Sydney’s Vivid attracts millions of tourists, but is it about the love of art or money? Michaela Boland reports
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”.
IS IT A CELEBRATION OF CULTURE, A TRIUMPH OF SHOWBIZ OR A SPRUIK FOR TOURISTS?
runs at various locations around Sydney until June 18.