HOBART, Tasmania — She glared and said, “You don’t have a photo pass so get back behind the cones.”
I moved behind one of several orange cones dotting a narrow strip of green space. An audience of tourists, children, and MONA FOMA festival-goers had gathered on either side of Salamanca Park Green in Hobart. Faux marshals, dressed in black with flourescent vests and reflective sunglasses, stood rigid and kept the public out of the center of the green. As if to diffuse their authority, they also handed out questionnaires and occasionally escorted someone across the green
In the middle stood artist Catherine Ryan, who addressed the crowd with her bullhorn (in Australia a “large hailer”). Over the course of 15 minutes, she ran through several announcements: “Welcome to the parade to celebrate the end of public space and the beginning of public order”; “Our marshals will direct you the safest place behind the cones”; “We appreciate your cooperation. Please remain in the designated audience zone”; “The most vulnerable (to the water canon) part of your body is the eye — the retina can detach.” And finally: “For your safety and the safety of others it is imperative you stay behind the cones for the duration of the parade.” Her delivery was serious yet farcical, each pronouncement made “in our best interest,” much like a flight attendant’s directives during a safety demonstration.
Bagpipes sounded from the far end of the green to signal the procession. Security guards wearing black hats and reflective sunglasses surrounded a mobile sculpture covered in black plastic, wrapped tightly like a sushi roll. Canines accompanied them. The procession circled the green and made its way to the center, where the security guards placed larger orange cones. In front of them they positioned lifesize black silhouettes of people: a protester holding a sign, a few figures with arms up in defiance, a pregnant woman, and, at the far end of the green, what looked like a family — anyone who might be in a public space at any given time.
With a bucket and a large squirt gun, a security guard practiced his aim on the cutout figures. One by one he used each for target practice, gaining a few laughs from the crowd. Then the guards unveiled the sculpture: a water cannon, its black wrap shed onto the grass. Underneath its skin were rows of orange cones protruding like nipples. With tightly controlled movements the guards began pushing the cannon, traversing the green and shouting a direction in unison as they made hard pivots. On the top an invisible operator controlled a large gun made of PVC sewer piping, which sprayed the silhouettes and the crowd. One guard led the cannon, screaming at the crowd, “Move, move, move!” As he came towards me, I backed away to avoid him and the spray, even though the pressure wasn’t strong. I could see the logo on his patch. In Latin it read: “Publicum imperium, sine spatio” (public control, no space). After about 10 minutes, the water cannon left the green, running over the silhouette family on the way. With its departure the sprinklers came on, and many of the children along the sidelines ran into the space and started playing in the water.
Catherine Ryan and Amy Spiers’s “No More Public Space, Only Public Order (Water Cannon)” was highly organized and beautifully choreographed, a hybrid performance-interventionist exercise in ordering the public and drawing attention to that control. Public order is nothing new, but as more activists take to the streets worldwide to protest injustice, the keeping of it has become increasingly violent and rationalized through mechanisms of fear. Ryan and Spiers infused their piece with a strong enough sense of anticipation — from the announcements to the procession, the unveiling to the exit — that they avoided turning it into a meaningless spectacle. The questionnaire, cannon sculpture, canines, and bagpipes all added up to a careful choreography of power, offering a commentary on how the state controls the public and the spaces it inhabits in the name of collective safety and common good.
Yet a potent element of absurdity infused each layer of the work. The black hats and sunglasses were cheesy, but professional enough to be taken seriously. The cannon sprayed water, but not too hard, and the cones deflected any real imposition; it was clearly the safest water cannon in the world. Written by the philosopher and activist Nina Power, the “Public/Private” questionnaire asked about our collective, outer, inner, and anonymous selves. The visual, textual, and performative elements of the piece were droll enough to indicate that it was a work of art, but still offered enough provocation to leave you walking away unsettled by what could happen. With gentle satire, the piece evoked a reality experienced by protesters and activists in places like Turkey and Chile, but which many of us only see through the media.
As I watched the performance unfold, I heard a variety of responses. “What is this?,” asked one bystander. “It was scary but a little bit fun,” commented another. “Aren’t we lucky that we live in a country where we can take the piss out of this?” I remember hearing about a similar comment that George W. Bush had made, regarding the Iraq antiwar demonstrations: “Isn’t it great that we live in a democracy where people can disagree?” The mechanisms of control have gone down a dark road since then, if Ferguson is any indicator. My initial compliance to the marshal’s command to move behind the line was an automated response. I have been in enough controlled public spaces in the US — protests, festivals, sporting events, Critical Mass — to have a good idea of how to “behave” there. But that’s American public order, often oppressive, controlled with the spectre of fear, and rationalized that it’s for our safety. The relationship with authority is different, less oppressive in Australia. I met an older man who had immigrated from a country with harsh laws of order, and he felt physically confronted by the guards and the cannon; it brought back memories for him.
Most Australians would probably agree that it’s not so repressive here, that public space is not very threatened, and so it’s no surprise that children recolonized the green space with play so easily afterwards. Yet public spaces and the freedom they represent are still in danger of vanishing — even in the local context of Tasmania, where the government recently passed the Workplaces (Protections from Protesters) Act 2014, which is designed to dissuade and penalize mining and logging activists.
Our cultural backgrounds help inform our perceptions of public space, but as that space becomes increasingly privatized and controlled across the world, even the most trusting citizens in the most benevolent-seeming countries might have to face the effects of what happens when everyone is seen as a potential threat. The aftertaste of absurdity can be bit bitter.
Catherine Ryan and Amy Spiers’s “No More Public Space, Only Public Order (Water Cannon)” parade took place on January 17 at 11am as part of the Museum of Old and New Art‘s Festival of Music and Art (MONA FOMA). Their exhibition continues at the Salamanca Arts Centre, Kelly’s Garden (77 Salamanca Place, Hobart, Tasmania) through February 24.