Syd­ney’s Vivid at­tracts mil­lions of tourists, but is it about the love of art or money? Michaela Boland re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Vivid

In 2009, Mary-Anne Kyr­i­akou fi­nally re­alised her am­bi­tion to cre­ate a win­ter dec­o­ra­tive light fes­ti­val in her home town of Syd­ney. In­spired by a visit to a Ger­man light­ing fair, the com­poser and light­ing de­signer over­saw the Smart Light Syd­ney Fes­ti­val — a mod­est dozen or so eco-friendly light in­stal­la­tions around Cir­cu­lar Quay and the Syd­ney Opera House — but Kyr­i­akou was dis­ap­pointed fund­ing cuts to the first out­ing meant she couldn’t re­alise a grander vi­sion. Well, look at it now. Eight years on, Kyr­i­akou’s lit­tle fes­ti­val has be­come the be­he­moth Vivid, an event so big com­mer­cial ra­dio ad­ver­tise­ments aired this week actually urged Syd­neysiders to stay away. Traf­fic con­ges­tion has be­come a sig­nif­i­cant is­sue and fam­i­lies es­pe­cially have been ad­vised to visit the 23-day fes­ti­val early in the week and avoid the hec­tic week­ends.

In sheer vis­i­tor num­bers, it’s the big­gest fes­ti­val in the na­tion. In fact or­gan­is­ers claim it’s the big­gest event of its kind any­where in the world, claim­ing it at­tracted 1.7 mil­lion vis­i­tors last year.

This year al­most 70 dif­fer­ent pro­jec­tions and in­stal­la­tions will adorn Syd­ney’s har­bour fore­shore from the Botanic Gar­dens to Pyr­mont and right through the cen­tre of the city.

Taronga Zoo at Mos­man, in the city’s north­ern sub­urbs, will be lit up; last year it was north shore high-rise hub Chatswood that had the favoured sta­tus.

In ad­di­tion to the raz­za­matazz, Bjork (see story on Page 8) and 1990s dance titans New Or­der are per­form­ing as part of the fes­ti­val’s boom­ing mu­si­cal com­po­nent, run by Ig­natius Jones. There is also a dizzy­ing ar­ray of talks and net­work­ing events.

Vivid is de­scribed as a fes­ti­val of light, mu­sic and ideas. But is it a cel­e­bra­tion of cul­ture, a tri­umph of show­biz or a spruik for tourists? And do the creatives toil­ing un­der Vivid’s ban­ner en­joy artis­tic free­dom?

Vivid is wholly owned and largely funded by the NSW gov­ern­ment. Tourism pro­moter Des­ti­na­tion NSW’s chief ex­ec­u­tive San­dra Chipchase dou­bles as its ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer.

Chipchase says Vivid is in­tended to bring peo­ple to Syd­ney at a time of year when vis­i­tor num­bers tend to slow. “It’s about eco­nomic im­pact and busi­ness con­nec­tions. Our re­mit is to dou­ble overnight vis­i­tor ex­pen­di­ture,” she says. “The fact Syd­neysiders were com­ing, that was great, but it’s not our re­mit to en­ter­tain the lo­cals, our re­mit is events that will de­liver for the vis­i­tor econ­omy of NSW.

“Last year over 11,000 Chi­nese vis­i­tors bought Vivid Syd­ney travel pack­ages and they’re just the ones we know about. A lot of the in­dus­try or­gan­ise their own and last year we tracked 26,000 in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors.”

In­for­ma­tion from re­tail­ers and banks re­veals a spend­ing surge in the ar­eas around where the Vivid light­ing is in­stalled, Chipchase says.

For this rea­son sub­ur­ban coun­cils have been keen to get in on the gig, but Chipchase says they must make a com­pelling case for in­clu­sion. “When peo­ple say they want to be part of Vivid we say, ‘ How much money have you got?’ So that can be a very short con­ver­sa­tion,” she says. Taronga Zoo is hosting a light show this year in hon­our of its cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions.

Chipchase compares Vivid with the South by South­west mu­sic fes­ti­val, held over five days in Austin, Texas. That fes­ti­val also has tech­nol­ogy and con­fer­ence com­po­nents. “There are also sound and light shows around the world, even Lon­don has just tried to copy us; Mel­bourne did with White Night. Where our event has grown, we’re actually 10 times the size of South by South­west now,” she says.

But Vivid’s de­trac­tors say the gov­ern­ment should not be in the arts mar­ket­place “throw­ing huge wads of cash” at acts, some­thing with which in­de­pen­dent mu­sic pro­mot­ers and other fes­ti­vals cannot pos­si­bly com­pete.

They say that af­ter es­tab­lish­ing the fes­ti­val the gov­ern­ment should have off­loaded it to an in­de­pen­dent or­gan­i­sa­tion to run and that there is a con­flict of in­ter­est hav­ing Vivid op­er­ated by the same bu­reau­crats who give grants to other fes­ti­vals. Des­ti­na­tion NSW is a spon­sor of the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val, Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val and Syd­ney’s Arts Fes­ti­val, to name a few.

In 2013 there was con­tro­versy af­ter an exhibition that in­cluded two pho­to­graphs de­pict­ing naked peo­ple had tape placed over their gen­i­talia af­ter host or­gan­i­sa­tion the Syd­ney Har­bour Fore­shore Au­thor­ity called for mod­esty.

The same year 18 out of 35 images were pulled from the Re­portage exhibition pro­jected on to two large screens near the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art at Cir­cu­lar Quay. If light­ing de­sign­ers wanted, for ex­am­ple, to show big pic­tures fea­tur­ing nu­dity on the Opera House sails, would the idea get past the gov­ern­ment’s ar­biters of taste?

Chipchase is adamant Vivid “re­ally is where art, com­merce and tech­nol­ogy in­ter­sect”.

“You will see great game chang­ers and thought lead­ers talk­ing about the cre­ative process,” she says.

“Last year we had ses­sions on the fu­ture of work, how will you at­tract the best minds, young peo­ple, get mil­len­ni­als on board, what kind of a work­place will you need to of­fer them so they’ll want to work for you, how do you keep your older work­ers en­gaged, given peo­ple need to work a bit longer and can’t re­tire early as we’d all like to. So there are dif­fer­ent top­ics but it’s all based around in­no­va­tion.”

But can the mu­sic head­lin­ers over the years, — among them Mor­ris­sey and Pet Shop Boys — actually be de­scribed as in­no­va­tive?

“It’s how they are pre­sent­ing their works,” Chipchase says. “Bjork has a new dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy show. [The in­no­va­tion] might be around their stag­ing, or their cos­tum­ing. It might be the tech­ni­cians they’re bring­ing or mu­si­cians, or the col­lab­o­ra­tion with lo­cal mu­si­cians or orchestras.

“And we pre­fer Syd­ney ex­clu­siv­ity, be­cause it will drive the bed nights, too”.


runs at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions around Syd­ney un­til June 18.

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