Office-watching in LaTrobe Street

By Rhonda Dredge

The pace of the CBD’s legal district is leisurely, even at ground level.

The streets are less crowded. Most pedestrians are carrying laptops or heavy bags. You could call this the serious end of town. You don’t expect to find a conversation pit in bright orange.

Last year artist and academic Julie Shiels moved into an apartment building on the corner of Queen and LaTrobe with her partner and son, and began documenting the area. Their place was on the 20th floor so she looked out the window.

Julie is drawn to make work about overlooked spaces and things that are in plain view or are slipping out of view. She noticed some eerie lighting in the office block across the road.

“It was like a Rear Window opportunity,” she said.

At certain, quite random times, lights would come on in the office buildings opposite and she could peer in. She took out her camera and a project called Empty began.

It takes guts to explore areas that are usually off-limits, such as life above the 20th floor in Melbourne.

City buildings have all kinds of security systems to keep prying artists out but that has not deterred Julie. An exhibition of her photographic prints is now on at the Sofitel, on the 35th floor, and she has released a book.

“I’m interested in office spaces and what they say about the nature of work when people have left the room. It’s a strange quality that suggests something about narrative and work and stillness.”

Julie has an abstract imagination. Previous work has explored the poetics of empty spaces in discarded wrapping which she reconstructed in resin. Emptiness can be a setting for the viewer’s imagination, she says.

“I waited for times when offices were empty. I held the camera up to the window and refused to use a tripod. I let the camera and limitations find the perfect place between photographic image and print because of the low light,” she said.

“It makes you work harder to seek out the essence.”

Her photographs are not design-oriented. They show messes, renovations, ladders, glimpses of avid decorator items.

“You discover the banality of life in that space.”

Julie is not all that interested in delving into the latest office decorating systems or in doing a cultural analysis of the ways companies use décor to attract staff. She was amazed, however, with the rapid turnover of refits.

“Office life is in constant flux,” she says. Already the photograph that shows a conversation hub in brilliant orange and lime green is historical. The building now has a different tenant, Maurice Blackburn.

Similarly, when a Chinese banquet room appeared with a red pot plant she knew she had had to act fast. Experience had told her they wouldn’t leave the light on for long.

Julie doesn’t get to see the office people. During the day buildings are reflective. She shoots to the east, west and north through glass when the lights come on at night.

The opening of the exhibition at the Sofitel attracted many interpretations from people in the art world, including Adam Harding, the new director of the Centre for Contemporary Photography.

“Melbourne is now a 24-hour city but there are still places of absence where humans have left,” said Adam of Julie’s observations.  “One person on an entire floor is there in the background. It could be the cleaner.”

He likes the project for its truth.

“People are inhabiting grids. You don’t need to extrapolate. It’s a simple description of sustained looking and there is Julie in her hide.”

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