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Agents of Proximity is Amy Spiers and Victoria Stead

Collaborative art projects involve the work of many people, particularly those that involve community participation. This is one of those projects, and so we have a lot of people to thank. First up, a big thankyou must go out to our designer Marc Martin of Small & Quiet, as well as Alice Swing of Swing Machine who designed and made our delightful outfits, and Nicolas Low of Dislocated who created the Agents of Proximity website. Much gratitude is extended to everyone at the Next Wave Festival office, particularly Jeff, Tai, Fiona, Ulanda and Paul. Thanks also to the other artists who were part of Next Wave’s Kickstart Program, who have been an inspiring and supportive bunch of people to be around. The Kickstart Program provided the initial seed funding for this project. Subsequent funding has come from the Australia Council Literature Board, Arts Victoria and Moreland City Council, and we are grateful to all of these bodies. Within Brunswick, thanks go out to Susie and the rest of the crew at the Brunswick Bound bookstore, as well as the folks at the Digital Imaging Centre on Sydney Road who have graciously rushed through so many urgent print jobs over the last eighteen months. Andy at the Brunswick Coin Laundry has generously allowed us to convert his Laundry into an exhibition space and travel agency during the period of the Next Wave Festival, for which we are endlessly grateful. There have been many people who have been involved in the project but have not wound up photographed and plastered on the fronts of postcards: Tony Birch, Sarah Tutton and her family, Dominica, Mitz, Luisa, Cath and Antony, Pip O’Brien, Piers, Rahima, Sal and Phil, Patrick, Anita, Leon the lovely hardware man, Reech, Bec Saltmarsh and Phoebe Smith. Finally, the biggest thanks is reserved for all the people who participated in this project and are included over the following pages: Heather, Sheri, Jessica, Ellie, Alex, John, Aviva, Mem, Liz, Beth, Jan, Mitch, Freya, Eric and Tolga. You all gave up your time to be involved, and your excitement about what we were trying to do made it all the more enjoyable for us. Thank you. Agents of Proximity is Amy Spiers and Victoria Stead Photography: Amy Spiers Design: Marc Martin, Outfits: Alice Swing, Swing Machine Web design: Nic Low,

BrunswicK: A TrAvel Guide

Supported by the Next Wave Kickstart Program

Welcome to the Agents of Proximity’s Travel Guide to Brunswick. More accurately, perhaps, this should have been called a Guide to Travel in Brunswick, because it’s not a travel guide in the sense that we normally know them. Where conventional guides tend to provide uninspired lists of places to eat, sleep and shop, this travel guide offers suggestions on how to explore suburban space through the stories and experiences of the people who share it. Over a period of a few months, Agents of Proximity has been operating as a local artist-run travel service, taking people on tours within their own suburb. In this case, the suburb was Brunswick, the place where we both live, and a place of which we are particularly fond. Located in Melbourne’s inner north, Brunswick is densely populated, with over 20,000 people living within 5.157 square kilometres. This book contains the documentation of a series of small journeys which were initiated through the travel service, involving fifteen of these 20,000 residents. The Agents of Proximity started around eighteen months ago, when the two us were living together in

a rambling old house on Stewart St, just off Sydney Rd. This house—which had been a sharehouse for more than 30 years and had hundreds of people living in it over that time—had a kitchen window that opened directly onto the street, out of which you could dangle your feet above the pavement while sitting there with coffee in hand. The window was just wide enough to fit the both of us, and it was out of the many hours we spent sitting there—talking and watching the constant stream of people moving back and forth in front of us—that the idea for this project emerged. Our starting point was our curiosity for the area, and a desire to explore it in ways that moved outside the normal social circles and circuits of bars and cafes where we spent our time. Despite coming from quite different backgrounds—one in fine arts and the other in politics and history—we had a shared interest in experimenting with ways of engaging community and creating connections with the people around us. Agents of Proximity was created as a way to try and unearth some of the latent stories, histories and passions within the suburb; to engage with people and places who were not normally part of our Brunswick experience, and give agency to others to do the same. We wanted it to combine forms of cross-disciplinary

artistic collaboration with strategies for community participation; to be at once socially-engaged, curious, critical and aesthetically-driven. Participants came to the project through a number of ways, beginning with people we already knew and spreading out through word of mouth, through posters and flyers, and sometimes through dumb luck. To begin with, we sat down with each person and interviewed them about their experiences of living in Brunswick. We had large maps of the suburb, blank except for the street names, and asked people to draw and write onto them the streets they walked down, the places they knew, the things that were significant to them. Some of the stories and maps which were gathered during this process are included over the next few pages. The next step involved moving from what they knew to what was unfamiliar to them. We organised tours, usually involving two participants at a time, where one person would take the other to one of the sites they had identified on their map. In doing so we wanted to create new encounters between people and place, as well as between people. These tours, or journeys, were documented through the creation of a series of postcards. Photographs of the encounters were used

to create the front of each postcard, and the person who was taken on each tour was asked to write on the back, as they would if they were writing home while travelling. These postcards, and other documentation from the journeys, form the basis of the material which is now being presented here as our Travel Guide to Brunswick. This Guide will not tell you where to go and what to do, although you may well want to go on your own adventures to the places identified within it. Mostly, though, we have intended it to be used as a starting point for thinking about how we move in the spaces where we feel at home, and how we could use the mindsets and rituals associated with travel to explore the diversity and plurality of these spaces. While this project has been based in Brunswick, the ideas and practices we have tried to create are by no means tied to this place. They can be the basis for exploration within any shared space, and we hope they will be taken as such.

Amy Spiers and Victoria Stead April 2008

smAll encounTers in suBurBiA
Long before Robin Boyd famously riled against what he called “the Australian ugliness”, suburbs were being derided for their blandness, uniformity and monotony. But in truth, suburbs have always been complex, diverse, heterogenous. Shared space always is—filled and written through with the stories and the histories, the memories and the associations of those who move in it. It’s messy, layered with meaning and experience, traversed, read and encountered in a myriad of ways. One person moves through a suburb and sees the streets they played on as a child, the supermarket where they stop late at night on their way home from work, the car park where they broke up with their lover only to make up again half an hour later after tears and tantrums. Another person moves through the same suburb and sees the fruit trees that remind them of

home, the cafes filled with noisy crowds chattering in an incomprehensible language, places that will never feel familiar. One person sees the Great Australian Dream with the detached house on the quarter-acre bloc. Another sees stifling domesticity. One person sees the bus stop where they wait every Monday afternoon for the 3:47 bus which is never on time. Another sees the intersection where they collided with the late-running 3:47 bus and did $600 worth of damage to the duco on their Holden Barina. And all these stories, histories and associations mesh together in complicated, intricate, contradictory relationships of connection, and create the spaces we sometimes call home. Sometimes, even, we call them communities. But what does it mean to talk about community when the people with whom we share these suburban spaces are, for the most part, strangers? The idea of local community in contemporary suburban Australia is, in many ways, a strange and strained thing. Suburbs are, after all, just the spaces in between lines drawn on maps, administrative units which facilitate the timely collection of household garbage and the pruning of trees on nature strips; and the people who live within these spaces need have nothing more in common within one another than their postcode.

The promise of globalisation has been the overcoming of the barriers of space and time which separate people from each other. But the barriers to human connection are not only found in the borders of nation-states or the lack of communication and transportation technologies; they are often deeply rooted in the local. They are cultural, social, linguistic, emotional, aesthetic. Some of them are imposed; others are created and maintained through choice. In a globalising world replete with discount airlines, email, Skype and Facebook, it can be easier to cultivate a relationship with someone 50,000 kilometres away than with your next door neighbour. None of this means, however, that the local is irrelevant, or that it cannot be a site for meaningful community. People rarely have only one community, and in spite of the innumerable forms of social relationships which extend beyond the confines of shared geographical proximity, the desire for locallyrooted connection still stands. Nostalgia for the days when kids played hop-scotch on the pavements and you could buy your milk each morning from the familyrun milkbar down the road may well be nostalgia for a myth, but it’s a myth that signifies a genuine desire for connection. The people who live within suburbs, however bureaucratically defined they may be, can,

and often do, act to make them sites of social, emotional, and cultural identification. And so the t-shirt shop on Sydney Rd sells t-shirts printed with “London, Paris, Brunswick, New York”, and people sit around in pubs debating the merits of the “New Brunswick”, or recounting the reasons why people in Prahran are such pretentious snobs. The suburbs we live in, then, are simultaneously both known and unknown. Or to think of it another way, contemporary suburban spaces consist of an indefinite number of local worlds, a plurality of experiences and subjectivities—both individual and collective— which are layered up one atop the other. We may know one or several of these worlds, but be oblivious to, or disconnected from the others. What would it take to move between them? What if, instead of flying thousands of kilometres across oceans and continents to experience something “new” and “different”, we left the passports at home and went travelling within our own suburbs? What if we particularly went looking for those worlds which are normally sidelined, silenced, pushed to the edges?

Agents of Proximity set out to facilitate encounters and border-crossings which might achieve this, and in doing

so find the points of intersection within this multiplicity of worlds. The title of “artist” grants a certain license to challenge social norms, interfere, and unsettle the familiar. We wanted to use this privilege to create experiences and moments of interaction which might otherwise have gone unrealised. Our own bias is our personal fascination with face-to-face encounters; with the simplicity and profundity of the moment where two human beings encounter each other for the first time, and are suddenly no longer strangers. It’s uncertain to what extent we succeeded in what we set out to do. In trying to traverse the myriad subjective experiences of this place where we live, the experiment we initiated was an ambitious one, perhaps more so than we realised when we began. After months of tramping through our suburb searching for participants, we have not succeeded in moving as far beyond our own worlds as we had hoped to do. Negotiating points of disconnect, though, is an unavoidable part of navigating the plurality of shared space. Tensions and disjunctures are always present within such spaces, essential even, and this Travel Guide is as much about the journeys that didn’t happen as it is about the ones that did.

One night many months ago we got talking to two men at the RSL on Sydney Rd. We were putting up fliers on the lamp post near the balcony where they were standing with their beers. They wanted to know what we were doing and we started trying to explain. They were bemused, mildly intrigued, but ultimately had no interest in participating in our “wanky art shit”. They did, however, talk to us at length about their experiences of Brunswick over the span of several decades. They were both building industry workers, and gave us an elaborate history of the changing architecture and planning within the suburb—from the replica Edwardian detailing still visible on some of the older shop roofs, through to the industrial designs of the factories which dotted the area in the 1980s. While articulating the sense of ownership they felt over this space where they had lived for so long, their sense of loss in the face of change was palpable. As one of the men put it, referring to the demolition work which goes hand in hand with construction, “every day now I’m tearing down another little bit of Brunswick”. We would have loved to have initiated a tour led by those men, through the Brunswick they knew. But ultimately they had better things to do than indulge us in our artistic meanderings, and we couldn’t really blame them. If nothing else, the fact they didn’t

participate is testament to the limitations of our own experience; our own capacity to connect beyond that which we know. The encounters which have been created over the last few months, though—between people, and between people and place—have been genuinely beautiful. Strange, awkward at times, touched with idiosyncrasy, these small journeys momentarily and without pretension opened up possibilities for individual people to re-view and recreate the spaces in which they move. These fleeting moments of face-to-face encounters are the artistic acts; what follows in the rest of this book is the documentation of these journeys, the fragments left over. Ever so slightly they signify something of the quality of contemporary suburban spaces, and of the persistent desire for local connectedness, in all its messiness, and in spite of everything Facebook has to offer. And while these fragments of words and images can only serve as partial representations of the encounters themselves, the creation of such moments of possibility can be endlessly replicated.

Victoria Stead

some smAll AdvenTures

John & AvivA GeT losT
John, a librarian who likes getting lost in the back streets and alleyways of Brunswick, takes Aviva, a clarinet player in a Balkan gypsy band, on a tour to the west side of the train tracks. They set off from Anstey station at 10.30 on a sunny Sunday morning, to discover a suburban wonderland filled with secret cobble-stoned hideaways, giant cacti, abandoned houses and heavily-laden fruit trees breaking free of the confines of private fences.


sheri & heATher visiT Former lesBiAn BArs
When Heather took Sheri on a historical tour of Brunswick, their first stop was The Spot. Heather, who has called Brunswick home for more than two decades and remembers the days when Sydney Rd had two cinemas, told Sheri of the times when The Spot was known as the Candy Tavern. The Tavern’s lesbian nights were amongst the first in Melbourne, and Heather spoke fondly of the hours she spent there, and her strange encounters with her gun-toting, taxi-driving, transgender ex-lover. Two beers later and the tour continued to what used to be another favored haunt, now the Sporting Club. Memories of the monthly lesbian nights held there were more sedate—drinking, dancing and falling in and out of love.


miTch & FreyA climB ThrouGh A hole in A Fence
A circus performer leads an environmental philosopher through a hole in a fence, to a world where abandoned buildings are transformed into art galleries, the views from train bridges are paid the attention they deserve, and discarded flowers in supermarket dumpsters are rescued with gentlemanly aplomb. No entry fees, bigname locations, or show-bags filled with samples from discount shopping outlets. Just unexpected moments of delight found in dusty corners and peculiar encounters.


mem & liz smoKe Apple ToBAcco
Liz gets lost en route to her tour and has to ride her bicycle up a very steep hill. Waiting for her at the top is her tour-guide, Mem, a Kurdish musician and film-maker. Leaving bicycles behind they venture out together on a tram, for a lazy afternoon filled with apple-flavoured tobacco smoked on leather couches, cheap whisky drunk at tables with plastic table-cloths, and strong Arabic coffee served in little cups with lots of sugar. They play a game of pool which lasts for hours. Mem wins, eventually.


ellie & Alex don’T GeT coFFee
Alex made her way to Afghan Kebab on the promise of Brunswick’s best cardamom-flavoured coffee. But even the best-laid plans fall through, and when the coffee machine broke it looked like her tour was over before it had begun. Alex’s feisty tour-guide Ellie was momentarily stumped, but quickly devised an alternate plan. And so the two intrepid travelers bid goodbye to the fluorescent lights of the Afghan Kebab and tramped down Sydney Rd in search of beer; past the Laila Reception Centre where Ellie works as a waitress, and right into Albert Street. Arrival at Noise Bar yielded a room full of drunken boys playing pool, but the day was saved by the five dollar schooners, the beer garden, and a sighting of the toilet cubicle where Ellie once had sex with a lovely French man.


JessicA, An AmericAn in BAhlA’s
Jessica, an American exchange student and Brunswick resident of a mere eighteen months, treks to the north end of the suburb for a late-night snack. At Afghan Kebab she tries super sweet jelebi, sugary orange coils on sparkly silver foil, washed down with green tea which the owner brings her for free. Then it’s on to the legendary Bahla’s Pastry. The baklava is piled high, and there’s rosewater ice-cream on display beneath the giant chandelier, but Jessica opts instead for a coffee-flavoured scoop, which comes in a little pink plastic cup with a little pink plastic spoon. Later on, she dares to try a mouthful of sweetened semolina sprinkled with nuts.


TolGA & eric spend Time in courTyArds
Tolga, who owns the Blue Elephant carwash on Stewart St, takes his neighbour Eric to some of the places nearby where he spends his time when business is slow. At Sahara Café, past the pizza ovens and the cabinets filled with cakes, is a little courtyard with yellow brick walls and old men playing backgammon and drinking coffee. Further up the road the unassuming Beans ‘n’ Leaves café turns out to have it own little courtyard tucked away at the rear, not to mention the best borek in town—delicious Turkish pastries made by the owner’s wife. Eric and Tolga drink gazoz uladag—Turkish lemonade— while they eat and talk, and Eric learns a thing or two about the Ottoman Empire.


JAn & BeTh explore Around The corner
Jan takes Beth on a very local tour of her favourite places in the two blocks around her house. La Paloma café is one, and so is Vittorio’s Barber Shop next door. Vittorio has gone on holiday to Hawaii, but ensconced in jackets and scarves the two women peek through the windows to see the football memorabilia and newspaper cuttings which cover the walls. At the gallery across the road they contemplate the art while debating the difference between lithographs and etchings. And then at a restaurant a few metres away they munch on tasty beef treats wrapped in betel leaves. They talk about many things, including acupuncture and living in the desert. The sky gets dark because of the rain, and lights outside are glossy.


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