When Melbourne University wanted to advertise its arts festival in the late 1960s, it made a short film in which a young desperado (Bill Garner), hitches his way from Adelaide, hooking up with a couple of compliant lovelies on the way, in order to see a few plays and a European string quartet — the sort of festivals they had when festivals were a form of outreach, to the culturally starved, and the arrival of some old guys with violins was a big thing indeed.
Perhaps more intriguing than some of the set pieces of bohemia of the time — two radicals in their ‘digs’ arguing about Stalinism, a visit to a strip club — are the shots taken in Lygon Street Carlton, when it was still the mainstreet of an inner city working-class community.
Though it had started to acquire a few coffee shops and bistros, the shops that whizz by are hardware stores, greengrocers, newsagents, laundries — functional places, devoid of expression or signification that is anything other than what they do. The city is not trying to be anything, it just is, and the festival takes place within it, enlivening. The film ends with some woolly encomiums about the virtuous role of culture and the need to apply oneself.
Roll the film forward nearly half a century, and all’s changed. The city in which it is set does little else but signify these days. Melbourne was once legendary for its boredom, a grim Presbyterian city of company headquarters and dead Sundays. Now, vast swathes of its centre and its ring of inner suburbs/neighbourhoods are dedicated to urgently making meaning — whether through whacky design, or retro-futuro cafes.
The identity of the places recedes behind the narratives they want to tell, the allusions they want to make. There is very little that has happened to western cities in the last half-century that had been of such significance as the takeover of inner cities by this new form of public being, which I suppose we have to call postmodern.
From the early stages, when a few cafes, bars, bookstores, etc appeared among long stretches of ordinary stores, to the current phase, in which functional communities are entirely crowded out, has all been contained within the space of one lifetime, yet it has been disconcertingly total. What cities were, when people lived close together, and the meaning of their lives was created in the living of them, has gone leaving little trace in many places.
But as the old backdrop city faded away, the festivals that had begun to fill it went in the other direction, expanding to the point where they now jostle each other for space on the calendar. Festivals have become such a standard way of doing culture, that not only is their particular history obscured, but the specific way in which festivals construct culture is rarely considered.
They’re just there and it’s assumed they always were. Yet they barely existed before the Second World War — save for genre-specific festivals such as Bayreuth or similar — and they were uncompromisingly serious in intent. The Perth Festival, the first of the Australian festivals, was originally a Shakespeare festival, with the city even building a ghastly mock-Tudor shopping arcade in its honour.
After the war, in the UK, the festival in its modern form –Edinburgh, and the 1951 Festival of Britain — were created as an explicit celebration of of having won the war against a bestial and nihilistic enemy. Festivals represented a new entanglement of culture, the state and the public, in ways that no-one had previously imagined.
Many of the subsequent festivals — in film and music — were created by the Left, simply to get access to non-US, non-mainstream material. By the 1980s and especially the 1990s, with expanded arts funding at every state level, and with the increased role that cultural consumption began to play in everyday life, cities and states began to use cultural as part of local branding.
Central to this was “the festival”, which became the simple wraparound for every form of cultural expression. Gradually we became accustomed to: the glossy brochure, the launch party, a stooge MP who has never seen anything but Stephen Seagal movies launching a week of post-metaphysical dance, staged in the Old Slurry Factory cultural centre. And on it goes.
In Melbourne, festivalism became a mania, and it was an example of a certain type of global city which thoroughly re-fashioned themselves around cultural expression — second cities, from which capital, power and industry have drained, and where cultural artists and entrepreneurs were engaged with, often as a last resort.
But by the 2000s, as the festivals accumulated, and the neighbourhoods became increasingly expressive, a contrary effect began to take hold. Festivals became routinised, ceased to be special events in otherwise mundane periods, and even took on a certain leadenness, a sense of pleasureless duty.
One pages through the brochure, the website, with their claims to unmissable, essential events, increasingly conscious that one will never see them, vaguely bothered on a weekly basis by a sense that life is elsewhere. The endless festival is an extension of the process begun in the 1950s, whereby consumption became work, and one’s attunement to such was necessary for the economy to stay afloat. Now cultural consumption is necessary to it, and the festival does double-duty.
So amidst all the palaver, when the PR for the Gertrude Street Projection Festival hit the desk, it was easy to let out a deep sigh. Gertrude Street is a small, four block stretch at the bottom of Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, connecting it to Collingwood. When Brunswick street was taking off in the ’80s, and becoming the first and most prominent of such expressive, signifying zones in Australia, Gertrude Street remained resolutely unchanged.
Running beside a vast Housing Commission block, the street had once been the visible centre of Fitzroy’s Aboriginal community, but even that was beginning to fade. For the most part it remained a street itself, full of dusty old pubs — the Champion, the Carlton Club, the Rob Roy — an average cafe or two, and only latterly a couple of small galleries.
The rest was paint-supply stores, a furniture showroom and the like. The shopping terraces are eclectic in style, large and largely left to rot. It was the last part of that area where one could feel an ambience that ‘alternative’ culture has sought and prized for decades — a place where one could be cultural, amidst a zone of the neglected, forlorn and unsignifying urban residue.
So when Gertrude Street started to go, you knew that something was up. Now a decade or so, after the old shops began to be filled out with niche design bookshops, wet-shave barbers housed in retro-clothing cafes, and bars bars bars, the place has become the ground zero of postmodern bohemia’s final and concentrated expression of itself, hipsterism.
There is a point at which your capacity to adjust to these changes stops, and Gertrude Street was it for me. Just as my grandmother, whose family had run a pub in Brunswick Street in the 1920s – the 1920s! — could never believe that it was anything other than just a poor shopping strip, so I cannot adjust to Gertrude Street as anything other than a road you travelled from one good thing to another.
The idea of a Projection Festival — a scheme whereby the street’s shops and buildings would be festooed with various projected images created by a range of artists, seemed to me to be just about the End of History tied up in one neat bow, and I must admit I went along to mock, and diagnose, and use as symptom and example.
And lo, I was changed, utterly. Disarmed, stripped bare, left defenceless. From the very small and subtle — the projection of a turning shaved head, on a wall inside a closed shop, barely visible from the street — to a series of massive projections against the 20-something storey Commission flats that dominate the street, the Projection Festival is a transformative and arresting, event, simple, yet multiple in its ramifications, not merely using the street as a backdrop for culture, but changing the whole sense of the urban material and the crowds within it.
It begins at six pm, as the winter dark descends, and, coming to it by tram, its actual existence is not immediately visible. I’d imagined mass projections against bare-walls, banks of seats, the urban alt-blah of open-air cinema. Instead, it is projections in small spaces, in unlikely places, and it is only when you begin to wander that you see its most distinct manifestion, which is people gathered in groups here and there, staring at walls.
What are they looking at? You dont know until you approach and pass, or join them. It’s an urban crowd, first or second gen inner-city types now into their 50s and 60s, rugged up in not-inexpensive Khatmandu gear, young professional women in hornrims and jet black hair on RSVP dates with vaguely hip lawyers, and then the full hipster, Engels beards, button down collars, girls in granny beanies and polka dot dresses.
What they’re looking at is a mix, linked only by the practice of projection. Thus at Title Books, Brendan Harwood has created a simple projection called Scales which showers the corner building in a gemoetric pattern of white lines — the effect of which is to make the building itself appear to wobble, lose its solidity and separation from the wider world, a strage and unsettling effect.
In the front of Southpaw –bar? Shop? Couldn’t quite work out what it was — there’s a slow film of a group of kids eating a cream cake. It looks like Turner Prize style Brit-Art, but it’s really something done by Fitzroy Youth Services. Some of the displays are uncompromising high art — thus Arika Wauku’s Young Blood, in the front window of a retro clothing storie, projects images of faces into two large gleaming jars, hung by nooses, their thick glass curving and distorting the happy snappy images into grotesques.
Other projections evoke the past, simply but eerily, such as that in Harry Evans billiard table shop — one of the last of the old businesses to remain there — which projects close-ups of old sepia photos of the shop from past decades. Not simple comprehensible shots, but distorted and decontextualised elements, so that the past is not given in any easily digestible or nostalgic form, but broken and fragmented, in need of assembly. Elsewhere there is a sense of redemption — such as the projection of a literal copy of an old ‘Lactogen!’ Ad, that s slowly fading away on the side of one of the street’s enormous terraces. Projecting the copy onto the original, the projection slowly writing itself onto the wall, is something deeply moving, recovery, homage, revival. It joins the present of the street to its pasts, suggests that community and continuity exists, even if whoever had originally painted that ad a century ago would not begin to recognise as meanignful what is going on here now.
Lorded over all of it is a series of massive projections onto the large L-shaped Housing Commission flats at the corner of Brunswick and Gertrude. What the politics are of using someone’s living space for an art projection is a question one would want to pose — but with geometric patterns, crazy Op-art spectacle transforming the building into a towering icon, it is not something you really feel like asking.
The effect is too stupendous, too sublime, to not want it to be there. People stopped, stared, suddenly realised it was there, gawped even. By that and the other exhibits the area was transformed, made kinetic, busted out of its cultural consumerist role. It was tremendously moving, a reminder of different eras, as well as being something new –a reminder of a time when there was more street-life, and more recently, of a time when the last of alt-culture had not yet become the core business of ‘cultural cities’, when it was still marginal, and a little amateur and ad-hoc.
And that is the paradox of the Projection Festival — and yes, I’m aware of the double-meaning, it is a festival of our private fantasies and obsessions made public, as it is of the act of porjected light itself — for it is a festival in the literal and ancient sense of public worship. It brings to mind the Moon Festivals of Ancient Sumer, when people would go from city to city in winter, following the Moon, hungry for the year’s rebirth. The cities would fill with ecstatic processions, with unique ceremonies, with people from all over, with their different Gods, which they came to realise wer different forms of the same God. Yet fulfilling that notion of festival, it turns away from the festival — the series of exhausting and vexing events — that the word has come to signify.
The Projection Festival allows you to simply be in your city, to see it, in the dark, in a different light. It is a being with the place that seems to reconcile the city as spectacle and the city as backdrop, as the where-you-live. It is an event that is not an event, a happening that doesn’t happen. It is an extraordinary thing, whatever it is, that will linger in the mind long after it has gone. What will it look like in the memory, like that achingly naive film of a vanished world? If it is very lucky, it will leave no trace at all, save in memory itself.