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Aesthetics of Stealth

Lara Thoms, Hub of Democracy, 2012

Lara Thoms, Hub of Democracy (detail), 2012, co-commissioned as part of Ultimate Vision – Monuments to Us, 2012-13, by C3West on behalf of Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Westfield Hurstville, and Hurstville City Council, images courtesy and © the artist

Anne Loxley and Toby Chapman
At the time of writing, Anne was C3West Curator and Toby was C3West Curatorial Assistant, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

First published in, Anne Loxley (ed.), Lara Thoms: Ultimate Vision – Monuments to Us, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2014, pp. 6 -9.

Fashion is moving faster. Where catwalk shows once provided glimpses of an entire season’s trends, now it seems as though even shopfront windows are in a constant state of flux, refreshed perpetually to stay up-to-date. Trend cycles become increasingly shorter with entire fads disappearing in less than a week – dependent on the whims of target demographics. In a changeable and fashion-led art world, non-object based practices are often seen as the most viable options for meaningful and responsive social engagement.

For six days in April 2013, Lara Thoms presented Ultimate Vision – Monuments to Us, an immersive site-specific project located in Westfield Hurstville, the shopping centre at the heart of this Sydney suburb. Created in collaboration with youth from the local area, Ultimate Vision was a series of subtle and at times indistinguishable interventions into the retail and marketing spaces of the mall.

Co-commissioned by Westfield Hurstville, Hurstville City Council and C3West, Thoms was contracted to create a project that gave voice to local youth and produced at least two events in the shopping centre. Each of the partners came to the project with different intentions, which at times led to tension. C3West wanted to create a challenging and productive non-gallery context for an artist to work within. Hurstville City Council wanted to engage with marginalised youth – its library is so heavily patronised by young people that it functions as a default after school care centre. [1] Westfield Hurstville wanted to provide an experience for their shoppers – yet groups of three or more young people considered to be loitering are often asked to disband.

These phenomena speak more broadly of the increasingly dominant role that shopping centres play in shaping the social and economic character of places, particularly the suburbs. While a privately owned and operated space, the suburban shopping centre fulfils many of the functions of what is usually considered public space: town square, local market, playground, social meeting point. As these precincts become more prominent, the distinction between public and private space becomes more blurred. In 1958, (the same year that the first Westfield Shoppingtown was built in the Sydney suburb of Blacktown) Hannah Arendt wrote her seminal essay ‘The Public Realm’, which analysed the complex relationship between public and private domains. [2] Arendt’s text is perhaps more pertinent today than when it was first published and especially relevant to Thoms’ project. Arendt’s definition of ‘public’ space is based on action rather than function; she argues that a public space is defined by its capacity as a locale for discussions of private or intimate interpersonal experiences. This act of dialogue, Arendt suggests, assures a community or population of the reality of themselves and their world. [3] If this dialogue now occurs in the privately owned domain of a shopping centre, what precisely is the topic of conversation – and is it limited to dialogue relating to economics and commerce?

The other key issue defining the complex context in which Thoms was asked to work is the importance of the lucrative but fickle youth market to the retail sector. Thoms’ response to the commission’s requirements was an incisive and subversive two-part project which co-opted marketing and retail strategies, capitalised on the contradictions of the commission’s context, and critiqued the status of youth as socially excluded but also a highly sought after, elusive and unpredictable retail market. The project’s title (particularly the by-line ‘Monuments to Us’) ironically referenced the inclusive tone that advertisers often adopt and examined the inherent conflict of trying to memorialise fleeting trends, or creating monuments in a situation where congregating non-shopping youth are not welcome.

In January 2013, Thoms initiated an intervention in Westfield Hurstville to facilitate an alternative system of voting, the results of which would determine the final phase of Ultimate Vision – Monuments to Us. The Hub of Democracy was a highly-visible but temporary space exclusively for young people to hang out and vote on their favourite music genre, colour, time, food, drink, person, word and smell – all sensory elements used by marketing bodies to increase sales and the amount of time spent in retail environments.

Offering free Wi-Fi, table tennis, a stereo and couches, the Hub also included a wall of 72 clear Perspex ballot boxes – nine nominations in each category. With hourly votes permitted, Thoms’ system was less in line with conventional democratic voting than guidelines for reality television shows or marketing focus groups. The Hub of Democracy doubled as a three-week residency for Thoms who was onsite daily to talk youth through the voting system and workshop ideas for the final project outcomes. Specifically, Thoms was able to distil the results of her alternative ballot into incisive artistic intervention through extended dialogue with Hub participants.

Ultimate Vision bears some important similarities to Thoms’ 2012 work, Commerce, created for the group exhibition There’s a Hole in the Sky at Campbelltown Arts Centre. Curated by artist Tom Polo, this exhibition unpacked the everyday anxiety that people feel both in public and private spaces. Commerce was an installation of gift hampers wrapped in cellophane and presented on the gallery floor, one hamper for every Campbelltown resident who had filed for bankruptcy over the preceding 12 months. Each hamper comprised products purchased by the artist from stores in Campbelltown, collectively coming together in the gallery to form a detailed, textured portrait of the residents of Campbelltown. Without presenting the conversations that Thoms had with local residents and storeowners, Commerce nonetheless made a powerful comment on the relationship between people and their purchases.

Thoms says one of the primary reference points for Ultimate Vision was Harun Farocki’s film The Creator of the Shopping Worlds (2001). This revealing documentary lays bare the complex systems operating in every shopping centre, detailing the sensory manipulation that is constantly at play. [4] Interestingly, Farocki does not provide a commentary to The Creator of the Shopping Worlds, instead he provokes a dialogue between his subject (architects and developers) and the audience through his own complicity in the act of simply filming.

The Hub of Democracy ballot results were an idiosyncratic reflection of a moment in the lives of young patrons of Westfield Hurstville and, as such, were as profoundly true as they were surprising. Water defeated chocolate milk, Coke and energy drinks as the Ultimate Drink; a local teenager, Thomas Kim, won best person ahead of celebrities and football stars; and the smell of strawberry won over the strangely popular scent of ‘fire’.

Lara Thoms, Ultimate Vision - Monuments to Us, 2013

Lara Thoms, Time Monument and Colour Monument (detail), 2013, co-commissioned as part of Ultimate Vision – Monuments to Us, 2012-13, by C3West on behalf of Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Westfield Hurstville, and Hurstville City Council, images courtesy and © the artist

The winners of each category became temporary ‘monuments’ in the shopping centre – unlikely interlopers in the advertising spaces, display televisions, screens and food court table tops. The teenagers’ choices transformed these elements so they became reflections of local youth trends – many of which would be discouraged by retail bodies. Central Monument, a free water fountain installed in the middle of Centre Court, also played rap music for those that plugged in their headphones and regularly dispensed spurts of strawberry scent. Interestingly, the strawberry scent was uncontroversial but, in keeping with growing trends in urban facilities, the free water was not welcomed by retailers, and the provision of rap through headphones became the only feasible way to feature it. Thoms’ original plan to celebrate the Ultimate Music through the public address systems hit an insurmountable snag when Westfield management were made aware of the genre – there was no chance of playing it publicly. During the most recent Christmas, retailer protests stopped a rap carol after less than two minutes of play. Retailers hate rap.

The request to incorporate the Ultimate Colour into merchandising displays was unfeasible for many fashion retailers; blue was simply not ‘in’. Nonetheless, the Ultimate Colour was showcased by a number of retailers in their window displays and watch shops switched hundreds of clocks to midnight. Posters of models were replaced by images of teens dressed as Thomas Kim. These winners became a pervasive presence across all four levels of the shopping centre, confusing the goals of marketing bodies.

The Screen Monument, a short film co-written by Thoms, artist Kate Blackmore and Kevin Duo Jin, an 18-year-old local youth, was filmed in Westfield Hurstville and addressed the often disorienting architecture of shopping malls and commercial spaces. This experience, often known as The Gruen Transfer, was articulated through the journey of a teenager character through the centre. A single camera followed the footsteps of this youth as he descends from the rooftop car park, through the centre, eventually arriving in the underground basement. Any locative indicators were eliminated from the film; the speed with which the protagonist moved intentionally dragged through the repetitive landscape; and importantly, the film’s narrative focused on what teenagers do in a shopping centre when they are not shopping. They walk, look, play-fight, chat and sometimes they drop a 30 cent ice-cream cone from the fourth floor to splat onto the ground floor.

Ultimate Vision was installed in Westfield Hurstville for six days. [5] It began with a party with ice-cream and water for catering, a big-screen film premiere and guided tours of the shopping centre. For its duration, Thoms’ installation coexisted with the cacophony of the shopping centre – the Central Monument abutted an animal petting zoo for most of the time.

In total, this project existed in Westfield Hurstville for only 28 days, including a launch to local retailers in October 2012, a three-week residency in January 2013 and the presentation in April 2013. During the residency, over 8,000 votes were cast and no less than 48 local youth participated in the final phase. 15 retailers in Westfield Hurstville (local and national brands) participated in the project, displaying either the ultimate colour or ultimate time in their window displays. If only for a short time, Ultimate Vision adopted both the strategies and aesthetics of the suburban shopping centre for ulterior purposes. In contrast to the permanent monuments of Hurstville, Ultimate Vision embraced its temporality, celebrating the very experience of youth as fleeting. Thoms deftly receded behind her aesthetics of stealth for a sustained and engaged intervention into not only the structure of the shopping centre, but the dialogues that occurs within it.

[1] Ultimate Vision – Monuments to Us was developed in response to Hurstville City Council’s Community Strategic Plan. The Plan indicated that youth from the local area did not possess a space that they felt was ‘theirs’.
[2] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Public Realm’ (1958) in Situations: Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery: London; The MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2009, p. 108.
[3] Ibid.p.110.
[4] Lara Thoms, email to the authors, 29 May 2013.
[5] Always intended as a local Youth Week event, the project’s duration was cut short at the request of Westfield Hurstville to avoid any overlap with Fashion Week.