Tom Nicholson and Andrew Byrne | Artist Statement

July 19, 2017


Tom Nicholson and Andrew Byrne

Our collaborative project for 1917: The Great Strike draws upon the vital forms of collective gathering that characterised the strike. Its evolution begins with the remarkable, vast public gatherings held weekly at the Domain during the strike, and the importance of public marching (and specific itineraries between Carriageworks and the city centre).

The project responds to two specific cues. The first is a single archival image, now held in the collection of the Australian National University, in which railway workers gather at Eveleigh for the unveiling of an honour board. The gathering, accompanied by a brass band, took place in 1916, just months before the Great Strike. The second is a pair of monumentally scaled architectural forms in The Domain, built during the 1970s as vents for the city’s underground railway system.

Our project imagines a monument.  A set of plaques has been written to be affixed to the two vent forms at the Domain, inscribing them as a monument to the Great Strike. In other words, words mobilise forms that already exist; they call forth this possible monument.  The plaques draw upon a range of associations: the extraordinary rallies that occurred regularly at the domain during the Great Strike; the ethos of the (then criminalised) Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) in the strike’s genesis and in the way it was organised and sustained; the importance of music, bands and singing in workers’ expression of shared commitment to political ideals; the 1917 revolution unfolding simultaneously in Russia (and the curious echo between the vents in the Domain and El Lissitzky’s great unrealised revolutionary monumental form, the Lenin Tribune); the centrality of solidarity, and internationalism, as animating forces in the strike and in other kinds of working class self-organisation at this time.  The plaques also draw on what it is to stand in that place, between these two strange vent forms overlooking then Domain. We look out over a kind of emptied amphitheatre, feeling the breeze on our skin from the movement of railways underground we can only imagine. We picture, alongside this imagining, the rallies at the Domain in the weeks during 1917, the movement of bodies and voices.

Our new monument is launched by a large-scale brass-band performance, on Saturday 5 August. This launch – and the musical language of Andrew’s composition – takes its cue from the 1916 image, where people gather to inaugurate an honour board, alongside a brass band. It also takes shape around specific musical cues central to this moment, including the seminal song Solidarity Forever, an important feature of workers’ gatherings at the time and one of the principal means by which the continuing influence of the IWW has been identified in the strike’s grassroots organisation.

This project continues the long-term collaboration between myself and the New York-based composer Andrew Byrne. These collaborations have often centred on walking, monuments and the ways that text and music embroil both commemoration and imaginative acts towards the future.

This new work focuses on the persistent importance of the Great Strike: the way we measure labour and its relationship to time; the urgencies of solidarity and internationalism in how we organise ourselves politically; and how we gather ourselves to enact the futures we believe in. It also meditates on words themselves: how words can inscribe forms; how words gather us together, to recollect together; how words persist into a future, and call forth our deeds towards the promise of those words.
1917: The Great Strike – daily 10am-6pm, until 27 Aug
More information on the exhibition


1917: The Great Strike, Tom Nicholson & Andrew Byrne, Towards a monument to the Great Strike 2016–2017 [installation view]. Image: Zan Wimberley