Astra Howard
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Astra Howard

Dame Joan Sutherland Fund recipient, Visual Artist
Origin: Sydney, Australia
Currently based: Sydney, Australia



Astra Howard is an action researcher/performer working predominantly within public city spaces. Over the past fifteen years, Astra has designed and produced over one hundred and fifty site-specific experimental works locally in cities across Australia and Internationally in such diverse locations as Beijing, Hanoi, Paris, New York and Delhi. 

More recently, Astra has been commissioned by city councils, state government departments and community/arts organizations, to design and direct projects that use unconventional research methodologies to gather information about a location, visualise data, generate dialogue and debate amongst members of the public and reinvigorate city spaces. 

Astra’s expanding series of interactive vehicle and booth constructions seek to manipulate sensorial interaction between the researcher and the public (the Trojan Horse Effect), disabling certain capacities in order to create genuine and often intimate responses.  Through this self-imposed restraint, urban and social theories are made active within the spaces they critique, tested by the city itself and those who occupy its street.

Astra has worked for eleven years within the community services sector, predominantly in homeless services within inner city Sydney, more recently designing and managing a suite of educational programs and professional services within a unique crisis accommodation service.  In 2011 Astra returned to the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales to coordinate and lecture within the First Year Design Studio program. 

In 2012, Astra will continue to broaden her city research-practice in Hue Vietnam through an Asialink residency, in Beijing China through a Red Gate residency and in New York USA through an ISCP residency supported by the Australia Council and the American Australian Association - Dame Joan Sutherland Fund.


Who are you as an artist?
I am an Action Researcher/Performer working predominantly within public spaces in cities. Since 1998 I have designed and produced site-specific experimental works in cities across Australia, and internationally, including: Beijing, Paris, New York, Delhi, Hanoi and London. After completing a PhD in 2005 entitled 'Orchestrating the Public: To Reveal and Activate through Design the Experience of the City', I have continued to test urban and social theories in the city spaces they critique. I have worked professionally as a designer, as a lecturer in the higher education sector and as a community development worker, predominantly in crisis homeless services.   
What prompted you to come to the US?
I was fortunate to have undertaken two previous residencies in New York during 2002 and 2008, so was keen to return in 2012 to further develop projects. Consequently, I undertook a six-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP) in Brooklyn from June to November 2012. For an urban/social researcher, New York City exemplifies the challenges of future city living. 
What did your course/project involve?
Over the duration of the six-month residency, I produced eleven new public space based Action Research/Performance projects.  I also undertook a project for the Peekskill Project V event in association with HVCCA in upstate New York. I gave two presentations at Parsons, The New School for Design in their 'Global Issues in Design and Visuality in the 21st Century' course and presented in the Salon Talk series at ISCP. I also participated in the ISCP Open Studio exhibition and was interviewed by a number of social-practice researchers about the methodologies involved in my work.     
What were the highlights of your experience?
It was quite an experience to be in New York during 'Hurricane Sandy'. Coincidentally, many of the projects I had undertaken leading up to this event had hinted at this city in a post-apocalyptic state, everybody living on the edge with only 99cent stores remaining. When electricity, petrol and water became scarce in New York after 'Sandy' struck, these projects seemed eerily fortuitous. Unable to negotiate the city in the same way (due to the subway lines being flooded), I necessarily engaged more directly with the local areas of Bed-Stuy, Bushwick and East Williamsburg. Strangers were also unexpectedly brought together during the hurricane aftermath.
Where did you find inspiration? 
I found 'New York 1' news to be very informative in terms of discussing issues that faced locals on a day-to-day basis in this city. Of particular interest during the time I was in New York were- the controversial 'stop and frisk' policies; teenage gun violence; the 2012 election campaign; the lack of funding to public schools; and new surveillance measures being introduced in the city. I also took inspiration for projects from my own experiences negotiating the city, including being made more aware of the increasing disparity between rich and poor residents. I also found inspiration from materials found in local hardware and storage supply stores.
What will you take away from this experience?
I made many new connections with people in New York through my engagement with artists, curators and staff at ISCP as well as through my involvement with students and staff at Parsons, The New School of Design. I also renewed various contacts I had already established in this city as well as making new connections with people through various projects, events and initiatives. I also developed many more ideas than what I was able to produce within the time frame that I would like to progress further if another opportunity arises to return to New York. I appreciated more so on this occasion just how tough this city can be for those on the margins.

What is your favorite piece of work that resulted from this experience?

Inspired by a new crime-fighting mechanism developed by Microsoft to track suspects in the city (drawing multiple data sources together), the 'Domain Awareness Story-Telling' project extended from previous live research engagements by developing narrative scripts based on city observations. Surprising responses emerged from this interchange of objective data and subjecting writing.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a range of larger scale projects in Sydney that are inspired by the 2012 New York experience. One project continues my fascination with vehicle structures and narrative based explorations of the city experience, and the other takes the form of a tower with engagements created by automated public response systems. I am also working on a shortlisted Local Council permanent public artwork commission and some smaller scale site responsive works. I continue to teach at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales in Sydney within the Design, New Media, Fine Art and Architecture faculties. 

What is your vision for the future?
I am very interested in returning to the cities that I have had extended project engagements with over the past thirteen years, including New York, Paris, Beijing, Delhi and London as well as exploring new city locations in USA, Europe and Asia. I am also interested in working in closer association with local Councils in Australia to develop community/cultural development projects and public art works.

What advice would you give other artists aspiring to come to the US?
Be prepared to start working on projects from the moment you arrive in New York as there are so many 'distractions' in this city. Have a plan of what you hope to achieve within the time frame and try and work to this schedule in order to achieve your goals. Be open to unexpected experiences and encounters and try and develop contacts by engaging with local organisations and institutions.

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