by Neometro

What Happens Now? Melbourne’s Public Art Biennial Lab

Arts & Events - by Open Journal
  • Field Theory, '9000 minutes', 2016, Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab

Eight experimental artworks from the City of Melbourne’s Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab, curated by Natalie King, have rewritten the rules of public art.

To coincide with the public presentation phase of the artworks (between Monday 17 to Sunday 23 October at various locations in the Queen Victoria Market as part of the Melbourne Festival) we asked Natalie King a few questions about the role of public art in our cities.

What role does public art play in the vibrancy of cities and why do you think public art is so important to the City of Melbourne?

Melbourne is a labyrinthine and densely creative city steeped in Indigenous, migratory and colonial histories. The City of Melbourne can be hospitable to artists and ideas by the imaginative re-usage and adaption of existing spaces and infrastructure whether a library, an auditorium or a market. I like to curate a space of assembly where people gather, pause, rest or refresh especially informal and everyday places used by multiple communities. I am also interested in how a city like Melbourne is audible but also the quieter murmurings of a place, the whisperings of a locale. Biennial Lab is embedded in locality, rendering place as a real terrain with urban relationships.

Melbourne Biennial Lab is structured around two nodes: a lab summit intensive for artists that transpired in June convened by myself, Professor David Cross and Claire Doherty from Situations, a UK based experimental commissioning agency. The project privileges the inner sanctum of thinking by gathering artists to develop and test concepts on site. Guest speakers were programmed as interlocutors from a psycho-geographer, Robyn Annear, to a choreographer, Gideon Obarzanek, who discussed the concept of crowds flocking. Following on from the lab incubator, eight temporary and experimental commissions are being realized as part of the Melbourne Festival.

Some commissions are temporary interventions such as the fleeting and emotive encounter in the work of A Centre for Everything’s Visible Hands. This profoundly beautiful exchange by Gabrielle de Vietri and Will Foster is not what you see but what takes place between two people exploring hand gestures in the marketplace as an encounter. Other works are visually activated after hours such as Kiron Robinson’s neon phrase “Upon this troubled sea I rest my head”. It appears in multiple locations like a poetic refrain allowing us to pause and think about repose and tumult.

SIBLING,'Over Obelisk', 2016, Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab

SIBLING,’Over Obelisk’, 2016, Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab

The theme of the program of ‘What Happens Now?’ centres around new possibilities. What role do you see public art playing in bringing existing and new communities together within a changing urban environment of rapid redevelopment?  

The title is derived from a Jenny Holzer slogan which was part of her ‘Inflammatory Essays’ from 1979: an anonymous paste-up programme throughout New York City. The title came to me when I was in New York in January with my family; there was some urgency to settle on a title for the Lab. I went to the Brooklyn Museum and I saw some of Holzer’s ‘Inflammatory Essays’ with political aphorisms emblazoned across coloured posters. I hope the title is sufficiently capacious suggesting that we are at a crossroads in our cities and prompts artists to imagine new possibilities about the now and beyond. I like the idea that it was a question or an open-ended provocation allowing us to consider how the Biennial Lab can be an incubator or micro-ecology while acknowledging that our urban environment is in a state of flux.

Anchoring the program around the Queen Victoria Market has focused attention on the possibilities for creativity in the future development of the site. What opportunities do you see for public art and communality arts based programming at the market in future? 

Every public site comes laden with distinct narratives waiting to be considered. I wanted to seek a site that would elicit intriguing and varied responses by artists that explore history without being beholden to it, navigate the tension between the public, the private and personal facets of a space and re-write the rules, protocols and limitations. I assembled a curatorium who responded to an open call submission process; we were seeking proposals that were experimental, audacious, realistic yet unrestrained, maybe even daring while responding to Queen Victoria Market.

The market is at the kernel of Melbourne: Melbourne is essentially a market city and Queen Victoria Market was established in 1878 by the city’s council to manage Melbourne’s consortium of markets. Queen Victoria Market has a history of multiple communities setting up stalls. The market was a gathering place for the clans of the Kulin Nation and also resides over one of Melbourne’s first cemeteries for early settlers, located over the car park. It has a ghostly presence and a history of racketeering, extortion and fringe dwellers. The market is also a place of exchange, and bartering: it’s a social space which is an important dimension.

It’s also a place of great visual resonance and materiality. There is an abundance of source material for artists to utilise such as packing boxes or the beautiful silver cupboards that each trader keeps their belongings in that are wheeled around everyday in a choreographed configuration. Isobel Knowles and Van Sowewine have deployed the market’s vernacular by projecting a stop motion animation about a fictional trader called George within an enclave of these silver storage boxes. It’s a heartfelt and doleful work that narrates the hidden side of the market. Another artist, Hiromi Tango, has made a work that will accumulate over the seven day cycle of the Biennial Lab with an undulating series of stalls wrapped in hessian, fabric, twine and rope, culminating in a performance by the artist with Dylan Martorell and Benjamin Hancock on Sunday 23 October from 4pm.

Hiromi Tango, 'Amygdala (Fireworks)', 2016, Neon and mixed media, Performance, Courtesy the artist and Sullivan and Strumpf, Sydney

Hiromi Tango, ‘Amygdala (Fireworks)’, 2016, Neon and mixed media, Performance, Courtesy the artist and Sullivan and Strumpf, Sydney

Funding for public art is an ongoing issue, what are your thoughts on how local councils, state government and private development companies can work together to both support the growth of public art and public art programming, while maintaining creative flexibility and autonomy?

As a curator I am required to arbitrate various government agencies but I always strive to maintain curatorial rigour and independence. I worked for two years as Senior Curator of MPavilion on programming a range of events such as the MRelay finale marathon cycle of talks and One Night Stand interventions. Sometimes I try to resist constraints by working in the public realm as museums are highly regulated environments, bound by rules and schedules. That’s why I like to curate outside of bureaucratic and regulated hours.

Curators have multiple roles as raconteur, fund raiser, conduit, exhibition maker, writer, editor, budget manager, financial planner, timekeeper, arbitrator, public speaker, conjurer, press officer and the list goes on. I am also curating Tracey Moffatt at 57th Venice Biennale 2017. Ultimately, my role is as an accomplice to artists.

What vision do you have for the Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab? Do you see it developing into an ongoing event?

The City of Melbourne has committed to three Biennial Labs and I would be thrilled if other curators envision new iterations of the project at different sites with different modalities. The concept belongs to the City of Melbourne and was brilliantly conceived by Lynda Roberts, Public Art Melbourne Program Manager, alongside a suite of new programs that are artist-centric.

For me, artistic practice is about experiments. It’s about doing things that are lonely, exceptional and uncommon and also, it’s about trying to propose things which are not yet there. By definition, art practice is a laboratory – a kind of experiment.  For me, it’s important to venture outside the institutional comfort zone and explore the unknown.


Natalie King is Chief Curator of Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab. She is Senior Research Fellow at Victorian College of the Arts, formerly Creative Associate of MPavilion. She is curator of Tracey Moffatt for the Australian Pavilion at the 57th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale 2017.


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