MAAS Magazine

DisconTENT: Inside the Margins

With Australia’s pioneering heritage and modern recreation culture, the humble tent is an iconic object in our national self-image. But in an age of globalisation, with the conquering of the world’s geographic frontiers, the tabernacle of tarp has begun to play a new and highly visible role on the front lines of socio-political struggle.

The impromptu tent villages of the Occupy movement are one of this century’s most iconic images of grass-roots resistance to global capitalism. The movement claims to represent the 99% and is a global collective protesting the inequalities inherent in a society with a powerful and monopolising 1%. Their protest manifests in the reclamation of contentious public spaces for the public but essentially governed by the private.

Street structure, bookshelves with Occupy Sydney banner
Occupy Sydney, photograph by Jacquelene Drinkall, 2012

 

Objects for spatial reclamation have often come in the form of ingenious mechanisms for confounding authorities such as lock-ons used to attach protestors to buildings, trees or other objects and barricades or temporary structures designed for sit-ins and demonstrations.

This was the situation during protests at Gezi Park in Istanbul during May and June 2013, when Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced the levelling of the tree filled park for a shopping mall. The protestors were met with police raids. Yelta Kom, co-founder of Herkes Icin Mimarlik (Architecture for All), speaks of the organisation’s ‘in-tent’ (pun intended) regarding protest shelters during Occupy Gezi Park. He said that ‘the protests in Istanbul indicated one simple thing for architects… We need new definitions for architecture in situations when architecture is removed from architects’.

The voluntary tent communities who conduct these public protests are usually made up of people who have the freedom to temporarily abandon their homes. But tents also feature heavily in images depicting the precarious lives of victims of global inequality. As a symbol of disparity, displacement, inequality and precariousness, the tent is becoming one of the dominant media images of this era of capitalism. For example, in the heart of our cities, homelessness and poverty are evident in the tented occupation of spaces like Belmore Park.

 

The earliest campsites in Australia’s colonial history were prisons. Images of these first penal camps echo tragically in the contemporary migrant detention centres of Australia’s ‘Pacific Solution’, such as the infamous Manus Island centre in Papua New Guinea. Nightly news images of the sprawling shantytowns and multi-generational refugee camps have transformed the tent from a symbol of freedom and exploration to one of desperation and incarceration.

Tents at Manus Island regional processing facility, 2012
Manus Island regional processing facility, Papua New Guinea, photograph by Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2012

 

In Australia the image of the tent builds on the still powerful image of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which continues to stand as a striking protest against the domination of the few by the many:

‘The original owners of the land set up an ‘embassy’ opposite the parliament, as if they were foreigners. This act showed compellingly the strength of their sense of alienation. They were landless. Their embassy was a tent – a well understood image of poverty and impermanence. Their camp attracted unprecedented support from people across the country who recognised their sense of grievance and made their views known to the government’

Aboriginal Tent Embassy
Aboriginal Tent Embassy, photograph by Flickr user Jenny Scott, 2009

 

One gets the sense that, given the escalating cost of living, the increase in poverty and homelessness and disparity between the have and have nots, spatial displacement and its response will be the most contested frontier of the 21st century.

For more on this topic, take a look at artist Anna Mayer’s article, Dirt and Blankets.

Post by Troy Egan

Troy is a Masters Degree student undertaking a capstone project for final year students in the University of New South Wales Art & Design Postgraduate Curatorial and Cultural Leadership program.

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