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Tarkovsky's Stalker, the first of a series of film screenings to be held at the Otira site, revolves around the journey of its three central protagonists, known solely as Writer, Scientist and Stalker. The characters are glyphs, representatives of the diverse potential of human achievement, brought together by the pressures of their individual captive subjectivities.

What distinguishes this film is its metred pace and the sense of anticipation this inculcates in us. At every turn we expect something terrible and irreversible to occur. In the end it never does and we are frustrated by the uneventfulness of the film as a whole. Stalker confounds our expectations of what a film should be which makes the process of viewing it difficult. Eventually what it elicits from us is a willingness to abandon ourselves to a purely cinematic experience. This cinematic aspect was once naturally apprehended as part of the medium's newness. As our exposure to film has increased, so the sense of its materiality has inversely diminished. Today, instead we are encouraged, especially through TV, to read screen phenomena as the by-product of a linear narrative.

As an alternative Stalker offers us an intensely palpable experience. The film's experiential quality results from its lingering investigation of natural phenomena generally disregarded in the routine of our day to day activities. The film is marked by its sense of dampness, fragility and ruin, qualities that lend it an apocalyptic or post-historical sensibility. Ultimately what we are left with are remains and industrial waste. Civilisation itself becomes the meditative focus of a retrospective reverie. In this world nothing works, or what works does so only momentarily. We become bored yet equally we are mesmerised. We experience the film as though immersed in it. It is this sense of immersion that captures our attention, propelling us through its various meanderings.

Tarkovsky's Stalker provided an eminently suitable metaphor for the Oblique project. Here nothing was as it seemed at first nor as we anticipated it. Oblique was marked at various levels by its difficulty as much as by its ambition and the show's 'final' result. Having personally been transposed from Sydney, a terrain of an entirely different nature, the challenge of the show, like that of the film, lay in our willingness to adapt to the circumstances at hand.
Otira is an isolated town surrounded by irrepressible mountains. The landscape is marked by its rural and remote and the abandoned traces of a more prosperous time. Not exactly a ghost town, most of its twenty-two inhabitants rose to the occasion of this alien event, making their individual presences known, through assistance, query, and the daily pattern of their lives. The artists housed in abandoned buildings were left to acquiesce in these new surroundings. Living more or less communally if only for a week meant that the ease and familiarity of everyday routines and moods were easily overturned.

Like the experience of Stalker, much of being in Otira was centred on a sense of anticipation. On the one hand nothing much happened. On the other, what happened was rather proccessual, occurring as the coming together of individual subjects in a site away from home.

Being in Otira was about surmounting the unfamiliar while equally celebrating 'difference'. Even the local population accustomed to living in such an environment, were in a position in which their familiarity was suddenly challenged. Otira became a melting pot of possibilities that not only served to challenge the individual artist but to question traditional notions of 'exhibition' and 'product'. Together these things served to make the Oblique project a unique endeavour. It was easy to regard individual works as ephemeral in the lazy expanse of the town. Suddenly gone were the immediate and occasionally counter-productive pressures of urban art making, instead time was needed to absorb the location and experience its peculiarities as well as its potential for alienation.
Oblique was an event in which perceptions of time were altered. Like viewing a Tarkovsky film, those involved were left to find their own pace. What was gleaned as a result were experiences and knowledge of a quality perhaps not readily quantifiable by narrow conceptions of finished products alone.

Traditionally as artists we are expected to consider our practices on the proviso that we ourselves cannot be completely represented by what we make. This is an important appraisal of the art making process because it refuses to narrowly equate art with personality. However, it ignores the notion that every artwork exists as part of a broader pool of ideas and other related artworks. An overriding consideration for those involved in the Oblique project was the challenge of the site itself and the artists' grapplings with notions of site-specificity.
Some artists approached the experience with an openness that allowed the site to resonate both as a product of its singularity and as the 'punctum' of its alteration. Alternately, other artists brought with them fully formed self-contained works whose success depended on the degree to which the individual object/concept could successfully engage a particular location. While certain works functioned in a manner that enhanced both the site as well as the meaning of the work, others seemed cast adrift and on the point of evaporation.

In Otira any notion of competing with the environment was soon quashed. If works appeared small or insignificant it had to be noted that they were surrounded on all sides by natural formations of extraordinary altitude. Furthermore, it was impossible to avoid notions of historicity, or the fact that the town itself would finally read as a text notable for the disparity of its possible interpretations. Yet does the scale of something necessarily reflect its vacuity or do such a notions merely serve to maintain our identification with the monumental? Alternatively, does producing work of an ephemeral nature constitute respect for the environment in which the work is housed, and for those who live there permanently? Similarly, if the intention behind the Oblique project was immediately apparent then surely it would have exceeded itself before its physical realisation and denied the event its investigative and social aspects?
Aside from these existential conundrums were issues of practicality and resourcefulness. Many of the most affective works were the most resourceful. The Honeymoon Suite house featuring works by Layla Rudneva-Mackay, Richard Shaw, Emma Bugden and Warren Olds was one such example. Using an economy of means to investigate both the physicality of the site and myths of urban (and rural) degeneration, the artists fashioned works that were discreet and subtly interventionist.

Sydney artist David Haines' 'cut-out' graveyard sited in an empty lot adjacent to the train station merged morbid humour and personal narrative to comment upon the fictional aspects of history and the otherwise seemingly arbitrary presence of the artists in Otira. Indeed fiction was one of the key principles behind much of the work executed at Oblique. The Room 3 artists from Auckland elaborated upon urban mythologies through the employment of faux graffiti and clusters of banal objects that bespoke a youthful cheek. Collectibvely their work served as a play on the nature of the site itself as well as on any pretence to highbrow seriousness normally associated with official art culture.

In an entirely dissimilar vein, the imaginary, though otherwise visibly active Dusseldorf Artists Archive promoted an ironic sense of internationalism in the far away event-horizon of Otira. Nevertheless the archive served admirably also as an informative means of introducing the creative histories of participating artists to those in attendance.
Otira was a site in which play was actively encouraged, not at the expense of the quality of the work produced, but rather to its benefit. Play is a concept generally restricted to the domain of children before they 'grow up'. Such an attitude evades play's indispensability to processes of learning and its potential for anarchic affront. To be seen not to be serious, for a society obsessed with productivity, is a means of avoiding a simply instrumentalist engagement with the world whilst choosing instead the active pursuit of pleasure.

Not all fictions of course are about pleasure. Terrence Hanscomb's videos of concentration camp footage taken while the artist was in Germany were sited in the artist's temporary abode above the Otira hotel. The video monitors could be seen casting eerie emanations over the surrounding countryside, making controversial analogies between Otira's physical and cultural isolation and the enforced isolation of the camps. Hanscomb views both as relics of reluctant occupation. This is perhaps a gross exaggeration of prevailing circumstances in Otira, yet it is one that inevitably confronts notions of hierarchy and questions the artists' exact role in the town's day to day running. Were the artists merely on a paid-up working holiday or were they there for other more ambitious purposes? Was it the artists who were responsible for the 'culture' in Otira, or is it a town with a culture all its own, one that exists independently of contemporary theories and representations of place?

Much has been written in the last few years about the denial of mastery. It is a distinctly postmodern pre-occupation and one that addresses modernism's traditional arrogance. Traditionally Modernism attempts to dominate through the supposed universal application of its cultural theories whatever terrain it chooses to colonise. Architectural theory, for instance, concentrates on the productions of 'serious' architects, implying the cultural redundancy of say, the humble 'shack'. If Otira was the shack to which the artists of Oblique brought their serious culture as a means of redeeming it in the eyes of an imagined public, then surely the artists were claiming ownership the town, its surroundings and inhabitants. If on the other hand the work served to open up empty spaces for egalitarian interaction and interpretation, then the Oblique project could claim uniqueness in this respect also.

Much of the problematic nature of the siting of contemporary art in Otira depended on the expectations of the locals and of the artists. Those expecting work of a more traditional genre were in for a surprise whilst those artists seeking all round admiration and accessibility were perhaps simply deluded.

These questions can only be answered on the grounds of subjective experience. Generally meanings waver according to the contexts in which they are inserted. Traditionally art is a stable medium of disinterested contemplation that makes no attempt to break the boundaries of its hermetic framing. In Otira, framing becomes an issue of the site's own fragmented self-representation. The fact that representational modes differed for the artists and the town's local inhabitants created an inevitable tension as potentially productive as it was disruptive. Without this creative rupture the Oblique event would have been a foregone conclusion.

If Oblique did not entirely live up to its promises on some levels it exceeded them in others. The most indispensable aspect of this project was the artists' enthusiasm to be a part of something larger than their individually self-regulated projects. Also commendable was the pleasure individual artists took in engaging the town's locals and likewise of the locals' reciprocal openness to their visitors. These interactions enable a culture to flourish and to expand. The learning that takes place as a result is not easily forgotten by those involved. Furthermore Oblique's on-line representation is both informative and adventurous and will continue to influence future events of this kind.
Finally if culture gave us everything we expected of it then it would evaporate entirely. Our role as active participants in the creation of meaning would be replaced by cynical faith in the pre-determined value of its end products. If the artists at Otira failed entirely to 'occupy' the town it is to their benefit, for the interstices they uncovered were as valuable as the experience of nearly being there.

You can visit the Oblique: The Otira Project website at

Alex Gawronski
15 July 1999