(The relevant gallery is Bowden)
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. I walked around and photographed the working class suburb and read books on aesthetics and politics. The times felt like the world we knew and took for granted was becoming history.
There was a sense that modernism had driven the political underground into the unconscious and an awareness that there were still forms of art or of experience that were non-commodified — Adorno’s notion of the negative or the Left’s ideas of subversion. The political unconscious of realist photography as a cultural text was the historical context that underlies and shapes the realist mode of photography. Representing this everydayness in terms of cultural value is what commercial imagery as business would ignore, flatten and dismiss there by cheating the consumer out of the happiness it endlessly promises. Cultural value means that the photography has benefit for people in some way, or engages them in some way regardless of whether it’s sellable.
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.
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 were the trademarks of the “Dunstan era’s” 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 social democratic project of modernity worked firmly in the European Enlightenment’s understanding of progress that brings prosperity and civilisation, and its narrative assumed the possibility that the future will be fundamentally better than the past.
The 1980s in South Australia were hard economics times with high unemployment, ongoing decline in manufacturing caused bythe withdrawal of Commonwealth’s tariffs and subsidies. The dark clouds of de-industrializationm whcih 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 Dustan/Bannon era had evaporated. 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. Adelaide became a backwater. Young people left permanently. Those who remained embraced a culture of denial about South Australia’s economy and future.
There was a sense of an epochal shift in how capital produced value and how it was governed—the historical period of postmodernity—that marked the end of modernity. 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.
Anxiety, mourning and nostalgia became entrenched. 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 network’s endless flow of signs, images and information.