A Social Service

A Social Service unites an acute sense of the ridiculous with a sophisticated appreciation of the ways art effects social change, for good or ill. Its comic brilliance will have broad appeal, but the intricate engagement with the ethics behind aesthetics make this one show every artist should see.” Cameron Woodhead, The Age

“It’s not often that a theatre piece is funny, moving, thought provoking and a political call to action, but A Social Service is all of those things… This piece surreptitiously challenges the status quo, compels vigorous, post-show discussion and entertains in that eccentric and idiosyncratic way that only Gunn and Woods can do.” Kate Herbert, Herald Sun

The starting point for A Social Service was an interest in exploring the ethics of social engagement in art and offering a critique of the model of commissioning works that activate public spaces . How is art used to become socially and politically significant and what are the conditions of the environment in which it exists that enables artworks to attain such significance?

In this play, an artist is commissioned by a fictitious private organisation called Walker Public Art Projects to make a socially engaged public artwork with the residents of a housing commission estate. The residents of the housing commission estate don’t want to make an artwork with the artist. With the government devolving its public housing tenders to the private sector, the flats are being confronted with the realities of gentrification and see the artist as its agent.

In 2014, I began researching incidents of contested space – and in particular the contested spaces within public housing estates. I’d been given an article about an inner-city estate in Melbourne that had successfully lobbied against an urban renewal Master Plan that was proposing to develop the estate’s green space into an apartment block. An advanced form of gentrification was already happening all over London: council estates were being emptied of their tenants on the grounds that large concentrations of working poor and unemployed people needed to be moved out and replaced by mixed communities of owner-occupiers and private renters. David Woods and I pursued these controversies and found several alarming accounts – in London and New York – of art being used as an agent of eviction, providing much of the stimulus for the ideas behind this work.

We spent several weeks in and around housing estates, interviewing various key players and discovering a complex political system. Throughout the early stages of development, we genuinely hoped to make a site-specific public artwork at Atherton Gardens that engaged the residents and would speak to this agenda of gentrification and privatization. Despite our good intentions, we struggled to get the support of the community and permission from the body of management to implement any of our ideas. It’s this tension that forms much of the narrative in A Social Service.

At its heart, A Social Service is about the morality of place while reflecting on art’s relevance to society and its capacity to effect change. Cutting into the ethics of social engagement and critically examining the model of commissioning art with social outcomes, its clash of aesthetic values serves as a powerful metaphor of inclusion and exclusion in public housing policy and the arts.

Original Concept NICOLA GUNN
Creation & Performance NICOLA GUNN and DAVID WOODS
Sound Design NICK ROUX
Lighting Design GWEN GILCHRIST

With many thanks to the residents and management of Atherton Gardens Housing Estate and Theatre Uprising for their contributions to this project. A Social Service was commissioned by Malthouse Theatre and developed with the support of the City of Yarra and its community grant scheme.