Joel Spring

Interdisciplinary Wiradjuri artist
Casual Academic at the University of Technology—Sydney, Australia

[Q] Question
[JS] Joel Spring

The relationship between the architectural discipline and Indigenous knowledge is one of consumption and exploitation. Marginalised perspectives are continually tokenised in order for the discipline and the institution to claim a guise of care, equity, diversity and inclusion. How may this space of extraction transform into a space of empathy and reciprocity? In this interview we speak with Joel Spring about the performativity of it all.
We would like to start with an introduction to yourself. What are your experiences with your education and how has that influenced your pedagogical and professional practice?

I am Joel Sherwood-Spring, speaking to you from Gadigal Country. It's important to acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded, because that has been a central factor to most of the concerns that came up for me, both as a student and as a participant in the pedagogical process of the master's stream in the last couple of years.

Coming from an Indigenous background and growing up within Indigenous communities, both in Redfern and in the Northern Territory, I noticed that throughout my education at UTS School of Architecture, there wasn’t any exposure to the topics I was interested in pursuing. For the most part, these topics are still largely absent—there’s a significant gap in Indigenous perspectives and narratives at architecture schools and practices here in Australia. So, how can we be critical of the opportunities that are available for Indigenous people to engage with the built environment discourse both from an educational perspective and professional capacity?

Part of my pedagogical process has been breaking away from architecture—to try and distance myself from overly architecture-centric spaces—because I honestly don't know many people in the architecture discipline who want to have the types of conversations I want to engage with. That's one of my real reflections and takeaways from a larger experience.

Recently, there have been attempts at opening up Indigenous conversations but I am really sceptical of the genuine nature of these conversations. It feels like a “hot topic” right now—there’s this unbearable hotness about decolonisation as a framework; as an idea; a buzzword.
There is definitely a critical void within the UTS school of architecture in regards to Indigenous inclusion. There is little to no space to even start conversations about accessibility, racial inequality and Indigenous rights within the faculty—both in the student and staff body.

Recently, there have been attempts at opening up Indigenous conversations but I am really sceptical of the genuine nature of these conversations. It feels like a “hot topic” right now—there’s this unbearable hotness about decolonisation as a framework; as an idea; a buzzword. There’s always been a clear conflict in the way the discipline engages with topics of decolonisation. We, as architects, sit at the intersection of land and capital—that is a quite central conflict when it comes to colonial pasts and continued dispossession. We can talk, mediate and profit from this mediation for a really long time but, when the rubber hits the road, it doesn’t feel like anyone is willing to do the real work. There is reluctance within our discipline to engage with established initiatives such as Land Back1 Land Back
, ACAB and other larger political movements that exist outside the realm of ‘architecture’—movements that are centralised around Indigenous rights and Indigenous dispossession.

For me, a large and simple way to talk about it, is sovereignty. Whether or not you acknowledge it, you are in a sovereign relationship with Aboriginal land and you're here under the guise that you are participating as an Australian citizen. You're complicit in that dispossession by simply being in this place and without acknowledging that you are in relationship to someone else's sovereignty—an Indigenous sovereignty. That is what is really missing in our conversations.

From your experience, could you discuss the relationship between the current state of architectural practice and education to Indigenous students and practitioners?

A lot of Indigenous students who find themselves going into academia, especially architecture and the built environment, find themselves in a position where they are used up really quickly. Your access, ideas and knowledge become so valuable. Because of my Indigenous heritage, I felt I was pedestalled as a critical thinker in the faculty well before I was prepared to do that.

The urgency of our current political and environmental situation creates good conditions for the continued extraction of our marginalised perspectives—merely as a “quick fix” or a “quick solution” to undo centuries of colonial damage.

The relationship between the discipline and Indigenous knowledge is a really consumptive and extractive one—one that is not necessarily concerned with supporting aboriginal people. This would be a large critique I have about Connecting with Country2Government Architect NSW (2020).
Connecting with Country
as a framework. Dillon Kombumerri is an amazing individual and has done so much to gain agency as a blackfulla in a government position. However, that document is mostly about educating non-Aboriginal people about what country is. I don't really see the point in that. Not to disregard its value in acknowledging Indigenous heritage in any way, but wouldn't involving more blackfullas in the actual process of design be more effective?

Every other Aboriginal person that I know who works in the built environment industries–including myself–has at some point been brought into a professional scenario to work on a reconciliation action plan or on a consultation framework. To me this feels like a big corporate office essentially saying "Hey, you want a job? Make us look less racist!". It's not about self-determination at all and it’s not about involving Aboriginals in the field either. It’s merely "You get to work for us. We get to continue what we're doing, but now it looks better". It's appearances that surface over actual substance and practice.

It is interesting when you talk about the performative role people, institutions and offices adopt, in order to avoid genuinely engaging with these conversations. Issues such as race are either sidelined, brushed upon or tokenised—because a meaningful engagement with these issues would mean a complete undoing and exposure of the structures of power within the institution. How do you see this performative approach in engaging Indigenous voices impact our discipline’s ability to engage with our current political and environmental climate?

We are only now beginning to reach a place where we are able to discuss race within the academic frameworks and discourses of architecture. People are being listened to and there is a lot more work coming through that engages with whiteness and racism as conditions supported by the conventional trajectory of architecture and design.

During my time teaching a decolonising elective, I had a suspicion that we weren't actually going to teach people much about Indigenous knowledge. But rather, do a lot of work unlearning and disengaging the discipline and ourselves from the colonial histories that we embody. We need to understand that these possessive tendencies and ideas that we consider normal, are really rooted in racism, dispossession and white supremacy.

Before we can start to genuinely engage with Indigenous knowledges, there’s so much work we need to do as a discipline to reflect on what we do as people, as architects and as spatial practitioners. At this point in time, the way Indigenous knowledge is being approached is essentially a reflection of how solution-hungry our discipline is. The urgency of our current political and environmental situation creates good conditions for the continued extraction of our marginalised perspectives—merely as a “quick fix” or a “quick solution” to undo centuries of colonial damage.

The terminology that frames the anthropocene—the idea that a geological age has come from our own wrought and now we have to equally distribute the blame for what's happening to the earth, is fundamentally a racist concept to believe. The resources have never been equally distributed so we cannot equally share the accountability behind it. In the assumption that we need to equally distribute this blame, all knowledge on how to survive becomes up for grabs. That's the mode of thinking that stems from an uncritical engagement with Indigenous knowledge. At the end of the day, it’s Western modes of destructive logic and thinking that got us here, so why can’t they just use those tools to get us out?

They made the categories. They created the institutions, the sciences, the disciplines of knowledge, they even created race—they created all these things. They actually have all the toolsets, but they have to be reflective enough to think of ways on how to use them. I don't know how that will actually happen, however, without that level of reflection, they can’t genuinely engage with any real attempts at change.

We definitely agree with the comment about the damaging impacts of quick fixes. Within architecture school there is a lack of engagement in critiquing the tools enforced by tutors and curriculums; usually influenced by the pressure of the studio format, and the fear and expense of failure, students are often relegated into a position where they regurgitate claims, positions, aesthetics. Within this, how do we begin to facilitate a deeper critical engagement with the prescribed, (and inherently racist) architectural toolset? And how do we foster notions of accountability and responsibility—in projects that are often so detached from ‘the real world?’

You have to critically engage with the things that we take as the banal—plain truths of what we do. You have to think harder about how the processes we're all engaged in create the unjust and unequal situations that we find in the world. For example, we talk a lot about context in design, especially in architecture—it's so central to so many aspects, but we are not offered much in our education to actually understand a site. We must ask ourselves, “who am I to be here and who am I to say this? Whose documents are telling me what this place is?” We need to be critically engaged with those histories and narratives.

Additionally, to bring it back to the question of race, I have a real issue with the cult of identity that exists within architecture schools. The way that we embody this relationship to our labour and our work. It's related to the canon and the people that are represented to us as having the standard of design practice. However, if you identify as an architect, who is your community? Other architects? I don't see that as a sustainable way to move out of our current situation. You need to have distance from the job, and architecture school teaches you the opposite. I was a product of that but managed to ease off it towards the end—because at that point it was make or break. The problem is that people get to these breaking points where it's either that or their mental health. It’s not a safe and sustainable mentality to have in a university.

What I'm learning more from being outside of the traditional framework of the university is the real value in collaboration—true collaboration. Giving time for everyone to have a perspective and to talk things through. It would be really interesting if you ran a studio where you put all the pressure of the final grade at the front and make it all about listening. Make it about talking to people. Make it about learning the context. Make it the bulk of the assessment. In architecture, we're obsessed with products and objects, and this often results in projects that are so detached from the topics they are allegedly discussing. There is no time to develop new languages, new forms of representation, and there is no space to actually listen and develop genuine resonance.

As students, and as women of colour, entering these white, euro-centric and male dominated academic spaces, we are placed with the responsibility of having to actively find the topics we are interested in and want to learn more about. We have to find ways to “challenge the brief" rather than actually being offered the space and topics we want to engage with. How do you navigate this as a tutor when you are approaching your students? How can you create a space for your students where they don’t feel like they constantly must fight something and just learn?

I want to fully acknowledge the fact that I sound how I sound and I look how I look so I receive a large amount of privilege, especially in architecture school. I think it's kind of a two-for-one deal in a lot of ways for my tutors because they didn't feel threatened, even though I shared and expressed the same views as you are describing.

There is a particular group of people that make up a majority of the university spaces—the studios are centred around this particular way of saying, doing and being in the world. If you're not from that, then yes, you have to go against the brief. You have to find your interests and your exposure. In my opinion, everyone should be critically engaging and trying to reach what they need, but universities and institutions support a particular perspective and a particular way of engagement.

In saying that, Genevieve Murray and I ran a Master's studio as Future Method 3Genevieve Murray & Joel Spring: Future Method Studio
, and that was a really interesting experience. Majority of the students were people of colour and people that sat out of that ‘star student profile’ that the university platforms. It was an amazing, empathetic group of students that had a lot to learn and a lot to offer—there was a lot of strength in their differences.

The whole studio had to figure out how to navigate the process of designing one project together collaboratively. In terms of steering them, they had to know that they were dealing with a particular history and narrative. Students were asked to place and situate themselves. Who are you? Where are you from? How'd you get here and whose land are you on? Let's have that conversation together and let's draw those things out. It is just as important for all of us in the studio to understand each other in order to properly come together and work on the project.

Being able to speak from and through difference is very much dismissed within the university spaces. These points of contact and conflict that we experience allow us to develop the ability to read and approach things with empathy.

Definitely. When you're not having your subjectivity spoken to directly, then you have to develop empathy. That is a common condition with all people of colour coming into these white-dominated spaces—media, architecture and so on. People learn empathy very early on when they're not inside of the predominant culture. You learn how to empathise with different narratives. You learn how to engage with different voices and perspectives.

People who are inside the predominant bubble usually don't have to learn anything. They see it as it’s given. If these people want to participate and embody empathy, they are going to have to push through the discomfort and actually practice care. Unfortunately, that's not how the attention economy within the university and capitalism allow us to work. That's why it takes Robin D'Angelo—a white woman, to write a book about whiteness for white people to engage with it despite the issue being raised by Indigenous and people of colour for hundreds of years. At the end of the day, everyone should be allowing themselves the opportunity to go through the hard work of figuring out their position themselves so we don’t end up pandering to specific perspectives—or valuing one perspective over the other.

Architecture as it stands does not have the practice and the knowledge to do these things properly. No one wants change. They only want the representation of it.

At this current moment of crisis, it is evident change is needed and critical to the survival of the architectural field. We have found ourselves quite frustrated at the discipline’s resistance to change. How long can architecture stay relevant if it continues to be this performative?

The way that we have operated as architects up until this point is not viable and it's going to become even less viable. We have to ask; what are we actually training people for? If we're not trying to think about alternative modes of practice now then what happens at the breaking point?

As I mentioned earlier, the Designing with Country framework doesn't really address equality of opportunity and self-determination for people to practise—it's mostly about heritage responsibility and conversations on how to engage with particular people. This system produces what we currently get; surface-level engagement—buildings with dot paintings on them.

That's why we need to try to get this knowledge out of the university—out of the insularity of the discipline and into people's hands. Indigenous communities have been denied access to this information for so long that they don’t know what they can really get out of these community engagement attempts. We need to be sharing knowledge on how communities can navigate these conversations with architects and designers so that community engagement is not tokenised and performative. Architecture as it stands does not have the practice and the knowledge to do these things properly. No one wants change. They only want the representation of it.

We talk about collectivising a lot on public radio. I got to work on a radio station called Radio Skid Row4Radio Skid Row
, and that was historically an Indigenous-led, black and multicultural radio station that started in Redfern. It was an interesting place to learn about histories of past communities coming together and collectivising—all different people of colour and marginalised groups. It goes back to that idea of thinking of the alternative. While you're trying to pull this system down—if you're not actively building something else in its place, then when push comes to shove and things start falling down, what place are we going to have?

We all know how privileged architecture as a practice operates in all sorts of ways. I'm really interested in what it could be and what is relevant to people in my community or people who are coming into this with no access to university. How do you provide resources to communities so they can advocate for their rights against a system that is built to exclude them? All of these things are built directly to prevent participation from poorer, less educated, lower socioeconomic and Indigenous perspectives. How do we take this knowledge and distribute it in a way that people can access it, digest it and utilise it relevantly in their own lives—to defend themselves, defend their rights and defend their land? For me, it always comes back to sovereignty. The place where I grew up only looks the way it does now because my people are generationally excluded from the conversations where these big decisions are being made—decisions regarding our livelihoods and our lands.