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.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

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.

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