Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

The Rocks is Porous

by Astrid Lorange

28 Jul 2011

The rocks are porous. Or, rather, The Rocks is porous: that furthermost nub of the city, hacked into shale, building Sydney from itself. This word, porous, comes to me from Benjamin's description of Naples, a honeycombish and vertical cliff-city with a ruckusing port underneath. Sydney is less vertical and more horizontal, with The Rocks asserted as the first zone set for spread: open-air penal colony; rum barrels; stonemasonry and construction; chronic lung disease and rat fleas carrying the plague; sly economies and extinct trades; Australiana.

It being so porous, The Rocks contains countless things in its countless tiny holes. It is a properly archival site. Many of the sandstone buildings, slabbed and wettish, are empty. And because it became, at some point in its enormous history, a place for commercial tourism, the emptiness is a problem for land-owners. 'A problem for land-owners' is a pretty good description of Sydney, and the problem has been endemic since 1788, though the problem is better described as 'the problem of land ownership.'

To fill the empties, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority and Arts NSW recently collaborated to find temporary residents for four vacant heritage buildings on the commercial strip around George Street. 'The Rocks Pop-Up Project' negotiated low-cost, six-month leases and offered them to not-for-profit arts organisations, collectives and individuals.

One of the new residents is the Red Room Company, a not-for-profit that works to create, promote, publish, exhibit and encourage poetry and poetry-events in unusual ways. Unusual, in the sense that the imperative is to locate poetry where it ordinarily is not located. Poetry is a practice that involves framing or reading a particular text or occasion 'as' poetry, and so, part of the Red Room's thrust is to facilitate community and inter-community events in which poetry is used as a meaningful frame. The very act of defining, 'I am reading this experience as a poetic experience' recommends that certain things be noticed and noted. Language, rhythm, tone, speed, mouth and ear and fingers, logics.

Red Room are temporary tenants of 77 George Street, a former puppet factory and gambling den. The site has four rooms: an artist's studio, cinema room, exhibition space/reading room, and an office. Artist Miriam Chatt designed the space, and skill is inscribed in every object and detail. Red Room are calling the space the Clubhouse, and are inviting any group, society or cadre to set up for a meeting, reading, exhibition, presentation... anything, as long as it is includes the thinking-about or practice-of poetry. The artist studio, occupied by Chatt in June and currently housing Donna Page, will be available for month-long residencies. The idea is that the space be used as a genuinely collective zone for doing-things. And for many Sydney poets and artists, a space to meet, labour and collaborate is a tough find, especially for projects that are self-funded or squeezed between day-jobs.

What kind of 'urban renewal' does the Pop-Up Project want? If the aim is to revitalise the commercial district in The Rocks, the plan won't work, because short-term residencies won't fix tourist economies. And this is a good thing, because artists should not be expected to do so. They should, of course, be free to use any vacant space at any time, like every other community. The first step is to archive poems in the sandstone, which has always been the archive, anyway.