My new photographic project Right of Way addresses the failures of a modern project and the clash between urbanity and nature. Photographed in Canberra – an early example of a completely planned city – the series focuses on pedestrians attempting to cross, or in the process of crossing the street of the Australian capitol. In the photographs, people are purposely represented as if they are lost, disorientated or otherwise not entirely in control of their condition.
Designed in the early 1900s by the American architect couple Marion Mahoney Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin, Canberra represented a totally new ideal in modern architecture and urban planning. Taking natural elements of the valley into account, the main structure of the city is defined by major roads and highways which are interlinked by geometric shapes such as circles, hexagons and triangles. The city’s embrace of modernity is partially signified by the wholesale assumption that the automobile will be the future form of transportation. Yet more recently, as J.G. Ballard’s poignant question ‘Autopia or Autogeddon?’ indicates, the dominance of a single mode of transport suffocates man’s relationship with the urban environment. In a city that presumes the car is the only mode of transport, people struggle to navigate the complex matrix of streets and roads by foot. They become unwilling bystanders to a modern project that does not support, but actually hinders people to move from one place to another.
Makeshift and often hidden footpaths on the side of the major roads give an indication how the idealistic even utopian design of the city stands in contrast to the functionality of the city as a living space. The photographs in this series attempt to emphasize the cracks emerging in the structure of the city, as it is always pedestrians giving way, waiting and adjusting to the constant flow of traffic. Particularly in the context of the Australian capital, with capital hill at its very centre, the roads and highways become metaphors for the laws established and reinforced by the state. One photograph, titled ‘Capital Circle’, shows a man about to cross the circular highway around Capital Hill. His movements stand in contrast not only to the cars heading into his direction, but also, in contrast to the master narrative of the state and its laws.
The title of the series, Right of Way is a reference to an ancient English law that legally grants temporary access to footpaths on privately owned land. In this project, the ‘right to access’ functions as a reference to Australia’s troubled history as an outpost of the British Empire and its relation to the country’s indigenous population. Seeking to address the question of landownership, Australia’s public and private institutions habitually acknowledge indigenous regional groups as ancestors of the land they occupy. Australian TV channels for instance frequently display a message at the end of a show that pays respect and acknowledges the Aboriginal land they are located on. Yet in this culturally complex environment, Aboriginal people are nevertheless invisible in daily life and politics. The awkwardness of this arrangement is particularly apparent in Canberra: amongst the Embassies and High Commissions of an increasingly connected world stands the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – a semi-permanent structure which functions as a monument to the indigenous people’s ongoing fight for land rights.
Right of Way is the latest project in an ongoing body of work that explores the clash between nature and culture, peripheral spaces and culturally specific phenomena. III Please contact me at marcus.bohr(at)network.rca.ac.uk for image rights or if you have any inquiries about this project.
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