Who’s Afraid of Public Space? is an art event for our times


With its lens aimed at the complexities of how we inhabit and perceive public space, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s (ACCA) new offering could have been entirely theoretical had it been limited to its Southbank gallery. In an extraordinary move, Who’s Afraid of Public Space? extends outward, stretching as far as Melbourne’s outermost suburbs to engage with all sorts of unexpected artists and audiences who might not usually go to the Sturt Street arts precinct.

Although ACCA director Max Delany is clear that Who’s Afraid of Public Space partly functions as a research project, it also resembles a mini-festival. Across exhibitions, performances, talks, meeting spaces, installations and more, a breadth and geographical spread of content will grapple with tough questions about surveillance, private incursions on “public” spaces, occupying Country, and the place of public artworks.

Conceived in 2019, Who’s Afraid of Public Space? has gained momentum and relevance during the pandemic. “It has been fascinating watching the changes in our relationship to public space during the lockdowns,” Delany says. “We abandoned public space and rapidly migrated to the digital realm. But, equally, over the past 18 months we have had a much more intense relationship with it—walking and engaging with local parks, people improvising with public spaces, occupying the outdoors in interesting ways and generally having a more intense relationship with neighbourhoods.”

At ACCA itself, several spaces have an audience-first premise to encourage meeting and debate, with one space focusing on the history of Melbourne’s public sculptures, featuring engaging maquettes, and another—the Gathering Place— exploring materiality and Country. The program’s satellite shows range from Northcote-based photographer David Wadelton occupying disused shopfronts with his well-known photography, to a community project about a new housing estate in Cardinia, using house floor plans as a muse.

Who’s Afraid of Public Space?
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art
4 December 2021—20 March

This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Andrew Stephens