It’s 5.05am, still dark, but only just. There are six of us in the car; blankets on knees, Bethany J Fellows at the wheel. All the windows are wound down, and atop the car a grid of fourteen yellow camping torches and two large yellow spotlights illuminate the left hand side of the street.
A nervous hesitation, a brief uncertainty, overcome quickly though with the sound of jazzy trumpets and the languorous warmth of a voice I recognise as Nina Simone’s –loud, louder, now blaring through the open windows. With this the car begins a slow, steady crawl forward that will travel through the surrounding streets for the next thirty minutes. Beaming light and sunshine-related tunes toward each home, Fellows simulates the typical light therapy treatment prescribed for Vitamin D deficiency… but on a suburban scale.
One by one houses have their moment in the spotlight as we pass them. These are houses Fellows has identified as deprived of sunlight, shadowed by Mount Wellington. I catch glimpses of the car in fragments, reflected in the windows of the houses. Occasionally the windows offer a full reflection, which is dazzling and strangely spectacular. The glass from these windows makes for a rippled view of the car as it rolls by, distorting its shape and the light that it emanates. Rooftops and chimneys are illuminated in a pool of yellow light. The music continues. Fellows warns: “It’s about to get techno!”
I notice the care that Fellows is taking to navigate around parked cars, getting as close as possible to each house we pass. The deliberateness with which the route has been chosen. She is persistent, insistent. On what, though, I can’t decide. There is sincerity in her gestures, and a great earnestness, but also an inherent failure. Is this a project for no one under the guise of being a project for everyone? It seems to be the conviction of this gesture that stands out as significant here.
Signs of daylight are beginning to appear…
I think about the people in their houses. I imagine them in their beds, asleep. Awakening, still half-asleep, but with a vivid awareness – the persistent detail of a dream that unveils itself as real and happening. Do they notice us? It helps to remember that this is not your average doof-doof early morning drive-by. There is tasteful (or at least well-considered) music of a cheerful persuasion, and bright lights that are directed specially toward the houses’ windows. There is benevolent intent to this, a peculiar humanism that goes beyond peskiness.
Day breaks and we are back where we started. An elderly man hobbles across the road. A sufficient conclusion to the morning escapade, Fellows receives her first interaction:
“Can you turn that down! Have you seen the time?!”
Round two: an experiment in whether The Hobart Urban Illumination Project actually works. I wanted the Bethany J Fellows treatment, this time delivered to me in the comfort of my own bedroom. So it is arranged for approximately 6.15am.
I awake, foggy, with the feeling it has already been. Somewhere in a dream, Fellows has already driven by – lights, music. But any tangible memory of it eludes me. Maybe I was sleeping too soundly; perhaps it was too quiet? Distressed that she’s been without my noticing, I check the time. But it’s only 1.14am.
Later, and again I awake, disconcerted that I’ve missed it. This strange circular dreaming that accompanies anticipation! I’m sure I’ve heard Fellows drive by – again with her music and lights, but it was too distant to pull me from the depths of sleep. I check the time again, and with relief see that it’s still too early for any Illumination action.
Absorbed now in an orbit of dreams, I’m suddenly stirred by an intrusion: advancing disco beats and the trundling sound of a car engine. This racket swells, louder, and I open my eyes to see golden, shimmering light that glares through the bedroom windows, wrapping around the corners of the room, while the disco beats now take shape as the song I requested earlier in the week – Boney M’s Sunny. I am laughing. This is very funny. The downright zaniness of this activity is at odds with an experience that is most glorious in my sleepy state – far brighter, louder and more vivid than I had dreamt. There is no way I could have slept through this. I peek out through the blinds, watch as the emblazoned Land Cruiser loops and then trundles back down the hill, Boney M trailing off into the distance. I check the time again – 5.44am. Earlier than expected, but undoubtedly this was the real deal.
Throughout the day these events come back to me in hilarious glimpses. I am positively charmed by Bethany J Fellows, would recommend this treatment to everyone. Over the day my mood is cheerful, springy. Admittedly though, and as much as I’d like to give full credit to Fellows, the weather is also improving and there is the onset of Daylight Savings.
But was my experience enjoyable simply because I was expecting it? Indeed the outrageous lights and music were welcomed because I was anticipating them, and particularly as the song I woke up to held a certain aesthetic and humorous appeal to me in the context of the artwork. So without this prior interaction does Fellows’ work fall short? As a facilitator of these exchanges, she treads a fine line between charmer and pest, and I still wonder about the experiences of people who are receiving this treatment unknowingly and unwillingly. Politics about choice, public vs. private space, and autonomy over experience are at stake here. What are the rules? And ultimately, does this factor into Fellows’ concern?
In order to preserve my critical eye and to maintain the integrity of this ‘critical response’ I wanted to avoid too much personal contact with Bethany J Fellows. But it’s been difficult. I met her prior to the project starting, but asked her not to tell me much about what she planned to do. However given the nature of her project, the awkward times and irregular locations for the work, there has been a necessary involvement on my part in each of her activities.
This week I was thrown into the role of navigator during her Dawn Drive, directing the vehicles along the route highlighted for me on a map. Much later that night I found myself lying on the living room floor of her temporary accommodation; ankles nestled in a bizarre contraption called the Chi Machine while my body was wiggled from side to side for 15 minutes – realigning my Chi at Fellows’ recommendation. Today I enjoyed a Vitamin D-rich breakfast-in-bed at 2.30 in the afternoon with a companion of my choosing, served to me on elegant antique crockery by a hospitable Fellows out of her portable kitchen/bedroom/Land Cruiser.
I’m coming to realise that resistance is futile, and it’s also kind of missing the point. This work is all about these social encounters – the ways we relate, and the variant modes of facilitating this. It would seem that hers is an aesthetic of pleasure, hospitality, generosity – of conviviality. But it’s also not that easy. Present as these factors may be in her work, Fellows does not just serve it up on a plate (so to speak) without requiring you put a little effort in yourself. You have to want it. Her particular aesthetics also call into play tensions of trust, awkwardness and – paradoxically – discomfort. There are social hurdles to overcome, uncertainties about what is allowed, what is normal, expected, what (if anything) is being asked of you, and whether you are including yourself or intruding on some kind of eccentric club of positivists who seem to know something that you don’t.
It is this incongruity in her work that intrigues, and resists being easily dismissed as mere relational aesthetics. It can be as bighearted as it can be invasive. It poses a challenge, or even a threat, to what we might deem as acceptable social etiquette. But at its core there is goodwill and an intent that is well meaning. Perhaps this indicates not so much a contradiction within the work as it does a conflict in our handling of unfamiliar social situations.
Notwithstanding, it is difficult to deny the potency of Fellows’ candour, and her acknowledgement of our relational inconsistencies. Although she evidently revels in her own quirkiness, she maintains a not altogether unreasonable idealism that I am beginning to subscribe to. And so I write this with a certain disclaimer – I think I have made friends with Bethany J Fellows. But maybe that’s the point?
‘If I was a morning person, I’d do this every day.’
Bethany J Fellows driving the final stretch of the Hobart Urban Illumination Project, approximately 6am.
Whereas in the first week ‘Team BJF’ comprised a crew of six, after four weeks numbers had dropped and as the final Dawn Drive came around it was just Bethany J Fellows and I.
The air was still and the first signs of daylight were beginning to appear. I watched one last time as one-by-one Fellows turned on the grid of torches and array of other illumination devices that attached to the vehicle. Once satisfied with the securing and angling of said devices, the brightest spotlight of all was activated as the engine started. The music this week was to be a little more subdued, Fellows told me. It started with Harry Belafonte’s Day-O, a solitary calypso cry to the quiet morning.
There was a matter-of-fact sadness to this drive that made it very beautiful and also pointedly different to the other Dawn Drives. Fellows and I remained fairly quiet as we drove. There was a familiarity now, with each other, with what we were doing and how it all worked. No longer a nervousness about the disturbance we were causing, instead a certainty and conviction that allowed me to see that morning and this activity with new eyes; a more aesthetic sensitivity to the way the moments within the work unfolded, came together and at points dispersed.
I can see now the fluidity with which Fellows’ project has developed. Like the vehicular aspect to the work, the concepts themselves are mobilised, free-forming in whichever way presents itself as the appropriate method for that point in time. One week, for example, she might be taking music requests to be carefully arranged into a perfectly harmonious mix of good and bad taste that would seem so crucial a part of Fellows’ work. The next week she might decide that a particular suburb needs more Illumination attention and so will re-visit it, following a carefully chosen itinerary. And then the following week she is cooking breakfast in bed for anyone who is willing, taking into account dietary requirements, ambience and time preferences.
To me the free structure of the work does not necessarily indicate a lack of focus or clarity about the curatorial brief, but instead an approach that is flexible and organic in its evolution – one that is responsive, sensitive, to a context, a time, and a place that is itself ever-dynamic. She applies a DIY approach not just in the physical making of objects used in the work, but also in this continual improvement of an initial idea. In an intuitive way she feels the work out, adjusts and modifies, experiments, adds new elements and removes things that are no longer important. It is earnest, this open-ended approach, and ultimately very refreshing within a brief that risks rigidity.
To have had such an intimate experience of this final iteration is particularly memorable. Reflecting on the text message I received from a seemingly vulnerable Fellows the night before – asking that I was still going to come despite the dwindling BJF crew, worried that she would have to do the final drive alone – I realise the importance to her of the shared experience in this work. I have felt this during all the drives, but perhaps it was heightened in this instance with just the two of us.
A feeling of connectedness through this shared experience was unique to us in that car, but radiated beyond also, connecting us with the interstices of those streets, homes and residents. The glimpses into the lives and interiors of the locals as their front windows were flooded with light. The comical moment as we drove by the bakers, at work already, pausing from conversation to watch, bemused, and then smile and laugh at us. The still and inexplicable quiet of the street itself as I got out to video the vehicle driving around the roundabout – the street punctuated by this undeniable presence and hubbub of Bethany J Fellows that enveloped the firmament. And especially, dashing back to the car to notice a drawn-back curtain and a curious head, poking out to see what was going on – so I waved, and he waved back!
Answering my questions from the previous weeks, this drive confirmed the positive value of what Fellows is doing, indeed the witnessed effect of the work. But it also excited and reified the potentiality in the work – the multifarious (but largely unidentifiable) ways it may have permeated ‘public space,’ the way it has in fact toyed with and expanded upon what our ideas of public space might be, where these spaces lie, and what they can be used for. There is magic in the unaccountability of experiences of the work, the unknowable nature of these encounters. Whether folkloric, marginally registered, or fully recognised, the project functions on a number of levels, and equally facilitates multi-levelled possibilities for engagement, or perhaps even none at all.
And so today Bethany J Fellows boards the Spirit of Tasmania with the Illumination Vehicle and departs our fair isle. Interestingly, the weather has taken a turn since this final Dawn Drive, taking up where Fellows left off, rising to the challenge and providing ample sunshine to us all. I’m going to let BJF take the credit for this.
Claire Krouzecky, 2011