“The Paradox of Paradise”
Prior to the day of programming that was to listen, not to preserve, I had spent a year working with the Living Museum and therefore regularly spending time in Pipemakers Park, a few times a week outside of lockdowns. Commuting from the city, where I often walk in the highly manicured Carlton Gardens, to me Pipemakers Park felt remarkably wild for a municipal open space. It’s a place that rewards repeat visits and careful observation as much as happenstance. Over days, weeks, and seasons I got to know regulars such as the Park Ranger and some of the Friends of Maribyrnong Valley gardeners. Over quiet months, artist Libby McKinnon started appearing in the garden – tending to her mosaics there, replacing chipped tiles first installed three decades ago.
A few times I chased kids off the roof of the two-storey heritage bluestone building in the park, worried they would fall through. Other times I caught them throwing rocks onto the roof or at the windows. At one stage the building surface was bombed with graffiti and in the following months this accumulated exponentially – a lot of messy tags but also some large-scale elaborate designs that obviously took some time. One sunny Saturday afternoon I heard the unmistakable scchhh sound of a spray can. Sol and I interrupted, saying ‘hey! please don’t do that, you know, it’s a heritage building’. The tagger was apologetic but also quite boastful and pointed out all the works that were his, before taking off on his bicycle.
Cycling groups huddled in the Pioneer Women’s Shelter when it rained.
On warmer days a musician practiced the saxophone, sitting atop one of the concrete tables in the ‘Workers Garden’ – where remnants of concrete table settings made by factory workers in the 1950s remain. In late summer artist-in-residence Julie Shiels addressed this picnic furniture by installing clear resin tops on the broken stool stumps, her minimal intervention making the concrete remnants functional as seats again. Earlier, Shiels had planted herbs in the upturned pipe planters, originally used for this purpose by the workers to enhance their routine of fishing and barbequing together after work on Fridays.
An ice cream van started visiting the carpark, a happy sign as the weather improved and lockdowns lifted. Parents had cut through cyclone fencing around the new adventure playground to let bored kids in before construction was quite finished.
The most frequent visitors to the park – rain or shine – were men looking for brief encounters and meetups in the abandoned ‘Top Factory’. Part of the historic Hume Pipe company, the open structure of the 1940s Top Factory was partially conserved in the late 1990s. No longer accessible to the public, the site surely remains one of the most aesthetically significant heritage-listed ‘beats’ in town, surviving both the emergence of Grinder and the development of a busy children’s playground on the other side of the carpark. Like the rest of the park, this site is an occasional target of fires and vandalism, and my hairdresser tells me that some users of the beat take it upon themselves to quietly repair any damage to the structure.
On my first day at the museum, we found a young woman living in the unused far end of a bluestone building in the park. An international student abandoned by any institutional support systems in the wake of COVID, it seemed this had been her best option for a relatively safe and functional home for most of the summer. Museum committee members readily stepped into the role of social safety net.
Local dancer Jonathan Sinatra stumbled upon the bluestone building one day when the doors were open, then started bringing friends back to make improvisational movements in the park and around the buildings. They met Libby in the garden and soon developed a project together.
I pointed out the missing bronze dolphin statue to everyone who visited.
to listen, not to preserve
One Saturday in late March people gathered to tend to the place, not in any practical way as gardeners or cleaners, but tending, nonetheless. Coming together with curiosity and goodwill, a gentle day of shared attention unfolded throughout Pipemakers Park, via and around Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West. Orchestrated by co-curators Isabella Hone-Saunders and Sebastian Henry-Jones, artists and friends encountered artworks developed in response to the site and its histories. Titled to listen, not to preserve, the day offered works and moments that rested lightly between all of us present, as if carried by the wind, taking form not so much as an exhibition or event but as a poem or meditation.
After brief formalities to welcome and gather people near the Cyprus tree in the Workers’ Garden (facing the Museum and bordered by a walking track and the river), to listen, not to preserve’s program began with a group reading. ‘Triangle Fold’, a text authored by contributing artists Snack Syndicate, speaks to the project’s interest in opacity – and a search for ground between the desire to know and be known, without the demands of visibility or declaration. The text had become a touchstone for the curators and artists during the months of preparation towards to listen, not to preserve, and its words would connect presciently to many of the encounters to come over the day. Opacity is described in the text as the condition for a dreamlike darkness, an ambiguous and obscured place of being, where we might reach for each other in solidarity. Read aloud in unison by the gathered audience, this performed text set the tone for the day, instructing –
We must not try to hold our togetherness, to enclose and possess it. Rather we might practise a form of giving up and giving with: extend an arm into the space between, crane toward an uncertain sound, register each other in our flesh.
Nearby, installed in a tree, was Kevin Diallo’s What used to be (2022), two lengths of blue and white fabric hanging from a branch, draped all the way to the ground. The installation was a reprise of works on glass made using cyanotypes of the artist’s cut dreadlocks (Exhibits A, B and C, 2020). Producing the negative of those cyan ropey patterns, What used to be cast the lines made by the dreadlocks in chalky white against a blue background. Placed outdoors, Diallo’s fabrics blew with the breeze, highlighted at different times by sunlight dappled through leaves. Beyond the work, murals on the heavily graffitied historic bluestone factory walls coincidentally echoed the same blue and white palette. The lines and patterns created in What used to be are not immediately recognisable as dreadlocks, but appear as some kind of somatic tracing.
Creating images from remnants of his hair, in effect Diallo takes his own body as an archival site, aware of the meaning it narrates and presents, aware of the history of the black body as artefact and commodity, aware of his own production of capital through his physicality. Through this tracing of cut-off dreadlocks, Diallo documents what he has shed and moved on from, his body performing as both archivist and – what writer Julietta Singh might describe as – its own ‘messy, embodied, illegitimate archive’.1
Using the process of cyanotype – a photograph made without a camera – Diallo points us toward the notion of photography as evidence and document of truth. Historically, documentation of the human body – via photography, pseudoscientific practices like phrenology, and the collection of specimens – has been fraught with connections to colonial violence, classism, sexism, and criminality.2 Yet the materiality of Diallo’s work – hanging fabric, line and colour created through a process of exposure to the sun, tracing lengths of cut dreadlocked hair – seems to carry this weight and simultaneously transform it into something literally made of light.
Similarly installed suspended from a tree near a winding path, was Djubak (white orchid), 2022, one of two works in the project by artist V Barratt. Constructed of cheesecloth, wax, tuber, spun merino wool, and text fragments on paper, this sculpture resembled the form of a raw, sheared sheep hide. The shape of Barratt’s work called to attention the beginnings of sheep grazing and the pastoral industry in the area, which led to the establishment of Raleigh’s boiling down works at this site in 1848 and later the Melbourne Meat Preserving Company. Meanwhile the title of the work, Djubak (white orchid), referred to a significant Indigenous food source (the tubers of these orchids being a starchy nutrient-rich rhizome) which was all but eradicated by the introduction of sheep in the region.
The fragments of printed text within the fabric of Barratt’s sculptural piece were taken from late-nineteenth century newspaper reports on the polluted state of the Maribyrnong River caused by factory waste run-off. The lasting effects of colonisation and industrialisation on this altered landscape have been significant and documented, and Barratt’s work drew attention to details of this ecological impact.
Barratt’s second work, Tell me what you see outside…, 2020, was installed inside the two-storey bluestone building, which dates to the time of these early meatworks companies. A heritage-listed building that is one of greater Melbourne’s oldest standing factories, this was initially intended to be the primary venue for the to listen, not to preserve project, but was recently deemed inaccessible and closed for use by local Council pending a building safety assessment. In the event, Barratt’s video work was appropriately installed inside the building – visible and audible through an open but roped-off heavy wooden double doorway. This installation turned the tauntingly atmospheric exhibition space into a forbidden cavernous backdrop for a single work.
Tell me what you see outside… features narrated text written by In Her Interior – a collaboration between V Barratt and Francesca da Rimini – on the intersection of labour, capital, and the Anthropocene. Situated in this site of early industrial activity turned community-run museum, words from the video’s script resonate on many levels – ‘when we became awake, we saw that we had been asleep’, and ‘our story will never really exist, never be completely written, the fire is tired of waiting’.
While some works in to listen, not to preserve were installed for the duration of the day, others were performed at scheduled times, requiring the audience to come together in time as well as place.
Artist and dancer Jesse Gall drew the crowd to a section of the History of the Land Garden, where they performed a rhythmic work of movement and sound, simultaneously scoring their own improvised dance with their breath and tapping. Gall, accompanied by flautist Isobel D’Cruz, performed in, on, and around two 8-foot concrete pipes, situated in the ‘Industrial Archaeological’ section of the Garden. The pipes are relics of Hume Pipe Company Ltd (located on the site from 1920-1979) and were incorporated into the History of the Land Garden in the 1990s. The Garden was a collaborative community project led by mosaic artist Libby McKinnon and constructed with the labour of local unemployed people supplied via ’90s government training programs.
The soundtrack created by D’Cruz’s flute and Gall’s movement – via the percussive tapping of their homemade tap shoes and a harmonica amplifying their breath – mingled with the background noise of a busy children’s playground nearby. The more frantic and expansive Gall’s free movement became, the stronger the noise of the harmonica. At other moments, Gall danced on top of and inside a concrete pipe, making a rhythmic score accompanied by D’Cruz’s short notes and repetitive playful phrases on the flute. A short burst of a performance, this work was a joyful and mesmerising encounter, with Gall’s costuming (dancing in a shabby cut off tux, with a skeletal pattern layered underneath) suggesting something of a mythical or ghostly forest elf, Pied Piper, or Puck – the mischievous interlocutor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These mythical associations played off against Gall’s spritely and spirited dance and composition, together creating an ethereal yet grounded engagement and encounter with the place and its dreamt or felt stories.
Lunch came after this performance, served nearby under a canopy between the Industrial Archaeological Garden and the Garden of the Future. People moved together and apart, talked, ate, explored the grounds, many visiting for the first time. Printed copies of an essay by Charlie Sofo in response to ‘Dolphin’s Return’ were available to read at the base of the missing sculpture of two dolphin’s dancing (the bronze and bluestone work made by Tom Boland, originally a gift to the City of Footscray, was presumed stolen in 2015). QR codes dotted on signage throughout the History of the Land Garden and beyond linked smartphone users to a historical audio tour produced by Sam Perryman, featuring new and archival interviews narrating the history of the site. Dispatch,a sound work by Snack Syndicate was installed and audible down at the jetty on the river.
We came together again above the embankment and across the carpark, at The Pipestacks, 1999, a monumental work designed and made by long-serving Living Museum committee member and artist Kerrie Poliness. The Pipestacks, installed on former drying racks adjacent to the dilapidated Top Factory is constructed of 187 concrete pipes leftover after Hume Pipe Co. vacated the site in 1979. Poliness’s sprawling permanent work became the site for The birds always sing before the light (2022), artist Akil Ahamat’s temporary sonic and sculptural contribution to the to listen, not to preserve program.
Ahamat’s work continued an ongoing line of inquiry in their practice which imagines the artist in conversation with a snail. Here, Ahamat’s title ‘the birds always sing before the light’, picked up on a line of text from a previous video work, and considered what it might be like for the birds of Maribyrnong to listen to the noise of community events and performances held by the Living Museum over many years. Ahamat resynthesised audio recordings of such events held in the Museum’s archive to create new compositions, which were then played through speakers embedded within two leadlight windows lent against the concrete pipes, facing each other from either end of two pipe stacks.
The birds always sing before the light restored a non-human social life into the Museum’s past community-building activities, and in doing so, interlinked both physically and conceptually with The Pipestacks which had also aimed to interject an organic lyrical form to industrial materials. Installed here, Ahamat’s synthetic bird song composition became layered with the louder call and song of birds present in the park. The geometric patterning on Ahamat’s leadlight windowpanes inadvertently connected to the diamond shape so prevalent in Poliness’s artistic practice and latent in the geometric design of The Pipestacks. While the older work provided a support structure for the new, audio projected through the stacked concrete pipes enabled one artwork to whisper in song to another.
Across the park, past the Museum and at the far end of the large bluestone building, a pile of bluestone boulders lay in rest in front of a red site-shed. The rocks have been there since they were displaced during the last round of conservation works to underpin and structurally stabilise the bluestone building, prior to the 2020 pandemic lockdowns. The neighbouring small red site-shed or ‘canteen’ has been utilised as an occasional artist studio, and as part of to listen, not to preserve,works by previous artists-in-residence Daniel Kotsimbos and Chas Manning were visible through the windows. A combination of analogue and digital tracing could be glimpsed here in Manning’s works on paper and Kotsimbos’ temporary rigging of the shed into a radio.
In front of this closed canteen and monumental pile of bluestone rubble, artist Debris Facility Pty. Ltd. installed the suitably located LIQUIDATION: DEBT REHEARSALL. Perforated tubing stretched several meters from the edge of a building at one end to a tree branch at the other, the work connected to an outdoor tap and sprayed a cool gentle mist. A series of printed and laminated graphic designs were held in place by rocks on the ground below this makeshift vaporiser. Mimicking corporate logo and instructional design, arrows, lines and text made up these diagrammatic works. Words such as ‘DEFAULT’, ‘RINSED’, ‘SUCCESSION’, ‘CONTROL’ ‘TOXICOLOGY’ lent a sinister tone, paralleled by the compressive patterning of symbols.
The late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor once wrote that ‘the artist serves as the historical agent of memory, while the archive emerges as a place in which concerns with the past are touched by the astringent vapours of death, destruction, and degeneration’3. The Facility’s work seemed to squat in this intrinsic noxiousness – of the site’s history of production and the toxic by-products of the meatworks factories, as much as the association between archives and degeneration that Enwezor points to. Yet the work did so while simultaneously providing audiences with the refreshing experience of walking under sprayed mist on a sunny day, allowing for a nascent regeneration that is also always possible.
In late afternoon, we watched from below as artist Archie Barry stood on a bridge further down the river and flew a handmade kite from a fishing rod. The work's title Sky Fish reflected this inversion of scene, sky for river, fishing for flying. Barry created an accompanying score through their breath by whistling as the small, orange plastic kite buoyed in the blue sky. We followed Barry as they travelled down the bridge and slowly through the park, all the while flying the kite and sound-tracking the movement with a mournful whistle that matched the ebbs and flows of the kite's flight – lower as it settled, higher pitched and faster as it rose. The hundred or so people following eventually wound our way back to the meeting place where the day had begun – the grassy clearing near the Cyprus tree in the Workers' Garden. Here, Sky Fish continued as Barry wound in the kite, unhooked it, and turned the orange diamond of construction plastic into a face clinging mask. Now we could see an impression of the artist's face had been present on the kite all along. The kite, now a mask, suffocatingly covered their entire face with just a little split for the mouth, as Barry continued humming, whistling, and, eventually intoned –
paradise is a place where you can't see or be seen, but you can feel the wind.
It was a magical and moving piece, tinged somehow with a gasp of grief. The slow winding movement through the park together, from the bridge at river’s edge, past a children’s park and along the path to our starting point, like a beautiful procession for an unknown or ungraspable loss.
Fittingly, a reception followed. Drinks were served from the Museum’s visitor centre, and the Filipino Chaplaincy Choir of Melbourne performed in song to close the program. Invited by Living Museum committee member and community leader Melba Marginson, the Choir’s presence within this contemporary art program was a reminder of the many cultural events and groups that have been important to the Museum’s story.
to listen, not to preserve. I wondered for months about the meaning of this title. An open-ended statement stylised without so much as a capital letter, it seems a suggestion or mantra rather than instructional. Partly imperative (to listen), partly a negation (not to preserve), how does one truly listen without preserving? Doesn’t listening create an echo, imprint a memory? Or is it in one ear and out the other? The notion seems counterintuitive to the premise of a museum, especially one that houses an archive of oral histories and interviews among other materials, as the Living Museum does. But, the more I learn about archives, the more significant their inherently paradoxical nature becomes – always both institutive and conservative, revolutionary and traditional, at once. In Derrida’s famous diagnosis, the intrinsically sick and fevered archive always works against itself4.
A radical organisation when it emerged in the 1980s (led by historian and founding director Olwen Ford and patron Joan Kirner)5, in many ways, the Living Museum of the West in its later years echoes the most anachronistic function of an archive, ‘to shelter itself and sheltered, to conceal itself6’. Which is not to say custodians of the archive over the decades haven’t worked heroically to find creative ways to open the histories contained within. For much of the Museum’s existence, this work has been led by Peter Haffenden, a local researcher, photographer, writer and community organiser who has held various roles with the Living Museum since 1984. Haffenden’s book Your History Mate (1994) outlines the approach that everyday people should be involved in researching, documenting and presenting their own history, and narrates many of the adventures of the aspiring ecomuseum7.
Yet there was a sense of this inherent concealment in to listen, not to preserve, the archive is always present but its contents overwhelmingly unknowable. It can be, as Hal Foster describes, an active and unstable ground – ‘open to eruptive returns and entropic collapses8’. Faced with the opacity of archives and of history, the contributing artists turned our attention to the park and river, to the exteriors of closed buildings, to remnants of public works, to absences, rubble, and partial repairs. This physical archive, hiding in plain sight, was traced out by these artworks, and held in moments of the day. Held by voices speaking together, by listening, by breath, by song, by mist, by sound and movement, all meeting somewhere in the breeze and quietly cleared away at the end of the day. To listen, not to preserve. Taking form not so much as an exhibition, but – as so many artworks that engage with archives are – as an act of resuscitation.
Rosemary Forde is a curator and researcher based in Naarm Melbourne, with a focus on the recent history of contemporary art and discourse in Australia and Aotearoa. Her curatorial practice encompasses exhibitions, editorial and publication projects, public artworks, and pedagogical programs. Throughout 2021 she worked with Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West, an ecomuseum founded in Maribyrnong in 1984 dedicated to the intersection of art, history and the environment.