My major commitment was to set up and service an open access arts workshop for the 4-week lead up to the 30A protests. The workshop came to be known as the 30A Creative Workshop and it was hosted by STUCCO a student-housing cooperative in Wilson Street Newtown. The object was to make banners and flags, print T-shirts and placards, and make art generally to give the occupations of public space artful presence and style. A carnival of resistance was our aim.
The sign made up for 30A Creative Workshop, the stencil art by K.
From my experience as in community arts and festival making over the years, I knew that such event preparations not only produce product for the day, their process also builds movement towards the event, confidence in it and commitment. Such carnival workshops also serve as a vehicle for pre-publicity by providing photo opportunities that signal an exciting event coming.
So it was that this grey haired nomad and his dogs became temporary residents in STUCCO, temporary denizens of Newtown, a former inner city industrial working class ghetto, now gentrifying, with bookshops and cafes galore in King Street, but still eccentric enough to be a refuge for gays, students and the last of the left.
The STUCCO courtyard August 2005
STUCCO had resonances for me because it was a product of the post Aquarian work and recycling imagination of my architecture mates from Sydney University, Col James OA and his circle. A former glass factory and probably supplying the State Rail Carriage works further down Wilson Street, the three story building had become in the seventies a student squat. After a struggle, it was purchased by the University of Sydney, renovated for housing and leased back to a self-managing resident cooperative of which only student in residence could become members.
At the time this was a radical innovation on two fronts: it both recycled a heritage building and it was also an experiment in student housing, a democratic alternative to the prevailing notions of the authoritarian religious or secular university college as way to accommodate students. The STUCCO residents paid about $68 a week for their small bedroom room privacy, they made decisions by consensus and they became residents by a advertising and interviewing process by existing residents.
The old three story factory had been fitted out with 8 balconied units of five bedrooms each unit sharing kitchen and bathrooms. The units fronted onto an open courtyard over which remained the great wooden beams that once supported the floors of industry. The fit out had also provided a basement garage big enough for 10 or 12 cars, a ballroom (as it might have been termed in another age) and a sun deck that had great view to the south over the rail lines to fuming industry and shipping terminals of Botany.
So here I was 30 years later enjoying the fruits of this exploration of very seventies exploration of alternatives.
Congratulations Col James et al. STUCCO works! Not only had the cooperative approach kept rent down as an ever changing self managing residents cooperative, it was so well managed over the years that it was near to acquiring the property title and becoming independent of Sydney University management.
Eureka banners drying on the balconey of the STUCCO courtyard August 2005
But more than that it worked in human terms. Delicious were the nights I observed when residents and their visitors hung about in the court yard talking in small groups, sharing wine, the sound of guitar or maybe a band rehearsing in the basement, the laughter and the sighs of young love. Consensus decision-making taught them patience and tolerance, and the ever availability of free food that came from the regular dumpster diving expeditions fostered the generosity of an endless feast.
Furthermore the radical traditions of STUCCO's squat origins had been retained to the extent that it was still along with two nearby student housing cooperative known as Forbes Street and The Nunnery, a centre for student activist organising. While in residence, I a former president of the UNSW Students Union, witnessed, aided and abetted the resistance to the neoliberal Howard government attack on student unionism which was being organised from there.
Old man in a garden of youth and bright intelligence, I got to live amongst their garbage, hermit of the basement, and felt blessed to be there as a guest. On a typical day I would rise at 5.30 am exercise the dogs, meditate through sunrise on the roof deck, yoga stretch in the company of a Colombian aeronautical engineering student named Phillip did his push ups and squat jumps, breakfast and ablute and be in the workshop making from 9.30am.
The dogs Jennifer and Miffy, waited patiently in the basement from where they could here my voice and footsteps on the floor above. In the evening we would walk together again, longer walks through the Newtown back streets and even sometimes along busy King Street, Miffy straining at the lease with the excitement and dragging old Jennifer and weary legged me along. Urban folk don't get to see many big dogs, and these two white shaggy ones with smiling dispositions were much admired: kids coming up to stroke them, deprived dog lovers kneeling to hug them.
Happy Wheels and Jennifer in the STUCCO basement August 2005
My favourite walk was through the grounds of the old State Rail Carriage works, once a place of huge industry where many tradesmen were employed (fitters, blacksmiths, boiler makers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, upholsters and so on) and where many apprentices were trained; now an industrial ruin in the process of being privatised and redeveloped for profit.
Weeds amongst the concrete and rusted rails, old signs and cables; a riveted steel pressure vessel and attached, a steam whistle that once sounded working shift times for thousands; the worker cottages and the yard master's mansion. An under resourced rail Museum had heritage rolling stock parked there windows smashed and garish with spray can tags.
Walking by I watched the daily progress of the dismantling of the great steel roof trusses of the vast workshops, industrial wonders of their time, and contemplated the ruins of the welfare state and the common wealth vision of a transport system owned and built, by and for the people.
While I was in residence at STUCCO the price of petrol jumped 25% and the NSW (far right) Labor government, neglecters of public transport and privatisers of public roads, now shamelessly overt in their courting of the super rich as hosts of the subsidised Forbes Global CEO Conference, proudly opened a cross city tunnel tollway, a subsidised money funnel for their already rich mates. And this was the same government that was threatening us 30A protesters with police violence if we should impede the congress of the rich and their take over of public space.
What might arrest this decline in government service and public office morality? From where would such change spring? Only from the poor and the marginal. Only from the cultivation of resistance and, in the beginning, only in small gardens such as STUCCO.
My experience of open access carnival workshops is that they are not overwhelmed by volunteers, a most the very small population of people with the time and commitment to prepare for events, only a small part has the confidence, talent and skill to make anything with their hands. But a few people working together can draw in lots of resources, make a big difference and set a good example.
The 30A banner and Ned Kelly's cardboard armourt at the 30A Creative Workshop August 2005
Only a handful of the 30 plus residents of STUCCO actually entered the workshop to lend a hand, most watched its progress in passing and were impressed by the productivity and the visual transformations of the ballroom, one day draped with the prints of defiant socialist fists and the next with lines of screen printed Eureka banners.
So the days went by painting, printing and sewing flags, painting banners, designing placards and cutting cardboard for the skelly backpack puppets. People came and went, weekend volunteers and supporters with an hour or two to spare. My job was to oversee, demonstrate, design, teach technique and clean up after.
Bob Cunii, Newtown based activist anarchist, screen printer and handyman, was the one who got the Workshop buzzing. Whenever he was there production leapt. During the Regan years Bob had been active with Puerto Ricans organising housing cooperatives in the squatted tenements in the Bronx and supporting the Puerto Rican resistance to US occupation of their homeland. Squeegee as revolutionary tool, Bob had energy, experience, skill and commitment.
Bob Cumii prints in the 30A Creative Workshop August 2005
Together and at his prompting we painted up two drop banners 2 metre wide and 6 metre deep on recycling abandoned Bourbon banners he had found at a dump. I designed them to scale on my iBook, had them printed out on a transparency, which was projected onto a wall with an overhead projector and sketched out with pencil. From go to whoa the big banners took three days to prepare.
Two banners would normally make little impact on advertising saturated city such as Sydney, but Bob knew just where to hang them: from the roof of his mates Silvio's house opposite Macdonaldtown station just down the street from STUCCO. Everyday hundreds of thousands commuters go through this station, their trains often pausing there while waiting for the signal to enter Redfern and the CBD loop.
The wall of Silvio's house already had a mural considered by many to be one of Sydney's finest. It was the scene from the Mexican Olympics with the African American winners of the 100m sprint on the podium head down and giving the Black Panther salute while the Australian third place winner grinned. It had been there for over 10 years and Bob had been part of its production.
We draped the two new banners either side, Bob up on the roof with Joey, me on the pavement positioning, and Silvio beside me worrying about the holes Bob was drilling in his roof. It was a triumphant moment. After the banners were unfurled, Bob and Joey watched the faces of the passing commuters and the feedback was instantly affirming waves and thumbs up.
On the pavement some neighbours came by and, loving what they saw and how the new banners framed and integrated the existing and much loved mural, congratulated the chuffed Silvio as a revolutionary hero. "We'll be there'" they called to Bob.
A photograph of the banners was later printed in the mass circulation Sun Herald, there by vastly amplifying the images and the messages. Seeing it Bob and I shook hands in mutual congratulation.
Wall banners hanging opposite Macdonaldtown Station, Newtown. Thousands of passing rail commuters saw them and the Sun Herald helped our pre-publicity with this page 3 photo, 27 August 2005
The 30A Creative Workshop produced a lot of stuff: besides the banners, 20 Eureka Banners, 20 Eureka A banners, most of which was fated never to get aired because of police obstruction. A fine arts student named Jess picked up on the idea of backpack puppets and organised a group of grrrl friends to come in and make them.
Rachel, a young and very competent organiser of the Refuge Action Coalition, organised another group of grrrls to come in and make lanterns for a Tampa Day commemoration, which preceded our 30A action, and over two days we made 40 octahedron shaped lanterns. These went parading down George Street from Town Hall to Customs House Square on the evening of Wednesday 24 August and attracted many compliments.
Refugee Action Coalition grrrls make lanterns at the 30A Creative Workshop, 20 August 2005
In solidarity with the student activists and their fight to retain universal student unionism - as against the Howard government plan for Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) - we printed 50 pennants to a design provided by Kris a skull and cross bones with the slogan: "No VSU. No surrender." Bob cut and delivered fifty 2 metre bamboo sticks to hold them and they looked great at the student rally and march through the city to Liberal party HQ on Thursday 25 August.
Student protest for universal student unionism outside Liberal party HQ, Williams Street Sydney 25 August 2005
We 30A Network organisers watched the G8 protests in Scotland with interest and heard an eye witness report from a Sydney unionist named Jim Casey. Jim had been impressed by the role of the Rebel Clown Army, volunteers working in teams and dressed as clowns who acted as defusers and laughter bringers in confrontations with police. Joey Nipress took up the idea and started painting spots on disposable white cover alls he had obtained from Greenpeace. But the project needed teams of volunteer clowns more it needed spots and nothing came of it.
Out of solidarity with the International Socialist Organisation I designed and prepared 10 banners, which they might use to decorate their upcoming Sydney Social Forum and give them presence at 30A. I don't have any particular history with the ISO other than the historical knowledge of the Marxist tendency to vanguardism, opportunism and ready betrayal of their closest collaborators, but I was enjoying the company and good work of ISO members Vince and Bruce and the project arose more an act of generosity and friendship.
Bob who did the printing grumbled about this. "They will betray you, mate," he warned. "They will set things up and leave you carrying the can." Socialists, it seems, organise with words, spoken and written; anarchists with sweat, hands on making and doing.
As it turned out, the ISO proved weak and under resourced when it came to making and only two ISO banners were completed and neither got an airing at the Social Forum or 30A because no one in ISO thought to bring them. These two were completed only because TJ, an Aboriginal dancer, Bruce's partner and wife by ceremony, came in one evening and together we worked, him at the sewing machine, me at the iron, assembling the banners.
Bruce called us during the evening ordering us to stop work and go behold the full moon; which we did on the roof deck of STUCCO sipping wine and TJ telling stories of his mission childhood, of abusive gay partners he had known before the gentle Bruce, of having AIDS and living with tumours. Heart rending story and the ISO flag project worthwhile just for these.
Jess paints the backpack puppets in the 30A Workshop August 2005
The last week of the 30A Creative Workshop was to be devoted to banner production. Bob had in mind the mass production of sacrificial banners to drape from bridges over motorways.
Bob and I had worked out some great slogans and the material was organised, but we were frustrated by the fusing of the power transformers in both the overhead projectors that we had borrowed. Very unusual for overhead projectors to breakdown. Bob's power jigsaw also went out and the STUCCO computer network went down. Dirty tricks with the power supply, we wondered? Paranoia in the air.
On the weekend before 30A, when the interstate visitors arrived to be billeted at STUCCO, the 30A Workshop became a frenzy of last minute preparations. But for most part it was more like kindergarten room with free paint, tools and materials. Some good stuff and good slogans came out of it but there were many banner attempts ill conceived in design and timing that were never finished or displayed.
I personally funded a feisty dreadlocked Melbourne activist called Chelsea to the make some fire sticks so that there might be some fire and fire twirling associated with the backpack puppets. She got it together with enthusiasm but the fire sticks didn't appear on the night. Seems that when Chelsea went to collect them from the Workshop, they were gone, dispersed amongst other fire twirlers in the company who assumed a higher purpose for them. So it goes. Some things are not meant to happen.
And that's the way it is with open access workshops and volunteer makers. Some efforts bare excellent fruit, others come to nothing. We made many a beautiful banner but police frustrated our efforts to deploy them by denying us poles.
Of all the things we made, the big banners at Macdonaldtown Station, the backpack skelly puppets and Ned Kelly costume was what we got out and got noticed.