(Re) Presenting | Archive of Loss – Interview with artist architect & researcher Joanne Choueiri
ARCHIVE OF LOSS
By Joanne Choueiri
‘Archive of Loss’ gathers approximately 60 buildings demolished under Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 70s and 80s around Brisbane city and Queensland in an archive that commemorates their loss.
Organised in an obituary format, the archive highlights the loss of each of the buildings through text and photograph. Through the material and psychological loss of a building, the city starts to slowly lose its collective identity.
The exhibition showcases a fictional archive that addresses the lost buildings constituting a milestone in the fight towards the conservation of heritage buildings in Queensland. By doing so, the stories and memories of these spaces are unearthed and brought forth as part of the city’s architectural and social history.
From an artist-run perspective the archive features many of the local artist-run spaces and the buildings they occupied prior to demolition during the 1980s. These networked spaces and cooperative artist studios in the inner city regions which contributed directly to Brisbane City being a lively, experimental and diverse arts and culture place.
Archive of Loss – December 2020
I = Interviewer Paul Andrew ARI Remix artist and DIY coordinator
R = Respondent – Artist architect and researcher Joanne Choueiri
I: Hi Joanne, great to meet you. This is my first trip to the fab new location for Metro Arts here in West Village at West End so it’s great to be here together to meet you and your exhibition Archive of Loss. Thanks for this interview Joanne, what’s the correct pronunciation of your last name?
R: It’s (ChWéyri?) so you have to imagine it’s a W
I: Thanks Joanne yes. So sixty Brisbane demolition sites in the 1980s?
R: Yeah so basically the exhibition started by trying to find an archive that directly tells me what were the sixty demolitions that occurred in Brisbane under Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the seventies and eighties. So I started by looking at the articles and I found this 1991 article by Rod Fisher who is a historian and said that there were sixty buildings that were demolished in Brisbane, so I started to chase that idea. And I was trying to find basically this archive and I guess the first thing that kind of I directly found was in the Queensland State Library John Stafford’s archive that had a list of some heritage buildings that were supposed to be in the National Trust. But they were demolished anyway. Such as the Bellevue or the Cloudland, yeah Cloudland.
So I realised like there’s no full documentation of that so I started to look into newspaper clippings, reading stuff, articles, the legislation of the time when they were doing the Fitzgerald Enquiry. And they were talking about these demolitions. And so it was really a big collage of putting things together and it resulted here with these images of sixty, sort of like not exactly sixty buildings.
So basically the exhibition in itself here you see the frames with newspaper clippings that I’ve done. So this is why I say and explain it’s sort of a fictional archive. It takes specifically each article takes the format of an obituary and in this way I used the personification of the building.
And so I almost, just like you’re writing an obituary for a person I write obituary for this building depicted in the images. The way I write, I avoid using the work ‘it” , and I write as it’s an actual person. And within each one of these images I talk about when the building or place was born, when it passed away and normally, in the body of the article written is whatever information I found about the building.
The information is anything that was interesting, details that I found on social media groups that people share you know their memories of such buildings, like Facebook. Such as like someone had their wedding reception there, someone had a cold beer there you know these interesting facts about each of these buildings.
And then at the end of each article normally is followed by a sentence that says this building is survived…similar to how you would say in an obituary where you would say this person is survived by their children. For me, the building as I say was survived by a hole and by a hole I mean an empty piece of land. And I say how long it has been, it remained a flat land or an empty land and what it was replaced by. And an interesting example about that obviously is the Roma Street precinct which was which was survived by a hole for eighteen years before the Brisbane Magistrates court precinct replaced it.
And so each, this is basically the gist of it and each article you would find like different information about. The articles that don’t have pictures are because I literally couldn’t find pictures. The ones that have don’t have so much information it’s because I couldn’t find so much information about. And yeah so that’s basically the gist of it. I think in a sense, when you start going through them, these sixty, almost 60 images, you realise many of the cultural aspects of the city that no longer exist within the city. That being there are no theatres anymore because there were a lot of theatres there were more social gatherings. They were more artist’s spaces that that you see.
I: Yes I noticed.
R: Yeah …
R: So each one has almost like a memory related to it that I tried to find yeah by as I said, like mixing different sources trying to collate information from newspapers and yeah whatever I could find in terms of articles.
I: So two questions, thanks Joanne that’s awesome really great contextual overview. By way of a connection with this fictional archive to your research the relationship between this exhibition and your research is more broadly about ‘the hole’. And there’s a work, there’s a particular term that you use to describe the hole that’s…
R: Yeah so do you mean the political hole?
I: The political hole.
R: Yeah so like basically the idea behind the political hole is normally as well in newspapers they use this term political hole. But it normally means like an ambiguous point where we’re going into. I used it more in a physical and psychological manner to denote a political demolition. So it’s a demolition that occurred because of political decision that led to the creation of a physical hole from one side. Be it a hole in the plan like the actual map of the city or the skyline of the city.
And a psychological hole because lots of these buildings have you know after these demolitions occurred the feelings of loss, absence and almost grief were associated with these operations of demolitions. And so this is what I try to denote as the political hole basically. So I guess I tried to make it more concretely rather than this ambiguous stuff, newspapers not many use. More in a physical architectural and psychological manner basically.
I: Yeah and the other thing is when we had that wonderful conversation the other day, thank you, I was really intrigued by what we were talking about in relation to your homeland Lebanon and Beirut and you were talking about the archive(s) there, what is your experience of the archive(s) in your homeland? you were saying “Well it’s not like here , not like Brisbane”.
R: Yeah so the thing is like growing up in Beirut you start slowly to realise that there are bits and pieces of history you have no knowledge about. Mainly there is one side to it that is presented, which is that, during our civil war the archive and the museum archives and all that were looted and they were completely destroyed. So there’s no proper for example maps, mapping systems or anything that actually tells us what you know concrete evidence of stuff.
And this is from one side but another side that is way more interesting for me, that has affected actually many artists is the fact that we grow up with no knowledge of actually what happened in the civil war. That is basically because we’re not taught about it in school, we don’t learn our history.
Basically this is because no one agreed upon a shared and collective history and that’s like the politicians did not agree on that. So what you learn from your own history is whatever your mum tells you and that is already biased. Like it’s not necessarily the truth. And so you learn to you know you grow up questioning these things.
But because of this specific issue of the lack of archive many artists, such as for example, the artist Walid Raad, who created these fictional archives which tried to actually make us aware of the presence of the lack actually the presence of the lack of an archive. Because we didn’t have any information.
So for Wallid and many other artists tried to create these archives to have in a way, some knowledge. Doesn’t mean it was the truth, doesn’t mean it was political but it was almost like an act of rebellion against not knowing things. And in a way I think, for me, it was quite interesting was this idea of also searching for these truths, constantly.
And I find it a lot, like it fascinates me to catalogue things and try to order things in an archive. Other than obviously in this work which is more to share an actual history that has touched I guess many people. The only fiction aspect about this body of work, this archive of loss, is just the fact that the obituary as such never existed.
But yeah I guess the lack of an archive makes you want to create one.
And so this is how, I guess, in Beirut, and elsewhere in Lebanon, it was different than Brisbane, Brisbane you can find these things, I’m not sure why this archive of sixty demolition sites did not, is not I mean maybe it did exist and I don’t know about it. But it’s not I guess readily something that I found. And this was what I found interesting about it was that it was not found. However, it’s such an important historical event that led to the creation of the Brisbane City that we know now.
I: thanks Joanne, and the other thing that we spoke about briefly the other day is in your research in both making this exhibition and in your research more broadly, the 1991 Rod Fisher article, “Nocturnal Demolitions” you know is really sort of seminal to your exploration. But it’s sounding like in your research you’re realising there may be other buildings that are not represented in this sixty. Is that, what’s sort of happening for you on reflection now , is that what’s unfolding at the moment?
R: yeah I mean now that I’ve done the whole lot and you know I’ve tried to see, make sense, of what actually exists and what doesn’t. I’m sure I’ve left out some maybe because you know some buildings are not talked about just in general.
Whether for some reason or another the ones that I found very easily as I said were the ones that were in the National Trust heritage. The ones that for example all on Roma Street or George Street were not that evident. Mainly because I guess they were not part of the heritage, that is, the heritage listed forum. But they at the same time they were very culturally important because of the musicians that were there, you know the many boarding houses that were there. The gatherings of artists that actually never happened prior to these demolitions occurring in Brisbane as far as I understood, that is, that artists were not gathering, organising together before this time in the 1980s…correct me if I’m wrong. But artists were not really so much gathering or creating this, the ideas, the artist run initiatives before that point. Is that…?
I: Oh yeah I’m sorry I’m with you now , I just had a memory when I was looking at this photograph of That Space that I was involved with in Charlotte Street in the 1980s. So in the 1940s in the post-war era in the Miya Studios co-operative 1946 and the related Barjai group members shared rooms in Petrie Bight and set up studios in Wickham Terrace. There are other artist collectives, artist groups in Brisbane since the sort of war, post-war era like the Half Dozen Group. Which emerged in the spirit of creative self reliance, the DIY emergence that we know today. But yes this time in the Bjelke-Petersen years was artist occupation of this unprecedented scale of you know almost occupation of these empty spaces, abandoned spaces, pre-demolition spaces. I spoke to artist Anna Zoldos who ran the Observatory Collective with Robyn Gray, Lehan Ramsay and many other artists and photographers) the other day and I asked “Anna do you did you feel, about the Shirley’s Fertiliser building being demolished and did you go back to that hole where the demolition show was in ruins there afterwards.
And Anna said “Look yeah it was really traumatic, it was really full on” and then Anna’s immediate response was you know, along the lines of ‘ so Lehan, Ramsay and Robin Gray and I set up Darkroom Studios, you know Darkroom processing, black and white processing, that was big, we spent like months cleaning pigeon shit, polishing those beautiful honey coloured hardwood floors ” and as an aside, nearly all the artists that I’ve interviewed over the years tell stories tell stories about cleaning up the pigeon guano and insect infestations.
And all the other stuff that you know was part of what meanings had become embedded in these buildings. The other thing that Anna spoke about was how much dust they created when they you know saw dust they created when they were sanding back those floors. Because they turned it into a beautiful, beautiful space. And you know during that six months or so, including the sett up time for their new artist-run space they knew they had six months, a short window. It’s similar with artist Jeanelle Hurst with the Red Comb House a few years earlier, Jeanelle and those artists also knew it was going to be six months, and that these terrific building and heritage places from our perspectives were all going to be demolished.
With That Space for example we knew we were on a month to month basis. So there was this general feeling that you know it was very temporary what we were doing, ephemeral, but we were going to do it no matter what. But you know Anna just said you know I don’t remember going back to look at it. I mean the observatory, the demolition show that John Stafford curated, it was all about making ephemeral work you know quite explicitly that would then be a part of the hole in the ground. And then you know I think I said to you the other day it was eighteen years, I thought it was fifteen, so for eighteen years that entire part of the city, it was a big hole in the ground.
And you know people would remember, it wasn’t just this little Roma Street precinct it was the whole precinct because it went into George Street and to Herschel Street and to the …yeah all of these. It was all part of this sinking feeling.
What I was going to say Joanne just in terms of this fictional archive thing which I’ll get to in a minute I’d to just talk a bit to finish about the artist you’re talking about. But when I was talking to you the other day I recalled that I had my own personal demolition show, for a whole lot of reasons when I was…1988 before the building was demolishes that year, when I was 24. So all the work that I had made in preceding years at that places, and as I was going to move to Sydney at some point. But at that time I stored all of my paintings, all my works under the stairs in that building at That Space that light filled light industrial building with its giant clerestory and big windows. And I wanted them all to go down with the building so that was my personal demolition show.
I needed my works to feel and be ephemeral. And I only talked to Peter Andersen about this a couple of years ago because I never told anyone. It was too personal and their was trauma involved that this building and its collective memory would be wiped out. Because that for me, was also very symbolic because I wanted it to me, it was a place of memory I never wanted to forget. But it was also like a place of destruction.
So for me all that creativity, all that creation you know that idea of creation destruction you know that’s seen lots of mythologies. I just like that everything that I had made well most of what I had made was destroyed in this place.(looking at photo of that space) my studio was literally just above there. So just thinking of that when I saw it, I was just, it’s so…there was, for a long time, it was very hard, too emotional, for me to talk about it.
R: Yes I can imagine.
I: Just yeah back to the artist and maker of fictional archives Walid, can you spell their name the artist with the visual items?
R: So it’s WALID, RAAD and he did actually what was called the Atlas Group. And they were it’s all fictional but he sort of created this idea that basically with the aim of creating the archive. And so for example he would try to ahh on a notebook pretty much like in frames as well have cars that were supposed to, he was trying to investigate which car caused the bombing.
So, for example, he had several notebooks from just cars with notes next to them creating an archive of the possible car bombs that were you know that were present during the civil war. Mainly because there were lots of car bombs. So his work really is quite fascinating just because it gives you another idea of what the archive is, also because not many archives are, you know, they share the truth. So it’s never you know there’s the way the institution lies you know archives when you find them they’re supposed to share the truth. Whereas with his it was completely different, different outlook of how to create an archive that is actually fictional. Mainly because as a response to the lack of the presence of one. So yeah I found this part quite fascinating because you’re able to tell a new story somehow.
I: and to me the irony with the title, Archives of Loss is of course it’s also an archive of beginnings and creation and new memory and new opportunities. Is that how you, do you see it in that way based on your cultural experience and experience in Brisbane? Or do you see it as in a more melancholic way perhaps?
R: Yeah I have to say like the whole format of the exhibition was not something that happened quite fast. I had a problem with trying to identify a connection to the building, mainly because this is not where I come from. But I have to say the connection came sadly, when an explosion, the explosion of the 4th of August in Beirut happened. And obviously, sadly, there were lots of people lost, but there was also a lot of buildings, culture that was and memories mostly that were destroyed with it. And when, and somehow this created like…this sort of created the relation to this, to this work. Basically because prior to that I wasn’t really able to understand but after that, because I’ve managed to witness it, sadly, I was able to connect with it more I guess. And I do feel very you know melancholic I don’t know if it’s, it’s almost like I don’t know what you would say but it’s quite like grieving.
I: I see this trauma, grief and loss. And just to finish with because we can talk all day, I just wanted to pick up on that vivid story of your mum’s, about the lemonade fountain in Beirut? Can you just talk briefly about the lemonade fountain and the way that story was told to you by who?
R: yeah so with the first part of the, my case study, which was on Beirut I was also interviewing people and one of them was my mum just to tell me about the city of Beirut and her memories of that. And she basically was telling me about what she remembered was this fountain that they would hang out or where there was lemonade, fresh lemonade merchant like right there standing who would sell the lemonade. And I mean it’s such a small detail of the story but what I also started to notice was other people also telling me about this lemonade experience and it started to become almost funny. Just because it’s such a detail but really affected like the experience of the city amongst many people. What was also another interesting fact was , what was also interesting was the fact that I was trying to locate it and it was funny because they couldn’t locate it. So each one would tell me no it was here, and they were all like agreed upon this memory but no one actually knew where they stood. Some would tell me on the east side, some would tell me on the west. So it was interesting just also to see how memory starts to fade with time. But I mean just as an essence it still is there but we don’t actually know, it’s almost like the lost fountain story where you can’t actually locate it anymore because it was completely removed. So yeah it was just an interesting detail I guess.
I: Yeah thanks Joanne it’s that one thing we talked about for ages the other day about living memory which is exactly that thing about you know living memory is actually quite short you know from a temporal perspective.
R: Yeah, yeah there were some, they would also tell me for example, like one colleague was telling me about where he would go with his father to buy fireworks. And this was such an important time for him because he wanted to go and you know buy the fireworks, it was an event back then. There were some stories were like of, what they watched in the movies. Like the boys would watch I don’t know Bruce Lee which was another area of the city and I don’t know these interesting stories of what they watched, what was the last movie they watched in a cinema.
Even sometimes like because we had markets and there were people who would carry like I don’t know what they’re called but literally you pay them just to carry the stuff and walk with you to your house. And this whole idea of how this guy would carry from one side of the city to another with my grandma. So these Beirut stories I guess also the part of my grandma and also not recognising these things just because I mean she has now dementia. But you start losing these memories and you know you don’t recognise so many things yeah that are, you know could have been asked before but you didn’t realise.