by Celeste Aldahn
I met Maeve Parker in 2015 while on a residency in Sydney. I was deep in to Saturn Returns, everything felt up in the air. Looking back, I’d landed just right: I was held by the creative work that rose up in what is often a hostile city for artists. Returning to Sydney in 2018, this time to live, I ended up working in a front-facing role at a major gallery with Seb Henry-Jones. We were mostly handing out audio guides and refining our scripts for talking with visitors.
Sydney was the first city I visited independently and frequently, to see family and find a sense of self. So my memories are marked with youthful romanticism: public action and independent space, moments of protest and coming together, film festivals in squats and warehouse parties in yet to be gentrified, inner-city industria. Seb told me “there’s not as many as there used to be… the ones that do exist still carry an admirable resourcefulness and pragmatism within a community building context.” Desire Lines, an ongoing curatorial project initiated by Seb and Maeve in 2016, is part of this landscape.
The title, Desire Lines, seems to inform the concept of delivery. “I think that’s the funny thing with names, you kinda grow into them,” says Maeve. Usually, it’s a walking tour. A crowd gathers on Gadigal land in Sydney. The framework developed by the two instigators encourages artists and audience to navigate space in new ways. Urban locations become backdrops to unconventional encounters. “Maeve had the idea for a walking format and asked me what I thought, because I was studying curating at the time. I had recently gone for a walk around the canal in Alexandria, what would eventually become the location of the first event. I remember not knowing any artists, really, and learning so much on the job” Seb explains. “It was great, pretty much nobody from the Sydney art scene came, it was a really interesting mix of people.”
I first heard of Desire Lines after their 2018 cake competition blasted through my Instagram feed. Teams presented cakes, dressed to match creations: Dolly Parton and Judy Ogle taking to a cream-coated altar in celebration of queer ally-ship; a gateaux bomb at the end of a live fuse; a BDSM sponge cut with chains and oozing blood. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of walking the coast with Desire Lines, to peer through shrubs over a cliff-edge and witness artists moving with violent oceans; filling public baths with smoke; dancing with shards of mirror harnessed to rope; hosting talk shows on fear and desire. We don’t need an institutional framework to unpack community action.
There’s something about collective energy that can hold you. It's like the time you first act out, but purposeful and considered. “I’m really inspired by people who just use whatever is available to them to make something happen their house the front room of their shop, a storage cupboard" says Maeve, “a lot of these transitory in-between spaces, footpaths, parks, staircases, they take on a certain familiarity when they are routinely visited… the functional way we pass through space means we switch off and maybe don’t recognise the specialness out there.”
Desire Lines operates at once as an aspiration for and contrary to the tradition and institution of space and art. “A lot of my favourite creative zones tend to be the more informal sites: people’s backyards, garages, dance floors.” continues Maeve. And like the dance floor, Desire Lines offers the opportunity to experience an altered state, where artists and audiences and have a chance for some much needed civil disobedience. “I think where this all gets political is in the expectation that people will use public space, in a certain way. We are expected to follow 'rules' of certain landscapes, and act with a level of piousness toward the space we are in.”
Says Seb: “Sydney has a strong tradition of resistance to the development of public land... I say this because Sydney also has a strong tradition of developing and privatising public land… that tension really informs the spaces that artists work in, and dictates the way that culture occurs here. There’s not much space (or much funding) for the arts in New South Wales, and so it can be quite a competitive environment to be in.” Considering sovereignty, lock-out laws and rising rental prices, he adds "I recall [in the development of Desire Lines] having a lot of conversations about how we use public space in Sydney, and also how we think about land ownership in Australia more broadly. We’re all living on stolen land, and I would like to engage with this issue more directly than we have in the past.” For Seb and Maeve, accountability, shared knowledge and learning are central to their collaboration. To mark the third anniversary of Desire Lines, the duo created Field Notes to document their operation and learning; a moment of pride for both. It reads like a manifesto—vital and rare. “It allowed us to think about all the stuff we’ve done and what our politics actually are.” Seb reflects.
A double meaning in its name and ceremony, Desire Lines takes a political and truly punk approach to curatorship: a praxis of ethical, sustainable, subversive and community-centred thinking in what can often feel like a hostile environment. Action through such a ritual feels important; to be held by such an action is both a privilege and a responsibility.