Ngargee Djeembana: On the materiality of public space and Country

N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM and Sarah Lynn Rees in conversation with Max Delany

Sarah Lynn Rees, Map of Nations, 2014, ink on paper. Courtesy the architect.

Who’s Afraid of Public Space? is a major exhibition and research project opening at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in December 2021. Exploring the role of public culture, the contested nature of public space, and the character and composition of public life itself, it will engage contemporary art and cultural practices to consider critical ideas as to what constitutes public culture and to ask, who is it for?

Developed by ACCA’s curatorial team, Max Delany, Annika Kristensen and Miriam Kelly, with an advisory group of artists, academics and cultural producers, the exhibition adopts a collective curatorial model. Who’s Afraid of Public Space? is organised according to a dispersed, distributed structure, encouraging a polyphonic and polycentric understanding of our increasingly complex public realm. While centred at ACCA, the exhibition will extend beyond the walls of the gallery into public space itself—through engagement with and interventions into public and urban realms, mainstream and social media, as well as community centres and academic contexts.

Max__ The exhibition at ACCA considers the role of the gallery as a civic space and encourages a dialogical relationship between the institution and its publics, predicated on notions of inclusion and exchange. ACCA has invited senior Boonwurung Elder N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM and Palawa built environment practitioner Sarah Lynn Rees to work together on one of the exhibition’s keynote commissions, titled Ngargee Djeembana. Our conversation took place at ACCA on 2 July 2021.

Aunty Carolyn__ When ACCA was launched alongside the Malthouse and Chunky Move, in Birrung-ga, the river country we now know as Melbourne, we named this place Ngargee, to reflect the coming together of the visual arts, performance, story and dance. The idea of Ngargee, in this place, in this built environment, as much as in the ACCA building itself, is focused upon bringing people together for cultural practice, ceremony and performance, it gives us a sense of purpose, and a place that we can create and find our own narratives.

Max__ Aunty Carolyn, your role as Indigenous Research Fellow in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at Monash University brings you full circle back to Monash. Can you share more about your role and relationship to the university?

Aunty Carolyn__ I started off at Monash back in the 1970s, in the Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs, where my world opened up. I was a young mum and got introduced to Professor Colin Burke, who was the director then, and Eve Fesl AM who was his secretary. There were a number of us at work there, and we met some amazing activists at the time—Kevin Gilbert, Gary Foley, Marcia Langton, Ken Colbung and Charlie Perkins, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Michael Mansell, Jimmy Everett and Hyllus Maris. I have watched these people progress through these institutions; people that I can connect with about different social issues. It gave us a sense that we belong in these institutions. I think community and making sense of our world is something that is a critical point about this new project for ACCA.

Max__ Sarah, among your many roles and achievements as an architect, academic, Indigenous advisor and public advocate, is there a common theme in your work?

Sarah__ I'm a Palawa woman descending from the Plangermaireener and Trawlwoolway peoples in northeast Tasmania and convicts from the Cambridgeshire region in England, and I live and work predominately on Eastern Kulin Countries. Everything I am involved in serves a greater purpose of finding ways to Indigenise the built environment.

Aunty Carolyn__ Indigenising the built environment, given its very colonial status, is important. I feel privileged, Sarah, to find that we had a connection, and as an architect, you gave me a new way of saying things, to create a narrative which gives us the opportunity to redefine ourselves within these spaces—and understand how we can position ourselves in the process.

Max__ When we came to you with our initial brief, we were interested in developing a space for people to gather for dialogue and the exchange of ideas; a social, cultural, political space of performance and event. Having been speaking with our colleague Nikos Papastergiadis, we initially had in mind places informed by ancient Greek contexts such as the forum, agora and pnyx, which refer to public spaces specifically designed for the purposes of social and political gatherings, public assembly, and democratic discussion between politicians, philosophers, poets and civilians. Taking inspiration from these ideals, as a curatorial team we were interested to acknowledge the cultural context and traditional lands on which ACCA is situated, and to seek guidance from Indigenous Elders and practitioners to consider how First Nations knowledge might inform the design and function of such spaces and places.

Aunty Carolyn, from our very first discussions, you introduced us to the philosophical ideas of Ngargee and Djeembana. Can you elaborate on your thinking around these cultural terms and practices?

Aunty Carolyn__ Ngargee has a performance base, it was a cultural performance that invited people to come onto Country to share to ideas—you were afforded a Tanderrum. This place here, between government house and South Melbourne, which was known as Emerald Hill, and which I named Ngargee, has a context as an environment for dance, song, and ceremony, with ACCA as a visual space. This dialogue, between theatre, dance, art and song is what we call Ngargee.

Djeembana, meaning the diversity within our community, gives us context to place, something we can be a part of. It gives us a sense of purpose for broader communities to come with their practices, to develop their own narratives, in whatever forms they choose to create that narrative—so that I can have moments of finding myself within these spaces. Just even the name gives me some context. Being a part of this process at ACCA gives us focus on stories and place, so we can be proud of a moment of time, within this built environment, for the purpose of the communities. This is a circular process that our world operates within.

Max__ Sarah, as a built environment practitioner thinking about how First Nations philosophies and design perspectives might influence the design and shape of public spaces, how do these philosophical concepts guide your thinking about the project at ACCA?

Sarah__ In many ways, public spaces in our built environment can be considered performative spaces for the community. The design of public spaces can invite people to enact their lives in programmed and unprogrammed ways. The way they are designed informs the scope of the invitation, behavior and sense of connection, representation and belonging that people feel with a place.

Feeling invited, safe and seen in public spaces is very different to being afforded the right and the invitation to come on Country. If we’re thinking about Country holistically, is not just land, it's not just the sky, it's not just the sea, it's everything and every system that exists within that space, both tangible and intangible, with every aspect experiencing equity. The built environment is an aspect of Country now too, it is made from many Countries and has the power to provide equity and identity or to dominate depending largely on the values that drive individual projects.

There are of course the ever-present larger questions about who we are designing for, ‘who’ being used in the holistic sense, for example where a river is considered a living entity with rights equal to those of humans, therefore challenging the concept of human-centered design. In practice we must consider design holistically, however for this project we have the rare opportunity to focus in on one aspect. In a way this project is a thought experiment that started from listening to N’arweet talk often about not seeing herself in the built environment.

My position is that representation in design needs to be layered, sometimes it’s the presence of fauna we consider kin finding a home in the city, sometimes it is language, or art, or spatial responses that allow for cultural practice, the list is ongoing and a layered approach to design allows more people to find themselves in it. For this project we are focusing on the identity of Country through materiality. 

If our public spaces were designed to represent the identity of Country through their materials, what would those materials be? This experiment comes from the belief that architecture has the power to give identity back to Country that’s had its identity taken away by architecture. Architecture is a very disruptive industry, but it doesn't have to be. It can actually reinforce place, and reinforce stories and narratives, as well as health, wellbeing and identity if we just shift the way we think about it.

Aunty Carolyn__ There is very little tangible evidence, for example, of the wetland or swamp that was Melbourne before now. There are very few markers of where we belong in this place. I'm always trying to find markers that inform me that we still have a part in this place. The only time I'm present is when I'm present. My physical presence gives me an identity in place, shaping the environment. Why can't we see something that gives us a sense of our own place, within this space? I think it would be amazing if you can start to read the land and wonder about the history of the people who lived and died before we were here. Hopefully one day you'll know it. But we can't see that now in the built environment.

Sarah Lynn Rees, Public Spaces: A selection of Gippsland Plain case studies, 2021, digital research illustration. Courtesy the architect.

Max__ You've both spoken about making visible and tangible that which might either be embodied as knowledge, or otherwise remains intangible because it has either been covered over or repressed. Aunty Carolyn, you've also discussed the idea of Yulendj, the idea of holding knowledge, and the responsibility in customary law of honoring Country, place and people with that knowledge.

Aunty Carolyn__ I talk about the values, the pillars, that guide our society: knowledge, understanding, purpose. How do we understand ourselves within place? Knowledge is something we share. It's something to really inform people through different narratives, whether visual, physical or metaphysical. It's these things, social and political, that we need to think about—holding knowledge, and how we transmit that knowledge through the built environment.

Sarah__ I think everything has a tangible and an intangible. Our project, as an installation or topography of materials and knowledge, is an opportunity to bring this to life and to tell these stories. For example, if we're talking about a river red gum, we understand it as a tree that is physically tangible, but it's also a marker in the landscape, a marker of what kind of flora and fauna are likely to be nearby, a marker of seasons, it forms part of stories that inform navigation, it has its own story, family, experience of time, it's a home and even maybe a supermarket to fauna, it is so much more than its potential commodity as a building material. This is of course the ultimate paradox given we are looking at this project through the lens of the built environment. Our ancestors’ approach would have been to take no more than what was needed, which is not always the approach in architecture. I hope the conversations and programming around this installation can lean into this tension and encourage public conversation about it. It is one of those ongoing ethical questions for me, but at the very least when we use these materials in architecture, we need to give them the respect they deserve.

Max__ Sarah, you've been researching public spaces in the built environment in Melbourne and elsewhere, with a strong interest in the materiality of place, the materiality of Country. Your research is informed by Indigenous knowledge, and other systems or forms of knowledge—geological, ecological, biophilic—that overlap and interact. Can you discuss how that informs your design principles? And the thinking around this project?

Sarah__ It's interesting, actually, that we’ve ended up using a lot of Western mapping systems to bring to life Indigenous understandings of Country at scale. I've grown up in a Western education system, which didn’t teach an Indigenous understanding of interconnection. It separates the geological map from the ecological map and then you've got the cadaster map, and property maps and weather maps, etcetera. All of these maps and more can be layered in different ways to reveal some of the layers of Country. Our Ngargee Djeembana project is a way to realign those maps and to understand how the geology is connected to the ecology for example, and what that means in terms of the material identity of Country. One day we should undertake another mapping exercise about place names as another layer, focusing on Indigenous place names, and their translations where possible as another way of understanding Country.

Aunty Carolyn__ What did this place look like? If I reimagine what this place looked like, I think through the mapping of waterways. How were the rivers and wetlands changed? These changes informed the way we operated before the construction of the built environment.

Sarah’s skills in architecture gives us a new way of unpacking this, a new way of seeing. When we're doing site work, for example, we dig up things that are in situ, and we go, ‘Oh, wow!’. What was there before starts to trigger memories and waves. The translation of this into architecture and design gives us a new way of understanding the world, and each other’s disciplines and perspectives.

Max__ What are you proposing for the space at ACCA? What might people see or experience?

Sarah__ Visitors will walk into a room and see a landscape of building materials, and raw materials that building materials come from. The information will be there for people to unpack but the onus is on the visitor as to how much they consume that knowledge. In some ways this is a way of learning from an Indigenous perspective—you have to listen, connect and explore to figure out how you relate to these materials, their Country, knowledge and stories. We've been looking at public spaces in Victoria, delving into their geology and ecology and mapping these findings against the materials that are already available for use in construction.

The architectural terminology that perhaps best suits here is vernacular architecture. At University our history subjects started from approximately 3,000 BCE. And at some point, along the timeline, you end up at vernacular architecture, which had a great focus on using the materials that are close to hand and subsequently nurtured regional styles and identities. We then moved on to modernism and the pursuit of an international style. I would love for the profession to come full circle and establish a contemporary vernacular that celebrates Country through its material identity (and much more). Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to walk through the streets of our cities and towns and be able to read Country in the built environment?

Sarah Lynn Rees, ACCA: Geology and Ecology Study, 2021, digital research illustration. Courtesy the architect.

Max__ Sarah, this is related to your interest in the question of how to practice as an architect on other people's Country. You've spoken about vernacular architecture and architecture in relation to the reality of place. What are the implications of practicing as an architect on other people's Country?

Sarah__ I think that every architect, designer or practitioner in the built environment has a responsibility to uphold and work in alignment with the values and lore of the Country that they're working on. That should be a fundamental part of our education process, which will come with the release of new standards and regulations.

Aunty Carolyn__ It should be done with respect (Djilbruk) and deep memory and knowledge of place (Yulendj). It's beginning to happen now, because people are questioning, and we are getting more involved, through the sharing of knowledge and narrative.

In the past, as a community person, we were just given the shelters, expected to live in these things that we had no hand in designing. Now we need to redefine architecture so that it meets the needs of First Peoples on their land, and supports their health and wellbeing. This has been a big shift for us. It's a new conversation, participating intellectually gives us presence within place.

Sarah__ If you're not a Traditional Custodian of the Country that you live and work on, you’re a visitor. That's the framework. Of course, we live here and we don't leave, but if we're going to stay here, then we need to understand where we are and what our responsibilities are. It's going to take some time for that to become an industry-wide understanding, of course. But it's incredibly important. It's our obligation.

The other thing I'd say is that we need to be careful not to place expectations on Traditional Custodians to come along and tell stories to inform our designs. Firstly, we have to earn the privilege to hear stories and, secondly, we also need to do our part in the creative partnership. Indigenous architecture is not just about turning narrative into architecture. We need to take the responsibility and time to understand the laws and values of the Countries we work on and dream up new ways as to how they can inform every aspect of architecture.

Aunty Carolyn__ Wurrungi-bik is the law of the land—a commitment not to harm the lands, waterways, and the children of Bunjil. How nature informs us in design—the epistemologies of our environment, its being as a living entity, including our built environment—as a myriad of possibilities from the intersection between the past and the present. Indigenous knowledges have been seriously under-valued. It's taken more than two hundred years to be properly acknowledged. This recognition of design is an exciting challenge.

N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM is founding Chair of the Boonwurrung Land and Sea Council and custodian of the Yalukit Willam in Birrung- ga. She is Indigenous Research Fellow in the Wominjeka Djeembana Indigenous research lab, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at Monash University.

Max Delany is Artistic Director and CEO at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. He also holds the position of adjunct Associate Professor, Curatorial Practice, at Monash University.

Sarah Lynn Rees works with Jackson Clements Burrows Architects, is a Lecturer at Monash University and program advisor and curator of the BLAKitecture series for MPavilion. She is Director of Parlour: Women, Equity, Architecture, a member of the Victorian Design Review Panel for the Office of the Victorian Government Architect, and co-chair of the Australian Institute of Architects First Nations Advisory Working Group.