I was invited by MixedIndustry to produce a site-specific installation for the inaugural Cockatoo Island Festival, Easter 2005. After visiting the Island and being enchanted by its varied history and beautiful empty industrial buildings, I decided to create something with echoes of the Island’s past. Cockatoo Island, which is situated in Sydney Harbour, was mostly used for shipbuilding and repair, but it has also been used as a convict prison, home for wayward teenage boys, goal, customs quarantine and as the Biloela Public Industrial School and Reformatory for Girls. It was the later that interested me.
A Biloela Girl
Having read the stories of girls who have come out of care, even some from alumni of Parramatta Girls (where Biloela School for Girls moved after it left the island), I wanted to do something that paid its respects to the time, the trouble nature of these girls lives and what was, in essence, their incarceration. From these needs came Biloela Girls, a video installation that consists of a ghostly character in period costume, running scared, intermittent and forever, across the windows of a building on the Island.
Below is an image made up from stills taken from the video used in the installation. You watch as the girl momentarily glances back over her shoulder before continuing on in fear.
Using a light material that looked like a curtain, but acted as a back-projection screen, I displayed the character running backwards and forwards on a variable loop. I chose a building that was on one side of a lane that acted as a thoroughfare between two live music stages. There are ten different ways the character can cross the screen, and over the 3 days of the festival I tried different frequencies, from the vastly intermittent, where the is an average of 3 minutes between crossings, to the most consistent, where the character appeared every 15 seconds exactly.
Below is a picture of the lane that Biloela Girls appeared in, taken during the day (it was displayed on the left-most windows). It is coupled with a picture, taken at about the same spot, of the installation running at night. The ghost appears green because I used a cheap digital camera to take these pictures. To the naked eye it appeared in white and cream as it does in the above production still.
So much of art making is the manufacturing of experience, in the case of Biloela Girls I witnessed surprise, confusion, excitement, curiosity, wonder and even a few arguments. On different times and on different nights I tried out different frequencies, this meant that some people who had hoped to see it missed out, because if you didn’t know exactly where it was you can easily walk past it in those moments it doesn’t reveal itself. It also meant that others, who would never seek out art in their everyday, were surprised and perhaps intrigued by what looked like a ghost running scared across their peripheral vision.