Stories from Home: an art-research intervention at Bell Bardia Estate 2011
Stories from HOME: an art -research intervention, explored new arts -based methodologies with the potential to reduce the effects of social research on vulnerable communities. Devised and delivered by Marnie Badham James Oliver and housing estate residents, the resulting artist residency, social connections, and art exhibition all contributed to the development of a more situated socially engaged art and ethnographic approach to participatory research.
"While it is common for a work of art to provoke dialogue among viewers this typically occurs in response to a finished object. In these projects, conversation becomes an integral part of the work itself. It is re -framed as an active, generative process that can help us speak and imagine beyond the limits of fixed identities and official discourse." Kester (1985: 71). There is a long history of creative interventions focused on social relationships to the built environment and, increasingly in Australian cities, exploring concerns located at public housing sites (Pitts, 2004; Kwon, 2004; Lacy, 1995). From community choirs to digital projections, community art and public art can play a role in neighbourhood transformation in ways that exceed mere decoration. These types of creative collaborations can assist residents through dialogue: by articulating their own voice and aesthetics, while drawing attention to and affecting local issues, they can also mobilize action and strengthen social fabric.
Stories from HOME grew out of the site of the Bell Bardia estate in Heidelberg West, a suburb of Melbourne which experiences significant disadvantage (Oliver et al., 2011). This intervention was not solely restricted to an arts project; it also set out to explore arts -based methodologies as a means to reduce potential negative impacts of social research on vulnerable communities. As an interdisciplinary research project, it aimed to challenge representations of place -based stigma. Through the development of participatory and generative methodologies, the theme of ‘home’ prompted residents by asking: Where you are from? Where are you now? and Where are you going? Competing understandings of place were drawn out regarding Bell Bardia: as contested and dangerous, as a site of refuge, but also later as a place to re -imagine the potential for belonging and community.
Artist -researchers Marnie Badham and James Oliver were located at the Bell Bardia estate for over four months, initially engaging residents in flexible social and participatory arts activity before shifting toward generative art outcomes.
Multiple custom -designed and decorated ‘house cut -outs’ were installed by residents in the shared yard, artist -designed postcards with prepaid overseas postage triggered storytelling and nostalgia, and other place -based activities drew attention to overlooked physical aspects of the estate. For instance, a ‘photography walk’, a group photo exercise, extended a dialogue on themes of
‘home’ through a detailed exploration and discussion of the grounds at Bell Bardia. One resident photographed the overhead airplane sky writing, while others documented a neighbour’s garden, a dangerous play apparatus, and even a child looking at us through a window. As photo elicitation, these images were then used as source material for social exchange and when realizing many images were not familiar to everyone, activated a ‘scavenger hunt’. Children explored
the estate by searching for the images; when they could not find the imaged object (e.g., a particular flower), they approached other residents sitting outside nearby for assistance. Many reported these activities “were a good excuse to meet their neighbours” and even suggested we target some residents as they “wanted to get to know the people living upstairs.”
Together, these participatory activities generated a large repository of place -based images and became a site of dialogue, gathering more of these ambivalent descriptions regarding the resident’s feelings toward the estate such as, “It is not like it used to be”. Over the tenure of the project, there was a marked shift from naming problems – “we need a place for peace and quiet” – to a more positive reframing: “we are making this place popular” and “its good to hear children laughing”. Putting forward the theme of ‘home’ was an intentionally open -ended creative research question.
Both art and research are powerful representational practices in which there is the danger “to speak on behalf of ” or the potential to facilitate discussion with communities (Foster, 1995: 308). Theorized as dialogic art, Stories from HOME generated dialogue through the process of participatory art -making. Stories from HOME focused on the relational qualities of process -driven practice, facilitated dialogue amongst the diversity of residents, re -animating their shared public space. Like many community -based arts projects, this art -research project was only short -term; however, shared public space and the animation of it through artistic process -driven practices create a platform for coming together
and creating bonds. Residents and artist researchers created a space to draw attention to and explore local place, in turn stimulating the social fabric at Bell Bardia Housing Estate.