Sydney - We Need to Talk: a letter to the city by Kurt Iveson

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Sydney - We Need to Talk

There are still a few days left to catch Wendy Murray’s exhibition Sydney - We Need to Talk at Cross Art Projects in Sydney. The exhibition features some of the illustrations that Wendy made for the book.

Kurt Iveson, one of the authors of Sydney - We Need to Talk, spoke at the launch of the exhibition. Taking inspiration from one of Wendy’s works, he wrote a letter to Sydney. Here it is…

Dear Sydney,

We need to talk.

I’m not sure I know who you are any more.

I’ve spent most of my life with you. But in the past few years, it seems to me like you’re becoming harder and harder to live with. And it’s not just me who’s noticed. You’re more and more sterile, more hostile, more expensive. You’re meaner and hotter and more divided.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of things that remind me why I loved you in the first place, and why I’ve stayed with you for so long. Your jacarandas in spring. A stroll and some shopping on Beamish street on a busy Saturday. Our local public school and its awesome school community. A sunny winter’s weekday at any of your beaches. The crispy hot broad-bean felafel at Cairo Takeaway. Tuesday night funk throw-downs at 505. The surprise appearance of fresh graffiti on your trains and posters on your walls. The energy and shared purpose of a big Sydney Alliance assembly.

But for all that great stuff, I’m not sure I love who you’re becoming.

Maybe you’re getting less loveable because of the company you’re keeping. You’ve spent a lot of time lately long hanging out with some dodgy characters.

Your buddies Barry, Mike and Gladys are cases in point.

Like Gladys. She said when she hooked up with you that making you less expensive was her #1 priority. But she’s been selling off your public housing, and refusing to introduce rules making it a requirement for her developer mates to provide cheap housing in the new towers and suburban estates that are making them rich. She won’t even introduce rules to stop tenants getting kicked out of their homes through no fault of their own.

Just last week she said that your public spaces were big priority and that she’ll appoint a new minister for public space. Meanwhile, her and her friends have privatised publicly-owned assets worth over $9 billion in the last ten years. They supported private advertising on the sails of the Opera House. They put sniffer dogs instead of doctors at our festivals (not to mention on train stations in the west). They put our ovals and schools behind spear-topped fences.

She said her pals in Canberra should be doing more to stop you burning up, by doing something about climate change. But she’s spending billions of dollars on a mega-freeway project that will choke you up with cars for years to come.

Not to mention the fact that she wants to spend $2 billion knocking down a couple of your stadiums to help out her mates.

And even when she tries to do the right thing by you, she seems to have a knack for fucking it up. Just ask the trees on Anzac Parade that had to die unnecessarily for the light rail, or the people in places like Ryde and Canterbury where there’s been over-development without infrastructure.

I could go on. If I’m honest, there are times I really want to leave you.

And I’m pretty sure my friend Wendy is thinking about ditching you too. But then, maybe despite herself, she seems to keep caring for you.

She’s seen what you’re turning into, and she’s trying to snap you out of it – to use her art to show you what you’re becoming, but also to remind you of your best side, to show you how much better you could be.

And when me and a bunch of my friends at Sydney Uni started getting together every week to talk about you, to try to make sense of what was going on with you, one of her posters on your walls inspired us to write you a big open letter.

So, we got together in little groups, and we wrote some stuff: about displacement, and dispossession, and decommodification, and democracy, and a bunch of other d-words!

And then she took our words, and spent hours in your streets, and patiently drew a series of beautiful images that both responded to, and challenged, the words we wrote.

And then, she lovingly packaged the words and the images in a beautiful book, with a cover hand-printed using an ancient press and with pages hand-stitched, all wrapped up in one of her beautiful posters. Maybe she was hoping that you might actually notice us and how much we care about you, because of the care we took in making the letter that we wrote for you.

So, I’m inspired by Wendy, and I’m not ready to break up yet. Instead, me and my friends are taking a leaf out of Wendy’s book. We’re going to spend some quality time with you, hanging out in your streets and talking to other people who love you and wish you could turn things around. We’re not going to go quiet and tolerate your bad side, but we’re not going to give up on you either.

Sydney, we want, we need, to talk.

Love, Kurt


Vanessa Berry on Sydney - We Need to Talk! by Kurt Iveson

Thanks to everyone who was able to make it along to the book’s launch on Sept 11!

For those who couldn’t be there, here’s what Vanessa Berry had to to say in launching the book. Vanessa is author of Mirror Sydney (Giramondo, 2017), writes the Mirror Sydney blog, and is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Sydney.

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Talking Across Cities: the Urban Crew's Sydney - We Need to Talk!

Thank you to the Urban Crew for inviting me to launch Sydney We Need to Talk. I'd like to acknowledge that we are here on Gadigal land, where we work and think and research and write, with the benefit of the thousands of years of Gadigal knowledge and care of this land.

Knowledge and care are a big part of this project - it's a beautiful publication that brings together conversations the Urban Crew have been having with cities, with each other, and with some of the communities in Sydney who have been hit hard by change and redevelopment. It's also a result of the first year of the Printer in Residence program and what a perfect project to revive the Piscator Press, to reconnect it to the work of the university, and to the city that the university has been a part of for 168 years.

I spend a lot of time talking to Sydney. I think we all do - it's the kind of place that wrings conversation out of you. Sometimes the conversation is sweet and light. You might look over towards the eastern horizon after a storm, with the smell of the rain in the air, and see a flock of bats flapping across the sky, through a rainbow and say "ah, Sydney, this is a lovely moment". Sometimes Sydney throws together such exhilarating combinations of the elemental, natural and urban. Other conversations are not so romantic. We all have those, the kind that might occur when you're on your bike trying to "share" the road with cars, for example, or upon catching a glimpse inside one of the giant sheds that cover the dive sites for motorway tunnel excavations, with their huge mounds of earth dragged out from underneath the unsuspecting surface. You might say "Sydney, what on earth is happening here?", or something not quite so polite. Our conversations with the city chart our struggles and synergies with it, and it's a powerful thing to document them.

Sydney We Need to Talk is a collaboration across cities, across disciplines, and across practices. Crossings are important - so much of living in an urban environment is about journeys: the journeys made in the city's physical environment, but also metaphorically, the journey of change, which is a fundamental element of all cities, but in Sydney has been occurring at a rapid rate that can seem exponential.

It can be easy, as an individual, to feel disempowered by large-scale urban change, particularly when it involves the loss of familiar places and the erosion of public space. This disempowerment is particularly acute in the case of public housing - and some of the essays in the book consider the situation of Millers Point and Waterloo in this context.

However what these essays, and the work of the urban crew does, is see change as an opportunity to resist, to react, and importantly to reimagine, how the city might be otherwise, and to be an active agent in shaping it for the better. As the opening essay explains: "This work of imagining and organising a more just and sustainable Sydney is much more difficult than the work of critique". It's difficult, but it's so necessary, and we're lucky to have this wonderful book to ignite and continue this work.

The aesthetics of the book form a powerful message that conveys the Urban Crew's project. The handmade processes of illustration, and letterpress printing on the Piscator Press - which Wendy has produced as the visual and design elements of the book - are an antidote of sorts to the sleek promotional images that illustrate visions of, for example, the sinuous curves of the Westconnex St Peters interchange as they coil through the lush green Photoshop parkland.

Handmade images and processes reflect how cities are lived - by individuals, whose interpretations of them are as various as the lines on a page that comprise a drawing. Like drawing, or setting a row of type, we compose our knowledge of, and connection to, places through our experiences, and our collective and community actions. As we live in this city, it imprints itself onto us. We in turn shape it, and by revealing our interpretations of it, through the means available to us, we make the city we want more possible. The urban crew are doing this work with Sydney We Need to Talk, and I offer my congratulations to everyone involved.