A collaborative community arts studio in Brisbane’s inner-city suburb of West End is a holdout against creeping gentrification and a living connection with local history, writes Ella Donald.
Cross the river from the city centre of Brisbane through South Bank and its upscale restaurants and man-made beach, and you will arrive at West End. In the past, the suburb has been a village in the inner city, where art, life and counterculture across class and nationality can exist in harmony among high-set, creaky Queenslanders and eclectic stores. Its multicultural nature came to the fore particularly after World War II – in 1980 it was estimated that 75 per cent of Brisbane’s Greek community lived there. You can still spot a local or frequent visitor to this community – they walk into a shop and are greeted with the type of conversation that comes only from familiarity.
But in the past five or so years, houses have been bulldozed into high-rises as the city centre sprawls further afield, inevitably changing West End’s character. In Mollison Street, which runs off the central Boundary Street, only one house remains, sandwiched between two dark-green high-rises. And what is happening inside the last house standing may be the answer to life, the universe and everything – or at least, the small universe it inhabits.
No. 42 goes by the name of House Conspiracy, and throughout the year it has been home to a residency program for artists of all disciplines, from portraiture to interactive theatre to surrealist fiction to video projects centred on megafauna. Four artists at a time have enjoyed their own studio for four weeks, to use the space however they want to create whatever they please. They worked in their studio by themselves or in collaboration with other artists around the heavy wooden table in the communal area, and at the end of their residency invited guests for an open house. The only condition was that every artist needed to leave a physical mark on the space they once briefly occupied, whether that be writing on the wall in their studio, or contributing to the murals covering the soaring concrete walls that hem in the backyard, or any other method they devised.
On the first night of my residency I sit around that table and over a shared dinner of spaghetti hear the story of how House Conspiracy and this particular house came together. The program is an offshoot of Roving Conspiracy, a relaxed local community arts event now in its fifth year that moves around various venues in West End and surrounding suburbs. Roving Conspiracy was created as a hub for creatives and the community to meet and collaborate, as well as to exhibit for an open and appreciative audience.
One month, the gathering was in need of a venue on short notice. Enter Elizabeth Cowie, who is a longtime resident of the area and now the president of House Conspiracy. Cowie knew of 42 Mollison Street, which, after being inhabited by the same owner since being built, had been sold in November 2015. Unlike many other houses in the area, it hadn’t been sold to a developer, but a friend of Cowie’s who had happened to be walking past as the auction was taking place and had no plans for how it was going to be used. With the way the neighbourhood has been going, the likelihood is that it would otherwise have been torn down for a new development. There’s a copy of a message that Cowie posted on Facebook after the first gathering on House Conspiracy’s website. It reads: “It was great to have some very good musical/artistic vibes in the old house. If walls could talk, it could tell a lot about the history of West End – and the ability to withstand the developers’ hammer.”
My studio is an enclosed front deck where I can tap away at a computer or scratch away in a notebook. The voices of passers-by never cease. Neighbours knock on the doors, dropping things off, or asking after a lost cat. Conversation comes easily in the house, and many days I find myself talking to Jonathan O’Brien, the creative director, about the place of the project in a rapidly changing community.
To O’Brien, progress in the area is inevitable, and there is little use denying it. But the house, which embodies the eclectic embrace of West End that many flocked to but is increasingly uncommon, keeps the past alive and creates another tangible record of what it once was. “Art and the artist are a conduit of society,” O’Brien says. “Art feeds back into a community no matter what. What we can do is say that art offers a reflection of where it is. Art teaches you how to see. Whatever’s produced here will speak in a certain way to the space and the community.”
Of course, Brisbane is not the only city that has seen itself sprawl up and out, smoothed into a new version of itself. As Sydney and Melbourne have boomed in price and size, the distinguishing features of old neighbourhoods have been sacrificed for space and efficiency. But House Conspiracy aims to demonstrate that art can be an open conversation about the past through change. In Footscray, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne now undergoing rapid development after being home to a multicultural population, the longrunning Community Arts Centre encourages an engaged public in its theatre, galleries and workshop spaces that foster local works in conversation with the area. Newcastle, previously best known for its mining exports, is fashioning itself as an artists’ hub as more flee Sydney’s ballooning house prices, and it boasts a booming culture of festivals, galleries, museums, theatres, “blank canvas” open spaces for community events, and more creatives per capita than any other Australian city.
On open house night, I talk to a variety of people, mostly locals. They speak of a West End they have watched change before their eyes, as the vibrant and varied community is being slowly ironed out. But while one local I speak to says Brisbane is “quickly losing” its heart, Don is optimistic about the use of something like House Conspiracy. “Art is a snapshot of emotion, not a snapshot of perfection,” he says.
I go back to Elizabeth Cowie, and her post about the first gathering in the house with stories in the walls, providing for a project hoping to withstand the test of time and tell the local story through a rotation of artists, each with a different perspective. We stand in the breezy room, where the walls are gradually being filled up with writing by past residents, and conversation flows through the doors. Why this house? Why has it survived so many chances where it could have been bulldozed and forgotten overnight, instead of living on to stand as a history of what West End once was.
“I tell the story that it’s No. 42, Mollison Street,” Cowie says. “In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the whole thesis is that the number 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything.
“We feel like if this had been No.47 or 72, it would have been pulled down when the developers originally wanted it. But it’s not. Because it’s No.42 – the answer to life, the universe and everything.”
An open house gathering at Conspiracy House, West End, Brisbane.
ELLA DONALD is a journalist and critic from Brisbane.