Aesthetics of Process in a City Master Plan in Western Sydney, Australia

Posted by Gretchen Coombs, Jul 27, 2017

This post is part of our Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change blog salon.

“It’s lumpy,” he said. Jock McQueenie, an artist turned arts consultant was a contributor to the C3West vision for The Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia. He wasn’t referring to the landscape around Penrith, a large city nestled into the base of the Blue Mountains which hosts the Nepean River as it snakes north through sandstone until it becomes the Hawkesbury River. Penrith marks the western edge of Sydney’s urban footprint.

Jock was referring to the mutable nature of The Future of Penrith/Penrith of the Future, a reimagining of the city’s master plan.

Since 2006, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s Director, Elizabeth Ann McGregor OBE, along with the vision of several MCA curators, has delivered over 15 contemporary art projects across Greater and Western Sydney.

What I describe here touches briefly on three interconnected aesthetic criteria—commitment to art for change, communal meaning, and stickiness—among the 11 offered in Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change.

The Future of Penrith/Penrith of the Future came out of the C3West initiative (community, commerce, contemporary art), and demonstrates how partnerships between artists, city councils, urban planners, architects, and businesses have resulted in positive social outcomes where communities reimagine urban life, establish relationships to place, and experience what art can be and do outside the museum. The C3West model challenges the orthodoxies of community art by bringing in civic and business partners, tapping into sources of money that would not normally be available to artists.

What distinguishes the Penrith project from the other C3West works was the unique partnership with Campement Urbain (a collaborative art and social action group founded by French artist Sylvie Blocher and architect François Daune, working with Sydney based architect Tim Williams), the Penrith City Council, and the Penrith Panthers. Together, along with extensive community consultation, they would envision the future master plan of Penrith.

Symposium invitation showing Penrith community members who participated in Sylvie Blocher’s research, 2011.

Sylvie Blocher had pre-existing relationships with Penrith through a previous C3West project with the Panthers, the local rugby league team. Arguably, she poses what curators Claire Doherty and Paul O’Neil (editors of the 2011 book Locating the Producers: Durational Approaches to Public Art) describe as “charismatic agency” with an uncanny ability to disarm people by asking surprising and bold questions. During her consultations with 40 community members from Penrith she asked the following three questions: “If you were Mayor of Penrith, what would you change? What is your suggestion for an annual event for the community of Penrith? What is your relationship to beauty?”

Such questions allowed Penrith residents to contemplate what they wanted for the future of Penrith, and their answers constituted the rich body of community consultation from which CU developed their master plan.

Penrith is on what Campement Urbain describes as the “suburban fringe” and is often perceived as in the shadow of Sydney’s cultural might––a distant point of urban sprawl. The lumps Jock McQueenie mentioned may also reference the metaphor of an archipelago, which, for CU, is a common condition for cities on the edge of a metropolis. The metaphor describes suburban isolation and disconnect between the residential, the commercial, and community centers of Penrith. CU’s vision would connect the disparate islands of the Penrith archipelago by reimagining the train station as a community center, implementing a monorail, and creating a new pedestrian bridge. This new urban geography would foment community and sustainability.

The Nepean River became a connective current in this process as well. Sylvie felt it was a common point of interest for people from different backgrounds, countries, and religions but existing bridges do not facilitate human-scale connectivity to the river. The vast multi-lane M4 bridge caters primarily to high-speed traffic and the small 19th century bridge was built for horses to cross, but they were spooked by the river, so the river was hidden from view. A new pedestrian bridge over the river would bind the residents and offer communal meaning: a geographical focal point steeped in history and practical use.

The new bridge is underway, and while it doesn’t realize CU’s ultimate vision for Penrith’s river precinct, it does allow residents and cyclists to cross with a sweeping view north and south of the Nepean. The bridge retains elements of CU’s original plan, which had inspired the engineers and planners to incorporate elements of the artist’s vision.

If stickiness is a term used to describe lasting impact, then one salient example from the Penrith project comes from Karen King, a high school teacher on the outskirts of Penrith. Driving to work one day, Karen heard architect Tim Williams on the radio describing what would be the new Penrith master plan. Inspired by what she heard, she invited Tim to speak to a group of art teachers active in the area. From this point, Karen’s approach to teaching art changed: her students would engage with local issues through projects that would use local resources. The first group created a project with real world outcomes. “River Voices” ran for three years and anchored students and locals to the river in a tangible way. Not only did Karen’s pedagogical approach to teaching art change, but also the students’ understanding of what art could be and do in the world transformed.

The MCA created the opportunity for CU to develop a project that underpins Penrith City Council‘s planning department policies. The museum established civic agency and gains social capital through their commitment to link art, artists, and aesthetic practices in the C3West projects. For Craig Butler, Assistant General Manager of Penrith City, the artists were the champions of the city, the ambassadors and translators for the Penrith community. They asked the questions no one asks; they were catalysts for others’ hopes for their city. Success came with their creative process, one that allowed residents to take ownership of their city and identify how they wanted it to develop, and this engagement continues to this day.

As a project, The Future of Penrith/Penrith of the Future demonstrates the value of fostering aesthetics—and a museum’s leadership—in public processes and how Animating Democracy’s Aesthetic Perspectives framework may help planners, businesses, and city officials to see the value add of artists as creative thinkers.