Laneways: By George! Hidden Networks

"Laneways: By George! Hidden Networks" is the title of a temporary public art project currently on show n Sydney. It forms part of the larger public art showcase "Art & About" which is, in turn, part of a month-long festival of food and culture entitled "Crave Sydney".

Produced by Steffen Lehmann, an urban designer, author and curator, the project aims to bring art to hidden, forgotten or overlooked urban spaces, while challenging understandings of the roles of architecture and art. A map published in the guide brochure for "Art + About" and also available online, allows visitors to navigate to a series of narrow alleyways between George Street and Pitt Street in the downtown business district of central Sydney. The projects are all the result of collaboration between groups that include artists, architects, designers, urbanists and others. The project has high ambitions in terms of the discussions it hopes to provoke about urban regeneration, sustainability, our understanding of public space, etc. Whether it will achieve that goal is questionable, but what it does succeed in doing is to create a series of "incidents" that will certainly arouse curiosity, and, at best, provide the accidental visitor with a stimulating and intriguing experience.

All of the individual installations are interesting in the way they interact with a particular urban environment, though the quality varies considerably, and only a minority would stand up to sustained critique as autonomous works of art. Several of the pieces come too close to the kind of "event scenography" that could just as easily belong to an advertising campaign or an elaborate outdoor party, and thereby lose any critical edge that may have been intended.

For me, the single most successful piece is "Forgotten Songs", an installation consisting of a large number of bird cages suspended about four metres above the street, incorporating several loudspeakers that play back recordings of birdsong. The work changes the environment subtly rather than dramatically, and creates a sense of enchantment that draws in the spectator. Another project that aims to bring nature into the midst of the urban environment is "Infinity Forest" which is not so much a forest as a very small grove of silver birch trees inside a mirrored box. The mirrored walls create an illusion of profuse growth, but this is undermined by the fact that the trees are growing in black plastic bags, and they are saplings rather than full-grown trees. So the effect is more like being in a psychedelic display at a garden centre than being in a forest. The result is mildly amusing, but hardly challenging.

A more unsettling experience was to walk through Bridge Lane where a series of strange, pink, hairy sculptures appeared to be growing out of the brick walls. It felt not so much like a dialogue with the space, as an invasion by alien life forms. In the middle of the day these grotesque items had a kind of gothic comic effect, but encountered unsuspectedly at night they could prove to be seriously disturbing to the faint-hearted.

Forgotten Songs, not to be forgotten!

The Infinity Forest - not very infinite and not quite a forest, but an amusing diversion.

The Urban Barcode - an installation of white fluorescent tubes in a dark alleyway. Quite effective, though not quite the "Giant Barcode" promised in the brochure. And the "pocket-sized open air cinema" that goes with it seemed to be turned off.

I Dwell In the City And The City Dwells In Me. Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid!

The Meeting Place, a Serra-esque sculptural installation in yellow nylon material that changes the architechtural space of Little Hunter Street, narrowing it to a small gap that would encourage physical contact between passers-by.

Seven Metre Bar which, according to the publicity should "combine the landscape of weather and topography with the architecture of a catastrophe and the interactive technology of video games. Seven Meter Bar highlights inaction on climate change" But actually, it looks like a small piece of a Jason Rhoades installation that has just been dropped into the street.

Conclusion: full points for a good initiative and for the intention of creating productive disruptions in the urban environment, but not more than 5/10 for the result; most of the works are just not good enought to stand up to the ambition of the project's mission statement.

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