Long before the internet and the new wave of savvy visual artists utilising social media, graffiti and stencil art transformed Melbourne into the great street art capital it has become today, women artists like Julie Shiels were it's early precursors.
In the 1980’s, Shiels was a political poster artist, one of the many angry and educated women with something different to say "and with no qualms about putting it out there". During this time Shiels made hundreds of pithy political posters, images that helped to change both the face of the Australian city and to agitate and transform some of society’s longest held beliefs, Shiels was an adept at representing such diverse issues as equal pay for women, environment and land rights, same-sex social justice, anti-nuclear protests and freedom of information.
Today “in the vivid throes of middle-age” Shiels sees herself “more as an artist or viral philosopher, than punk, street crim or political poster vandal”. Perhaps this has something to do with the benefit of hindsight that arrives with aging suggests Shiels “ having a family and being in the wrong side of twenty-five”, her sense of agency hasn’t changed one iota. Today Shiels with a cache of eye-catching installation work situated along the streets of Melbourne’s inner city has morphed into a street art elder.
Works like Contested Space, 2006 still foreground social urgency around issues Shiels is as passionate about today as she was in the early 1980’s, the traditional male dominance of public space she refers to in this stencilled work has been supplanted with the rise and rise of the internet colonised by women artists like VNS Matrix who have been quick to claim virtual space since the early 1990’s as an unmapped, uncolonised, tranformative and enticing zone for artmaking.
Shiels sums it up, “There is absolutely no way I could be making the sort of art I make today if I didn’t make all that political poster art back in the 1980’s. Not only that, were it not for this new wave of street art activity we have had in Melbourne in recent years there is no way I would be making it in the way I am now either. Today, there is a context, a heritage for street art that people know and get. Street artists haven’t changed that much. Back in the eighties, they became highly skilled with screen printing, photocopying and offset press technologies and produced political posters and flyers. Today, the philosophy is still the same only the technology, techniques and tools have changed.
Shiels works across platforms; on the streets, in galleries and the internet. In recent years she has also produced several public art projects including Auntie Alma’s Seats in St Kilda’s O’Donnell Gardens, a bronze sculpture comprising three plastic milk crates recreating a local aboriginal elder’s - once impermanent- seat of wisdom. Shiels says: “ for me the empty seat is welcoming, inviting people to take a seat and hold for a moment another’s point of view and to share in that wisdom and heritage.”
Shiels practice is wide in its social ambit, both mercurial and impassioned in tenor. Today some of the most pressing issues the artist engages with are “memory, gentrification and homelessness, urban indigenous issues, the sex trade close to home here in St Kilda, drug use and suburban celebrities.” Alongside her internet art Shiels works with textiles for gallery based exhibitions ( recycled mattress fabirics sewn into shirts for example) and stencilling observational epithets on inner city streets.
“ I like to mix it up. Stencilling art is the same impulse as I experienced in the early 1980’s. A desire to place work both on the street and in the gallery. The internet focused works, are able to reach a much wider audience and at all times of the day, to create dialogue between other political/stencil artists here, even if they don’t ever meet face to face or with others located on the other side of the globe. For me art making is political, it’s sub-cultural, it’s storytelling. The internet helps enormously, as the physical public domain is shrinking the public internet domain is expanding, and its fun, it’s beautiful, it’s not expensive to use and it’s spontaneous.”
According to the artist a fascinating corollary of working in this way, is the manner in which artists have directly and indirectly also positioned themselves as media makers – not as persecuted subjects - this groundswell of media making is highly organised and seductive. And in so doing the traditional media empires- “the monopolies of media moguls”- has been radically overturned, today it is artists like Shiels, poets, activists, the small, common and empowered voices that now proliferate, social action is accelerated, social dissent is amplified, social disobedience is witnessed, social change is quickening.
Shiels documents her street art interventions, transmutations of discarded mattresses, cardboard boxes, old furniture, hard rubbish and the minutiae of household waste. “The streets, the hard rubbish have become my canvas” and one recent work this writer particularly likes, ( and in turn prompted this story ) was a bold stencil upon a stained and forgotten mattress off Carlisle Street. One week the stencil read: “You thought it wouldn’t happen to you.” And the following week an added stencil on the mattress reads, “Then one day it did.”
“There is a growing global cultural interest in the possibilities of public art”, adds Shiels. “Anything aesthetic inserted in public space authorised or otherwise, is political. Sadly, Architecture gets off much more lightly particularly is it just a big ugly building with few design elements. Public space is and always will be public, however, and this is the clincher that we need to be mindful of, it’s up to us to express our discontent.”
(Archive Copy- 2006)