Margaret Roberts We went to School here 2020, in Occupied, an exhibition of expanded drawing curated by Rilka Oakley in the Blue Mountains City Art Gallery in Katoomba, NSW, open 2 June - 5 July 2020. The work is composed of the actual location and black tape lines on the floor. The lines recognise the location's history by marking out the footprint of the previous building. The work comes together on those occasions when someone remembers being in the place in its prior form (which happens to be a school) while physically present in that same place now (which is an art gallery). The work itself thus has low visibility for most people, even though it takes up most of the space of the gallery. However some of those memories are available to the rest of us second hand via conversations with people who have them, and by reading post-comments on the katoomba high school 100 year anniversary page on Facebook. Printouts of those posts are collected in the gallery along with images taken by visitors standing on parts of the old building they remember. The image above shows one line of the floor drawing that runs under and around work by other artists, including that of Sue Pedley and Virginia Hilyard in the foreground. That line shows where the Northern edge of the previous building is located. Text accompanying the work is reproduced below:
We went to school here shows the footprint of the building that occupied the site of the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre (BMCC) for most of the twentieth century until it made way for the Cultural Centre in the 1990s. By then it was part of Katoomba TAFE and, before that, it had been the Katoomba High School. The name We went to school here was chosen for the familiarity many people will have with the place marked out in the gallery—those who went to school here, and others who knew the school as a local landmark.
But because that building has been removed, I wonder if it is still valid to stand within the drawing of the footprint and say that people went to school here, when there is now another building on this spot? Can we believe that it is the same place when all materiality of the old building is gone and we rely on technical data (Hassell’s architectural plan for the Cultural Centre superimposed on an aerial photograph of the school grounds, as shown below) to know that the BMCC gallery is located pretty much exactly over the footprint of the old school building?
If we believe it is, what is it like standing on the blank footprint and remembering what happened here when the place was a school? Or hearing and reading what others remember about being here 30 or more years ago? Does this place feel different when our attention is drawn to memories of what happened here many years ago? Are our memories different depending upon where we are when we remember? And for those of us who do not have our own memories of going to school here, when we acknowledge that the gallery is a place with a history, does that change how we think of it?
I don’t have those memories of the old school myself, but I know the shock of discovering that a valued place has disappeared under a road and another has become a block of flats, and the lingering regret at not having been around to protect them. There is a name for this experience of being in a place you know well but can no longer recognise because it has changed so much. Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia for ‘the homesickness you have when you are still at home’, describing it as ‘the chronic distress caused by negatively perceived changes to a home and its landscape’(1) He was talking about the environmental change caused by drought and mining in the Upper Hunter region of NSW, a change that covers a much larger area and without the compensation of any improved amenity, such as the Cultural Centre provides for Katoomba. But Albrecht’s analysis acknowledges an important relationship between memory and place that might apply to any place changed beyond recognition. In making this work I came to realise his term, in acknowledging our attachments to places we remember, also values the places they have become by recognising that they have a history.
The work that became We went to school here developed out of an interest in what is hidden in places—their invisible pasts—what they were before they became the places they are now, and how acknowledging this invisible history seems to change how we think of a place. This interest also led to an earlier work, They don’t live here anymore, made for the place of the Tin Sheds Gallery in Darlington.(2) Serendipity also played a part in developing We went to school here. I was lucky that the Cultural Centre archives contained an aerial photograph of the school, which I could then use in combination with the architectural plans for the Cultural Centre to discover the spatial coincidence of the gallery and the old school building, as noted above. This information is a type of technical data that enabled me to draw an element of the history of the place—the previous building’s footprint—in situ, on the floor of the gallery. I hope that the drawing will attract more of that history via the memories of the many people who must have studied or worked here in the latter part of last century, or otherwise knew the building. They are important to this work, as they can show us something about the gallery that we do not normally think of when we walk into it.
I was also lucky because there are many previous occupants of the place—it was a school building, and many more people are likely to have formed attachments to it than if it had been, say, a row of private houses. As well as that, last year was the school’s centenary, bringing together exactly those people likely to have and to value those attachments. Some have joined the public Facebook group, the Katoomba High School 100 Year Anniversary Page(3),and are posting memories there of life in the old school building, providing visible evidence of the invisible world of individual and shared memory. There are bound to be many more people who know the place that the gallery now occupies. The lines on the floor that mark out the old building’s footprint acknowledge these memories and their role in maintaining the place now occupied by the gallery. A different artist might make a film, recording the memories of students and staff, but I like the way these memories form an invisible amorphous cloud of unknown size floating around Katoomba in the minds of the many people who went to school here and hovering around the footprint whenever they visit the work.
The Facebook posts show that the content of such amorphous clouds can be quite precise and detailed, and I hope that visitors will bring this content to the physical actuality of the place, to see if it feels different when memories and place coincide, as in stories of time travel. It could even be momentarily spooky for (sighted) people with strong memories to feel they are in a place they cannot literally see, like being in a DIY virtual reality experience. I am also asking visitors who remember the school to stand where they know something was located in the school, to photograph their feet in that spot and to arrange for that photograph to be left in the exhibition for others to see, with the information about what they are standing on. This is to encourage people to engage with the physicality of the place via its past as well as its current life, while at the same time communicating with other visitors, who may visit at different times, by leaving the photos as explained in the footnote below.(4)
As much as I was attracted to the idea of mixing the communal physicality of the place and the private invisibility of memories, I was also interested in the way mixing the technical data from the Cultural Centre’s archives with personal memories could somehow bring contrary forces together. The idea of using a building’s footprint to visually locate the past in the present came from also being interested in ways artworks might interact with the places in which they are located, and what this may mean within the bigger picture of the world we live in. This interest originally led me to puzzle over why art schools are so focussed on getting us skilled in making work that takes the viewer somewhere else. As an art student, I would wonder what was so bad about the place I was in that made it so important to learn how to direct attention away from it. It was as if the physical places our bodies move around in were invisible or insignificant.
Much later, Anthony Giddens’ discussion of Modernity—its emergence in Europe in the seventeenth century and its expansion worldwide through the colonisation and globalisation that continues to the present—gave me a framework for thinking about this puzzle over place.(5) I thought I already knew that story, but what was new in Giddens’ version was the role he gave to the devaluation of place in the development of Modernity. By ‘place’, Giddens means our geographic locale, the specific place we occupy at any one time. He describes how we—the inhabitants of Modernity—are gradually transferring the trust our ancestors once had in the place in which we are located, to the expert systems in which we are now increasingly embedded as well. For example, when going about our daily business, we no longer need to look to the place in which we are located to work out the time of day, what the weather will become, or how to navigate a route to where we want to go. Expert systems provide that information now. Giddens’ expert systems are many and varied, but would include the aeronautic and photographic expertise that produced the aerial photo I used to locate the old school building’s footprint and the architectural expertise that produced the Cultural Centre plan. Local memory could also locate the footprint somewhere in the block of the Cultural Centre, because its context of roads and other buildings still exist, but the technical data I used confirms how the locations of the old building and the Cultural Centre gallery coincide almost exactly.
I was aware of the funny contradiction in using that technical data produced by expert systems to restore what Giddens’ theory suggests it is displacing, but I went ahead anyway. Making the work and reading the Facebook memories about what it was like to be in this place when it was a school, led me to see that it is only necessary to use such data to identify a past place when that place has been destroyed, when the old process of memory and visual recognition of landmarks doesn’t work anymore because the landmarks are gone. The Facebook posts showed that people have the capacity for detailed spatial memories of places that are important to them, and can easily recognise such places if they have not been physically erased. This led me to imagine the possibility of a world in which we don’t destroy places, where every one of us has the opportunity, at any age, to revisit places important to us. This would transform how we value places and ourselves, which is the sort of thing we need to do if we are to avoid the environmental catastrophe this modern culture is taking us into.
While we are having the discussion about whether and how to stop destroying places, simply acknowledging the histories of places is a first step that we can take towards restoring some of the value of place because it may change how we regard it. This is because recognising what went before, as well as helping validate the present, allows us to see a location as an ongoing physical place distinct from the use its inhabitants put it to.
The distinction between physical locations and their uses (or how they are occupied), has particular relevance for art galleries. Discussions about how a gallery is a place as well as a gallery developed in the 1970s with Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube.(6) As a ‘white cube’, a gallery is designed to assist artwork made by hands and minds skilled in representing other spaces to ‘take people away’ to them by minimising its own character as a live place. The ideas in O’Doherty’s critique of this gallery design have influenced later contemporary art—contributing to the normalisation of installation, for example—and are part of a rethinking of art’s relationship to place that creates its own space and audiences within the larger artworld.
The installation tendencies of artwork such as the ‘expanded drawing’ in this exhibition grew out of that critique of art and its galleries, creating a convention for artists to direct attention instead to the place in which the artwork is located. Many works may straddle these different ways of thinking about art, but the broader critique of the white cube gallery is that the audience default inclination is to look to artwork to take us away, to immerse us in another place, and to easily forget that we are already well immersed in an actual physical place and the way we value and think of it.(7)
I think of We went to school here as both preventing audiences from travelling to another place in their minds and enticing them to do so. Actually, the enticement is to travel to another time, it just seems like another place because it looks so different now. I have made no attempt to represent the past, thinking it will be brought here in the memories of those who knew this place then. Here, we remember (or imagine) what happened in this location at other times. I hope We went to school here will entice audiences to regard this gallery as a place by acknowledging the place’s history. Of this place’s current use as a gallery, its context is largely found elsewhere, among the many other galleries in the world and the discussions that question and sustain them.
1. Photograph your feet standing on a spot you remember in the old school building.
(5) Anthony Giddens The Consequences of Modernity Cambridge, UK:Polity Press 1990
(6) Brian O’Doherty Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space San Francisco: The Lapis Press 1986
(7) Robert Morris Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The MIT Press 1993
More writing on this subject: Situating Images 2021