Redfern Waterloo Tour of Beauty

Artist: Squatspace
Location: Redfern and Waterloo, Sydney, Australia
Year of completion: 2009
Leon Tan

Redfern and Waterloo are two Sydney suburbs in the vicinity of the central business district, each with extensive public housing and a large aboriginal or indigenous population. Redfern is also, for many Australians, associated with the name T.J. Hickey and the Redfern riots. Thomas J. Hickey apparently fled from police on a bicycle one day, and lost control around a corner. He was thrown off the bike and impaled himself on a fence. The coroner’s inquest absolved the police of any responsibility, but Hickey’s family and their supporters disagreed, insisting that the police were at least partly responsible for the death since they were chasing him in a car. Hickey’s death and the handling of the case by authorities ignited a nine-hour riot on February 14, 2004 in which aboriginal youth from across Sydney gathered in Redfern and attacked police with Molotov cocktails and bricks. They were eventually subdued with water hoses. Not surprisingly, Redfern and Waterloo are parts of Sydney in which public spaces are often filled with social tension.

Tour of Beauty took this social tension as its source material. Squatspace artist Lucas Ihlein explains that the project title puns on ‘tour of duty,’ since going to Redfern is like going into a war zone. As an initiative focused on critically thinking through social and spatial problems, Tour of Beauty questioned prevailing government attitudes toward the future of Redfern and Waterloo, attitudes embodied in plans to bulldoze and revitalize the area, which would consequently displace many residents on low incomes and from aboriginal backgrounds. It did so by taking visitors on tours of the suburbs highlighting beautiful aspects of the place that were worth preserving, against top-down plans to redevelop and gentrify the district.

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Numerous tours have taken place since the project launched in 2005. Between 2005 and 2009, approximately 15 tours were conducted. Each tour lasted for between four and five hours, during which time Squatspace artists would take groups of up to 30 ‘tourists’ on bicycle or by bus to predetermined sites, typically those earmarked for redevelopment. At each of the stops, tourists encountered locals who would share their perspectives on the area, its history and its future. In this process, many of the tourists became palpably aware of the existence of The Block, a dense space inhabited largely by indigenous peoples, rife with problems that can only be understood in terms of colonization and the contemporary challenges of decolonization.

The tour asked: what might be lost and what might be gained through the process of urban transformation? How could it be done better? And how would it affect actual people on the ground? Tour of Beauty is what the art historian and theorist Grant Kester would characterize as a ‘conversation piece,’ an instance of socially engaged art using dialogue as a stimulus/medium for change. While it cannot be said to have solved the problematic and conflicted relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, Squatspace’s project did broker encounters between the two groups. It also raised awareness of the spatial dynamics and relational tensions in Redfern and Waterloo, while simultaneously confronting lofty, government-led revitalization initiatives with a critical dose of cynicism.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency