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Who’s Afraid of Public Space? – Exhibition, Melbourne

Laura von Puttkamer

The exhibition “Who’s Afraid of Public Space?” in Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) runs to March 20th, 2022. This major exhibition-cum-research project explores the role of public space, culture, contestation, and the character of public life itself.

N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM and Sarah Lynn Rees, Gathering Space: Ngargee Djeembana 2021, installation view, Who's Afraid of Public Space? 2021 – 22, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Courtesy the artists. Photograph: Andrew Curtis




By engaging contemporary art and cultural practices, the exhibition “Who’s Afraid of Public Space?” in Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) considers ideas around public culture. It asks who owns public culture and whom it might be for. Recent global debates and phenomena such as private interests leaking into public culture, gentrification, counter-positions and play in the city shape the project. “Who’s Afraid of Public Space” also investigates the dynamic relations between urban design, surveillance, regulation and gentrification, ideas of community and the commons, the cultivation of fear in the media, and debates around the freedom of speech and assembly.

Melbourne’s ACCA asks: Who is afraid of public space?

The project is concerned with the ways in which everyone relates to and transforms public space, culture, and its values. It shows the rapidly changing post-pandemic landscape of public space and public culture, which has experienced a shift from public squares to the virtual space of digital commons. Recent debates feature strongly in the research project about public space and public culture. The result is a multifaceted exhibition space with a diverse programme. Together, these elements explore the character and composition of modern public life.

Through a mix of contemporary art and cultural practices, this exhibition in Melbourne asks many critical questions, such as:

  • What constitutes public culture?
  • Who is public space for?
  • What shapes public space?
  • What is the role of technology, knowledge, and mobility?
  • What does public space look like in a pandemic?
  • How do the politics of land and place influence public space?
  • What role do patterns of urban transformation such as gentrification play?

Ideas around Public Culture and Public Space – exhibited in Melbourne

In addition, “Who’s Afraid of Public Space” in Melbourne explores ways in which citizens, public institutions, capital, and technology impact and transform public space, public culture and related values. Ideas of community, collectivity and the commons underpin the exhibition. These ideas are also analysed through the lens of the pandemic, which makes some questions about virtual space and digital commons particularly urgent.

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Gallery as a Civic Space

The exhibition in Melbourne consists of multiple installations and interventions. They all reflect on the dynamic relations between urban design, public space, and factors such as safety and surveillance, but also self-organisation, improvisation and play. Themes of work, housing, democracy, and social enterprise intersecting with public space are also present. “Who’s Afraid of Public Space” is organised in a dispersed and distributed structure.  Much like public space in a city, it encourages a polycentric, polyphonic understanding of public realms. During the summer months, the exhibition will take place at ACCA as well as at partnering institutions and public spaces throughout Melbourne. Locations include billboards, suburban shopfronts, carparks, housing developments and public squares, as well as digital media.

These initiatives showcase that ACCA in Melbourne considers a public gallery to be a civic space. The Centre’s four galleries will be transformed into spaces for gathering, education, reflection, and debate to offer a conversational starting point beyond the exhibition. Thus, visitors can explore ideas related to public space both in the exhibition and in other contexts. Various satellite exhibitions and events will accompany “Who’s Afraid of Public Space” throughout the Australian summer months. They are programmed and presented by cultural partners such as Abbotsford Convent, Arts Project Australia, Blak Dot Gallery, Bus Projects, Chunky Move, City of Melbourne, Footscray Community Arts, Metro Tunnel Creative Program, Moreland City Council and Testing Grounds.

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Curatorial Team and Artists of “Who’s Afraid of Public Space” in Melbourne

ACCA’s exhibition “Who’s Afraid of Public Space” is led by a collective curatorial team comprised of Max Delany, Annika Kristensen and Miriam Kelly. It was developed in collaboration with a curatorial advisory group. Members of that group include Dr. Marnie Badham, E. Flynn, Eugenia Lim, Dr. Grace McQuilten, Dr. Timothy Moore, Professor Nikos Papastergiadis, Nur Shkembi, and Jarra Karalinar Steel.

Guled Abdulwasi, Idil Ali, APHIDS, Beth Arnold and Sary Zananiri, Atong Atem, Timmah Ball, Joey Barrilo, Tony Birch, N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM and Sarah Lynn Rees, Jon Campbell, Michael Candy, Simona Castricum, Chunky Move, Boris Cipusev, Nicola Cortese / Lauren Crockett / Stephanie Pahnis, Ross Coulter, Sophie Cunningham, Keg de Souza, Field Theory, Eleanor Jackson, Aarti Jadu, Natalie Jurrjens, Laresa Kosloff, Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, Rhys Lee, Eugenia Lim, James MacSporren, Grace McQuilten and Amy Spiers with The Social Studio / Outer Urban Projects / Youthworx, John Meade, Clement Meadmore, Eden Menta, Kent Morris, Callum Morton, Jacqui Munoz, Jenny Ngo, James Nguyen and Victoria Pham, Tom Nicholson, Rose Nolan, Georgia Nowak, Open Spatial Workshop (Terri Bird, Bianca Hester, Natasha Johns-Messenger and Scott Mitchell), Oscar Perry and Esther Stewart, Kerrie Poliness, Reko Rennie, Steven Rhall, Roberta Joy Rich, Anthony Romangano, Morwenna Schenck, Sibling Architecture, Mikaela Stafford, Hoang Tran Nguyen, Christos Tsiolkas, Isadora Vaughan, David Wadelton, XYX Lab, Jenny Zhe Chang

ACCA’s Big Picture Series

“Who’s Afraid of Public Space” is part of ACCA’s Big Picture series, in which the Centre explores contemporary art’s relation to social, cultural, and political contexts on a broader scale. All elements of the series seek to animate recent global debates and to contribute to the incursion of private interests into other spheres.

Get more information at ACCA.

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