beginning bilateral petersham

The clock ticked round to midnight and I sat in the kitchen watching it. When all the hands pointed to twelve, I took two photos. Without the flash, the clock looked yellow and blurry. Flash-frozen, on the other hand, it looked like it had been caught in the act. Embarrassed at having been sprung doing something vaguely shameful but essentially harmless.

That’s how I brought in the third of April. The beginning of “Bilateral Petersham,” aka “my Petersham project,” aka “The Petersham Lockdown.” There was no tangible difference between one moment, where I was not “on the job,” and the next, when the “project” had officially begun. No fanfare, no ribbon cutting, no glass of champagne. I went to bed and read a bit and then fell asleep.

For two months (well, a bit less actually) I will not leave the suburb borders of the mighty Petersham. Petersham is a smallish neighborhood in the “inner-west” of Sydney. It runs between Parramatta Road (at the north end) and Addison Road (at the south end), and is surrounded by such glamorous destinations as Leichhardt (north), Lewisham (west), Marrickville (south), and Stanmore (east). And I will remain entirely within it until the end of May, as (self-appointed) artist-in-residence of Petersham.

Why am I doing this?

It’s a bit of a long story, but here’s the haiku version. In April-May last year, I was artist-in-residence in Kellerberrin, a tiny town in the West Australian wheatbelt. 1000 residents, wheat and sheep, declining population, etcetera. For the two months I was there, I kept a blog each morning, about who I met, what we talked about – a document of mutual curiosity between a city dweller and his rural hosts. That blog is here: (email me if you’d like a hard copy). My question on returning to Sydney was: “how would this exact same process work in my own neighborhood”?

So here I am.

The Kellerberrin project came out of my interest in developing a “gardening” approach to making art – how, I wondered, could I do a little bit every day, not too fatiguing, and at the end of a period, the work would be done? No more busting a gut trying to reach a deadline, racing around like a madman to produce an explosive, climactic event, and then mopping up the fallout afterwards. The daily blog writing seemed to do the trick. I was getting towards some sort of integration between art and life, even if I had to disappear to a place three hours drive from Perth to do it. But why should I have to do that? To go somewhere exotic – to BE someone exotic to the locals, in order to achieve this integration? Could this be done at home?

Ahem. Perhaps this is a project doomed to failure. A city suburb is not a small country town, where folks stop and chat outside the chemist for twenty minutes before getting on with their day. I’ve been living in Petersham nearly two years now, and I know only a few of my nearest neighbours. I nod and smile at the folks in the deli, but they don’t know that my flatmate and me grew a great crop of tomatoes this year; that I had some art in an exhibition which opened last Saturday; that this last year I’ve been a gibbering emotional mess; that I’m studying for my PhD. They don’t even know that I can’t indulge in the Portuguese charcoal grilled chicken for which our main street is renowned. In the city, we somehow stay strangers for a very long time.

Is this an artificial attempt to make friends with my neighbours? Why do I need to use “art” as an excuse to meet people? Am I exploiting my fellow citizens for some sort of pseudo-ethnographic study (which, by the way, will have none of the rigor or tangible research outcomes as that discipline)? Is this just a Big Brother style “reality show” – a document of the process of slowly going nuts through self-deprivation, so you all (dear readers) can get yer voyeuristic kicks?

I hate to say it, but: “only time will tell.”

4 thoughts on “beginning bilateral petersham

  1. nick

    I think this is a beatuiful project. I love your ideas of life as art and art as life. Makes me smile just to think of it.

    Creating community is an extremely valuable thing for any society.

    In a small town you are forced to interact with people who you have nothing more in common than a place, in a city we have the luxury of choosing our friends. Sometime I wonder what we lose by having this choice.

  2. Ailsa

    I’m reading this in August 2020, thinking about how, if I was reading this as a current project, it would make sense and work just as well in the current climate – COVID-19 and being in a government-imposed worldwide lockdown. An interesting time, and makes for good reflection. Thanks!

    1. Lucas Ihlein

      thanks Alisa – some others have mentioned the same thing! Especially folks in Melbourne who can’t go more than 5km from their front doors.


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