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Cockatoo Island Fitzroy Dock 1915

Cockatoo Island 1971

Cockatoo Island 2011


“All aboard wharf 5! First stop Cockatoo Island.” A small ferry with a thick band of red wrapped around its hull, the ‘Royale’, pushes through the Sydney Harbour; salt on lips, gulls circling above, waves licking the side of the boat and the sea breeze guiding its passengers westward. The Royale steadies around the Birchgrove headlands, eager to see the first signs of its destination. And there in the distance, several large steam powered cranes dot the island, the clanging of industrial machinery hard at work, men’s voices shouting instructions in the dockyard below. A great naval ship 120 metres long, the ‘HMAS Victory’, anchored at the island’s Sutherland Dock is almost near its completion, readying itself for the battles of World War II. High up on the Plateau, sandstone blocks and iron wrought bars imprison the many convicts; the prison barracks, built by the convicts themselves, held in isolation from society and muffling the cries of anger and desperation. But when the Royale docks in at the rickety timber jetty along the island’s northern tip, hidden behind the red brick muster station, all is silent. The cranes have frozen, the workmen are no longer, buildings are abandoned, and the air is still. A stretch of land, open and bare; a strange hybrid of nature and industry, evident of constant manipulation of the island’s grounds dug up, reshaped, built upon. Cockatoo Island remains a derelict collection of prison walls, giant cranes, industrial sheds, and abandoned offices. The skeletal remains of the dockyard’s machinery hang in mid air waiting to be brought back to life again, but for now they stand as a narrative backdrop.

Cockatoo Island remains the largest island in Sydney Harbour. Its history provides a string of institutional sites that require an understanding and investigation of its occupancy; its past, present and future transformation. This essay aims to investigate the historic timeline of Cockatoo Island’s various institutions of heterotopias, with reference to Michel Foucault’s article Of Other Spaces, 1986. The essay explores the overlapping relationships of these heterotopias and their affect as a ‘layered’ institution. Foucault’s six principles of heterotopias will be applied in examination of each institutional transition of the island, followed by a comparative assessment and what unfolds for the island’s current and future occupancy.

Abandoned Dockyard Cranes 2011

Entry, Art Biennale 2011


All sites exist in particular relation to each other, alongside the social structures of power. Foucault however, speaks of a curiosity of certain spaces that have a power of being in relation with all other sites; spaces categorised as either utopias or heterotopias. Utopias are essentially unreal spaces that represent a ‘perfected’ form of society. Heterotopias describe the counter-sites, as ‘real’ spaces; a placeless place, the virtual space (Foucault, 1986), hidden or isolated as the recognisable absence.

Foucault defines the six principles of heterotopias, the first of which emphasises its universal existence. Although they exist in every culture, they are manifested differently according to place and time. Primitive society was categorised upon crisis heterotopias reserved for individuals who are essentially in a state of personal struggle (adolescence, menstruation, pregnancy, old age, etc.). These spaces are the privileged, sacred or forbidden places that seem to be gradually disappearing within today’s society. They have been replaced instead with heterotopias of deviation, housing individuals whose behaviours are considered ‘abnormal’ within society; institutions of exclusion from mainstream society such as resting homes, psychiatric hospitals, retirement homes and prisons. Secondly, heterotopias are dependent upon a societal influence as existing heterotopias can be made to function differently in varying situations, throughout time or within different cultures. The third principle notes contradictory sites and the juxtaposition of several spaces in one; of numerous microcosms and networks within networks. Fourth is related to time as heterotopias have the ability to separate us from the norm. This can be of either accumulating time, as can be experienced within a library or museum’s preservation of history, or temporal time such as the transience and discontinuity of the festival space and fairground. The fifth principle outlines a ritual of entry, a system of opening and closing whereby heterotopias are both isolated and penetrable, yet they are not freely accessible as certain gestures or permission must be carried out. Lastly, Foucault describes the role of heterotopias in relation to other spaces; to create a space of illusion or as an-other real space, which serves to expose its inexistence elsewhere.

Cockatoo Island responds to each of these six principles of heterotopias. The site was founded upon the establishment of an imperial prison in 1839, categorised under a heterotopia of deviation with its complete exclusion and isolation from society’s mainland. During their time, prisoners built the Fitzroy Dock and workshops to service the Royal Navy and ships alike. Upon its completion the prisoners were then relocated to neighbouring prisons and the island was occupied as a girls Reformatory and Industrial School for orphans, shifting the site’s categorisation towards a crisis heterotopia. However, due to overcrowding, discomfort and unhealthy living condiitons, the School closed in 1879 and was inhabited as a gaol once again, of heterotopic deviation.

With the changing societal conditions brought on by WWII, the prison discontinued after ten years and the island saw the completion of its second dock and the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard, the major shipbuilding and dockyard facility for the South West Pacific. The island thus displays a juxtaposition of spaces, the prison and the dockyard; a community of criminals essentially against society by disturbing order and power relations, followed by a community of workmen, willingly under order and working for society’s higher power. The dockyard plays upon Foucault’s metaphor of the perfect heterotopia, the ship; a place without a place …that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that …goes as far as the colonies in search for the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens. (If you think this) you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilisation …the great instrument of economic development …but also the greatest reserve of the imagination (Foucault 1986). The island’s maritime activity, the servicing, refitting and construction of submarines and ships, continued until the dockyard’s close in 1992.

Today, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust assumes control of the island and aims to achieve restoration works with the conservation of its cultural heritage, protection of the environment and greater public access. Cockatoo Island lends itself as the host site for the Art Biennale and temporary art exhibitions, showcasing contemporary artworks and installations within its abandoned buildings. The island also provides as a music festival venue, public camping grounds and parklands. Its current occupancy evidently functions upon temporal time; the short lived music festival and temporary exhibition. Accumulating time rests in the abandoned remains of the island’s machinery and buildings, the site itself. Most notable is its ritual of entry. This heterotopic site is not immediately accessible like most public spaces. As an island, the site requires a fifteen minute public ferry ride, the only means of entry via boat, and arrival/ departure at the site’s single jetty. Although the island operates as a natural isolation from the city’s mainland, it does not promote a complete separation as a free public ferry service is provided, but rather a gesture upon arrival and departure to travel off land. This gesture automatically emphasises the particularity of the site as distinct and rare from the everyday; to emphasise its existence and distinction from the city’s central building district.

Cockatoo Island’s heterotopic transition demonstrates a societal shift from the traditional disciplinary society to that of our modern-day control society (Deleuze, 1972), whereby the disciplinary society describes the linearity of confinement, from one enclosure/ institution to the other, a hierarchical power of spectacle such as the prison. Today’s control society illustrates the power of surveillance, a society of multiplicity and diversity, individual choice and divergence off the disciplined ‘linearity’. The island’s current occupancy as an art exhibition space demonstrates the shifting nature of the exhibitionary complex at the turn of the nineteenth century, transferring its objects and bodies from a private domain towards the greater public, locating its institutions at the centre of the city. Simultaneously, the public nature of the prison saw a shift towards a confined institution behind closed doors and its fortress-like walls, from the heart of the city to the suburban outskirts (Bennett, 1995).

RMS Queen Mary at Cockatoo Island 1940

This shift of the exhibitionary complex allowed for a break down of its hierarchical positioning by accepting all classes of society to congregate under a single institution, a middle ground, responding to the problem of order by celebrating the nature of culture. A transformation of social regulation can also be noted. The public becomes visible to itself through self observation, borrowing Foucault’s idea of panopticism. However, within the exhibitionary complex the central position of the Panopticon’s watch tower is available to the public at all times, combining the functions of spectacle and surveillance.

The Panopticon provides as a visibility trap; a dyad of seeing and being seen; he is seen but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication (Foucault, 1991). A ring of individual cells organised about a central watch tower, the Panopticon, described as a ‘disciplinary machine’, is applicable to varying establishments; it is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, of hierarchical organisation, of disposition of centres and channels of power (Foucault, 1991), of which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops, schools and prisons. The Panopticon plays upon an automatic functioning of power that places a constant pressure on the inmate through a state of conscious and permanent visibility; the power of the mind. It displays the power of observation and surveillance, offering itself as a ‘museum of human nature’; a society watching over itself, constantly surveyed, self-watching, self regulating…of self observation (Bennett, 1995).

Our current control society is further defined as a culture where we no longer just work, we perform (Verwoert, 2010). Society has placed itself within a collective norm of constant performance, to say “Yes”, to act upon the “I Can”, to drive each individual to a point of exhaustion until the “I Can’t” can no longer be ignored. It is this pressure to perform that we are able to see that our state of exhaustion is a collective experience; the one thing we share –exhaustion – makes us an inoperative community, an exhausted community, or a community of the exhausted (Verwoert, 2010). The “I Can’t” allows us to perform without expectations, without the pressure of society, and to allow for a growth of greater personal development. It is in this manner that we must realise that caring for the self is indeed caring for society. Our performance is seen as our most valuable asset within society, and thus society should be aware that it is of great importance to prioritise our health and happiness in order to give back to society our best performance. However Verwoert notes that to reserve a part of your life for taking care of yourself has indeed become a radical thing to do because it effectively means you are taking yourself out of circulation; that we must learn to embrace the “I Can’t” in the key of the “I Can” (Verwoert, 2010).


Cockatoo Island’s transition towards accommodating the Art Biennale, as a museum/ exhibitionary institution, transforms the negative space of a prison, reformatory and work field into a positive space, and affect, of cultural education and public activity. The next transition then, would be to emphasise this aspect of ‘education’ and ‘public involvement’ by creating an institution ‘for’ the public – not particularly in terms of direct leisure and enjoyment, but in order for individuals to experience the affects of happiness, and ensure maximum performance.

The idea of the prison as a museum of human nature allowed Foucault to further describe the penitentiary as a ‘laboratory’ of power, of a privileged place for experiments on men, to penetrate into men’s behaviours, to train and correct individuals, to experiment with medicines, punishments, orders and monitor their effects. Stemming from this notion of the prison as a laboratory, of human behaviour, performance and exhaustion, it seems an appropriate proposition for the island to support a research laboratory for the human body, ultimately for society’s health and wellbeing; for the exploration and experimentation of new medicines, the investigation of diseases, and research of the human condition; the birth of a new clinic for the exhausted society we have driven ourselves to become. A medical laboratory exists upon a heterotopic accumulation of time with its continual storage and historic recording of illnesses, diseases, cures and medicines, whilst constantly adapting to current situations and effects of the ever-evolving and developing world. Whilst Cockatoo Island’s previous dockyard may be seen as the mechanics that allowed fort the ‘perfect heterotopia’ of the ship to continue its sail into to the sea, the laboratory can be described as the mechanics behind society’s performance and happiness.It can be connected or disconnected from the real world, taking itself out of circulation and re-entering when needed. The laboratory plays upon a heterotopia both of crisis and of deviance by serving either/ or.

The vast open grounds of the island further provides the opportunity of facilities for health improvement, fitness and relaxation, alongside this medical laboratory – a library, gymnasium, sporting facilities, swimming pool, yoga facilities, community gardens, organic fruit and vegetable market; an island of momentary escape from the busyness of the city’s fast-paced central building district. There must remain a balance within appropriated space, between oppositions that we regard as simple givens: between private and public space, family space and social space, cultural space and useful space, space of leisure and that of work (Bennett, 1995).

With its diverse history of interchanging institutions, Sydney Harbour’s Cockatoo Island can finally rest itself upon a heterotopia that offers itself to the public’s greater health and wellbeing; a heteroptopia in response to our control society, for exhaustion and revival.

Cockatoo Island 2011


Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’ in Diacritics, vol. 16, no. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 22-27. Tony Bennett, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, London: Routledge, 1995. Michel Foucault, ‘Panopticism’ in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London: Penguin, 1991. Jan Verwoert, ‘Exhaustion an Exuberance’ in Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want, Sternberg Press, 2010. Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’ in Negotiations: 1972-1990, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Australian Government Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, Cockatoo Island, 2010. <> Australian Government Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, Harbour Trust: Cockatoo Island, 2011. <>

The Transitional Heterotopia: Cockatoo Island  

Essay_Naomi Brennan

The Transitional Heterotopia: Cockatoo Island  

Essay_Naomi Brennan