BY Lucy Van

THEME LEADER Justin Clemens

SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.

Lucy Van is a writer of prose poems and lyric and has set words to music with Coastal Shelf, Leo James and Laila Sakini. For Triennial Voices, Lucy Van contributes a written piece relating to waterslides as a type of non-aleatory art (incorporating chance into the process of creation), and as a metaphor for a particular type of creative process. The work engages with ideas about Australian working class forms of leisure, particularly in the transitional era of the 1980s.

  • Podcast: Timothy Moore interviews Lucy Van


Every city has a water park with waterslides; we have pushed the sea to the edge of consciousness. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write about waterslides. I have had the word ‘waterslides’ written on my article board for about six months. Yesterday I got a cloth and some orange oil and wiped away all the things that were on the board. They were reminders of things I have to do, things I have to write. Recently I have hated this board. Nothing ever seems to get rubbed off it. I am trying to say that I cleaned my to do list. I am writing at my desk, and when I write at this desk I write under a to do list. I didn’t work last night, but if I had, I would have been writing under a beautifully blank board that usually has a messy and old to do list that makes me not want to sit under it.


I have wanted to write about waterslides for what seems like forever. I don’t know why I have put it off so long. I don’t know why it seems to me to be very important to get the phrasing and timing of this waterslides essay right. I have just been waiting and waiting to write this thing and in the meantime all these other pieces of rogue writing have been building up behind it. My desk is a dam, a 1980s Perth waterslide. I’m blocked, and I don’t know how many writings are backed up behind this one.


These days, waterslides are highly regulated, with staff in attendance at the entrance at the top and at the exit at the bottom. Once you reach the top of the line and it’s your turn to go into the slide, the attendant checks either by radio, or video, or simply by looking at the bottom of the slide, whether the bottom of the slide is clear. No one can still be in the slide when someone enters the slide at the top. Not these days at least. Not that I was asked, but it’s ok by me that escalating health and safety culture has effected such changes. Those blocked slides of the 1980s in Perth scared the shit out of me when I was a kid. I was nervous about slamming into a stranger’s body, all wet and violently inert. These blockages remind me, are somehow really close in my mind to memories of vicious burnouts and ‘Asians Out!’ graffiti. I only half miss the past. Despite my strong belief in the theory that everything gets worse I think time or history or whatever it is, change, has actually been pretty kind in the waterslides department.


A trip to Darwin two years ago still lingers. My experience was unquestionably defined by waterslides. The first day we went to a baby shower at Leanyer Recreation Park. Leanyer is simply my friend’s local Rec, akin in use to a municipal bath in the southern states. On the surface it is a low-key affair, utterly suburban with ample parking, free barbecues, prickly lawn and teenage YMCA pool attendants. But critically, entry is free, which is unheard of even in the south. And right there, on the edge of Leanyer, is a proud triple helix of enclosed water slides. Really tall, long waterslides. They are part of Leanyer Recreation Park, and therefore also free entry. And even though it was not a school day, and the weather was swimming weather, there were no long lines. In fact, I don’t think there were any lines at all. We simply walked over, skipping over the prickles in the lawn, and a YMCA attendant in that ubiquitous red rashie handed us a giant inflated tube, which we would half-carry, half- balance as we walked that toppling walk up the concrete stairs towards the top of the slide. Leanyer didn’t have mats. Do any water parks still have mats? Someone recently reminded me of the moment in childhood when you realise mats and tubes are optional. And you take the slide bareback.


This is exceptional: a waterslide at commercial standard, for free, and critically: with no lines. We just walked in. And – what is the verb – we waterslided. We tested each slide and compared their pacing, twists, and drops. We felt the bumps of the joins in the fibreglass on our backs, gulped chlorinated water at the end, and then ran back up the tower to do it again, gabbing manically about the virtue of slides. That’s it. We never tired of it. At Leanyer Recreation Park they have reified the concept of all joy and zero misery by taking the core of the waterpark and putting it in a Rec. I still simply don’t know what to make of this, but any time I think about going to Darwin, Leanyer Recreation Park is at the front of my mind and the top of my list.


We watched two family friendly movies in Darwin. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and BMX Bandits. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Napoleon, who has been retrieved from history for Bill and Ted’s school project, temporarily goes missing. The protagonists find him at Waterloo, the local water park of San Dimas. Sacré bleu, Napoleon utters, inspecting the entrance to a slide. He is holding up the line. A frustrated attendant pushes him front-first into the slide. Then a montage: Napoleon slides all day, shoving his way through the lines in his white bathing suit. In BMX Bandits the three bandits escape the villains by riding through Waterworks, a real-life water park location in Manly, Sydney. And the bandits take their bikes into the waterslides. By the looks, taking a bike into a waterslide is quite an uncomfortable thing to do. But they manage to emerge from three covered slides simultaneously, and escape. One of the villains is punished when a chubby boy pushes him into a slide. The villain rides bareback to the sound of synthesisers and overdubbed outrage. Apparently Waterworks still exists and is currently being renovated.

These films punctuated days longing for a trip back to Leanyer. This longing was twice fulfilled. On other days, we went to other places. At Berry Springs and Lichfield Park I realised how similar water holes are to water slides as I compared pace, twists and drops, and felt smooth rock against my back. I thought about how waterslides often appear in movies related to time travel. My friend told me that the waterslides are free in Darwin to dissuade children from swimming in crocodile infested creeks and rivers and water holes.


Angela Carter once pointed out that the idea of ‘fun’ is an odd one. Carter talked about ‘a bit of fun’ being a predominantly working class concept; that the middle class seem to only enjoy fun at one remove. Fun is different from pleasure; or at least is pleasure without the guilt: ‘having a bit of fun’ with a consenting adult suggests that nobody minds a slide off a cut loaf, said Carter. Carter’s sentences are always fun.


The long slides for waterslides teach children something about the value of time, but also time’s nature: the way horizons of waiting rupture and break, the way certain moments accumulate and addict. Children often reiterate the same trope when evaluating waterslides: the drop. The drop, originally a dubstep measure, is currently the best metric for a waterslide’s fun. When ‘good Cooper’ finally returns to diegetic reality in the new Twin Peaks, this is David Lynch trying out the drop.


I think of waterslides as non-aleatory art, but a colleague reminded me of those 1980s waterslides and the urban myths that attended them. Everyone I speak with seems to remember the paranoia about razor blades being placed on waterslides, on which unwitting sliders would tear skin or other organs to ribbon. Every big suburban water park once had its special horror, its own story, but somehow the story was the same as other the water parks of that city, as other water parks in other cities. Was the presence of razors ever verified? If not, how then did the imagined razors change waterslides? The waterslide montage in BMX Bandits is nearly identical to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The slides are the same. The films are the same. The films reveal nothing.

Lucy Van is a post-doctoral researcher in the English and Theatre Studies program at the University of Melbourne, and an editor at Cordite Poetry Review.
Timothy Moore is director of architecture practice Sibling.


Photo: Lucy Van by Agatha Snowball