the AU interview: Michael Cohen - Co-curator of Nomanslanding - Describes Commemorating the ANZACS

Nomanslanding is a world first, a 120m interactive floating artwork installation on Sydney’s Cockle Bay. It is part of public program of events commemorating the centenary of the ANZACS that was produced by Australian, Dutch and English artists: Robyn Backen, Andre Dekker, Graham Eatough, Nigel Helyer and Jennifer Turpin. Darling Harbour is also the host to a poppy remembrance wall and is holding workshops enabling you to make your own poppy as well as exhibitions of historic images and timelines and a contemporary portrait exhibition by Turkish-Australian artist, Mertim Gokalp.

The AU Review spoke with Michael Cohen, = the co-curator of Nomanslanding and Creative Producer for the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority to learn more about this fascinating exhibit and some of the important historic details relating to the famous war port, tourist attraction and family-friendly destination known as Darling Harbour.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself like what was your involvement in Nomanslanding? How long have you been working in this capacity?

Well actually I think I’m the one who started the whole ball rolling – I guess in a producer capacity. About 3 years ago I started fishing around for international partners to work with on a big installation to float on the waters of Cockle Bay. It’s one of the really special features of Darling Harbour and doing something special there provides visitors with an experience they can’t have anywhere else. But I knew such a big project needed collaborators because it's of a scale that would be very difficult for Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority to accomplish on its own. So I managed to secure some great partners and since then we’ve been working as co-curators to seek out the artists, gestate the project concept and then develop the work for each of our locations.

2. Can you tell us a little about Nomanslanding?

Nomanslanding provides visitors with an extraordinary experience of this part of the city. You’re ushered out onto the waters of the harbour along some narrow walkways and you enter what is effectively a floating wooden chapel with about 40 other people. It’s a moment out of time for people – some quiet contemplation floating in the harbour of a busy city. And in the context of the Centenary of ANZAC, visitors get to take this time for a very personal experience in a work that contemplates loss across all different cultures.

3. Nomanslanding is in place to commemorate the centenary of the ANZACs. Were there any stories or things in particular that inspired this exhibition?
In our creative development for the project, the artists were very struck by the fact that in WW1 the people on opposing sides of the war were often from (the) same professional background and the same social background – they often had the same diets and social habits. And yet there they were shooting each other across this divide of terrain that came to be known as no man’s land. So the notion of confronting the enemy and potential death is effectively about confronting yourself and your own mortality.

4. Nomanslanding is a world-first, 120m interactive floating artwork. How did this installation come about?

It’s a massively ambitious project building a floating structure and walkway – and it’s a kind of engineering impossibility really! So Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority could not have undertaken something like this without some solid partnerships. We secured two European partners who will also show the work later this year. (Nomanslanding will tour to the Merchant City Festival in Scotland and Germany’s Ruhrtriennale Festival of Arts).So between us, we were able to dream big and deliver something that we all think is quietly extraordinary.

5. What are some of the highlights of the Nomanslanding installation? What are some of the highlights of the talks program?

One of the highlights is really seeing how people from all different walks of life are introduced to the historical jump-offs for the work (WW1, ANZACs, Darling Harbour as a war port) via what is really an abstract and ‘feelingful’ kind of experience. It’s not a telegraphed through interpretation of war – people go on a quiet experience with a group of other people and they are left to ask their own questions – about war, about death and dying, about loss by all peoples.

The talks program gave people a chance to get behind the scenes and dig in for some finer detail on the making process.

6. Why do you think it's important to have this artwork? Why should people visit it?

I think it doesn’t happen often enough that we are encouraged to ask our own questions about history. And artworks like this enable that kind of questioning in an interesting way that is free of the usual stuff that can accompany some commemorative projects. It’s not a jingoistic, flag-waving exercise at all. It actually makes that subject of WW1 commemoration a kind of personal experience that you can interpret in your own way.

And really it gives people an opportunity to experience the harbour in this part of the city in a way that they cannot do in ‘everyday life’

7. Darling Harbour has been a significant port in terms of its involvement in the military and industry. Can you tell us more about this?

We know it was a loading port for departures and that some people also arrived back home from WW1 here.

We also know that a lot of German internees (many were Australian citizens) were sent off to Germany from here during the war.

8. What is the most interesting fact or thing about Darling Harbour that most people wouldn't know about?

• When Europeans arrived there were cockle shells piled up for metres and metres and metres all around the foreshore – this was traditional cockle-eating place for Aboriginal people – that’s where the word Tumbalong comes from (in reference to Tumbalong Park within the Darling Harbour precinct).
• The world’s first refrigerator was invented at Darling Harbour.

9. What other events or things are coming up at Darling Harbour?

• Vivid Sydney starts in May
• A really cool celebration of winter, called 'Cool Yule' during the NSW winter school holidays – (to include a massive floating 'ice-berg' on Cockle Bay)
• An assortment of cultural festivals – check out 'Culture Beats' on for more details.

Nomanslanding is a free exhibition open daily from 11am at Darling Harbour. It will remain there until 3 May 2015 before it travels to Scotland and Germany. For more information please visit: