markets in the mall

When I was researching the Sydney chapter of Markets, places, cities, I came across a speech delivered in 1971 by Frank Lowy, founder of the global shopping centre behemoth Westfield, and republished in Australian Property Journal in 2006. In his speech Lowy situated shopping centres within a genealogy of urban marketplaces, declaring that ‘Shopping centres are essentially market places’. For Lowy, the shopping centre was not only the technological and teleological evolution of the market, it was the modern market place. When Westfield started building in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne in the 1950s, they were keen to emulate some of the sensory characteristics and experiences of place in markets (‘‘The shopping centre makes it possible for all who enter its exciting atmosphere to participate … to share an experience … through the visual, aural and touch senses’), as well as the functions of markets as sites of community and sociality. The picture that Lowy drew was of a socially inclusive space and place that met both tangible and intangible community needs.

The centre involves people of all ages – it makes provision for all age groups.
A shopping expedition is no longer a bore to children for the shopping centre touches their imagination as well. There are nurseries, playgrounds and all kinds of entertainment. Teenagers make it their gathering point. Their tastes in clothes, music and food are catered to. It is the hub of their suburban life.

From their inception, shopping centres in Australian suburbs included civic spaces such as community radio broadcast facilities, childcare centres, and open spaces (central atria and courtyards, rooftop gardens) where (potential) consumers could pass the time.

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Southland’s Rooftop Garden, 1968
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Southland’s Rooftop Garden, 1979

Westfield Southland, which was opened in the Melbourne suburb of Cheltenham in 1968, had a tranquil garden on its rooftop. However, by 2000, the garden was gone and the shopping centre had spread across the Nepean Highway via a pedestrian bridge to take over the former Lucas factory site. (Incidentally, after the Lucas factory shut down, a short-lived market was built on the site.) The current scale of the complex and its virtually non-existent interaction with the local streets and built environment, except as conduits to its car parks, are the antithesis of a marketplace.

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Aerial view of Westfield Southland, 2000
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Southland, street level, Nepean Highway (File photo)

When I first moved to the Randwick municipality, I was surprised that both my local library and early childhood health centre were located in a local shopping centre. The history of shopping centres in Australian cities illustrates that situating civic spaces within such a milieu is hardly unusual. It is also makes sense in that contemporary shopping centres in major urban centres in Australia are regulated environments, which means they are often clean, climate-controlled, well-lit and the presence of other consumers and visitors reassures and enhances a feeling of security. If you are not put off by artificial light, shiny surfaces, loud music, and the insistent multi-sensory clamour of consumer culture, their conditions provide good spaces for civic services. Walking through another shopping centre as a casual observer recently, I noticed that it was a site of lively, everyday conviviality where a diverse mix of people sat chatting in the few seating areas provided and in the cafes set up in the thoroughfares between shops. I could see that there were correlations between the shopping centre and the marketplace, as Frank Lowy asserted.

However, shopping centres are also quite different places to local markets. As has been noted widely in the literature on contemporary urban space, the shopping centre’s ambivalent status between public and private is problematic, particularly for whose capacity to engage actively with consumer culture is limited – groups like the elderly, the socially and economically disadvantaged, homeless people and teenagers. Moral panics regarding anti-social behaviour become the impetus to discourage or even prohibit certain groups from congregating, and ‘hanging out’ can very easily be reframed as ‘loitering’, and even criminalised.The primary social, spatial and material rationale for the shopping centre is consumption. Even if other types of making take place there simultaneously, they are subsequent to this overriding factor.

On the other hand, local markets and marketplaces form part of the consumer ecology in cities and towns, but they serve many purposes outside of consumption, a situation that is acknowledged,and even encouraged to varying degrees, by market vendors, consumers and managers alike. In Markets, places, cities, I talk about the atmospheres that emerge from place in markets.The atmosphere of the market comes not solely from the goods on sale and the presence of shoppers, but from multiple forms of making that emerge from correspondences between practices, materials, bodies, spatial relations, senses, affects and so on. (I am borrowing from Tim Ingold here with my thoughts on making.) The atmosphere of the market, which has multi-sensory dimensions, is frequently evoked when the marketplace is described in reportage, literature, visual culture and so on.

The shopping centre makes gestures towards atmosphere through its lighting, sound, climate control, visual cues. However, these are teleologically directed towards consumption, and as such a product. Atmosphere can only ever be accidentally emergent in the highly regulated environment of the mall, even when a marketplace is reproduced within it specifically for the purpose of creating and providing atmosphere and place.

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decommissioning and recommissioning: first day at frontyard

IMG_8726On my first day at Frontyard, it is hard to sit in one place and write when there are places to explore here in the building,

outside on the street,IMG_8759IMG_8720IMG_8788and further afield in Marrickville.IMG_8689IMG_8703IMG_8697IMG_8701

Frontyard has set up in a building owned by the erstwhile Marrickville Council (now the Inner West Council, but that’s another story). Prior to its use as an arts space, the building was an early childhood health centre. When I mentioned on FB that I was going to be in residence here, one friend, a long-time resident of the area, commented that she had ‘spent many a teary time’ here when her now teenage daughter was a baby. She also pointed out that across the road is the SDN childcare centre, which was established in 1944 to provide care for the children of local female factory workers. The construction of the SDN building was funded by Marrickville Council and through fundraising by the local community.

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Image: Brian Yap

These two spaces form part of the infrastructure of community in Marrickville, and in establishing an independent multi-disciplinary community arts space, Frontyard has recommissioned the building for the continued provision of that infrastructure. The types of making going on here go beyond conventional notions of what the role or function of the gallery or studio space might be. One of the directors told me that when they participated in the Marrickville Open Studio Trail (MOST) earlier this year, visitors were perplexed and disappointed upon walking into the space. They wanted to know ‘where is the art’? Frontyard is, above all, concerned with the future of the arts as grounded, emplaced practice and theory within wider communities, and part of that involves decommissioning the arts from the discursive positions into which it has been forced by neo-liberal political and cultural economies.

To recommission something is to give it a new commission or to validate an existing commission. It can also mean to put something back in service, thereby undoing decommissioning. Decommissioning can mean to take out of service or to render unusable; to remove or revoke a commission; or to remove or revoke a formal designation. There are multiple instances and intersections of recommissioning and decommissioning, both material and metaphorical, happening at Frontyard. I am sitting in one of the health centre’s old consulting rooms at a table with metal legs and a wood-grain veneer, which has surely been decommissioned from an institutional interior. From my chair at the recommissioned table, I am looking directly at a decommissioned heater that, design-wise, looks like it dates from the time of the building’s construction, (which Anna-Bella Silva at the Marrickville Council Archives tells me was in 1955).IMG_8681Another more overt example of recommissioning is the Australia Council’s research library, which has found a post-decommission home at Frontyard.IMG_8662.jpgBrowsing its shelves I find a copy of Peter Read’s book Belonging: Australians, place and Aboriginal ownership, the opening words of which ask, ‘How can we non-Indigenous Australians justify our continuous presence […] while […] Indigenous people remain dispossessed and their history unacknowledged?’ (Read, 2000, p.1). It is impossible to write about place in Marrickville (as it is to talk about place in Sydney, in Australia, and in other settler societies) without acknowledging the violence of displacement; in this case, of the Cadigal Wangal people. Read’s question is therefore directly linked to the task I’ve set myself whilst in residence here: to decommission discourses of place – particularly those attached to urban transformation, development and renewal – which efface or negate existing place, and which seek to install or produce places that re-affirm hegemonic agendas. Concurrently, I want to recommission place as a phenomenon emergent from processes of making that (with thanks to Tim Ingold) entail entanglement and correspondence between bodies, senses, spaces, materials and affects, and which are infinitely generative. Frontyard is an example of this kind of place.