Lee Grant’s Belco Pride

‘Belco Pride’, introductory essay for Lee Grant Belco Pride, 2012, pp6-9, ISBN 978-0-98734-950-7

Let’s start with the graffiti Lee Grant photographed, now erased, which gives this book its title. When it was first established in 1966, Canberra’s new town of Belconnen took its name from an original 1837 land grant to the explorer Charles Sturt. The origins of the name are obscure, but its undulating syllables seem to contain aboriginal vowel sounds, while also ringing with hints of English-styled pastoral beauty. As the various suburbs of Belconnen were progressively surveyed and gazetted during the next forty years, the new residents (or ‘first settlers’ as local historians insist on calling them, as though they were heroically following the westward-ho migration of our colonial pioneers) fanned out and made them their own. In typically Australian fashion they began to contract the three syllables of Belconnen down to two. Their affectionate name for the place is now a wry belch that refuses all pretension. The fact that the graffitist should choose to declare their pride in the swathe of suburbs they call home by vandalizing them is also a claiming by refusal. Their act of unruly defiance re-reverses the metaphoric effect of the barbed wire that had been bolted to the top of the wall. The barbed wire had turned this part of Belconnen into a grim parody of a prison, however with the graffiti added the wall becomes part of a local suburb once more. These processes of refusal and reversal are typical of the ways that new suburban ‘settlers’ make a chthonic connection for themselves to the places in which they spend every day, within the larger civic aspirations of the governments, planners, and architects who had initially designed those places, and then moved on.

 

In many ways Belconnen is like so many other outer suburbs around the world: sprawling in the sun across hills and ridges till finally petering out in a farmer’s back paddock; fed by tributaries of Cul-de-sacs, Places, Closes, Circuits, and Streets, which trickle into Roads, Ways and Drives along which a bus will occasionally lumber. It has posher areas — the hilly, breezy, leafy older suburbs closer to the centre of the city and the cycle paths and dog walking tracks of Canberra’s Nature Park; and it has bogan areas — the outer suburbs which are flung a further ten minutes drive away. One of these outer suburbs, Charnwood (or Charny as it know to its residents), has even become a synonym, universally recognized across Canberra with an unspoken micro-twitch of the eyebrow, for the crime and poverty of social disadvantage.

 

Yet if Belconnen shares many of these social dynamics with so many other suburban areas in so many other cities in the world, it is also in many ways unique, because Canberra itself is unique: Canberra, barely one hundred years old, the planned, artificial capital of a new nation, which has only two other comparators — Brasilia and perhaps Washington; Canberra, the repository of the symbolic dreams of generations of bureaucrats and politicians; Canberra, the experimental laboratory for the utopian plans of generations of civic planners and architects, at least until it was forced to govern itself after 1988; Canberra, the seat of parliament from which all those unpopular laws emanate; Canberra, the national byword for middle class, privileged insularity, supposedly permanently out of touch with the ‘real Australia’; and Canberra, two hours from the nearest decent beach. While these caricatures have very little day-to-day reality for those of us who actually live here, they nonetheless persist as a kind of distant horizon, something we occasionally catch an unexpected glimpse of. For example when they aren’t bestowed with Aboriginal names, Belconnen’s suburbs are named after former Prime Ministers — Holt, Scullin, Page and Bruce; or former worthies — Melba and Florey.

 

Canberra was conceived along garden city principles, with semi-autonomous new town satellites such as Belconnen connected to the city centre by freeways. Accordingly, Belconnen has one of everything: one university, one mini-lake, one arts centre, one community centre, one remand centre, one shopping mall, and one Bunnings. Beneath this town level Canberra’s planners designed smaller neighbourhoods, with streets curled around primary schools and sets of shops. These carefully planned neighbourhoods, in this carefully planned new town, connected by long curving freeways to this carefully planned city, have now become just Belco to the people who live there. Yet the legacy of the idea of Canberra remains, in Belconnen’s planning successes, and in its failures. Benjamin Way, the main drive through the ‘town centre’, turns off the main route leading northwest from Canberra’s CBD. It may lead past a familiarly generic Westfield shopping mall, but the lake it is heading towards, Lake Ginninderra, is entirely artificial, made by damming a creek in order to continue the overall plan of making Canberra a landscape city. On the way to the lake the road has passed the remains of the Cameron Offices which, when they were built in the 1970s to provide a centre of government employment for the new town, were at the forefront of architecture. However their brutalist concrete flying buttresses and large interior voids created wind tunnels and an acute sense of isolation, and they were unloved by both the public servants who worked in them and the Belconnen residents who drove past them. They have now been demolished, with only one architecturally representative fragment, protected by the Commonwealth Heritage Register, remaining. Between the benighted Cameron Offices and the mall was once the Belconnen Bus Interchange. In 1980 it was linked to the surrounding civic infrastructure with what was at the time a futuristic innovation, an aerial network of enclosed walkways like plastic tubes running above the street. But unfortunately these, too, turned out to be windy, dangerous, unloved and unmaintained until they were finally demolished in 2009. Recently the ACT government have placed an eight-metre tall sculpture of an Owl at the beginning of Benjamin Way as a new ‘gateway marker’ for the town centre, it remains to be seen whether this bold gesture, which appeared on their streets unbidden, will be embraced by the people of Belconnen or not.

 

Narratives like these, of larger ambitions within bigger historic frameworks, inevitably affect in a unique way the experience of living in what is really a relatively small cluster of suburbs. Although none of these narratives are directly referred to in Grant’s photographs they nonetheless form the distant horizon to the everyday suburban activities which Grant, who herself grew up in Belconnen amongst all of those histories, has documented.

 

Since it became the dominant mode of living in the West in the 1950s, suburbia has been one of documentary photography’s natural homes. Bill Owens’s seminal 1972 book Suburbia set the tone for much of this genre. His wide-angle black and white photographs, with captions written underneath by their subjects, were shot in Livermore California by a photographer who was an outsider. He approached his subjects like an anthropologist might, with a point to make about the new tribe he had discovered. Many other photographers since have shared Owens’s distant fascination with suburbia, its quaint rituals and its kitsch pomposities. Others, who may have grown up in suburbia but then left it for the ‘real world’ of the big city, have returned, but they usually view it with a residual sense of estrangement. The dominant moods of this suburban photography are either Gus van Sant ennui or Stepford Wives satire. Clichés are beginning to emerge. William Eggleston’s picture of a man sitting with a gun on his quilt-covered bed in Mississippi from his 1976 book William Eggleston’s Guide set the paradigm for thousands of other lone figures sitting in enigmatic contrast to the business of the ordinary rooms around them. Thousand of other photographers have photographed suburban houses, often at dusk with glowing, glaucomal windows, barely protected in their manicured quarter-acre patches from the glowering sky above them. Hundreds more have photographed discarded toys and tricycles, shot from low angles tipped over in hallways or driveways, their young owners portentously absent.

 

Australians have carved out their own strong traditions of suburban photography. Some, like Grant, have immersed themselves deeply and very personally into its rituals, such as Ruth Maddison in Christmas holiday with Bob’s Family, Queensland, 1978, or Trent Parke’s more recent The Christmas Tree Bucket, 2008. Others such as Darren Sylvester, Tracey Moffatt or Glenn Sloggett have used suburbia as a way of staging a particular state of mind. Broader Australian culture has a rich tradition going back at least forty years of suburbia being a site where all of its anxieties about national identity were played out, in TV sit-coms from Kingswood Country to Kath & Kim; in films from Don’s Party to The Castle; in painting from Howard Arkley to Reg Mombassa, and in theatre from Patrick White to Dame Edna Everage..

 

But Grant is not a returning nostalgic, nor an anthropologist visiting for a fieldwork project, nor somebody acting out her own psychodramas within a suburban mise en scéne. She lives there, and she has always lived there. And like everybody else in Belconnen she’s more concerned with day-to-day realities Belconnen shares with every other suburb, rather than Canberra’s status as the nation’s capital. The people of Belconnen are front and centre in Grant’s photographs. She uses a square format camera, but not to swirl a vertigo of space around her subjects as, say, Diane Arbus might have, but to catalogue the home ground in which her subjects are located. Thus, the colour of Sophie at Snippets’ eye shadow chromatically rhymes with her shampoo bottles and the beaded curtain to her parlour. Still in Charnwood, the white shirts of Dennis and Lesley team with the white of the faux marble bench top and the kitchen curtains in a confection of pure suburban honesty, which sets off the raw pink of their skin and their kitchen cabinet doors. The colour white is also crucial to her portrait of Aja, Adau, Mary and Nankir, Sudanese refugees now of Dunlop. There the white of the dresses, curtains, and walls contrasts with the warm mahogany of the regal chairs they sit on, the floral patterns on their carpet, clothes and sandals, and also their skin. There is very little arrogance displayed by the people in this book, even the eyes of the Graffhead that Grant has photographed — hands thrust into his hoodie pockets, face hidden behind his protective mask — are slipping sideways. The most tattooed and bearded character in the whole book, Cons, is clearly still a kidult, although a father he still likes to scoot his low riding dragster bike around the streets of Latham before tea time. Grant also avoids condescension. The young stilt walker — standing in front of an irredeemably ugly wall at the Charny Carny, whose red circus jacket rhymes with a transportable ice-cream stall manned by a child and precariously resting on some pallets — still manages to maintain the dignity of her elevation. The most common aspect her subjects show us is a shy cock of the head, and a slightly formal hitched-up stance, from which a clear-eyed gaze at the camera eventually emerges.

 

Many of Grant’s interior portraits rely on an all-over mapping of edge to detail, but many of her exteriors are organised in horizontal bands from ground to sky. In keeping with Canberra’s overall plan, Belconnen is a town set in a landscape, and that landscape is over half a kilometre above sea level where the air is crisp and dry, the sky china-blue and distant edges retain a piercing acutance. The traditional suburban banding, familiar since Eggleston, of horizontal road, inclined driveway, vertical brick wall, and infinite sky, stands out in hyperreal clarity beneath the cool Canberra sun. Refugees from Sudan, the Duot Family, stand in their sandals, runners and suits in front of their new Dunlop home. With its Georgian styled aluminium windows, freshly inserted shrubs and patches of grass, it looks like it could be the hastily built display from a home show. In Pipeline, Ginninderra Creek, the creek that was dammed to form Belconnen’s artificial lake picturesquely winds off below the weir towards an overhead pipeline that cuts across the landscape below a ridge full of houses. In Ginninderra underpass a cold light arrows in, turning the creek into mirror flawlessly reflecting the graffitied walls.

 

Grant has documented the experiences of people in suburbia which are at once specific, belonging to a particular set of suburbs in the ‘new town’ of a planned capital with a particular history, and universal, part of a global experience shared by millions of people around the world, from China to South Africa, who are all adjusting to their new suburbs. The ‘pride’ of these people has nothing to do with the jingoistic huffing of local political demagogues, nor the confected hysteria of the ‘tribal’ allegiances of corporatised sporting competitions. But it has everything to do with confirming a sense of abiding occupation amongst the ridges and valleys, streets and drives, emptinesses and amenities, forgotten histories and unrealized futures, of Belco.

Martyn Jolly

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