Since their first project in 2001, Melbourne artists Pat Foster and Jen Berean have steadily gained attention for their collaborative installations. Recipients of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s inaugural Jane Scally Emerging Artist Award in 2010, the pair have recently returned from a month-long stint in Glasgow working with Martin Boyce, Scotland’s representative at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

Like Boyce, Foster and Berean’s work is concerned with art in a social context. However, whereas Boyce’s art deals directly with high modernist design, Foster and Berean’s tends more towards an examination of utilitarian modernism – specifically the ways public spaces incorporate pre-emptive measures against misuse or damage and the ways we exist and counter-exist within them. “Noticing the universal forms in public spaces is the big thing,” says Berean. “There are kinds of variations of the same thing.”

As an example, she notes the crowd-control barriers in Dublin. “There’s a very specific kind that they use,” she explains. But despite their difference they’re still similar to those used everywhere else.

Taking the stainless steel studs installed on ledges to discourage skateboarders as another illustration, Foster points out how these otherwise useless objects have become a feature of public spaces around the world. “That’s now just part of the urban landscape,” he says. Public space design is “predicated on a degree of fear, so that fear of violence becomes part of the space. It’s acknowledged in its design. So the form of the space is already responsive to the notion of it not being used properly.

“A physical involvement with the space – something like breaking a window as a form of protest – is this kind of violent form of mark-making, the means of making a statement. Or it’s just vandalism or misbehaviour and there is no statement. It’s just this kind of shift in the form.”

His work with Berean, he continues, is “looking at how there’s this kind of ebb and flow that permeates into the public spaces and how people understand how to act in these places.”

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Installations such as The Doing And Undoing Of It All, Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down and The Problem With Stability all use variations on common architectural forms and materials, injected with a sense of precariousness, of the potential for collapse. Purposefully ambiguous as to their state of construction, “you could read [them] as a half-built space or something that’s decaying or being destroyed,” says Berean.

“Their permanence is questionable,” agrees Foster. “Things that physically balance or teeter, that have this feeling that they might just fall apart or fall down, kind of reference back to everything existing in not such a solid way as [they’re] presented.”

For their most recent work (the Double Negatives exhibitions was held jointly between Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography and Gertrude Contemporary Art Space from April till June this year) Foster and Berean have extended their project into more unconscious forms of misuse, incorporating images of people collapsed against public furniture.

“When you break a window there’s this really conscious decision and a conscious act. There’s something really nice about this unconscious body and the loss of control forming some kind of response to public space,” says Foster. “Forms can come into existence through different means and different influences. The world is shaped through interaction in really broad terms.”

Concluding, he notes that pre-emptive measures against misuse are only going to increase. “And it’s not that it’s necessarily an unnecessary thing; often there’s a particular reason for it,” he says. What’s important is “just noticing that it exists and an awareness of why things look like they do”.

Pat Foster and Jen Berean currently have a residency at Gertrude Contemporary.