WW1 history illuminated on Old Parliament House
Pause at Old Parliament House after dark during Enlighten this weekend and you may see an expanse of somber, sepia-toned faces staring back at you.
The projection, titled Aliens, depicts mostly German ‘enemy aliens’ interned in Australia during the First World War. We’ve asked Riley Post, the digital artist behind the artwork, to share the story behind this poignant projection.
What is the Aliens projection artwork about?
When Australia was drawn into the First World War, we implemented a number of national security measures to minimise threats on the home front. One of these measures was the identification of 'enemy aliens', who were mostly Germans living in Australia. If thought to be disloyal or disruptive they were sent to internment camps, the largest being at Holsworthy near Sydney. In this camp, portraits were taken of the internees; portraits that eventually formed a giant, beautiful photo-book. It is from this book, which you can find in the National Archives, that the images for Aliens were drawn.
What drew you to this story?
It was primarily experiencing the book on display at the NAA that led me to delve into the history of the aliens. The rows of grizzled faces on the single page visible through the glass was enough to get me started, but reading the stories and seeing material from the camps online convinced me that this was an important piece of Australia's history. If we are commemorating the First World War, it is important that we acknowledge all its events, even the ones that aren't exactly glorious.
How did you go about designing the artwork for Old Parliament House?
For the main facade, I tried to leave as little space as possible uncovered by faces, with the constraint that no face should be too small or too obscured to recognise. The higher sections were covered by images of rusted metal to echo the corrugated iron shelters given to internees in the Holsworthy camp. Finally, I tried to include as many internee names as possible on the base of the building to give viewers some idea of who the men were. I would have liked an even gender balance in the portraits, but only men were held at Holsworthy.
What motivated you to create an Enlighten projection artwork?
As a student in the Digital Treasures program at the University of Canberra, my research naturally pushes me to find new ways of exposing cultural heritage material. I was keen to see these photographs on a massive scale, liberated a little from their archive, but I was more interested in exposing an interesting story to a broad audience. I hope anyone who wants to learn more after seeing the work will make use of the wonderful institutions clustered around Old Parliament House, such as the National Archives and National Library.
How does it feel to see your work projected on Old Parliament House, a building within which it is highly likely the decisions to intern these ‘aliens’ were discussed, debated and ultimately made?
It seems like a perfect chance to meditate on how political decisions of the moment will be viewed through the lens of history. Without passing judgment on the governments in office during the war, it feels right to give Old Parliament a little taste of the camps.
The Museum of Australian Democracy bought the full set of the rare publication Kamp Spiegel last year. Kamp Spiegel was a newspaper produced by German and Austrian inmates of the WW1 prison camp at Holsworthy, NSW, between 1916 and 1918. It features maps of the camp, advertisements, reports on progress of the war, and information about what was happening in the camp. The magazine was financed by subscriptions and advertisements for businesses in the camp.