Artists on the island (#108). Photography: Ingrid Petterson, Lance Youston. Creative Occupation stock image at South Channel Fort Island, 2018.

Artists occupy South Channel Fort

As men toiled back in the 1880s to construct the artificial island that would later become South Channel Fort, they would never have envisaged the far different role the island would play than that originally intended.

The 7 hectare island, 6 kilometres North East of Sorrento, with its labyrinth of tunnels, magazines and gun emplacements, was originally planned and built as an integral part of the defences of Port Phillip Bay and Melbourne.

Marita Batna, a freelance curator living on the outskirts of Geelong, was introduced to the island 4 years ago by partner and sculptor Michael Morgan and friend Craig Elstone. She was immediately fascinated by the island’s potential from an artistic viewpoint.

“I was interested because it was man-made and its location was away from everything and the tunnels inspired me,” said Marita. “I wanted to see how the experience of the island combined with the experience of art. I made enquiries to Parks Victoria about the island and about that time I started my PHD Research Project that was based on practice as a curator.”

Marita devised a concept entitled Creative Occupation and extended invitations to a group of 12 artists to join the project.
“A group assembled very quickly and we visited the site in January 2018. Creative Occupation means occupying a space and artists being occupied with an artistic pursuit. The island being isolated meant that new horizons could be explored by engaging with the site.”

Marita sought out artists that she highly respected involved in theatre, visual arts, writing, digital media, photography and installation to work with her on the concept.

Scott Welsh has been a playwright for 20 years and has worked in film and television. He has a Masters in Philosophy and a PHD in Drama Education. He uses drama and theatre to explore social issues and as a form of education.

“Scott is an artist I have known for some time and I thought the island would be an interesting site for him to work with as a playwright. He was interested in the fact that after being built, South Channel Fort quickly became obsolete and the artificiality of the island also appealed to him. He began writing a play even before he visited the island.”

Ocean Grove artist, Laine Hog-arty, was another invited to contribute. A segment of her vision was an installation based on human defence mechanisms. “I make a parallel between the island which is a man-made construct, an island built specifically for the defence of the nation, and looking at fear based responses of defence mechanisms, a known psychological process we do to offset our fears. It is not a conscious process. This process of the installation looks at the romanticised projection of yourself that you project onto some-one when you fall in love with them.”

Laine visited the island and produced a filmed performance on the projection process. “On South Chan-nel Fort I had another artist, Jess Williams, walking around the island very slowly, surrounded by balloons, then she entered the tunnels and they are a metaphor for the unconscious,” explained Laine. “When she emerges from the tunnels she bursts the balloons which represent an artificial dress, a brides dress made out of plastic. The balloons are a visual representation of the defence mechanisms. She realises that the balloons are an illusion and not who she really is.”

Later in the gallery project space both Jess and Laine perform an extension of the work where the gallery itself is explored like the island. In this performance, “in the shadow I see myself”, Laine aligns the defence mechanisms to the Jungian theory of the ‘shadow self’ and the three part improvised performance explores the process of identification with the unseen darker sides of the self. Again the performance involves disbanding the fear based defence mechanism ‘projection’ and arriving at self-acceptance and authenticity.

Michael Morgan, who has pro-duced some stunning underwater sculptures in the past, adopted that technique as part of his exhibition. He created diving helmets encrusted with mosaic tiles and donned one of these helmets to obtain spectacular footage of underwater scenes around the island.

Island Muse was an interactive display as part of Creative Occupation derived from a previous production ‘factory 2’ by Ingrid Petterson and Lance Youston.
Those attending the exhibition were invited to ‘visit’ the island as Island Muse. First a fingerprint on an envelope was required as their passport. ‘Muse’ then stood in a circle, representing the island, and read poetry selected by Lance. The unique self of the Muse was inspiration for artists and they produced in works in response like art souvenirs accompanied by the clacking of a small typewriter as Ingrid typed out random thoughts. Scott wrote a few short lines of poetry. Lance photographed ‘Muse’ in action with a polaroid camera and Michael created a small sculpture from a piece selected by ‘Muse’ before visiting the island. The results were all placed in the fingerprinted envelope for ‘Muse’ to take home.

The Series One Postcards released by Creative Occupation were also a part of the show. Visitors wrote messages and questions for the island and sent their postcards with ‘a conveyer.’ Marita explained the purpose of the postcards.

“Sending the postcard is an investment in the future – a link towards continuation of the project and Stage Two. Collected in a box, the cards will be taken to the island from where the responses will be written and posted back. Stage Two will be accompanied with a new release of postcards.”

The results of the various installations and projects created by the group were collectively displayed at the Deakin Waterfront Campus in Geelong throughout January. For more information visit the website at www.creativeoccupation.com.au/