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Meet the Echo of Surry Hills: Village Voices

Astra Howard brings the personal to the public in Surry Hills with Village Voices.


Astra Howard at Village Voices

Village Voices - What and Where

Tucked neatly in the laneway between Crown Street and Wilshire Street is Village Voices, an interactive art installation that sets out to preserve Surry Hills’ vibrant histories and unique stories in the words of its locals.


I’m sitting across the artist behind it all, Astra Howard, in the cafe just around the corner.


“I don’t know much about the cafes here,” Astra laughs.


It doesn’t take long for me to realise that her area of expertise is, instead, the locals of Surry Hills – the real beating heart of the urban playground. Having volunteered and worked in a few homeless crisis services in the area since 2006, Astra witnessed first-hand the creativity of the people in their care. 


“So many of the individuals there were so creative,” she says. “We would have art and writing classes, then I realised, ‘Wow. There’s so many fantastic stories in a service like this.’”


A seed – the desire to amplify those stories – was thus planted. While the thought lingered, Astra spent her next few years lecturing in Design at the University of New South Wales before coming across a callout for a public artwork as part of City of Sydney’s redevelopment of South Crown Street.


With a background in Graphic Design, Astra tells me she has always been interested in the contentious nature of public spaces. As the 2002 Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship recipient, Astra has previously taken her passion for meaningful conversation to the streets of New York, Beijing, Delhi, and Paris.


After toying with a few ideas and designs, she proposed Village Voices. The installation is a frame made of black steel with bars separated by spaces between them, allowing the display of only six lines of text. Beneath those bars, a few sets of letters hang securely, only slightly swaying to big gusts of wind. It resembles a typical sign plastered across the entrance of a movie theatre or a suburbian church, but Astra tells me she found her inspiration during her time in New York. 


“I was doing a residency there, and I saw these tiles up in subway stations where each tile had different letters on them,” Astra reveals. “I tried joining bits of tiles together to create sentences around them.”


Village Voices quietly carries the weight of the words from the Surry Hills community, both figuratively and physically. Anyone can submit their writing, anonymously or not, through the dropbox next to the installation or via email. The artwork, though public, is so quiet that even locals have scurried by the alleyway without ever noticing it. As opposed to social media or advertising, which Astra often finds too fast-paced and aggressive, she intends for the installation to be subtle, slow, and reflective.


“When you engage with public spaces in the city, there’s a lot of advertising that is quite loud and dominating,” Astra muses. “Amplifying the voices of individuals within a community reveals the true character of a neighbourhood.”


“In Surry Hills, there are so many crisis services and the large Northcott social housing estate. So to have a neighbourhood that wouldn’t present those stories, where people wouldn’t see these individuals’ ideas, aspirations, challenges and frustrations, it wouldn’t be representative of the reality of the place.”


This year marks the seventh year since Village Voices first secured its place within the fabric of Surry Hills. If there’s one thing that Astra still hasn’t gotten tired of, it’s being greeted by a fresh stack of submissions when she reaches into the dropbox. Whether they contain words from a child or someone living in a homeless shelter, she thinks every story is worth listening to.


“Every story’s a good story in a way because each one of them is unique,” she explains. “I think the ones that stay with me are those that communicate a challenge but with a twist to them. For example, where a difficult situation has made the person stronger.”


One of the poems engrained in her memory is that of Pat’s. A Surry Hills community member who moved to Sydney at 16 after his father died and was alternating between living on the streets or in shelters. His steadfast connection to poetry remained a constant regardless of his circumstances – he wrote anywhere – shredded cigarette packets, derelict papers and sometimes, paper towels when there was no other option.


“What is it this house I call / alone walls painted with words / A battlefields of sorts where / over the years my demons and / I have fought a house where / I endure but it cannot bear me,” Astra enunciates every word of Pat’s poem carefully, perfecting every pause. When she finishes, she exhales deeply before smiling at me.


“Somehow, this one always gets to me.”


For many individuals who engage with Village Voices, the process is transformative.


“Having their biography included on the acknowledgment panel, their photo taken in front of the artwork and people reading their text in public, it can be quite cathartic and life-changing,” Astra says.


She then flips through a thick file filled with photos and handwritten entries of every Village Voices display from 2016 until now, introducing me to almost every person in the book. Astra tells me what some of these individuals are up to in life thus far: Vinita has gone on to take the writing course she’s put off for a while now, Pat is close to finishing and publishing a book, and Mick, who thought of himself as not being very good at writing in high school, is now doing more writing. 


“3 am on a warm summer evening / a beautiful lady with red hair / I remember her dress was pretty / she stops and says hello / searching for her stolen purse / just another night in Surry Hills,” Mick’s submission reads. 


Astra explains how diversity is the strength of Surry Hills, outlining a myriad of reasons: its historic waves of immigration as well as its active LGBTQIA+ communities and many services that support priority populations.


“The neighbourhood celebrates these different aspects of community and the suburb being enriched by a variety of backgrounds and experiences.”


Village Voices is a catalyst for conversation between community members who might not otherwise interact with each other. 


“Someone would ask, ‘Oh, who’s the author?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, this is someone who goes to Bourke Street Public School,” Astra smiles. “The installation presents diversity in a way that you know it exists, even if you don’t have any personal or direct contact with it.” 


Over the years, Astra has gotten to know many of the locals. The artwork has been a catalyst for community building in the area. Pop-up events have been held in the laneway over the years, such as poetry readings, musical performances and exhibitions. In addition to the four hours it takes to install a new text, Astra usually spends another hour conversing with the public.


“There are people who pass by each time I change the text and they update me on their life circumstances. Or someone says, ‘Oh, you’re here a bit early this month!’ There’s a hyper-awareness to the artwork changeovers.” she says.


In other instances, some individuals who have previously submitted their writing for display on Village Voices have verbally entrusted her with their collection of work if and when they pass away.


I tell her they must trust her a lot, and she tells me, in return, that ethical storytelling is her priority while conducting this project.


“It can be challenging to present writing by people living in precarious situations and ensuring they are not misrepresented,” she says firmly. “A lot of time is taken making sure the individual is happy with any edits to their text.”

 

Despite not living in the neighbourhood, Astra remains enthralled by Surry Hills, constantly returning to the suburb for the past two decades. For work and passion projects mainly but also due to her connections with the suburb’s locals, whom she praises for their  “comradery and vibrancy”. 


The community’s power is evident in how Village Voices progressed beyond just being Astra’s project to now becoming the community’s. Locals in the area look out for graffiti on the artwork, pesky advertisers, or development applications nearby. Someone had even once adorned one of the installations at Village Voices with flowers. 


“It’s not my project, it’s their project,” Astra says. “I just sort of facilitate it. That’s the best outcome you can think of – that now the artwork is part of the community, and they’re always excited to see what story is coming up next.”



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