A Consumed Event
I prefer my New Year’s Eves in Sydney to be both engaging and constructive.
So I again found something different and creative to do. I assisted my photo buddy, one of the official photographers for the Sydney Harbour fireworks , to record the massive event. I was particularly pleased, because the event completely dominates the city, and there is little space—physically or emotionally—to do anything else.
A landslide of lemmings
And good luck to you if you try, as you are likely to subsumed by never-ending landslides of lemming-like movements from across the city. It seems amazing to me that a million people are so eager to voluntarily commit themselves to one of the many crowded, cordoned-off compounds, so kindly provided by the invisible hand of unseen authorities.
It is also amazing to me that they all seem bent on experiencing the same thing, the same way, at the same time … of pretty much same offering as the year before.
And while it does point to a communal need for mass connection, I feel it probably leaves some feeling less than fulfilled—no matter how spectacular the event.
The fireworks on Sydney Harbour are definitely dazzling and predictably pretty. But it is essentially a passively “consumed” event, with more than a whiff of “bread and circuses”…
A motivating metric?
The City of Sydney spends an absolute bomb to get the biggest bang out of its fireworks buck. Each year it competes with itself to exceed its previous expectations.
But does the Mayor give away one of the City’s motivators when she announces that the event achieved two billion viewers world-wide…???
This is an impressive metric (dare I say KPI) which says more about quantity. No doubt the majority of these viewers were captured via quick grabs on the tv news (stacked up due to a favourable time zone), and quick flicks on ever-disposable social media. But the metric says little about any meaningful qualitative engagements that might extend beyond the fleeting.
If the metric suggests an imperative to promote a bureaucratically branded Sydney, there will inevitably be a tension between marketing requirements and the truly authentic experiences of the participants.
Another harbour-focused Festival in Sydney is the Vivid lights festival, which strikes me as a barely concealed marketing drive for a branded Sydney.
Originally developed by the State’s tourism/events bureaucracy to fill cold hotel beds in the dead of winter, the Festival provides hundreds of thousands of visitors with any number of events that can really, only be passively consumed̉— like too much television.
In terms of its own self-fulfilling KPIs, the event is enormously successful. However, as an engaging event, it will always have a problem in achieving authenticity and developing a sense of personal ownership.
It seems that bureaucracies of different kinds, can only ever deliver branding exercises as one-way experiences of glittering disposability. And this is the inevitable way for any top-down, mass event. Exercises in branding, will always leave some feeling underwhelmed and vaguely dissatisfied; and if conscious to the process, subtly manipulated.
And while opinions are cheap; there is another model to point to. In societies with deeper roots, bottom-up, mass-participatory events are much more prevalent.
A better way?
Due to the limited histories and traditions of our modern nation, bottom-up mass events are not as common in Australia. But they certainly exist; and they pull in hundreds of thousands into multiple experiences of highly satisfying engagements. They are all delivered with greater authenticity, creativity and self-expression—and significantly, failure doesn’t seem to matter. They lend themselves to greater senses of ownership and feelings of self-validating satisfaction.
I also suspect, they achieve far more with less, and are constantly primed for further evolution.
Mardi Gras is a prime example. Undeniably developed from the bottom-up, it invites thousands of participants to unconsciously and creatively express themselves in any number of non-determined ways. Its raw freshness pulls in hundreds of thousands of pumped followers. Woe betide it fall to the imperatives of a branded city exercise.
HeadOn Photo Festival is another brilliant and creatively productive example. Developed over ten years, it is now one of the world’s pre-eminent mass involvement photo exhibitions and competitions. It has valiantly seen off many clumsy attempts at subsumption by different events and arts bureaucracies. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, because that’s what they do.
In 2018, The Sydney Morning Herald art critic, John McDonald, lavishly praised HeadOn as a way more creatively productive model, compared to the obviously moribund Sydney Biennale.
Then of course there is the open-access Adelaide Fringe, which grew out of a collection of pitched tents in the Adelaide Parklands. It shows how a highly productive, and efficient cultural incubator can really work. The likes of Tim Minchen and Hannah Gadsby cut their chops at Fringe.
Fringe draws in thousands of performers and attracts the hundreds of thousands of “punters”, who all play an essential role in determining which shows will fly beyond Adelaide.
Adelaide also feeds directly into the world’s premier performance market-place at Edinburgh Fringe. Despite 13 times the population, there are only 40% more American acts at Edinburgh than Australian ones.
Finally I suspect, by my own criteria, I would have to include Summer Nats as a truly authentic, bottom-up festival. It’s the annual street-car, burn-out fest in, of all places, bland Canberra??? It's an open stage for self-identity and validation; showing that humans will always break out.
So, as you mull over my comments, consider the sign-off the great Irish drag queen, political activist and festival veteran, Panty Bliss, when she implores her audience…“Create don’t consume..”
Ciao for now
Ciao for now