The Transitional Heterotopia: Cockatoo Island

August 18, 2011

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 transformation.

The island was founded upon the establishment of an imperial prison in 1839. 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 and the island was occupied as an Industrial School for Girls and a reformatory. However, due to ‘overcrowding’ of prisons elsewhere, Cockatoo Island was again made a prison for ten years, during which the island saw the completion of its second dock and became the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard as the major shipbuilding and dockyard facility for the South West Pacific in World War II. The servicing, refitting and construction of submarines and ships ceased in 1992 upon the dockyard’s close.

Currently, 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 maximum public access. The Trust aims to revitalise the island as a landmark harbour attraction with the creation of parklands and spaces for cultural events. Recent events include the Art Biennale, temporary art exhibitions, music festivals and concerts.

This essay aims to investigate the historic timeline ofCockatooIsland’s various institutions of heterotopias, as described by Michel Foucault. From colonial, state and federal administrations, penal facilities to a dockyard to a public cultural entertainment venue, the essay will explore the overlapping relations 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 position.

Naomi Brennan

One Response to “The Transitional Heterotopia: Cockatoo Island”


  1. Naomi, This looks like it is shaping up well. It will be interesting to see what happens when you begin to layer the institutional forms, prison upon museum, etc. Also, how you can remark upon how the affect of one form impacts positively or negatively on another form. For instance, does the affective valence of a dark, violent history create an evocative atmosphere for certain art installations, and what’s the implication of this?
    You might also want to touch on Nigel Thrift on the spatialities of feeling…


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