Over the last two weeks I’ve spent several days at Southern Cross University’s (SCU’s) Visual Arts studios at their Lismore Campus in northern New South Wales, as an invited participant in the Codex 4 event. Codex was concieved initially as a project that would enable SCU graduates to work on collaborative book arts projects, both as a way of giving new graduates something to put on their CVs and as an opportunity for them to experience working collaboratively and to a professional standard on art work that would be exhibited widely. I think the entire thing has been the brainchild of Tim Mosely, and it’s been fantastic. Sarah Bodman from my university, the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, participated in Codex 2 last spring, and she paved the way for my participation this time around.
Tim defined a very brief ‘brief’ for the project, referencing the fact that balloons can cross borders. This led us on to a discussion about the sorts of borders we might like to cross, and I can’t remember how but we got onto the subject of Australian detention centres, which led us on to the injustices of immigration policy and the plight of asylum seekers. Initial research had led to internet pages concerned with the construction of ‘fire balloons’ and solar balloons. Fire balloons refer to primarily Asian customs of making balloons of handmade paper and sending them up with small amounts of fuel. An article in a papermaking journal showed dozens of balloons sailing off into the night sky, illuminated by their fuel payload. Solar balloons are a different idea, using polythene sheets (such as the very thin polythene used for making large refuse sacks) taped together to form a structure, filling it with air, and letting solar heat inflate the structure and send it up.
We made an experimental solar balloon out of three huge refuse sacks split open and then taped together into a cylinder with a closed end. We inflated it from the breeze and tethered it outside the Visual Arts studios and watched the sun heat the air inside, expanding it and causing it to rise up. It wouldn’t have sailed away as we hadn’t got the surface area:air ratio right, but it writhed around half on and half off the ground like some giant black caterpillar and was quite effective!
Our main focus, though, was to make gored fire balloons, each about 2 feet high, using paper we made ourselves with applied images relevant to the discussion about refugees and asylum seekers and the way in which they are treated by governments, particularly the Australian government.
One of the A1 sheets we made, with pulp printed imagery applied to it.
It was the first time I had properly made paper, and I love the process: mixing the pulp, laying the pulp down on the frame and deckle, couching it, and rolling it onto the walls to dry! I got the hang of dipping the frame and deckle into the pulp and pulling out a sheet of wet fibres but I have to say that I made a right mess of couching the paper onto the wet blankets… I need a bit more practice at that! In all we made over 50 sheets of A1 sized paper of a fineness that I didn’t think was possible. Tim was happy to prove me wrong, but I marvelled at it. When we rolled the couched sheets onto the walls outside the studios to dry in the warm air you could clearly see the pattern of the hardboard underneath through the wet paper. Amazing.
Tim (L) and Darren (R) setting up the hydraulic press to squeeze water out of a stack of 16 sheets of paper in their couching blankets
Images were applied to the sheets in two ways. Firstly we used Tim’s patented pulp printing method in which images on a silk screen are dipped into coloured paper pulp and then ‘couched’ onto a wet sheet of paper, in this case, wet paper that had been rolled onto a vertical wall surface. Once the sheets were dry and had been peeled off the walls we then made selections from the available sheets and screen-printed them in the usual way with other images. When dry the sheets were cut into gores using a template.
The cut gores were grouped into 8 per balloon, and all of us ‘curated’ the imagery for each balloon. This one contains images mostly of the sea and refugee boats, and recalls the appalling conditions in which many refugees travel and the large numbers who drown
The curation process for the balloons was an interesting one, and it took some time before all the balloons – 12 balloons, referencing the number of immigration detention camps in Australia – were ‘compiled’ from the various gores. Imagery had been carefully chosen: as well as the heart-rending pictures of various refugee vessels, we found text from letters sent by refugees and from Immigration Tribunal findings rejecting applicants’ claims, which formed the images that were pulp-printed onto the paper sheets. We also doctored the Federation emblem of Australia, and made various official looking stamps that were screen-printed onto the sheets. Some of the balloons highlighted the stamps and crests, focussing on John Howard’s subversion of the idea of what it is to be Australian and his use of ‘mateship’ in a political context. The balloon I worked on examined the plight of refugees arriving in Australia, many of whom drown. Other balloons referenced the imagery of the detention camp: barbed wire, security cameras and ‘keep out’ signs
Louise glueing a balloon together, using archival quality gum. The balloons will eventually have ‘collars’ to weight down the bottom edge and allow them to be inflated.
The project isn’t finished yet. By the time I left on Friday afternoon, having glued three balloons together and with a 3-hour drive home ahead of me, the balloons were half way to completion. But the idea is that we should ‘instal’ them somewhere such as a beach, at night, and inflate them by lighting a fuel payload under each one – but as we don’t want to lose them they will be tethered (possibly to Law journals!) and the installation will be documented.
Liz finishing her balloon and inflating it to test the seams
Once documented the balloons will be deflated and folded along the seams of the gores. By carefully folding them down this way they become a multi-leaved ‘book’, and the idea is to bind them with a colophon detailing the project and recording the installation. 5 of the ‘books’ will go to Southern Cross University for exhibition and possible sale, and each participant will keep ‘their’ balloon.
Unfolded the balloons allude to freedom and the ability to cross borders: the very thing that refugees seek and that is compromised in the Immigration Detention Centres; folded the balloons reference the shape of the refugee boats
We hope to meet up again in February to install the project and then complete the bindings.