democratic tradition, and interpreting its ruins and debris as an embodiment of collective dream images for a future life of community. In this form of recollection, in which the past arises when put into constellation with an event in the present, memory is the medium of past experience. This buried past requires a digging into the same matter over and over again: —- an archaeological evacuation of the past.
These recollections of Bowden reconstructed as a spatial history are a first attempt at a cognitive mapping that produces a knowledge of the situation we find ourselves in without pretending to understand the totality of the global. Cognitive mapping is a way of making connections though co-ordinating the existential and phenomenological experience of people in their daily lives and the abstract global economic, political and social relationships that we already inhabit. Jameson’s idea of cognitive mapping correlates the field of culture with the field of political economy, and it refers to a new mode of representing abstracted and fragmented entities and spaces in neoliberal world.
The aim of the mapping is to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects, in this chaotic world of flux, and to make sense of our traumatic experiences of being adrift in history. It is a partial map since in late modernity there is a gap between individual phenomenological experience and the structural intelligibility of an expanding globalisation. Cognitively mapping of this gap produces narratives in the form a figuration, rather than a true representation of a global reality; a figuration because it is extremely difficult to map the economic flows of capitalism and its culture as a global system. My attempt to map an urban space of a suburb of Adelaide to a sense of place is part of an allegorical structure that attempts to tell another spatial tale about a sense of place that connects the discourse of modernism to that of modernity and industrial capitalism.
The map of living amidst the fragmentary ruins of social democracy and modernism in everyday life in the antipodes can be connected to the modernity of industrial capitalism. through modernity as whole away of life associated with the nation-building in the 1950s. This was premised around factory production, mass consumption and the car as a symbol of freedom. Australia’s late and partial industrialisation was shaped by postwar images of modernity as the American Way of Life. This modernist culture, as a period style, was an amalgam of past, present and future.
Living in Bowden highlighted how Adelaide became modern without being fully industrial, and there was a lack of social justice for the industrial working class. It highlighted that in the 1980s the economic structure of South Australia was one in which manufacturing industries and industrial workers was in sharp decline.
South Australia in the 1980s still basked in the glow of its glory days of the 1970s, when Don Dunstan’s modernising Labor Government had led the way in Australia with social reform, debating Aboriginal rights, challenging the White Australia Policy, support for culture, civic virtue and legislating to decriminalise homosexuality in response to the culture of gay bashing, often carried out by the police. This progressive thinking with its sense of fun and food were the trademarks of the “Dunstan eras’” social democratic conception of the darkness and light of the project of Australian modernity in the 20th century, with its nation-building state investment in suburban and regional development.
This Antipodean social democratic project of nation building was firmly in the European Enlightenment’s understanding of progress that brings prosperity and civilisation. It was premised on social liberalism and its narrative assumed the possibility that the future would be fundamentally better than the past. This form of Australian modernity challenges the idea that prior to Hawke-Keating Australia was asleep, backward and pathetic and they opened Australia to globalisation and the world.
The process of de-industrialization in South Australia was the decline of Fordist manufacturing, unemployment for the working class and the privatisation of public services. South Australia becomes part of the left-behind parts of the nation, with its closed shops, unemployment, and the emergence of an invasive surveillance regime, and a working class future in a zone of casual labour and flexible contracts. The emerging neo-liberal mode of economic rationality, with its emphasis on a deregulated financial system and the market ruling, caused disquiet in the working class heartlands about where the country was heading. De-industrialization looked as if it would result in a protracted and painful experience with the industrial working class bearing the brunt of these changes.
The 1980s in South Australia were hard economic times with high unemployment and ongoing decline in manufacturing caused by the withdrawal of Commonwealth’s tariffs and subsidies. The dark clouds of de-industrialization which had formed over Whyalla in the 1970s, suggested that there would be great structural changes for South Australia. By the early 1990s the hopes and optimism of the Dunstan/Bannon era had evaporated and were experienced as a loss. The 1980s property boom in Adelaide ended with Paul Keating’s ‘recession we had to have’ in the early 1990s; the subsequent collapse of the State Bank in 1991; the resignation of John Bannon, the Premier, in 1992. The state Liberal Government under Dean Brown and John Olsen privatised public assets and outsourced the provision of public services to private companies.
Neo-liberal economic rationality held that the process of de-industrialization, which had started with the 1970s recessions, meant that the options for South Australia were stark: change or slowly decay into a rust bucket state. The state’s future in the 1990s looked to be one of working class job losses and worsening job conditions, economic stagnation, poor job prospects for the working-class youth, poor educational qualifications, high illiteracy and innumeracy rates, increasing unemployment and poverty, and decreasing population as young people left the state for work in Melbourne and Sydney. The ruins of a social democratic modernity were very noticeable in Adelaide as a historical wreckage of the recent past — eg., the boarded up windows and shops that were closed or were rarely open, the abandoned, decaying, forgotten or overlooked urban spaces in the city and the disappearance of the branch offices of international firms like Leica.
If the MATS plan and the expansion of manufacturing industry in Bowden had been blocked by citizens, the economic forces of globalisation that were breaking down South Australia’s tariff protected manufacturing industry were too powerful to roll back. Adelaide became a backwater. Young people left permanently. Those who remained embraced a nostalgic culture of denial and fear about South Australia’s future in the nation, even though This process of de-industrialization, created a space for the eventual urban renewal in Bowden.
The 1980s were a turning point in Australian history. This was the beginning of a more open economic era characterised by a floating of the dollar, lower tariffs, strong property rights, privatisation, fiscal austerity and cuts to welfare, tax cuts, deregulating markets limited government, micro-economic reform, self-regulating markets and free trade. The role of the state in this mode of governance is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The Hawke-Keating Labor government’s neo-liberal mode of governance was deregulating Australia along with the opening Australia to the world. The image is one the transformation of the old, closed society and economy being replaced by necessity of the new, globalised Australia.
Neo-liberalism as a mode of governance aimed to restore the class power of the global economic class. It was a political project carried out by a corporate capitalist class to curb the power of labour and to make domestic labour competitive with global labour. The neo-liberal mode of governance held that human wellbeing would be achieved through the maximisation of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterised by private property rights, individual freedom, unencumbered markets and free trade. The role of the state was to create and preserve an institutional framework that enabled the above practices to flourish. It markets did not exist (higher education) they needed to be created. This was the Washington consensus that was forged in the 1990s.
What stood out was that de-industrialization was an ongoing process of the decline of manufacturing In Adelaide and the oldest inner city-based plants in Melbourne and Geelong, where little new investment had occurred. In this process the manufacturing industries disappeared decamped to China. Associated with this is the concurrent emergence of free market globalisation, privatisation of water, electricity and telecommunications and underfunded public services. This decline of industrial capitalism with its unravelling of the postwar economic economic order, was experienced as a series of shocks and destruction — a storm is blowing in from Paradise as Benjamin put it.
A neo-liberal economic rationality emphasised creative destruction, the shift to an open economy China emerging as the new superpower with an economy that boomed with low cost manufacturing, and China becoming Australia’s largest trading partner. The mining states of Queensland and Western Australia became China’s quarries. Australia rolled in cash from the mining boom. John Howard promised us that we would be comfortable and relaxed, whilst undermining the welfare state, and starting the culture wars with its attacks on the public funding for a wide range of cultural institutions, including the Arts Council, public broadcasting, the humanities and the universities.
This is a negative characterisation of a fragmented present as it was experienced as a shock in the sense that there was an awareness of an epochal shift in how capital produced value and how it was governed.This shift marked the end of modernity and the social democratic tradition and the historical period of postmodernity. Economists talked in terms of globalization, creative destruction in the economy, new job creation from firms adapting to the emerging new communication technologies and finance capitalism. Cultural theorists talked about postmodernism’s surfaces, lack of depth, the disappearance of history, the simulacrum of the past, the real becoming ahistorical the reduction to the present and the body as the new cultural logic of capitalism. Marxists talked in terms of transforming Labor, post-Fordism, residual welfarism and the brave new world founded on the economic imperatives of globalisation.
The social democratic past of Dunstan had been sealed off. The experience of the present enters our bodies as a repetition of the same (of newness). It is not noticed as it is located within memory. The realist social documentary tradition had perished along with the ideas about humanitarian reform, and the ability of visual representation to capture reality. The social democratic past was a lost cause to be mourned, whilst living within the contradictory dynamics of change increasingly beyond our control. Though Australia in the 1970s -1980s had become a cosmopolitan nation that drew on various central and regional sources to create its own cultural dynamic, there was a sense of unease in being antipodean.
Anxiety, mourning and nostalgia for what was being lost came to the fore in Adelaide. Nostalgia for childhood and youth remembered. Nostalgia for a time when job security was assured, progressive politics focused on worker’s rights, and social and economic stability was the norm. Nostalgia for the outmoded, mourning the good times lost and anxiety about the broken promise of a better, more enlightened life. It becomes difficult for the individual human body to map its position amidst the global network’s endless flow of signs, images and information. The murmur of the past became faint with the past tense marking the labourist tradition.
The cognitive mapping above takes its bearings from Bernard Smith’s antipodean Marxism, which was a response to imperialism within and without; a situated peripheral vision that was relational in that it drew together the cycles of asymmetrical interactions between centre and periphery. The antipodean narrative is one of being on the periphery, understood in terms of a relationship into which we and others were inserted: originally British imperialism, then American. We use the language of empires and colonies for the former and the language of centres and peripheries for the latter.
Modernism in the antipodes, for Smith, was the outcome of cultural traffic, cultural contact and contestation mediated by imperialism, and it was created from a stock of images borrowed from other places and times. Modernism emerged from the dynamic interchanges and relationships between periphery and centre, and its construction through two way cultural traffic was exemplified by European modernists appropriating primitivism.
The photos of Bowden are made with the realisation that the celebrated form of politics and art, namely the revolutionary potential of photography as an art of interruption linked to social struggle (eg., the constructivist Soviet avant-garde and the Surrealists) with its political-social commitment and artistic experiment, is no more. In terms of the objective narrative structure of the history of art those days are long gone. We can mourn that loss in a neo-liberal world whilst recognising the increasingly reflective and conceptual character of art. In taking itself as an object, reflecting on the question of what art is, criticising the realist conception of representation that had traditionally defined art, and the manifesto’s of each avant-garde manifesto being new attempts to define and legitimise art.
By the 1980s this modernist master narrative of art history about painting (and sculpture) had comes to an end. This does not necessarily mean turning away from the real towards the private and subjectivity, to a postmodern appropriation of trace and media images, or the dissolution of art into everyday life. In the post-historical era after the end of art history’s master narrative there is no single style an epoch, possibilities for revising former categories and styles open up, and politics and art can take the form of the critique of everyday life. The end is also the beginning of a new era; a post-historic one that is more pluralistic.
How can photography represent the suddenness, violence and shock of neo-liberalism’s economic destruction that breaks apart the continuum of history, shatters old relationships and leaves a field of fragments and detritus?
The fragmentary pictures of a historical Bowden are an unfashionable realist form of documentary photography premised on the indexicality of the negative to reality. Its focus would be seen as a classical concern with the relation between reality and representation, as opposed to one concerning the multiplicity of relations that extend from a digital photograph. The photos are, in Lukács terms, a description rather than narration of everyday working class life. The photos are deficient, irreducibly sensuously particular, opaque, enigmatic and indeterminate. As Arthur Danto states “Nature’s pencil simply traces what is set before the lens, without creative imagination. The photographer can represent only what is there, whereas the painter is free to use his imagination and show things in ways other than how they are or were.” The camera freezes moments that happen quicker than the human eye can see, but the photograph doesn’t capture the whole essence of the moment. Photography is bits, pieces, and in-between moments. In the artworld an unfashionable photographic realism is interpreted as a simple referential naivety — positivism’s transparent window on a stable world — and is dismissed as a hopelessly simplistic, naïve and compromised practice. Creative imagination is lacking.
However, a post-historical response to the art world’s suspicion that the artist has engaged in some naïve reflection of social reality, is to interpret the photos as being about something and being materially embodied meanings. The rejection of traditional realist representation and the demise of modernism opens a cultural space whereby the everyday neo-liberal present can be represented through allegory. Photography’s bits and pieces are relevant to the social and cultural ruins of social democracy, modernism and industrial capitalism in the red ways. Firstly, these ruins represent brokenness and transience and embody the physical traces of time and meaning on their surface and Walter Benjamin’s conception of allegory, with its emphasis on transience, specificity and the contingent world of lived experience, provides a way to represent the frailty and finitude of human life.
Allegory is a focal point from which to look at things.This allows the random and isolated elements to function in a fluid fashion, and to form a constellation ladened with a plurality of meanings and affects. These pictures of an early rustbelt made at a time when an autonomous art made outside the market still made some sense connect us to the forgotten history of one of Adelaide’s older industrial areas. The photos are fragments of everyday, industrial Bowden, bit and pieces of the working class life in the 1980s.
Secondly, we can link the photos of the fragments of everyday, industrial Bowden to Benjamin’s idea of photography’s optical unconscious. This refers to the unconscious aspects of perception which the invention of photography opened up—ie., the plethora of details and information of everyday life that are not consciously perceived. This mediates our experience and knowledge of the neo-liberal world in unconscious ways that refer to the hidden or unseen dimensions of consciousness. Photography allows us to access ways of seeing that are actively disavowed, or otherwise unavailable to consciousness.
The unconscious modes of seeing undercuts photography as an instrument of transparency that simply produces a clear-eyed copy of reality by linking photography to psychic structures and a cultures’ desires, fears and modes of defence. Benjamin highlights the ways in which the past is continually transformed through its interpretation by the present. The historic force of photography lies in the way it mediates a world gone by. What we glimpse with our eye fades with memory, but the view represented by photography attends to the configurations of the surface of the world, reproducing minutiae and encouraging a detailed scrutiny of fragments.
Thirdly, we can link this to Benjamin’s idea of mimesis. This is different from Plato’s idea of mimesis as simple imitation. since mimesis for Benjamin is a psychoanalytic term that refers to a creative engagement with an object. It alludes to a constructive reinterpretation of an original which becomes creative act in itself. It becomes a way of empathising with the world through imagination, which mediates between the unconscious and the conscious between dream and reality, thereby proving a way of accessing a reality that is not constrained by an instrumental view of the world.
Benjamin in his discussion of Eugene Atget’s photos of old Paris links photography to the optical unconscious, which in this context, is understood to refer to the hidden dimensions of a place. This sees photography’s political potential not just in its ability to document material reality, but rather in its profound link to psychic structures. The past resides in the outmoded, dusty and fragmenting sites that persist which stand in contrast to the perceptions of the city in terms of newness and wholeness, progress and renewal. According to Benjamin photography has the potential to open up history, allowing us to see the past: photography offers an image of the past that has been arrested so that it can be seen again and again. Historical understanding is grasped as an afterlife.
Benjamin, like Adorno, held that the photograph does not speak for itself, since the image needs to be interpreted: the image’s temporal link to the past needs to be turned into a language that brings the historical image into the present. This is the work of the critic/philosopher who recognizes that past things exisiting in the present have futurity, and who situates the particular patterning of the work within a broader experimental context of modernity with its destruction of tradition. From this perspective a plurality of sedimented content is embodied in the photos: they are a force-field of tensions of social, cultural and economic forces of a historical moment are bought together into a constellation.
The fragmentary pictures of Bowden make visible through the remnants of industrial capitalism what had become invisible in the historical present. These fragments are evidence of past lives, failures and destruction that make visible the darker side of industrial modernity. They enable us to glimpse the forces and situations beyond our recollection, and help us to interpret the fragmentation of experiences, and decipher the hieroglyphs of modernity in the darkly, haunting past of industrial Adelaide.