Community Reading Room is an ongoing discursive project; the installation at Testing Grounds was its third incarnation, having previously being set up at Colour Box Studio in 2013 and Footscray Community Arts Centre in 2014.
The Community Reading Room is a collection of texts for, by, and about First Nations people; specifically placing First Nations artists at the centre rather than the margins of art history. It is based around artist/academic Torika Bolatagiti’s personal collection of books, magazines, and catalogues, but also involves public presentations, performances and meetings where issues relating to representation, archiving, and historiography are debated, challenged, and reimagined.
CRR is described by Torika as “a safe-space for individuals who identify as First Nations and people of colour to encounter texts that acknowledge and place their lived experience and practice at the centre, rather than the margin”; an active intervention in how knowledge and cultural histories – particularly artistic practices – are institutionalised and normalised. In keeping with the spirit of openness and inclusivity, CRR included a children’s area with books and craft activities introducing kids to first nations art and artists, and issues of diversity and representation in contemporary culture. It is also inclusive in the sense in which it crosses the boundaries between arts practice, archive creation, and research, simultaneously defining a historiographical perspective – and expanding that perspective – at the same time as implying its centrality.
While it is a ‘living’ project – being built around a personal library, CRR doesn’t really ‘stop’ between public-facing iterations – setting up this project at Testing Grounds provided unique opportunities and challenges. Embedded in the Arts Precinct exposed the project to a lot of foot traffic of people on their way somewhere else but curious about what is happening on site. This opened CRR to new audiences, while also providing pull for Torika’s academic colleagues and contacts within the arts community to visit.
Just as important for the artists, however, was that the project bridged a gap between academic conversation and public engagement. As Torika put it in her debrief of the project, many academic projects – even those stated to be about public engagement – end up with academics “talking to themselves,” whereas the Community Reading Room drew people of all ages and backgrounds into a project where critical thinking is central, but also accessible. At least part of this can be attributed to the work being an installation as well as a library – a space people felt comfortable sitting and staying for as long as they wanted.
One further benefit reported by Torika of hosting CRR in the Arts Precinct was to give the other groups involved in the project – particularly This Mob and Still Nomads artist collectives – a space to host community events in the city, which these emerging artists have found difficult in the past.
Key to the project was the setting of the space; a living installation designed to evoke Pacific Island life, designed and set up by Natasha Peiris of Luscious Jungle. In a piece commissioned by Testing Grounds, Natasha wrote about experience of working with Community Reading Room, unpacking some of the connections between natural environments and the processes of archiving and how the project affected her personally. The piece is available in PDF here.
At Testing Grounds, the Community Reading Room also provided a ‘home’ for reader-in-residence Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe. A Rwandan-British composer and artist, Stéphanie used the resources within the space and the time afforded as reader-in-residence for “listening, reading, conversing, creating.” Specifically, she used the time to develop her own research project interrogating and critiquing the religious and colonial framework underlying the Dewey Decimal System of library archiving. That research culminated in a performative presentation ‘Dewey Disengagement System’, centred around a reading of key ideas emerging from her research and interview with her father, a career librarian and information technology scholar who was instrumental in establishing the first electronic library databases.
The nature of the space being open to the public and located on an interdisciplinary site made the process of careful, immersive scholarly research a challenge – at the time the site was shared with While the Hour, an artist collaborative who collectively and individually actively engaged with the library and activities of CRR. But the opportunity to discuss, expand on, and at times defend her ideas to the broader public also provided motivation to Stéphanie’s project, and helped refine the ongoing direction of her research.
With a strong musical background, Stéphanie also curated several playlists of music by African, African American, South American, and Indigenous Australian performers. The playlists were designed to resonate with the other activities happening in the space over the three weeks; playback through the superstructure speakers helping to set the mood for the performance night by Black Birds or the open mic night of Still Nomads.
The final event of Community Reading Room was a performance by Sydney-based collective Black Birds, who brought their new work ‘Th(i)rd C(u)lture’ to the Reading Room in a 45-minute performance that dissected the experience of Brown/Black/Third/Cross Cultural Kids. The event – free to the public and drawing a crowd of over 50 – acted as both a celebration and a call to action for more work by people of colour to be included in art spaces.
Reflection and learning
Torika and her team collected data throughout the project in the form of hard-copy feedback forms, handed out at events or to visitors just dropping in. The forms asked visitors and event participants how they heard about CRR, what ethnicity/nationality they identify as, how people used the space and what they found most interesting within it. The 20 respondents were overwhelmingly positive in their responses to how the space made them feel included, and to the importance of a space that centralises First Nations art and artists. To the question “What do you take away from your experience at Community Reading Room?”, responses fell broadly into two categories: what visitors learned from the resources; and how the space itself made visitors feel part of a bigger community. In the former category, responses included:
- “How many PoC [People of Colour] artists are out there that are really established and doing exciting work.”
- “Cultural awakening.”
- “Libraries and archives are fundamental aspects of academia – their position in academic study often goes unquestioned. Who is writing the books? Who is documenting history?” What narratives are being told? Such questions reveal much about the power dynamic apparent in education.”
These responses highlight how the Community Reading Room worked as a discursive project, giving visitors an opportunity to think through important current issues in history, education, and representation. Equally important, however, was how the space functioned as a site for community building. Other responses to the question of what people took away from CRR include:
- “The togetherness of the room.”
- “That with community support we can do great things.”
- “Love; vibes; food; hope; community; spirit; safety.”
- “That we need more spaces like this – we need it to be a permanent place to congregate.”
- “Inclusivity; knowledge; self-respect; new family; new perspective; new strength.”
- “Art is important for young people of diverse backgrounds. Creating spaces for that is equally important.”
- “This experience was honestly so nourishing and in turn healing. I really appreciate the space that was held.”
The inclusive language in these responses – the use of ‘we’, talk of family and community – underlines the social dimensions of the project. Community Reading Room presented learning as a shared, collaborative, and negotiated process. These responses are also testament to how visitors experienced Testing Grounds as a safe and inclusive space overall.
The questionnaire also embraced the serendipity and productive possibilities of just picking up a book by asking the questions “What attracted you most to this book?” and “What is it about this book that most resonates with you?” While these questions produced many interesting responses, they served as much to highlight to participants the potential of any well written text to provoke or challenge thinking, and therefore the importance of creating spaces where texts representing marginalised communities and marginalised histories are not only available but central – right in front of people. Put simply, the questionnaire, extending from the project overall, underlined how the availability of information and forms of representation can shape how people think and feel.
The CRR project received no funding – Torika and Stéphanie noted that quick turnaround small project funding opportunities through government have dried up in recent times, and the timeframe from application to Testing Grounds to install of the project was too tight to secure funding from the academic institution Torika works at. Testing Grounds offering a free space and a quick response time to the application made the project possible.
What Torika and her team produced was not just a space but a full program dedicated to reframing the representation of First Nations art and artists, inviting a diverse public to engage with those representations, and providing a space for First Nations artists and thinkers to meet, make, and explore ideas important to them.
Living installation and the Community Reading Room, by Natasha Peiris
Bringing the wild inside
I first discovered the healing effects of plants after choosing to leave behind a failing relationship and an unsatisfying corporate career. The pull was strong as I allowed myself to be led down the path, and the emotional outburst I was experiencing had to unravel its tempest. It was as if until then a part of me was sleeping, and a then storm came and the ground I was standing on rearranged. Totally uprooted and with branches broken and leaves stripped bare, I was urged to look towards nature for comfort.
As I let the wild inside… I dug my hands into the dirt, breathing deeply and reconnecting with the source. Relishing the ritual and reciprocal nature in the practise of plant care – the process and intention – I found catharsis.
Moving into a small inner city apartment, I feathered my nest, showering myself with simple earthly delights; beautifying my space with plants and uplifting my senses with scent and music. With only a small balcony I was challenged for space but still managed to fill every room with greenery. I had created a sanctuary that gave me so much pleasure. It was a luscious jungle.
Looking back, my attraction to nature and greenery was in fact satisfying my growing desire to rejuvenate and revitalise. Wanting to share my experience, I began making potted creations and living plant art installations for those around me.
Biophilia: ‘love of life and the living world’
While the humble houseplant is enjoying a revival driven by the trend in high-density urban living, indoor plants do a lot more than just soften the look of a room. Within any built environment plants can actually negate negative mood, dissatisfaction, loss of focus and poor health. Whether at home, in the workplace, or community spaces; accessibility and views to nature, varying temperature and daylight forge positive connections humans require to function at their optimum.
The concept of ‘biophilic design’ integrates natural elements into interior spaces while strengthening the connection between humans and the natural world. Stemming from Greek roots, the word biophilia means the passionate love of life and all that is alive, referring to an innate attraction to nature and our desire to connect with natural systems. The term was first used by Erich Fromm in his book Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) to describe a psychological orientation to all that is alive and vital. The concept was later expanded by biologist Edward O. Wilson (1984), who argued that humans have a biological need to connect with nature on physical, mental, spiritual and social levels. Recent Harvard studies have applied this concept of biophilia and proven that regular contact with nature reduces stress, improves productivity and mental wellbeing, and can even expedite healing.
Acknowledging these innate human needs, we began to think about creating a space where people could cultivate their inner garden, disconnecting from digital devices and reconnecting with the wild world and its natural rhythms.
Community Reading Room: the installation process
With our recent plant installation for the Community Reading Room at Testing Grounds we set out to create an immersive experience. Working with artist collaborator Jesse Rhys Sciberras, we began the creative process by viewing the site and gathering inspiration for the design. We paid particular attention to the journey of the senses; imagining how visitors may feel in the space and how our plant display will impact their time spent. What will the space look like? Is there natural light? Where is the airflow? What colours and textures will we employ? What will it smell like? How will the plants we use continue to live and flourish within the environment? Who will take care and maintain them?
It was a blank canvas – we would be transforming a white cube into a community library for 3 weeks. Encouraged to challenge traditional boundaries and take calculated risks, we were excited to install a thought provoking, safe, and inviting environment for all visitors, artists, performers; a haven entwining literature, nature, and community.
On meeting the curator Torika Bolatagici, we learned that the library was her own personal collection and this was by no means to be a traditional library. Comprising of books and literature from the Pacific Islands, Africa and the Americas, Torika’s unique collection included topics around race, cultural identity, gender and post colonisation. The context for Community Reading Room instantly provoked meaning to our design; the material centred around indigenous history and culture provided many themes to explore in our plant scape. With such a powerful collection of literature, texts and zines, it was important that the installation we were planning would not only provide a visual compliment, but also create an empowering experience. We wanted our work to reflect the idea of libraries providing a kind of freedom – freedom of ideas and freedom to share and communicate. We felt a deep sense of honour and indigenous wisdom reminding us that the natural world is enchanting and sacred, and that we are part of it, creating and co-creating.
The design: we rise by lifting others
Following ideas within the Process Art movement, our approach takes into account that the physical end product is not the only focus of an installation. Logistically, working with living plants requires careful planning; a series of measures to ensure the plants remain alive and sustain themselves within a man made ecosystem. The process of creating living installations is a dance between form and function. Managing the natural cycles of decay and rejuvenation through placement, light and water management ensures functionality of the installation, and symbiotically the aesthetic is informed by the natural systems.
Deriving inspiration from the literature and activities planned for the Community Reading Room, we built a sub-tropical oasis inspired by the Pacific Islands. A canopy of lush vegetation appeared amongst the tangled reeds and roots, trailing ferns, and fresh forest moss. We arranged the plants in a kind of rhythm around the room, following a pattern of shapes and colours. We spent time to preparing before their debut: wiping leaves, pruning, trimming repotting and watering. The blushing Bromeliad Neoregelia – which cleverly collects water in its spectacular magenta coloured ‘cup’ – was a particularly attractive feature while also proving to be self sustaining indoors. Dried rosemary sticks were woven through the the display, giving a gentle, uplifting aroma which encouraged mental clarity.
The scene was completed with a collection of red gum logs which symbolically represented the monumental and sculptural nature of totem poles. The hollowed logs, originally discarded, was reclaimed and repurposed as ‘pots’ for plants to unfurl from. A few of the logs were subtly carved and hand painted with bird and animal faces. Elevated by steel plinths, the reclaimed timber pots were distributed into a informal grid to create a towering vertical wall. To add detail we finessed the settings with river stones and pebbles, playing extra care at eye level to draw the viewer further into the display. Finally, we dressed the base of each plant with dried coconut fibre, which gave temperature protection moisture retention, while also showing a natural contrast between life and decay.
Maintenance and art
In the Manifesto of Maintenance Art (1967), Mierle Ukles proposed undoing the boundaries that separate the maintenance of everyday life from the role of the artist in society. Ukeles was interested in how art could be used to empower people to act as agents of change; to stimulate positive community involvement toward ecological sustainability. The maintenance and watering schedule for the living sculpture in the Community Reading Room was a key part of creating a harmonious, regenerative setting which actually grew more luscious over the 3 week installation. This caretaker role was often taken on by reader-in-residence and plant enthusiast Stéphanie Kaybanyana; the routine of care became part of her daily practice and put into action the idea of maintenance becoming part of artistic creation.
Our intention was for the plants and people to flourish together in a space for learning, reflecting, and regenerating.