The following story was written as an essay to accompany the exhibition Substation 55A by Matte Rochford, which is showing at 55 Sydenham Road gallery until May 11th. It’s well worth an excursion to the industrial zone of Sydenham with its factories and hidden art spaces – the gallery’s open Saturday and Sundays, 1-5pm, and you can pick up a zine that includes this essay. All substation images in this post are by Matte Rochford.
From afar the building looks almost like a block of apartments. It’s constructed from dark brick, two stories high with a long window divided up into smaller square panes. At street level two columns are on either side of the entrance, a door marked with forbidding signs: Danger, Keep Out, a cartoon man spiked through with a lightning bolt. This is no apartment block. Despite its disguise it is a place people rarely enter and few people at that.
Amid the suburbs of Sydney there is a whole network of structures – sewer vents chimneys, substations, water towers, green postal boxes, telephone exchanges – that are irrevocably part of the landscape. They’re familiar elements of the suburban scene that link to mysterious workings. The light switches we flick, the taps we turn, the water that disappears down the drain, every one of these actions is linked to a city-wide system of pipes and wires and structures.
There are thousands of substations in Sydney. Many are “kiosk” substations, large metal boxes painted a nondescript shade of olive green that acts as camouflage, designed not to be noticed. The previous era of substations, brick buildings of varying shapes and sizes, were also designed with camouflage in mind: each was designed specifically to blend in with its surrounding environment. Substations in industrial areas were made to look like factories, in residential areas substations were made to look like Californian Bungalows or Federation houses. They borrowed the details from the surrounding buildings in an attempt to blend in to the streetscape.
Despite their camouflage these substations were also the public face of the growing city and its electrification. They were proudly labelled and numbered and observing them now the eye is drawn to the name prominently displayed on each facade. Some substations are decidedly grand: number 43 on Unwins Bridge Road in St Peters is a tall and thin building crowned with the monogram SMC (for the Sydney Municipal Council); number 341 on Canberra Street in Coogee resembles a splendid house with decorative brickwork and a balcony. In Cammeray, Substation number 77 closely resembles a castle with turrets, a tall arched doorway and a view to the valley below.
Substation No.1 was built at Town Hall in 1904, the year that electricity came to Sydney. While from the late 19th century there were a number of small private electricity generators, the experience of Sydney at night in the 1800s was one of dark streets, dimly lit by gas lamps. Sydney lagged behind country towns such as Tamworth, which had electric lighting installed in 1888. Once electricity came to Sydney there was a proliferation of substation construction and by 1911 there were so many that a new position was created to take charge of the growing network, the Substation Engineer. As the network grew and developed, more and more substations were built.
Start noticing an element of the urban landscape and the city comes into a new kind of life. Another reality overlays your everyday experiences. It was such for Matte Rochford when he began to collect substations. They’d long been of interest to him with their individual identities and their atmosphere of secrecy. They inspired exploring: all were part of a greater system of which only pieces were ever visible.
The substation near Rochford’s childhood home, No. 898, was surrounded by a lawn where he and his friends played, seeking out, as children do, places of vague ownership that become their own personal realm. The substation interrupted the predictable order of houses and shops that made up the Earlwood streets. It was like a place from a cartoon come to life, where a character like Doctor Claw from Inspector Gadget could reside. With its persistent hum and solemn brick presence the substation was a moment of science fiction in the everyday.
Since this time Rochford has had an awareness of the city’s substations and five years ago he deliberately began to collect them. He photographed the ones he was familiar with and ones he discovered as he travelled around the city and suburbs. That each was marked with a number only encouraged the collection. They seemed labelled for this purpose, like large, brick trading cards, prizes in a city-wide treasure hunt.
With each discovery he felt as if he had pocketed a secret. Their very locations seem covert. Individual yet linked, commonplace yet rarely noted, substations pop up at the end of alleyways or appear, like a reward, after taking a wrong turn. Substations have this aura of secrecy, appearing unpredictably, their doors always shut and their interiors inaccessible. Yet substations belong to anyone who chooses to notice them, in the way that by living somewhere, by experiencing it and observing it closely, it becomes a part of us.
Like their here-and-there appearances on suburban streets @matte_rochford ‘s latest substations pop up in my Instagram feed. No. 300, on Flood Street in Clovelly, is a Spanish Mission building with white decorative door hinges that look like arrows. No. 342, in Paddington, curves as it rounds the street corner, P&O style. By contrast No. 1401, in Artarmon, is clad with corrugated metal and looks like a garden shed. For a moment I contemplate each substation, considering it and what might be inside it.
While many substations mimic familiar buildings these are places most people will never enter: to imagine what lies inside is to slip underneath the city’s workings. The old brick substations are relics of a past Sydney, when electricity was a symbol of the growing and developing city and still regarded as a modern convenience. Electricity was once regarded as new, a strange thought for something now so integral to our lives. Our ideas about electricity have turned towards ecology and sustainability, and how power can be generated with less destruction to the environment. Of the coal power stations which once generated Sydney’s electricity only White Bay remains, a weathered ruin by Victoria Road in Rozelle. Sydney’s electricity supply is still mainly derived from coal, but the power stations are hidden beyond the city’s limits.
While networks of infrastructure are often beyond our comprehension, they manifest in countless objects and practices in our lives. Matte Rochford’s artworks use domestic electrical objects – VHS players, televisions, clock radios – and give them animation beyond their functional use. The VHS tapes and televisions he uses are objects which have been technologically superseded, yet they still retain a kind of soul. In Progressively Degrading Test Pattern, a test pattern from the end of a rental video was copied onto a succession of VHS tapes, each time the test pattern losing some of its integrity, until it becomes a ghost of itself. In The Clock Radio Symphony Orchestra 100 clock radios, alarms sounding in a cascade, seemed like massed consciousness rather than a collection of appliances.
The substations in Rochford’s collection are animated by scrutiny. Substations are discovered and documented, selected from their scattered positions like relatives long since dispersed to different continents, reunited after decades. No two are the same, although all are similar, all connected.
Further substation trivia: to have coffee in an ex-substation visit Substation Cafe in Alexandria. Some decommissioned substations have been made into houses and apartments. Others just mysteriously inhabit suburban streets while converting mains electricity. Which are your favourites?