Extended Writing

ESSAY: 'Dalison'

by Eva Hagberg

A year and a half ago, we bought a house. Well, we call it a house, because there’s something more solid, more permanent, about calling it a house—but really, of course, this being Brooklyn, it’s a condo. A week after we took possession, we dismantled the entire interior, took the walls down, ripped the floorboards up. We brought a friend over, walked in with only our flashlights to light the way. I saw piles of wood, nails everywhere, a darkened room, illuminated in spots with our iPhones. “This is ours,” I said. “No one can ever take this away.”

As Ian Strange’s work reminds us, that’s just not true.

Homes get taken away all the time, and because of multiple scales of event. Sometimes homes get taken away because of individual losses—foreclosures, job shifts, unforeseen tragedies—and sometimes they get taken away because of “opportunity” or “redevelopment.” And yet, despite knowing this, despite understanding that we have seen peoples’ homes get taken away, we still subscribe, so many of us, to the shared cultural fictions, constantly reiterated and replicated, around the solidity of a home, the absolute unshakable foundation (pun not intended) given a life by the prospect and reality of ownership. There must be a reason it’s called “home ownership,” not “house ownership.”

A project like artist Ian Strange and musician Trevor Powers’ Dalison—centered around a single house in a neighborhood in the town of Wattleup, Australia that once thrived and was home to more than 300 houses but that is now slated, tabula rasa, for new development (called redevelopment)—is at once a deeply emotive reminder of how fleeting what we think of as permanent actually can be, and a devastating testament to how hard we want to hold on. The project—which spans still photography, a site-specific installation done in collaboration with Powers, and a film—is at once a celebration of the house’s inhabitants, who refused to sell when everyone around them did, and a requiem for a place now lost.

Strange’s formal moves, most evident in the still photography that makes up one element of the piece as a whole—are at once precise and overwhelming. Each photograph captures the house, in a different color, framed against a video screen backdrop that also changes color. That backdrop—technically speaking, a large LED video screen that was erected as part of this site-specific installation—teaches the eye to see this image like a work of art, to suddenly recategorize and re-contextualize this modest home (house) as a work of formal and visual argument. The clarity of the backdrop, covering up the extended landscape of emptiness where we can guess that houses used to be, brings the formal elements of the house itself into high relief. We see the articulated gable; the windows in various levels of pixelated clarity. In Dalison 4, in which the house is red and the background is blue, the shape is rendered almost Monopoly toy-like. The photograph brings to mind the scale of Playmobil, of a dollhouse. In other words, no life happened here. Dalison 1, meanwhile, shot at dusk and positioning the house against a brilliant white frame of a background, gestures towards all the life that happened here. The shades are drawn and yet the eye is drawn inward. What could have happened behind those doors? What kinds of mornings, days, night, occurred?

What is the value, some might ask, of making art about an object—a house, a place of so much hope and history—when that object is about to be destroyed? That question underlays so much of Strange’s work, which is at once deeply grieving and relentlessly optimistic. Strange’s photography reminds us that there is beauty to be found in acknowledging what is happening, in looking directly at this moment, as well as gesturing towards everything that might have once occurred off screen. It is rare to encounter art that at once stands on its own as an almost entirely aesthetic exercise—Strange’s photographs ask us to think about formal issues such as framing, color, exposure—and that invites us to think, as if beginning to unravel ourselves from inside our own memories and futures, about why this house, why now.

It’s compelling to look at heroic stories like this. Of this holdout family, the Cukrovs, one of few who refused to sell their house when more than 300 others agreed, who stayed and stayed and stayed. Under Strange’s generous, formal, thoughtful, and inventive approach, the family become more clearly rendered, even when absent, than they would with a touching, telling news piece.

What this work invites us to remember is that nothing is guaranteed, nothing is certain, nothing is ever safe. But while that might feel like a devastating blow, it can actually be comforting. If we’re never ever completely at home, if we can never reach this eternal security, we can still encounter moments of engagement, and connection, and deep warm memory along the way. Strange’s work reminds us that home is an idea that’s not only not fixed, it actually needs to be static for us to be able to comprehend it. 20 Dalison Avenue is a real place, as so achingly rendered by Strange. It also never was.

Eva Hagberg is an author, educator, academic with expertise in architectural history, history of art, American Studies, and material culture, and public speaker. She teaches in the Language and Thinking Program at Bard College and at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University and holds a Ph.D: Visual and Narrative Culture from the University of California, Berkeley; an MS in Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, and; an AB in Architecture from Princeton University. Her debut memoir, "How to be Loved", was published in February 2019 to overwhelming critical acclaim. Her architecture and design writing has appeared in the New York Times, Metropolis, Wallpaper*, and more. Her academic book, "When Eero Met His Match", is forthcoming Fall 2022 from Princeton University Press.

ESSAY: 'Home'

by Jack Mitchell

Somewhere, we have a place that we feel is our home. Some conspiracy of rock and tree and earth and water, of snow or ice or sand that participates in the relational dynamics that produce our idea of home, and for most people that is a sacred place. This place is not just a location, a physical place, but a vessel for the pattern of behaviour that is our culture, for the performance of self and identity. It is where we love, where we celebrate, where we feel safe, where we enter the dreamworld. Home is the place that allows us to be and do all of this, and if that place is destroyed, or we are forced to leave it, there is grieving involved. That process makes us take what we have learned, what we have done and enacted, all that is sacred to us, and carry it in our hearts until we find a new place where we can put it down and start again. If we are lucky, we can leave for a while and feel the beautiful sadness of missing something or someone we know we can return to, not suffer the harrowing pain of permanent separation. For many, home is a distant memory carried into the present. For others it is wherever they can find warmth in a dystopian cityscape. Maybe some feel no connection to home at all, or only to its absence.

I’m sitting down to write this at a small farm on Wilman Nyungar boodja, 200-odd kilometres south of my family home of 29 years in the suburb known as Subiaco, in so-called Perth, Western Australia. This farm has become home for me whenever I am back home on Nyungar Country. At 34 years old, home for me has become more about how I relate to my extended family than my immediate, and this place is where we gather as a mob to perform our culture: parties, meetings, music, caring for Country all happen here. On my way here, I passed the suburb of Wattleup on Whadjuk Noongar boodja. There, at 20 Dalison Avenue, sits the old home of the Cukrov family—the subject of Ian Strange’s Dalison work. The Cukrovs lived there for 70 years, and for the past twenty held out valiantly against the inevitable process of industrial development by an illegitimate colonial power.

I locate myself and my identity in relationship to other people and place through language, which sits within a construct filled with implication and assumption. The language used to reference home is a colonial schema based on the system of private property ownership, peppered increasingly with words that come from the language born of this place; a process of colonisation in itself as the words are stripped of their true meaning, but an important alteration to a language that Country is only just now beginning to understand.

I’m referring to a house as a home, a structure that is collectively located through the private ownership matrix and the overlay of the static Cartesian grid onto an animate landscape, smothering the relational dynamics with real estate value. This “home” is referenced through a title deed, which is governed by the legal frameworks that regulate our society, which is essentially born out of (and within which the DNA remains) violent dispossession, land theft and genocide. This framework was subsequently populated by a variety of migrant stories, like that of the Cukrovs, who came from the former Yugoslavia—each with their own notions of home, their own memories, their own ancestries, all yet to properly calibrate with this place.

The city of so-called Perth is increasingly referred to as Boorloo, the Whadjuk Noongar name for the series of interconnecting wetlands and hills that surround what was once a freshwater river, with the salt of the ocean kept at bay by a sacred limestone embankment along the river mouth in the area known as Walyalup, or Fremantle. This separation was sacred to the Nyungar, and is now destroyed; blown up by industry to dredge the harbour, making the entire river salty. The adoption of Boorloo to name this place is important as a linguistic entrance into the deeper layers of place, of home, but the substitution of words within the language of the colonisers is not enough. We must understand what is meant by Indigenous place names to deepen our understanding of how to live here.

Unlike the static nature of the colonial linguistic structure—a blunt tool used primarily to justify ownership and conquest—indigenous relationship to home is relational and fluctuating. This is not only reflected in spoken language but in the patterns of movement across the land and its ever-changing conditions. For example, the border between Yamatji and Nyungar Country, five hours north of Perth, changes depending on the season. When the red dirt from the north coats the flats beneath the hills, it is Yamatji, but when the rains come and wash the red earth from the rocks, it returns to Nyungar country. This layering of fluctuating patterns determined our responsibilities, and the timing of those responsibilities, and linked us intrinsically and inescapably to that place. You didn’t own it, you were a part of it. There is nothing in the English language that can really describe this, because English is the language of property and industry, neat parcels of conceptual lines to divide and buy and sell. This is how we relate to place now.

Our cultural patterns are a language, how we live is the action of what we think and feel, and what we say refers to this. In this sense, how we live on this place is a form of language through which we communicate to the land below us, a rhythmic pattern of combined embodied linguistics that tell Country what we think of her, how grateful we are to be here, as well as the actual vibrational sounds we make with our tongue or the symbols we type on our screens. We stand and move and dance on this land, in every moment communicating our values with Country; and Country holds us, allows us to do this, supports our weight, our pain, our sorrow, and is a vessel for all our beauty and love and joy. Country holds us so that we can perform our notions of home. This place has been home to people forever, who have danced and sung and told stories of gratitude, of care, of love, of community, of survival, for thousands upon thousands of years. Forever.

Our relationship to home is fraught with layers of memory, especially if we are dislocated from it. The memories can be traumatic because of the existence and subsequent destruction of the sacred and the beautiful, the constant process of attachment and separation, with home our original reference point for all of it. If we are lucky we can heal and return. Many cannot. I am lucky to be able to come to this farm to heal and look after this Country. It recharges me to navigate the family home that is loaded with old dynamics, a home that sits about 200 metres from one of the most sacred places in the world. So called Kings Park was known by a few Nyungar names, including Kaarta-garup, Mooro-Kaarta and Kaarta Koomba, which all come from Kara, the Nyungar word for Spider, so it is called something like the place of the spiders. Although the king is no more, the spiders remain, reflecting a harmony of utility through the huge cultural change that is both tragic and hopeful. The entire Nyungar nation, covering an area similar in size to Ireland, would meet here for weddings, funerals, dances and ceremony since time immemorial. The same dances of place and animals, even if the stories may have changed and adapted, the same rhythms stamped out by bare feet and the same vibrational harmonic sound waves that were born direct from the land they speak to and protect. Now this place has cafes, rock concerts and a war memorial. People get married and picnic here. Culture is still performed, but for most who participate the real history is unknown, a collaboration of wilful ignorance and intentional erasure. It made it easier to colonise then, and the cultural undercurrents make it easier to perpetuate colonial rule now.

For better or worse, we now share this home, this place of communal culture, with everyone who resides here. Whether you arrived as a settler, a convict, a soldier, a government official, a migrant or have arrived recently as a student, worker or tourist, you are here, and you bring your notion of home with you. The layers of emotional complexity, the memories, the songs and stories. You bring your ancestry here and perform your culture as best you can within the framework of social order that perches somewhat precariously and certainly illegitimately on top of this land, very slowly beginning to become a part of it, very slowly beginning to speak the language of here, slowly translating each other’s myriad linguistic patterns.

For the Cukrov family, the home they built in Wattleup will be gone in physical form, living instead in the language, the memories, the behavioural patterns for which their house was a vessel. These patterns are in a sense immaterial, and can be translated to another place, to another home, but the Cukrovs will need to grieve. They will not only take their history of being here on Nyungar country with them but also the songs and stories of their Yugoslavian homeland, which is no longer a political entity but remains as Country, in all its changing patterns and relationships and languages. The places they’ve settled to make new homes will be on unceded Indigenous land, and they will be there as guests, as we all are. Country will be there, all around them, supporting them, as it is all of us; but as in any relationship, that support has to be mutual.

Jack Mitchell is a Perth-born, Melbourne-based designer, artist and researcher with Whadjuk/Balladong Noongar heritage. A graduate of Curtin Univeristy, Jack focuses on the complex cultural relationships that exist in our cities and architecture’s potential to support Indigenous culture. Jack was awarded the Creators Fund from Creative Victoria to pursue his project Blak, White and Bluespace, which investigates Indigenous cultural relationships to water and how the built environment can benefit from understanding these relationships.

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