Desire and disconnection: White Night Melbourne 2015

What’s the most prominent element of a mass public event? The people. Curious people, wandering people, queueing people, people in large number, people patiently or impatiently negotiating crowds, people sitting picnic-style in the middle of Swanston St because they can. To connect meaningfully with the city you love is the desire that the White Night Melbourne promise seeks to satisfy – and yet, once again, it’s a desire that’s left wanting.

This year I chose to experience White Night obliquely: through friends’ city parties; through events not officially connected; and through Swanston St, Melbourne’s most critical north-south axis and public transport artery, which also happens to be my home. I was keen to see whether there would be any evolution on my 2014 experience of a host who seemed incongruously oblivious to the expectations of its half-a-million expected guests.

My evening began at the Hellenic Museum’s Summer Cinema screening of the devastating Costa-Gavras political thriller Z (1969). It was a full house in the gardens of the Old Mint: a couple of hundred of the most prominent of Melbourne’s Greek community, very few of whom were aware of White Night. And indeed, over at the Museum’s William and Lt Lonsdale neighbourhood, there was absolutely no sign of a mass public event.

By the time I wandered across to Swanston St, via the highly successful I Could Have Danced All Night (by Audsance with the support of VicHealth), it was approaching midnight – and yet people looked tired and confused. From the balcony of my first party I watched the projections on the State Library of Victoria, which for too long seemed frozen on something of a screen saver, and then half the exterior wall ceased altogether. The inside was a delight – the Dome was breathtaking – and outside, my greatest joy was watching people sprawled across the Library’s lawn, down the steps, across the tram stop and onto the street. The desire for an intimate experience of a large-scale spectacle is what attracts people to events of this size. Some had come prepared, with water bottles and comfortable shoes and a passion for exploration; the overwhelming majority however were gazing up and down expectantly, yet with dissatisfaction.

To White Night Melbourne’s credit, it’s when an event reaches the level of successful and recognised spectacle that such widespread frustrations can be expressed with confidence. The expectation set by the event has raised the bar impossibly high within only three years. Why so high? Because despite the waning authenticity of the title, as Melburnians we firmly believe in this city as Australia’s cultural capital, and one of the world’s great cities for the arts. After all, UNESCO granted us the highly coveted City of Literature status, and yet ‘literature’ is not a project category for White Night audiences to make their searches.

Missing too are ways to distribute the artistic experience and sense of connection across the city. White Night Melbourne is a series of sited events and not a distributed work. Projects that adapt gameplay would have been perfect – think 1000 Cities or Twists and Turns. Nor are we lacking in projection expertise for the creation of low-fi as well as high-fi visual works of scale. Nor indeed, the most surprising missing element: live art. Given last year’s bottlenecks along Swanston St, there were significant divergences in both programming and traffic flow, with clear signage directing people to side streets to approach Flinders St Station and the Yarra. These diversions succeeded perhaps a little too well: Swanston St was underprogrammed and underwhelming. I saw frustration, boredom, confusion up and down the street.

The media response to White Night has been mixed to date, pointing out also that its future is not assured. With the new Victorian Government having brought the arts into a Creative Industries ministry that now sits alongside jobs and resources in a large state development portfolio, the challenge is on to find meaningful ways to articulate and measure the value of the arts. Last week we learnt of the financial woes of too many government arts institutions including White Night and Federation Square. Could it be that the wrong frameworks, the wrong measures are leading to these losses? What is the measure of cultural value, and how are we harnessing local and international expertise on this question? Can a government arts venture make a profit in dollar terms? Should it even try? Apart from income from sponsors (like Audi, sadly undermining the artistic program by not being presented as advertising) and some basic headcounts or crowd size estimates, how is the success of White Night measured given there is no audience engagement? And given it’s neither marketed as an arts event, nor presented by Melbourne’s arts community, how can it build a legacy of engagement with the arts for these half-million party-goers looking for the next desirable thing?

There’s a valuable opportunity here: to rethink the value of the arts, and optimistically, this is the language of the new Victorian Government. Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley has been talking up a whole-of-government approach to the creative industries as well as to cultural policy more broadly. To appreciate the impact of something like White Night (or indeed Federation Square), we need to understand the ways in which art creates public space – permanently in the form of sculpture, for example, or monumentally ephemerally in the form of spectacular events which transform our sense of what our city can be, can do. By offering us the rare opportunity to occupy a space of public distribution with our own desires, our own friends and our own schedule – even if it’s only for one night – the public space is transformed, and our next visit is imbued with the memory of our creative transgression. Festivals too seek to achieve this rare intimate spectacle in the ways in which they make art public, and we’ve no shortage of festival expertise in this city.

A well-distributed event that’s presented by its city’s embedded experts knows its audiences and elevates them into the event’s key focus. So massive a city occupation is in turn an opportunity to develop a set of artform practices, measures and modes of communication that set international agendas on how to showcase the creative industries – and develop them further via the event itself. Celebrating Melbourne’s strengths in live art, gameplay, literature, projection, performance, architecture and design would be an important first step. The contemporary art milestone that was Melbourne Now has reset our expectations of what it means to present a spectacular event that’s both recognisably Melburnian, while pushing that comfortable recognition to its limits. I look forward to a next White Night Melbourne that seizes our desire for connection with contemporary art – and holds that desire beyond the one-night stand.

 

IMAGE: 5,000 pairs of socks hang above a city street – one sock for every person in Toronto without adequate housing: Clothesline Canopy (by alumni artists and designers of the School of Architecture at Dalhousie University, Halifax) at Toronto’s 2013 Nuit Blanche. Nuit Blanche has been held in Toronto since 2006 and is marketed as “a free all-night contemporary art event.” The 2013 event also included Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles. Photo: Ontario Association of Architects.