An illustrated lament

'Acme Demolitions - All We Leave Is A Memory'

After work last Thursday I had arranged to get picked up by Amanda Stewart on the corner of City Road and Cleveland Street just outside The Seymour Centre to go see and hear the sound installation Sign she had made for 'What Survives' at The Performance Space in Redfern.

                 Amanda Stewart, April, 2005

What Survives: sonic residues in breathing buildings is about just that and takes its title from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke in which he asks 'Who says that all must vanish ?' So it's about traces that resonate, in the case of sound, within buildings, bridges and architectural spaces.

                 My shadow walking - thursday arvo 20.4.06

I walked across the university campus past the hole in the ground that was once the Stephen Roberts Lecture Theatre where I had heard visitors to Sydney like the philosopher Jean Baudrillard and Gayatri Spivak speak. It was the venue for conferences on topics as diverse as Artificial Intelligence and the Kanak struggle for Independence in Nouvelle Caledonie and so on. The theatre was once packed out for popular palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. The only traces of that place are now either dust or memory particles.

Then I crossed City Road and was shocked to see another demolished, empty area where The Tin Sheds had stood only a few days ago.

   The Laughing Wall by Colin Little and Alex Danko - The Tin Sheds fence in 1972

The Tin Sheds, so-named because of its corrugated iron walls and roof, was built originally for the CSIRO (a government funded sciences organisation). By 1970 though, it had become an extraordinarily eclectic art workshop owned by the University of Sydney. There was, over its thirty odd years, far too much happening there for me to cover properly in this outline so I'll just note some (but by no means all) of my own connections.
In late 1971 Colin Little, an Engineering dropout, began screenprinting at the Sydney University Art Workshop with the assistance of Vicky King. He established the Earthworks Poster Company and formed a close association with the artists of the Yellow House, Potts Point, Sydney. (The same year, 1971, I had made a sculpture at The Yellow House as part of a women artists' project co-ordinated by Vivienne Binns)

In 1971 I had a silk screen printing workshop in Glebe Point Road, Glebe called Cocabola's Screenprinting.

         Pamela Cocabola Brown pours a cup of thinners solvent for Di Fuller outside Cocabola's Screenprinting. Glebe, 1971

I would walk across Victoria Park with my screens to the Tin Sheds to use the darkroom there. I became friends with Colin Little who was not only a great silk screen artist but also the first vegetarian, Tai Chi practitioner I had ever encountered. Colin's company changed its name to Earthworks Poster Collective in 1972. The late Mitch Johnson, Tim Burns, Mostyn Bramley-Moore and members of Optronics Kinetics worked with the collective as did members of the Architecture School and people from the community at large.

In 1974 I co-edited with poet Nigel Roberts, artist Tim Burns and publisher Dave Morrissey A Package Deal Assembly Book based on the assembly books produced in the US by Richard Kostelanetz.The catch phrase was 'Every contributor will be a distributor'. Sixty poets and artists each produced 1000 pages of a work and Colin Little quickly screened a cover on the day of collation at the Tin Sheds. Poet John Forbes was still printing his contribution in the bottom shed as we were assembling the rest of the book in the middle shed.(There was often a kind of immediacy to pursuits in art in those days.)

Chips Mackinolty a student (and son of the Dean of Law at Sydney Uni) joined Earthworks Collective alongside women like Toni Robertson, Jan Mackay and Marie MacMahon. They each produced some wonderful political posters.

May Day Palace Revolution Ball. Chips Mackinolty 1977

Sadly, in 1979 Colin Little died from lymph cancer thought to be caused by the chemicals then used in the screen printing process and possibly the lack of ventilation in the screen printing shed.

Later another screenprinting group,that had started in Wollongong, a mining and steelworks city on the coast south of Sydney, became part of the Tin Sheds collective. They were Redback Graphix. Michael Callaghan was prominent in Redback.

Throughout 1976-77 I was a member of an anarcho-feminist theatre group, the Lean Sisters, that performed political comedies at The Tin Sheds. The group's members included poets, lawyers, political activists, journalists, teachers, musicians, painters and two actors. We developed the scripts, sets, the entire productions collectively which, looking back now , was an amazing feat. All money raised from ticket sales went to womens' groups like, for example, the Elsie Womens' Refuge in Glebe. One show, The Poetry Water Gossip Show, involved assembling an above ground swimming pool and a diving board in the middle shed. Every performance in that show took place in the pool.

Lean Scenes from The Leans Lurch Left and The Crunkboonk Xmas Show at The Tin Sheds, 1977. (photos by Helen Grace)

Lean Sisters Micky Allan, Frances Budden and Diana Fuller painting the set and prop-making, Glebe, Summer 1977.

At the Sheds there were also annual Xmas Eve celebrations with bands like 'Mental as Anything', 'Sheila' and 'XL Capris' called 'Xmas-Is-False-Consciousness-Dances' where many a romance began or ended. There was the annual Anarchist Fete on the lawn behind the Sheds (a space now occupied by a portable that houses a departmental IT group), art classes, poetry readings, discussions of contemporary art practise, 'art + language' expositions (Ian Burn and Terry Smith) exhibitions and much more at the Tin Sheds. The university tolerated some of the oppositional activities of the artworkers and continued practical courses for arts students throughout. In 1979 I participated in Micky Allan's community photography project at the Tin Sheds and their component of the annual Chippendale festival involving the Redfern Indigenous community. The following year, 1980, I taught courses in Super 8 film-making there. The Tin Sheds had various directors over the years including Joan Grounds, Peter Kennedy, Louise Dauth and Martin Munz. It was the hub of Sydney counter-cultural culture. You can read more about it in The Tin Sheds - Under a Hot Tin Roof: Art, Passion and Politics at the Tin Sheds 1969-1994 by Therese Kenyon. (Published by State Library of NSW Press with the Power Institute of Fine Arts)and listen to a radio program about the Tin Sheds here.

Of course, last Thursday afternoon, I did already know that the Tin Sheds gallery had closed a couple of years ago and had been recently re-invented as an official venue in the Wilkinson building that houses the Sydney Uni Architecture Department just down the road, but to suddenly come across an empty space where an important cultural site had stood only a few days earlier was, for me, a shock.

By the time I arrived at the corner where I was to wait for Amanda's car I was in a strange state - feeling sort of bereft, I guess, and definitely feeling that this was far too much irony for one afternoon. I'd like to affect being a flâneuse but in Sydney it's impossible. Next I found that corner also undergoing demolition.

Later, to my relief, we found that The Performance Space was still standing with various mostly-abstract sound pieces installed throughout the old building's galleries on the ground floor and the theatre intact at the rear.

An update from 2010 - The Performance Space no longer exists. A few years ago it moved and was re-named Carriageworks, housed in a vast section of the old Eveleigh Railway Workshops at Redfern


Lyle Daggett said...

Pam -- tried commenting here a few days back, but it wouldn't let me -- something in the blog settings, I think. Trying again here --

Found this highly interesting. I love finding out about these amazing creative efforts that have gone on in every place on earth where art can gain any kind of foothold.

I also much relate with the sense of loss at seeing the buildings go. I went to college in a small program at the University of Minnesota (in the mid-1970's), populated with an eccentric mix of writers, artists, musicians, dancers, political activists, a scientist here and there, and a hodgepodge of other people.

The program was housed on the second and third floors of an ancient stone and concrete building with a glass and metal dome for a roof -- it had once been a bible college in the ancient past. The large central atrium, with hardwood floors, was used for dance and karate classes, which largely defined the ambience of the whole buiding.

The program was eventually cancelled by the University hierarchy, the funding taken away from it, and the building went to other uses. A number of years later when I went inside the building to see what had become of it, the large central room was filled with tables and chairs, and ringed with fastfood restaurants. My heart didn't sink, not really -- I guess I'd known it would be different -- but what a waste.

Thank you for posting this.

Anonymous said...

Dear Pam,
I visited the Baudrillard on-line site just yesterday for a few handy quotes for the novel I am working on again. I like his phrase 'factual violence'.(1992)

A lovely blog again. The Meanjin I will go out and buy right now. For some reason I had given Meanjin away as too Melbourne or too blokey or both.

I was reading Packer's Table, also as research for the novel, but left it at my mother's place. She is gripped by it, says of that part of Sydney in the 1990s 'corrupt is very good word for it'. She is astonished that she knows the names of some of the players, Rivkin of course, but Ray Martin and Malcolm Turnbull really tickles her.

I remember seeing the Lean Sisters at the Tin Sheds in the 70s, and Michale Ondaatje and Doris Lessing read at the Seymour Centre in what must have been 1984, and many things at the Performance Space. The most memorable for me was Le rail by a Canadian Group called Carbonne 14 in 1988. You may have seen it, it was an adaptation of DM Thomas's The White Hotel. Stunning.

pb said...

That's absurd isn't it - from mixed culture, dance and karate to food court bains-marie. At least the building was still standing - I suppose that was some compensation.

pb said...

Dear Jan, hi,
Hmm - how does 'factual violence' work - you mean in writing ? I'll have to think about that.

As you know Sydney is just a knock-it-down town these days. Lucky you've moved to Melbourne innit ?

Blak Times redeems some recent issues of Meanjin I think - the magazine seemed to be heading off down the glossy-weekend-lifestyle road for a while there.

And yes I remember that Carbone 14 show and the great piles of earth on the theatre floor - about the concentration camp train section in DM Thomas's book if I'm remembering correctly - it was eighteen years ago now.

Was that when you and I shared the playwrights-in-residency at the Performance Space ? Or the following year ? Another ambitious project that stayed 'In Process' !

Thanks for commenting.