Originally commissioned by Film Victoria's Digital Media Fund in 2001 for exhibition at ACMI, Place-Urbanity is Shaw's most recent work. Like much of the rest of his art, the technology that provides the engine for this experience is elaborate and conceptually ambitious. However, in Place-Urbanity Shaw has chosen to explore the pressing social issues of cultural displacement and migration with a light touch and a laconic sense of humour. It is a surprising addition to a debate that is currently disfiguring the Australian political and cultural landscape, and one which asks us to look more closely at invasive aspects of language, culture and urban planning that determine how different cultures orient themselves toward one another.
To experience Place-Urbanity, the viewer enters a large circular space that surrounds and immerses them in a projected landscape of Melbourne's many urban centres. In the middle of the space stands a round platform mounted with a video projector. Because the platform rotates, so too does the projection - the effect of which allows the operator to explore 360-degree panoramic views of urban spaces within Melbourne.
|Place-Urbanity, 2002, Jeffrey Shaw, Australia, 1944 -, Interactive computer graphic and video installation|
In describing the work Shaw states, 'The piece intends to give a mirror to Melbourne, especially in terms of its remarkable ethnic diversity, so I have chosen locations that are the centres for various immigrant communities.'
A viewer might explore, for example, the predominantly Vietnamese strip of Victoria Street in Richmond, only then to encounter the Jewish community in Balaclava. The work takes us into an imagined space where we can explore notions not only of the places we live in and their cultural significance, but also the complex notions of ghettoisation and the ebb and tide of community bonds.
In Shaw's Place-Urbanity however, there is a punchline. As the individual navigates through its virtual space and encounters ethnically diverse sites of Melbourne, a comedian who belongs to that ethnic community hangs upside down from the waist regaling a joke is a take on the cultural community that they represent. There is a sense that we are seeing Melbourne through the looking glass, gaining access to a world in which political challenges are inverted and become the object of everyday humour, and where people who may be confined to a space through socioeconomic necessity float free, defying the restrictions placed on them by town planning and society at large.
Shaw is one of a number of contemporary artists who have reconfigured the late nineteenth century public experience of the panorama in their work. His use of the circular space operates in two ways at once. On one hand, it is a nod toward the utopian notion of community which protects and encloses the inhabitant within its confines. For the duration of the viewer's experience of the artwork, the individual becomes a part not only of the place, but becomes included within the community itself. On the other hand, it also creates an enclosed safe haven for this fiction world to unfold.
In Shaw's space, the joke, the eternal hiding place of cultural troubles, presents itself as a way of transcending the strife that is undermining Australian society and threatening religious and cultural divisions worldwide.
While Shaw could not perhaps have foreseen the changing social landscape when he first began his work on Place-Urbanity, it is certainly an intriguing addition to the debates surrounding difference within contemporary society. Of course, the lightness of the work and the irony of using commonplace jokes to explore the cultural traps of language conceal a troubled heart. Shaw tries to encourage the visitor, through the interactivity and vastly conceived immersion of the environment, to spend time with the work to examine these issues and explore their own understandings of place, language and culture.