“Holding the Space”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how tricky it was for me to keep up with all the things that the Audit is kicking up. Every encounter, every article, every little investigation generates more and more interesting things to pursue, more links to follow.

I’ve had to humble myself with just doing as many as I can within the time available, given the energy I can generate in the course of any given day. I remind myself that since we’re thinking about “sustainability” here, my first responsibility is to my own sustainable working methods – to not burn out in the process…

With that in mind, in the next few blog entries, I’m going to try and reflect on some of the interactions I’ve had recently.


a tafe group visits the audit room

Here’s a photo of a group of TAFE students that came to visit me in the Audit room. One of the great things about having your artwork in the “resource room” is that there are plenty of chairs and a big table – it’s an ad-hoc classroom!

Elenore (the teacher – in the foreground looking towards the camera) had visited the MCA some weeks before. She and I had had a long and wide ranging chat about water tanks and paper recycling, amongst many other things.

(Elenore gave me some homework – to find out how many sheets of A4 photocopy paper make up “a tree”. Elenore, I’m afraid I haven’t found out yet, but when I do, I’ll let you know).

Anyway, after her first visit, Elenore got in touch and asked if she could bring her TAFE class in to see me. I said sure, and we made a date and time.

So on Tuesday morning, the students showed up, and I was surprised to learn that they weren’t art students, as I had assumed. Rather, they are studying “Certificate IV in Community Services” at Nirimba TAFE (near Mount Druitt, in Sydney’s western suburbs). All the students were women, and many of them were migrants from various parts of the world. Elenore said that, for the first time, all TAFE students are now required to do a common, grounding subject on “sustainability”, and this is expected to infuse all the areas of their study.

I decided that the best thing to do would be to try and ground myself in this rather unexpected situation. So I invited each of the students, in turn, to tell me about her own project, which she was undertaking as part of the course. Here’s a snapshot of the piece of paper I scribbled on while I listened to them take turns explaining themselves:


There were community garden projects, projects designed to tackle domestic violence, and others which attempted to engage residents of public housing in more community participation. A common theme throughout was “reducing social isolation”, caused by financial difficulties, cultural alienation, and geographical location.

I was really impressed with the scope of real world issues these women were facing, head-on, as part of their TAFE course. Many of these issues grew directly from communities that the students belonged to themselves. Equally impressive was the fact that all their projects were linked up with a “stakeholder” – a real-world organisation or entity which would benefit from the research they were doing. Their education programme was mutually productive.

As the students took turns around the table, one of their teachers, Kerryn, urged them to be as succinct and clear as possible in describing the projects they were engaged in. “Here’s an opportunity for you!” she said to them. “Lucas is here, he knows absolutely nothing about you, but he’s actually interested to hear what you have to say. I want you to practice your powers of description and get the message across”.

I found this really inspiring. These students had come to visit me – I thought they wanted to hear about my project. But instead I found myself being the listening ear while they practiced on me. In turn, I would interject, play back to each of them what I understood they had just said, ask questions and tease out the issues arising from their mini-presentations. In this process, my ignorance was something of an asset, as it was impossible for me to take for granted the inferred meanings of any half-baked descriptions.

One of the big difficulties many of the students are dealing with was “the need to get their message out” – whether to deliver public-education services, or to recruit volunteers, or to invite local residents to participate in social research. Many of their public-interface attempts are carried out in the streets, or at the local westfields mall. Most of them struggle, and a few succeed, in capturing some time from passers-by, by using various methods of aesthetic attention-seeking.

At the end of the round, I also took a turn, describing my own engagement with the MCA on this audit. Within the context of their own “community services” projects, my audit came across similarly – as a commission to engage with a particular problem within a community (in this case, the community of workers, artists and audience revolving around the museum, as the “stakeholder”). My project’s status as an “artwork”, while not swept under the table, was perhaps incidental to this discussion…

After the discussion, the students dispersed to have a look at the rest of the exhibition. Kerryn approached me and said she really appreciated the way that I had “held the space”. I asked her what she meant by this. “Holding the space”, she said, was a way of raising the issues and maintaining them in currency without closing them off; acknowledging the difficulties and ethical tangles of each of the projects without demanding that they be concluded or definitively solved; playing each ball into the air, then launching another one without needing them to all fall neatly into place. It requires a certain sort of patience, a certain ability to not be gripped by the need for instant decision-gratification.

I appreciated this feedback. In some ways, I feel like that’s exactly what this whole project has been evolving towards – acknowledging dilemmas, while resisting the demand for the gavel to fall, just for its own sake. Of course, I couldn’t have known this at the start. But by now, I’ve had enough experiences of the sort I had on Tuesday with the TAFE class to realise that what we do, when we talk this way, is to train ourselves in a sort of practical ethics. There’s no “right and wrong” when it comes to the real world. Or, even if there do exist clear “rights and wrongs” (and from the point of view of individuals they certainly do!), what are we to do with these, when they butt up against the practicality of actual living?

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