Friday, April 22, 2011

Squeegee guys: Belinda Campbell's 'Intersections'

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of helping Belinda Campbell launch her outdoor exhibition Intersections. The exhibition involved the installation of 6 large and striking portrait photos of some of Sydney's (in)famous street corner squeegee guys on the fence outside Glebe public school, a very busy inner city street in Sydney. Belinda interviewed the men as well as photographing them, and their portraits were accompanied by their account of how they found themselves cleaning windscreens, and what it's like to perform this kind of work.

As Engin Isin pointed out in his 2002 book Being Political, contemporary ideologies of what it means to be a 'good citizen' in large western cities are largely founded on the active exclusion of folks like the homeless, squeegee guys, graffiti-writers et al as the 'anti-social' other. Sydney is no exception. Each of the men interviewed had stories to tell about the regular harassment they face from both police and hostile drivers.

I think one of the reasons squeegee guys can provoke such discomfort and hostility is that their actions disrupt the norms of the road for the car driver. Cars are meant to be self-contained, with communication mediated through horns, blinkers, friendly waves, raised fingers and the like -- if contact occurs with others, this is an 'accident', 'collision', 'crash' etc.. Not only to the squeegee guys attempt to communicate with us in another manner, not only do they want to touch our car, but they also initiate this contact right at the moment when we are most vulnerable as a driver -- when we are stuck at an intersection waiting for a traffic light to change from red to green.

But of course, we can choose how to respond in this situation. As the men also reported, they have their regular customers, and each could tell stories of friendliness and generosity too.

The installation of the photos on the street gave the exhibition a real power -- on the day of the launch, lots of passers-by stopped and lingered by the photos and read the stories. I'm sure this was because lots of people recognised one or more of the men in the photos, and were curious to find out more about them. Belinda's exhibition very explicitly challenges us to think about intersections as places were the lives as diverse city dwellers cross paths, not just as places where cars are forced to wait for others.

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