Refugium at Federation Square: The Politics of Participatory Ecological Artwork in Public-Private Space

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Condliffe, Zoë, Tanja Beer, and Marnie Badham. “Refugium at Federation Square: the Politics of Participatory Ecological Artwork in Public-Private Space.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 2018,

Zoë Condliffe

University of Melbourne

Tanja Beer

University of Melbourne

Marnie Badham

RMIT University


The ecological turn of the last decade has strengthened an interest in using the arts as a way of engaging the public in environmental issues. Increasingly, the commissioning of public art that addresses conservation, biodiversity, and climate change concerns has expanded to include participatory, hands-on creative forms and processes with the aim to encourage empathy and understanding. Ecological participatory arts can function to meaningfully engage the public in the pressing environmental issues of our time, bringing new ideas and opportunities for change. Nevertheless, a greater understanding is needed to identify how ecological public art affects the relationship of individuals to their urban environment, including how these artworks sit within wider policy and political frameworks. This includes capacities for ecological art to interrupt the expected relationships of individuals and their engagement in public space. This article examines the participatory ecological pubic artwork Refugium and its unexpected outcomes.


Refugium was a participatory ecological public artwork that aimed to draw attention to the value of biodiversity in the city. It was conceived by Melbourne-based artist Tanja Beer, commissioned by Fed Square Pty Ltd in Melbourne Australia (June 2016) and delivered with production support by Zoë Condliffe. Refugium takes its name from the scientific term “refugium,” which is used to describe an area where environmental and biodiverse conditions (abundance of resources and suitable micro-climates) have enabled a species or a community of species to take refuge during unfavourable circumstances (such as adverse climates, fire, or disease). This area, acting as a “refuge,” allows the species to recover, thus making the ecosystem more resilient to environmental changes. Beer was motivated by the idea of creating a “refuge-like” space that celebrated ecological diversity and resilience by providing a sanctuary from inner-city life.

Urban biodiversity has been identified as the diversity (variation and changeability) of species that occupy urban environments. (Parris). A biodiverse urban system is not only intrinsic to the health and wellbeing of our planet, but also to our survival as humans (Babu et al.; Sandifer et al.), contributing to the absorption of pollutants and the management of cooler temperatures in response to climate change (Abdourahamane Illiassou et al.). Nevertheless, the public’s knowledge of the importance of biodiversity is still not widely understood. This is problematic, as the engagement of individuals in ecological issues is dependent on their knowledge of biodiversity and their appreciation of local species (Nates Jimenez and Lindemann-Matthies). In a society where people are becoming increasingly urbanised, new strategies are needed to connect communities to their local ecologies and motivate them in the hands-on co-creation of a thriving future (Bennett and Beudel).

Through a series of free community workshops and a resultant public display of hundreds of suspended plant-sculptures (Fig. 1), Refugium explored the concept of biodiversity resilience in the city through participatory art making with native flora. The project engaged the public by using hands-on activities of “vegetal crafting” as an act of performing resilience within a public space. Resilience is a concept that denotes the ability of an ecological system to withstand environmental and social change (Walker and Salt), and Refugium aimed to foster a collective re-imagination of Melbourne as an interconnected, biodiverse, regenerative, and resilient system. 300 mini native plant-sculptures, described as “kokedamas,” were created by individuals and temporally installed in the public space of Federation Square, creating a “bush refuge” in the heart of the urban landscape.

Figure 1. Refugium at Federation Square (2016). Photo: Nick Roux

By positioning Refugium within broader political and art theoretical discourses, this article examines how the experiences of ecological public art can connect individuals to their urban environment through creative and hands-on participation. In the process of facilitating an active and creative engagement with biodiversity, questions of public art and meaning-making become complicated in the commercial, yet publicly-engaged, space of Federation Square. Refugium is examined as a case study, analysing the process of designing and implementing ecological artwork within the constraints of the private-public space. Through contemporary art and political theory debates, this article explores the paradox of the expression of ecological values in a mixed-use urban space dominated by both private and public engagement interests. The paper first presents the conflicting values between dominant current-day neoliberal frameworks and histories of participatory public art at Federation Square. Next, Refugium is examined through the frameworks of engagement, product, and distribution before discussing the role that institutions play in not only influencing the execution, reception, and consumption of public art.

Federation Square and Refugium: Curating Public-Private Space

Federation Square was commissioned by the Government of Victoria in 2002 to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Federation of Australia. The site sits on the indigenous land of the Kulin Nations, on the banks of the Yarra River, separated from the Melbourne grid by Flinders Street and St. Kilda Road. Federation Square is a mixed-use development of 7.9 acres in the inner city of Melbourne centred on three major public spaces: St. Paul’s Court, The Square, and The Atrium. Constructed on a concrete deck above the city’s railway lines, it is located in Melbourne’s Central Business District. Marketed as the “Heart of Melbourne,” Federation Square houses cultural attractions and events and an abundance of restaurants, bars and shops (Fig. 2). The site is a prime example of a convergence between public and private economies, avant-garde and mainstream aesthetics, and tourist and local users. Federation Square management has a long history of commissioning leading public art works for tourists and locals alike. The development and production of commissioned public art in Federation Square is also closely monitored through internal planning strategies and policy applications including contractual agreements, risk assessment processes, and liability insurance.

Figure 2: Map of Federation Square 2017.

Described as a “complex and radical conception”, Federation Square was designed in collaboration with urban designer and artist Paul Carter, who was commissioned to create an artwork to mark the site “as a focus of historical, social and political negotiation” (Carter in Rutherford 4). Carter’s vision was developed to interrupt the way people engage with public space. The nature of his design demands that one slows down their path towards their destination to engage in design elements that include the nine concrete poems etched into the stones on the ground. This design is radical rejection of the contemporary emphasis on city spaces as primarily existing to enable the worker to participate in the economy. Carter’s work has been described as simultaneously interrupting the colonial narrative that many urban spaces actualise by etching these stories into the rock “at a time when acts of testimony, storytelling and critical argument appear to leave no trace” (Rutherford 2).

While Federation Square forms a transient hub away from the hustle and bustle of city life, it could also be described as heavily-developed and highly-orchestrated. If, as Rosalyn Deutsche posits, all “space is political, inseparable from the conflictual and uneven social relations that structure…societies” (Deutsche xiv), then Federation Square is far from being a “blank canvas” for art installations and festivals. Instead, it can be viewed as part of a “historical form of late-capitalist urbanism…transforming cities for private profit and state control” (Deutsche xiv). Fed Square Pty Ltd is a privately-owned corporation with a strong public engagement mandate. Aside from the fact that it is a privately-owned corporation with a financial bottom line and its arts programming is closely tied to urban development and tourism planning, it can be argued the corporation also perpetuates a neoliberal social structure through the inclusion and exclusion of the public. While Federation Square draws enormous crowds at many of its large-scale public events (such as cultural or sporting festivals), exclusion is still manifested through the use of security personnel monitoring of attendees and metal structures on seating to deter homeless people from public sleeping. The restaurants and cafes throughout the space echo the values of consumption alongside the Ian Potter Gallery, which caters primarily to tourists willing to pay for participation in public space.

Nevertheless, Federation Square has the potential for an “innovative partnership between the public and private sectors” (Deutsche 57). For example, Carter calls his practice the “art of the gap”: telling stories that white colonial discourse has covered up in its need to make spaces blank and storyless (Rutherford 7). In a similar vein, Refugium endeavoured to reveal a parallel narrative of the concrete surrounds — the rich and diverse native Australian environment that once flourished in Melbourne’s CBD. Concerned that nature had been “written over” by urban landscapes and its consumerism, Beer developed Refugium with an aim to disrupt the public’s routine engagement with urban spaces — to offer a reconnection with native fauna and flora, and an understanding of its value to us as humans. At the same time, the making of Refugium revealed the tensions of promoting ecological values within the context of private sponsorship of public participatory art.

Neoliberalism and Cultural Institutions

Understanding the position that public art now takes within the neoliberal political climate is an essential part of thinking through the aims and effects of community participation. The “extension of economic rationality to formerly non-economic domains” (Brown, “Neo-liberalism…”) means that the execution and experience of the art cannot help but be influenced by the context of neoliberalism.

Theorist Wendy Brown contends that neoliberalism is “not only about facilitating free trade, maximizing corporate profits, and challenging welfarism” but also, and more fundamentally, about “extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action” (Brown, “Neo-liberalism…”). Neoliberalism extends to the expectation that institutions and organisations that had previously been separate from “the sphere of market activity (such as public broadcasting, tertiary education, government agencies, public museums, and so on) should be subject — in various ways — to the discipline of market competition” (Brown, “Skilling…” 161). As such, while participatory arts have a long history of government public funding and institutional instrumentalisation in most Western democracies, neoliberalism has also reconfigured the relationship between “art-making” and “community-making.”

Increasingly, public institutions now commission public art as a community engagement function for private interests. Richard Bolton contends, “the arts have played an important role in marketing strategies since the beginning of the twentieth century” (Bolton 29). However, the capacity of the arts in the corporate world goes far beyond a contribution to commodity design and advertising techniques. For example, a Phillip Morris study entitled “Americans and the Arts” showed that a typical member of the arts audience is “well off, educated, owns real estate, travels frequently, and often dines in restaurants” and are “ideal consumers” (Bolton 29).

In a neoliberal sense, creative programming in public space at Federation Square must be justified against financial outcomes for the corporation that are centred upon marketing strategies and engagement targets and have an emphasis on the numbers of tourists and visitors that pass through the space as well as the profits made. This instrumentalisation of the arts can be understood as corporate strategy to generate profits and push the corporate goals of an organisation. According to Herbert Schmertz of Mobil Oil, employing the arts is about “corporate survival” (Bolton 29). If this is the case, is it possible for “anti-consumer” or environmental arts to have a meaningful role in public space if it is also being used for financial and corporate gain?

Rosalyn Deutsche argues that redevelopment of neoliberal public spaces works to destroy the conditions of survival for those no longer required in the neoliberal economy of the city. Deutsche argues: “Instead of celebrating redevelopment as a revitalising and beautifying process, I view it as a historical form of late-capitalist urbanism” (Deutsche xiv). Politics plays a major role in how creative practices are executed and perceived, particularly when it is governed by values that dictate the tightly controlled artistic programs that take place in public-private spaces and use them to serve corporate goals.

Graeme Evans’ theories of place, culture, and economy describe culture as a catalyst for development and public art as a tool for cultural planning by governments and urban planners. He categorises theories revolving around culture and regeneration into three ideas. These three ways of understanding culture and development differentiate between culture-led regeneration, which is large-scale cultural events designed from the top down to stimulate excitement about a place; cultural regeneration, which is integrated policy making and urban planning with culture; and culture and regeneration, the process by which the community drives cultural change in a decentralised way, eventually contributing towards larger social change but without a specific strategy in place. Using public art in culture-led regeneration has led to the gentrification of formerly working-class areas, with profits going to developers and original residents being driven out (Mahony 21).

Andy Hewitt posits that culture-led regeneration functions to preserve existing power structures that benefit the elite (Hewitt 20). When public art is executed within the confines of a space with primarily commercial interests, can it truly subvert neoliberal policies and, by extension, its values? Most public spaces in cities are designed to satisfy specific political and cultural interests. Private-public spaces like Federation Square can promote a façade that they are utopian spaces for everyone and anything, while at the same time carefully curating a program for a certain version of public participation, designed to serve governmental and economic priorities. Public space has been “transformed into a market of cultural commodities” (Lyotard 202), and, as such, is intrinsically unable to function with the primarily goal of including diverse voices and experiences. Nato Thompson, curator of the New York socially-engaged art agency, Creative Time, argues that the artist is not immune to these influences either: “In an era in which the production of culture is often used as an advertisement, artists too can be found guilty of projects wherein the production of art is simply advertising for the ultimate product: themselves” (Thompson 31).

Carter uses art to regenerate problematic public spaces, engaging with the site’s hidden stories and rewriting concealed identities by navigating “a path through the compressed spaces of the present” (Rutherford 2). His work demonstrates the value of embracing the political history of space when creating site-specific works, rather than those that stem from an idea of space as a blank canvas or tabula rasa. While Carter primarily engages with the physical and historical contexts of site, this article also considers the social and political conditions of the space. Here, the space is both Federation Square in the consumer driven context of Melbourne’s CBD but also the field of participatory art.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, artists have been working to challenge the “hierarchical isolation of fine art, embodied in the conservatism of the museum and the commodification of art by dealers and collectors” (Kester 126). This early period of “anti-establishment” prompted fruitful experimentation with “new audiences and new forms of audience interaction” (Kester 125), encouraging artists to exhibit and perform in diverse public spaces. These practices were often “married to the physical architecture of a given space for a specific duration,” which moved the meaning away from “the individual author and onto the work’s reception: the specific circumstances it was received by a particular audience” (Bishop, “Installation Art” 32).

The “blurring of boundaries between the state and the market is effectively transforming ‘public’ art institutions into semi-private ones” (Mahony 10). Mahony deconstructs the dichotomy between infiltrating the state to reform it from within and dismantling it in order to set up systems that exist entirely outside of it, arguing that there is a third way, that can be referred to as “interstitial anarchism” (Mahony 10). Institutional control over art can be subverted through interstitial anarchistic means, for example, through the Free Art Collective: “In June 2010, while oil continued to spill into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon oil rig, Tate Britain held a summer party to celebrate twenty years of BP’s sponsorship of Tate. In response to the insensitivity of Tate’s actions, a group of twelve veiled figures dressed in black threw canisters of an oil-like substance across the entrance of the gallery, endangering the expensive evening wear of the assembled party-goers” (Mahony 12). The Free Art Collective worked to draw attention to the fact that the debasement of the public sphere through commercial media and advertising has made genuine political participation in it impossible (Mahoney 17). According to Hewitt, “State funded cultural production can and does function as a form of steering media, producing debased public spheres and colonising the social world of citizens” (Hewitt 143). Critchley’s strategy of “assuming an interstitial distance to the state is applicable to critical artistic practices that operate within the state system, but from its margins” (Mahony 27). Artists can then use their peripheral position to their strategic advantage.

Incorporating the “voices” of individuals in the community has been a primary strategy in the development of participatory public art. “This type of work conceives of its viewing subject not as an individual whose experiences are in transcendent or existential isolation but as part of a collective or community” (Bishop, “Installation Art” 102). Kester argues that it is “impossible to overestimate the significance of community as an organising principle for resistance and political identity in the struggle against […] global capital” (Kester qtd. in Bishop, “Installation Art” 130). According to Bishop, “When examining artists’ motivations for turning to social participation as a strategy in their work, one repeatedly encounters the same claim: contemporary capitalism produces passive subjects with very little agency or empowerment” (Bishop, “Participation…The Social Turn” 35). Participatory public art reimagines the audience as “engaged participants,” often to confront pressing issues of our time. The public becomes connected as collaborators of the art making experience as opposed to simple passive bystanders or consumers of the art object. Participatory art promises a shared space of connection and engagement, presenting an alternative to the consumption of art.

As Bishop explains, “This desire to activate the audience in participatory art is at the same time a drive to emancipate it from a state of alienation induced by the dominant ideological order” (Bishop, “Participation…” 36). In Australia, these forms of participatory art cannot be understood without reference to the community arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s. This movement was part of a broader project of Western democratisation, providing access to the arts for all, particularly for those who experienced economic and cultural barriers to participation. Dissemination of mainstream arts and cultural practices through touring, festivals, and public art was a key strategy of publicly organised and financed cultural activities. (Badham). However, departing from traditional definitions of sculpture in parks and plazas, Suzanne Lacy coined the term “new genre public art” more than two decades ago. She described a practice that brought artists into direct engagement with audiences to deal with contemporary issues. Lacy explained this as “visual artists of varying backgrounds and perspectives working in a manner that resembles political and social activity but is distinguished by its aesthetic sensibility” (Lacy 13).

Refugium at Federation Square can be understood through these traditions of public participatory art, community arts and “new genre public art.” These forms reject materialism of modernism to focus on social relationships as both method and medium. Refugium was not simply a series of objects, but, in fact, a shared act of “making” and resultant social capital.

Refugium: A Project Overview

Refugium was part of the 2016 Light in Winter Festival at Federation Square, which used “culture-led regeneration” to stimulate interest in the area and showcase a diverse range of cultural and artistic performances. The Light in Winter Festival is an annual event hosted by Federation Square annually throughout the month of June. Informed by the City of Melbourne’s Draft Urban Ecology and Biodiversity Strategy, Refugium explored biodiversity in the city through participatory art making with native plants and aimed to increase the vitality and viability of urban greening. A key component of The Light in Winter celebrations, the project was commissioned with the aim to introduce the public to a reimagining of Melbourne as a biodiverse ecosystem. Participants were invited to be a part of the making of the public art installation and take a plant home for their own gardens once the exhibition was completed. The aim was to foster a collective vision of Melbourne as an interconnected, biodiverse, regenerative, and resilient system by facilitating the opportunity for more-than-human connections (Abram).

Refugium was an extension of Beer’s ongoing practice-led research on the potential for participatory ecological public art to engage society in concerns of biodiversity. Following Robin Nelson, practice-led research involves generating new knowledge through the artist’s tacit “dialogue with the situation” (Nelson 42). Beer observed participants’ responses to the workshops as well as gathering public feedback to the overall installation. The “kokedama” masters (who assisted with the workshops) were invited to reflect on their understandings and experiences during the project. Community reflections were documented through comments on plant labels attached to the plant sculptures — where the participants were asked what “nature” means to them (Fig. 3). A guest book was also made available at the workshops and on the day of the installation to allow participants to comment on the work (Fig. 5). Beer applied a narrative analysis (Clandinin 2007) to reflect, interpret, understand, and make connections across the above outputs, recording key moments and themes that emerged throughout the workshops and public event.

Refugium included three activities that occurred in three separate public-private spaces as imaged in Figure 2: 1) the collective action of plant-crafting through community workshops in The Atrium; 2) the display of suspended community-made kokedamas in the Fracture Gallery; and 3) the final interactive installation, or “bush refuge,” hung from recycled timber frames in The Square. Taking a side step from neoliberal discourses on public space above, three frameworks will be now offered to examine the project. These frameworks of analysis include the process of engagement; the experience as product; and finally, the public distribution.

Refugium as Public Community Crafting Process: Process of Engagement

Refugium employed the Japanese technique of “kokedama”-making by wrapping plants in moss and string to create a suspended “bush refuge” with indigenous Australian plants. Beer chose a simplified version of the Japanese technique, informed by her experience of Japan and Japanese wabi-sabi culture, that celebrates the imperfections and the transience of natural beauty. Kokedama is a unique bonsai variant and waste-free art form that uses moss and biodegradable string to substitute the need for a pot. The merging of Japanese culture and native plants also played homage to Australia’s layered history of Indigenous culture and multiculturalism — focuses of The Light in Winter festivities.

Refugium invited the community to take part in four free workshops where they learned how to make the moss balls, which were then immediately hung behind glass in the Fracture Gallery, located in The Atrium of Federation Square. As the participants wrapped the string around their plant spheres, the intention was to draw the participant’s attention to the plants they were holding, as living objects of great value that can offer a refuge in times of uncertainty. There were two key messages in the process: 1) a greater awareness of the importance of native plants for Melbourne’s resilience, including their aesthetic value; and 2) an increased understanding of the need to encourage the propagation of native plants.

The element of engagement in Refugium was significant as it was through the community’s labour and creativity that the work was constructed. Participants were invited to craft their own connection to nature in collaboration with others. Surrounded by Federation’s shops and cafes, participants of all walks of life came to make “kokedamas” and combine their creative interests with native flora. Once they finished, they left their creation to be hung in the Fracture Gallery as part of the art installation. Analysing Refugium via Kester’s argument for Dialogic Art, the work challenged the “conventional banking style of art (to borrow a phrase from the education theorist Paulo Freire) in which the artist deposits an expressive content into a physical object to be withdrawn later by the viewer” to be replaced by a “process of dialogue and collaboration” (Kester 10).

Figure 3. Plant labels. Refugium at Federation Square (2016). Photo: Linus Tan

It was Refugium’s involvement of the community that made the artwork a success. Bishop makes the argument that art can no longer be purely aesthetic because the aesthetic experience is so readily provided to the public through the commodification of society. As Bishop states, “Artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander” — art must instead take the form of action interfacing with reality as an attempt to “repair the social bond” (Bishop, “Social Turn” 11). Installation art allows this to happen; viewers are politicised in the sense that they are actively engaged in the work and each other: the installation art sets up general communication between visitors to the space (Bishop, “Installation Art” 102).

Beyond this discussion of art and politics, other fields such as psychology and philosophy have demonstrated the value of participatory hands-on activities — such as community gardening and crafting — in making meaningful connections and collective identity. In Refugium, workshop participants were encouraged to get their hands dirty and embrace the textures of the plant, soil, and moss in the making of the spherical forms. Participants forged an intimate physical relationship with their plant seemingly through the act of wrapping the string around the moss. As participants constructed their moss ball, postures became more relaxed, and a sense of ease and contentment washed over people’s faces — there was a general feeling of the public becoming more focused and engaged.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes how these activities can be an opportunity to engage with “flow” — a highly-focused mental state that increases awareness, connectivity, and wellbeing. Philosophers Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder argue that it is through “vegetal” (or plant-relating) activities that our relations with the more-than-human world can be reignited. The authors contend that by enabling shared experiences of what they describe as “vegetative life,” humans may feel a stronger connection to communities and climates, overcoming both cultural and environmental boundaries. Refugium enabled “flow” through shared “vegetal” crafting as a way of communicating ecological knowledge through haptic, olfactory, and creative experiences. It was through this hands-on engagement with plants that it was hoped that the public could gain a greater connection with environmental issues (Beer).

When handing over their plant-sculptures for the installation, participants expressed an enormous sense of pride and achievement in their work. What was created out of the workshops was a diverse assortment of “kokedamas” in all sizes, shapes, and wrapping techniques — a wonderful depiction of “the many hands” that shape a community. Those who participated in the workshops generally seemed happy to contribute their kokedama to the larger piece of work. Participants were invited to collect their moss ball on the final night of The Light in Winter Festival, when the tiny globes would hang from the archways in The Square.

Refugium as Public Installation Outcome: Experience as Product

Refugium came to life as an interactive installation when it was transferred from behind glass of the Fracture Gallery (where it was on display but out of reach), to the archways made by artist Tim Denshire in The Square, where people could walk through the hanging garden and escape into a world of native plants — a reimagining of Melbourne (Fig. 4). The installation was accompanied by a soundscape by Nick Roux that reflected the natural Australian seasons inspired by Tim Entwisle’s Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia’s Changing Seasons (2015). Public visitors could wander through the installation, listen to the soundscape, touch the plants, smell their aromas, and read the labels attached to the hanging plants. The final art installation was highly experiential and immersive.

Figure 4. Refugium Installation, The Square. Photo: Nick Roux

If, as Bishop states, installation art provides the “tools to challenge and change the dominant culture” (Bishop, “Installation Art” 106), then Refugium can be understood as a way of challenging the public’s perception of Melbourne, as a “concrete jungle” lacking in biodiversity. As people walked into the public artwork installation, they were invited to engage with it not as “a pair of disembodied eyes that survey the work from a distance” but as an embodied viewer “whose sense of touch, smell and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision” (Bishop, “The Social Turn” 6). Refugium aimed to give people an experience outside of the usual commodified-driven world where the bodily experience as “authentic, immediate and ephemeral” becomes the focus (Bishop, “Installation Art” 107).

The artwork was created with the intention of showing people an alternative experience of urban spaces that nurtured ecological connection. It aimed to illuminate an alternative vision, a new world in which the natural landscape is honoured within everyday life, and people are mobilised to connect with nature, and, in doing so, with themselves and each other. For example, one participant explained how she loved the work so much because it made her feel so good to connect with nature. She reported that her experience making the “kokedamas” was meditative and inspiring. The reactions from the public included delight, surprise, and curiosity as they stumbled across the hanging garden in an unlikely corner of the city.

Figure 5. Participant feedback from the Refugium Guest Book

Refugium’s “Makers” and “Takers”: Public Distribution

Project co-producer, Zoë Condliffe, observed the audience of Refugium asking herself pivotal questions about the uneasy relationship between participation and ownership of art in public-private space.

A line of upturned faces, illuminated by the lights of the festival, stretches out, out into the crowds. They have a determined, expectant look in their eyes. They wait, eagerly, to claim what is theirs […] they’ve come back to this site to take a piece home with them and they won’t be turned away. We realise that we have underestimated the connection public art can create between a person and a place; a group of people and a project. Or perhaps we have underestimated the power a commodified society has in convincing people that they are entitled to possess, to own, to claim something they have helped to create? At this point, we can’t tell the difference. (Condliffe)

A feeling of ownership by the public over the installation was evident in the number of workshop participants who returned to view the temporary art installation of “kokedamas” hanging from recycled timber frames in the Square (Fig. 6). Crowds of people turned up at the end of the night, determined to take their own plant sculpture home, no matter how small or roughly wrapped. A small but very real chaos erupted as a mass of people scrambled to get into the tiny exhibit with some people almost in tears as they struggled to find their plant in the bulging canopy of greenery. While the aim of Refugium was to use creativity to facilitate nature connection, the emotional involvement and feelings of ownership of the individuals and the intensity of responses was unexpected. Luckily, almost all of the “makers” were reunited with their “kokedamas” but the experience prompted greater questions about notions, value, and collective responsibility in the context of community-engaged art.

Another unexpected experience was how groups of people who had not been a part of the kokedama making experience also came to stake a claim of a piece of the art installation. Due to the need to distribute the plants quickly after the event so Federation Square could bump-out the project, a sign was placed on the artwork, encouraging people to come back at 8:45 pm if they were interested in taking home a “free” kokedama. The intention was for the workshop participants to collect theirs first. However, this seemingly innocent offer soon became a problematic lesson between the public and private. Confusion escalated between the workshop participants and the public as to who had the right to “claim” the living objects.

Figure 6. Refugium kokedamas in The Square awaiting collection. Photo: Milton Perks

Chaos ensued after an initial attempt to guide the workshop participants in first, one by one, to snip their kokedama down from the frame and give them an instruction sheet for how to care for it. Despite the artist’s and producer’s best efforts to control the environment, it wasn’t long before the space became filled with all kinds of people trying to pull down moss balls to take home. As Beer reflects, “Before we knew it, we were chasing people down the street to get a devastated workshop participant’s kokedama back” (Beer, Personal Reflection). At the time of collection, the space created by the art installation was transformed from a serene, rainforest-like wonder where people were reflecting and expressing delight at the space, to a scene of destruction with plants being pulled down and claimed without respect for the space or the plant. In a matter of minutes, the installation had been transformed from an artwork into a social experiment. As Beer explains:

We did notice a difference in the way in which the two groups engaged with the space. The “makers” were typically more respectful in the way they claimed their kokedamas, while the “takers” had a greater tendency to stomp in with little regard for the plants or the people in the space. This experience left us with a plethora of questions involving the two groups. Was the experience simply proof of the “makers” engagement in “vegetal crafting” and “flow” facilitating connection and care (as opposed to the “takers” disregard and lack of care)? Or was the chaos we experienced a product of something more dubious (as highlighted by the “takers”), such as the culture of mass consumerism making it impossible for people to participate and contribute without getting something tangible out of it? Would the “makers” have been as engaged with the project if they had not been able to claim a part of it at the end? (Beer, Personal Reflection)

There was undoubtedly much emotion attached to the experience of “making” that differentiated the two groups. However, we also wanted to explore the idea that there is something else at play in addition to this, that of commodification of culture — but also of neoliberal values. What was happening for the dozens of people who descended on the space, with an air of entitlement, to claim a “free” kokedama? The existing forces of neoliberal society that influences our reactions and habits cannot be underestimated.

According to Kester, in commodified culture “We are reduced to an atomized pseudocommunity of consumers, our sensibilities dulled by spectacle and repetition” (Bishop, “Social Turn” 11). Has this rendered us unable to find meaning in something we cannot consume? As Bolton contends, “In a consumer society, commodities are looked to for the satisfaction of all needs. The need for critical understanding is affected by this — the artist is drawn into the traffic of commodities precisely because the audience expects commodities” (Bolton 47). How do we create public art that provokes an environmental message without falling into this culture of commodification? Joseph Beuys, who deemed creativity as the key to individual self-determination, maintained that art can provide a space of “playful activity” free from the means-ends relationships of capitalism (Bishop, “Installation Art” 104). But how can this be possible when artwork is hosted within a corporate structure in a privately owned public space?


While the terms of the “process versus product” debate from Bishop and Kester in participatory arts have advanced (Charnley 37), the tension between maintaining values derived from ecological grassroots and the community arts processes (while delivering a project that was timely and within budget within the context of a major corporation) was clearly a huge challenge for Refugium. Kim Charnley explains that these diverse terms reveal conflicting motivations in the art world; she sees “clear tensions involved in current understanding of artists’ attempts to engage with the social through some form of collaborative, dialogic or relational practice” (Charnley 37).

By institutionalising public art projects that involve community groups and members of the public, corporations, like Fed Square Pty Ltd, play a major role in influencing the way art plays out in the public sphere including art’s instrumentalisation. These concerns have been identified by critics such as Hal Foster and more recently Clare Bishop who have argued for the need to analyse the roles of institutions in shaping the forms and agendas of arts practice. Does their role become one of ensuring that the participatory art is tightly controlled and that it serves the purposes of the corporation, without threat? These tensions were illuminated by Refuguim as a juxtaposition between organic, grassroots community process of connecting with nature, the harsh edges of the city, and many signifiers of capitalism.

The direction from Fed Square Pty Ltd had been to release the kokedama plants into the community on Solstice Eve. The original idea had been to find a safe and loving home for the plants, such as a school or charity. However, with budget and space constraints, Fed Square Pty Ltd needed a plant management plan that would ensure the plants were offsite by midnight. Giving the plants back to the community and to the participants seemed like the most realistic way of finding a home for 300 kokedamas. Despite this, while Beer’s previous projects had involved the living elements of the installation being donated back into community ownership to further her goals of sustainable solutions, this solution instead proliferated consumeristic and aggressive behaviours. These actions shifted the experience of the artwork from connecting with nature to a problematic form of individual competitive consumption.

Bishop critiques the idea that this “social turn” in contemporary art is such that “there can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of participatory art, because all are equally essential to the task of repairing the social bond” (Bishop, “The Social Turn” 13). Witnessing the difference between the “makers” and “takers” response to “claiming” the living artefacts on Solstice Eve does posit the potential of participatory arts in activating change in behaviour. As Bishop contends, engaging communities in creative processes can rehumanise “a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalist production” (Bishop, “Participation…” 11).

Nevertheless, participatory art is “art” despite its proficiency at inclusion. Refugium can be critiqued as a piece of art that included people in its making by inviting participation and experience, and brought up many questions about human behaviour and society. Jacques Ranciere’s thinking on participation can be used to amplify this concern. He has written, “critical art intends to raise consciousness of the mechanisms of domination in order to turn the spectator into a conscious agent in the transformation of the world” (Ranciere 83). Indeed, the very questions and actions that Refugium revealed was what gave the work value. As we turn towards an increasingly fragile natural world and uncertain futures, the ability for ecological and participatory arts to become more aware of the very forces, ethics, politics, and value systems at play — the very aspects that it is trying to subvert — may be critical to its success. As revealed with Refugium, participatory ecological public art inevitably requires more negotiation between artists and institutions in the planning and delivering of public experiences that can embrace culture and community as values beyond financial gains.

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[1] Zoë Condliffe, Dr. Tanja Beer, and Dr. Marnie Badham are Melbourne based artist-researchers involved in the practice and theorization of participatory art making.