The City of Greater Dandenong in the south-eastern fringe of Melbourne, Australia is a traditionally industrial area with one of the country’s most culturally diverse populations. As such, it has long been haunted by its image as a place of social unrest, exacerbated by a media obsessed with telling bad stories. These negative perceptions, combined with high unemployment rates and poor economic prospects were making the place unsustainable. In a bid to rejuvenate the region, state government authority Places Victoria (formerly VicUrban) and the City of Greater Dandenong launched ‘Revitalising Central Dandenong’ a major urban renewal masterplan worth $AUD290 million.
While the first stage of this project is already attracting accolades and attention, one small-scale intervention demonstrates how designers and community members can collaborate to take back control of how their story is told, with immediate impact.
Marking the entry to a new civic space in Douglas street, Noble Park, ‘…a place for gathering’ is a fifteen-metre long banner of neon text with integrated soundtrack of experimental music, field recordings and voices from the community. It is the result of a two-year long collaboration between Fiona Hillary (artist) and Sarah Haq (landscape architect) with Hugo Cran (sound artist). The work took its starting point from ‘Creative Conversations: Noble Park People (Civic) Space’, by Sinatra Murphy Art and Landscape. The report documents the process of community consultation (twenty workshops carried out over a three-month period) that facilitated the community’s re-imagining of the local shopping strip and proposed public spaces.
For the creative team, ‘Creative Conversations’ gave them lots to work with. ‘We wanted it to be something celebratory. They (Sinatra Murphy) had done so much great research and the whole document spoke about the community wanting a point of festivity and celebration.’ Says Fiona Hillary. Neon was chosen for its immediate impact, but also for it’s associative qualities. The white perspex outline of the brightly coloured text deliberately recalls the ‘love heart candies’ so often found in local milk-bars in the ‘eighties. It gave the designers the celebratory cues they were looking for.
While they knew from the outset they wanted to create a text-based work, they wanted that text to be generated by the local community. During workshops and meetings, the team distributed post-cards, asking people to write what ‘gathering place’ meant to them on the cards. From these responses words and phrases were chosen for use in the banner. Hugo Cran, sound artist, used recordings of people reading their words as part of the soundtrack.
The soundtrack, generated using recordings derived from the place and using the voices of the community, adds to work’s distinctive, local presence. This is enhanced by the location of the speaker and press-button to activate the soundtrack, which are situated street-side: it means that when the soundtrack is playing it effectively calls out across the street, creating another level of user/community interactivity.
‘Somebody’s got to make a decision to actually press the button and listen to the work. It’s actually quite reflective of the sounds that you hear in that space. The sound and text fit together and they both attract attention in that way. It changed from a framing piece to making an entry point and whether that’s an entry point into community or entry point into the space – it could be one or the other’, says Hillary
While English is the chosen language for the banner’s text, this was not the original intention of the designers, who imagined it to be multi-lingual as a way of representing Noble Park’s diversity. The community however, were insistent on the use of English:
‘I remember [at a community open day] asking a Vietnamese woman to write in Vietnamese and she said “no” and insisted that her daughter write in English for her’, Hillary says, noting this happened repeatedly. English, in this instance, providing common-ground for a linguistically-diverse group of people.
There were other surprises too such as the varied reactions from the community as the work was revealed during installation.
‘Is this a place to take your girlfriend?’ two teenaged boys asked Hillary one day. ‘In two and a half years of working on this project I had never imagined it as a romantic work’, Fiona laughs now. The second came from a local business owner, who, upon reading the words ‘peace and harmony’, said ‘you know it would be great if this project brings some of that here because it’s not always harmonious’. Someone else had cynically remarked ‘I’ll give it five minutes before it gets smashed.’
These last comments connect back to the origins of the project and the kind of negativity it is designed to counter. In 2008 the Australian Human Rights Commission undertook research into the experience young Australian-African people living in Dandenong; ‘Rights of Passage’. The report shed light on alarming racial discrimination and abuse present in the city.
‘Black dog are you from Noble Park? You little Nigger, what are you doing here?’ This, to a young woman of Congolese background cited in an interview for the report.
Five years after the Commission’s report, the launch of ‘…a place for gathering’ demonstrates the kind of community response the design team had hoped for.
‘There was lots of joking; one of the phrases is “meet me at my house” and people would walk past and go “oh yeah, yeah, meet me at my house”, some guy came over to me and said “if you put an e in front of the harmony you might get a few phone numbers”.’ And while such connotations gave the launch a jovial atmosphere, for Hillary it went deeper:
‘I think for me, listening to the street – just sitting back and listening to what people were saying was fantastic. It meant it worked. It made people think, it made people question the space. So you have people that are a bit over the community and a bit over what goes on in the street, through to people who can see its impact and begin re-imagining the space.’
A Place for Gathering: re-writing the story of Noble Park, Australia
Project team | Fiona Hillary (visual artist) and Sarah Haq (landscape architect) with Hugo Cran (sound artist/musician)
Industrial design | Justin Hutchinson Design & Joel Wells
Contractors | Delta Neon, Kane & Co, VicPole, Rock Martin
Location | Douglas Street, Noble Park, Melbourne, Australia
Images | Sarah Haq
Text | Lucy Salt