A Cultural Renaissance
About 4 Years ago, I was having this feeling, that Sydney was in the midst of a ‘cultural renaissance’. There seemed to have been so many exciting things going on, exploring such creative new city-shades that I have not yet seen before. People taking over living rooms, filling them with candle light and small gigs, back-yards turned into music festivals, trains and ferries reimagined into moving cultural experiences, warehouses, factories and galleries turned into cultural hubs…
And I was a part of it, putting things on with friends, exploring different projects, trying to make something special happen. So many of us were starting projects, mainly because we thought that there just wasn’t enough of them. In fact, it was quite beautiful, all around the city, pockets of people were coming together to do something cool, because they couldn’t see it happening anywhere else. There wasn’t enough [poetry, live music, performances, life-drawings, warehouse parties, comedy], you name it. So people decided to DYI it with their own resources, their own communities and their own ideas.
What they didn’t know was that many groups were going through the exact same thing. Soon there were so many groups on the scene, each growing in form and following and developing a unique culture of their own. Yet still, the projects remained not just on the fringe of Sydney, but relatively unaware of each other. For a good 3–4 years I had the good fortune to come across many of those projects and their communities, get involved and experience their unique atmosphere. All of which made me wonder, ‘what else is out there’?
At some early point of it all, a few of us tried to bring a few of the groups together, to get to know one another, hear about each other’s projects and help discover others. We started making connections, sharing knowledge of spaces, resources and performers. We attended each other’s projects from time to time and collaborated a bit. For another year or two I held this belief in my belly that something really special was slowly brewing in Sydney, a grass-roots cultural renaissance. We all had our different genesis points and yet, all were trying to do similar things: bring people together, create community, create and embrace arts and culture and reimagine our city’s cultural fabric. We were all motivated by a similar problem, we did not like the feeling that Sydney had. It felt like a boring city, an old city, a city of bureaucracy, of strangers living shoulder to shoulder with one another, a go-to-sleep-early city and yet a let’s get fucked-up city. Of course it wasn’t all gloom, Sydney is a place we love, and yet, those feeling were aspects that existed and which we wanted to challenge.
Inspired by previous projects, discoveries from travels abroad and midnight conversations, we imagined a city of magic. A city of creative collaboration, of midnight jams, of candlelit-poetry, of strangers sharing a conversation, gypsy-jazz bands play in the moon-light. A mix of the “Boom Bands parties” that Dr. Seuss describes in Oh the Places you’ll Go and the coffeehouses that dotted the early 19th century. We wanted community, culture and magic and for a few years, that was exactly the kind of city we were working to create. The semi-bohemian side of Sydney, made of uni students, young professionals, artists, even parents. A mix of good people, every event bringing together groups of hundreds around the city.
Becoming quite obsessed with the work we were all doing I started to map-out the projects in the city. From only the things I was aware of, there seem to have been around 40 different grass-roots events happening every month, varying in style, focus and location. It was a city worth living in. The year was 2014 and though we were a fringe, we were killing it with magic culture abound.
Here Come The Lock-Outs
2014… sounds familiar no? The same year in which we became acquainted with the infamous lock-out laws. 3 years later, as I look back at our experience, many of the projects and much of this renaissance flame seem to have gone extinguished, making me and many others wonder, why that was so. My wondering however, did not lead me to the expected “the lock-outs ruined everything” type of thinking. I reckon they were part of the atmosphere, yes, but they are not the ones to be blamed for. If we are looking for someone to blame, for someone to point a finger at, and perhaps someone who may actually do something about it, we need to look at no one but ourselves.
You see the first year of the lock-outs, we felt like things were still at full swing. It was in fact towards the end of 2014 that so many things were going on that I formally pulled together the names and dates of projects in the city to create a database and monthly update of what was happening (available to the public for a few good months as a secret website known briefly as Under Sydney). Things did not seem to slow down for our amazing city of Sydney.
Except that they did. I’m sure that they slowed down for various reasons. For me it was not being a student any more, getting a full time job and taking a bit of a break from running projects. For others it was lack of free time, #gonetraveling, as well as simply the natural way of projects. Just like startups, bands and empires, you come together for a few months/years, you burn bright and then, people go on their seperate ways. Some people go on to create other things, others just move on, clearing the way for new projects and new generations. I’m sure that in our absence, many new projects started. A few that come to mind are WEIRD, Okra and Rivet, each running their own flavour of underground parties and break-the-mould gathering. I’m also sure that there are many more that I do no know of, not to mention that many older projects are still alive and kicking. And YET, it feels like things slowed down and at a time where they are needed more than ever. Perhaps its just a subjective feeling, but with the common mantra being the “lock-outs are ruining our city”, I wanted to suggest a different perspective. I think we are not creating enough, not dreaming enough.
When many of us came to create that 2011–2014 cultural Renaissance, we were motivated by a stale city. We saw what could be another kind of city, another kind of night, and we felt the need to go out there and make the change, create the city we wanted to live in. We we didn’t waste our time telling the city how wrong things were. We know too well that no one really listens. Instead and we went out there and did shit. Cool shit. And for the few of us who experienced it, Sydney became special.
Over the past 12 months, our city has been galvanised around a call, all too sounding like, “Make Sydney Great Again” and “Give us back our city”, as though our city was ever that great (note that we love Sydney and think that there are many great things about it, but you know what I mean, Sydney’s night life and cultural fabric have never been that incredible, it’s still very much a work in the progress). We point a finger at the government, at council, at the grey generation who have hijacked our city and we want them to change things. We march the street, we tell them we won’t have it. But, doing just that is not going to save us.
Two Sides To Freedom
Let’s backtrack a little, about half a century. Back in the mid 20th century, a philosopher named Erich Fromm had an interesting take on the concept of Freedom. He split it into two sub-concepts, calling them: ‘Freedom From’ and ‘Freedom To’. ‘Freedom From’, he explained, was a ‘freeing’ type of freedom; freedom from restrictions and from oppression, a freedom that strives to take one’s shackles off. That is very much what we see in our city today as we all demand for a freedom from the lock-outs. ‘Freedom From’ is important and needed; the Keep Sydney Open movement and all the work they (and other groups) have been doing is instrumental for a better future and invaluable in forming a political power to represent us all.
But, Fromm explains, ‘freedom from’, in and on its own is considered negative and empty. Focusing only/mainly on it, is reactive and does not leave you better-off. That which needs to come hand-in-hand with it he argued, was ‘freedom to’. ‘Freedom to’ is loosely defined as the freedom to create the kind of reality one wants to see and experience. The ability to imagine a new way for things to be. It is a positive, creative type of freedom. In our case, it is the ability to imagine Sydney anew and then bring it to life. It is THIS side of Freedom that I feel too many of us are not enacting enough. We have become obsessed with ‘Freedom From’, with being pissed-off with the lock-outs, that we have forgotten to invest time in what we want to see and bring to life.
Soon after last year’s first Keep Sydney Open rally (which was the best rally I have ever been to) a few of us from Train Tracks (a public transport cultural-hijacking project) felt worried that this fixation with being reactive will take place. We felt the need to add a voice to the conversation. We collated our content from the past few years, explained the original intention of the project and added a call-out for the creators in our city to take culture into their own hands. “Fight to keep the city open but don’t get stuck in a never-ending nanny state debate. Open or close, work the system creatively to create the city you want to live in”. The call-out mainly fell on deaf ears and didn’t get much traction at the time, yet it is just as relevant now as it was then.
Embrace The Constraint
Constraints breed innovation, times of need bring-about creativity. Or at least they create a space for it, an opportunity for the taking. Think of the roaring 20s and the Speakeasy movement that was bred in the US due to prohibition. Hundreds of bars opened, people of different colours began intermingling and a move towards gender equality began taking place as women were encouraged to participate in what was previously mainly a pass-time for men. The lock-outs should have inspired us to think our city anew, to learn the new rules of the game and then play within and around them. Imagine for example a city that comes to life at 1.30am, with some variety of speak-easy bars, ferry and bus-stop gigs, gallery-openings till the crack of dawn, bunker parties abound. The prohibition era created the speakeasy movement which lead to great social and cultural change. Our lock-outs could have created the next nighttime revolution! Only that they didn’t. I mean, they had some effect. Clubs and bars shifted to the outer suburbs, there has been a rise in commercial warehouse parties and a few really cool projects came to life. But it just does not feel like we have really taken this whole thing by the reins.
The Keep Sydney Open movement has gotten us coming together, marching rallies and making epic signs, and there has been some good policies suggested and some great gigs organised. But, their work hasn’t been focused on creating new culture. In fact it is not their role at all. The role of activists is to fight the political fight. Fight for our right to have the space in which to create things (fast forward to 1:23 for some beastieration). But it is not their role to create these for us. It is up to all of US to take the staggeringly boring Sydney and do something about it
Hand in hand with the Keep Sydney Open Movement (our ‘Freedom From’ movement), we need a cultural movement working on our ‘Freedom Tos’. Enough spending most of our time pointing the finger and waiting for someone to make Sydney awesome. We should make it awesome. And let’s not hide behind stories of bureaucracy, regulation and red tape. Between 2011–2014, at Train Tracks, we staged numerous 3-hour roaming music festivals on moving trains, with hundreds of people attending. We did not get permissions and we did not get stopped for breaking any laws. We studied the system and cleverly worked our way around it. It wasn’t easy, we spat blood making it happen, but we did, and we created magic doing so, showing Sydney in a different light. We were not the only ones of course, many others did the same (SoFar Sounds, The Smallest Gig, Art Party, Little Features, Chai Night and High Tea to name a few). The cultural movement we need, is one that dreams up ideas and then spits blood bringing them to life. A cultural movement that brings people together, creates community, embraces and create arts and culture and imagines our city a new.
Take away all rules and regulations, and our city remains as is. It is up to those who create to do something about it. And when I say create, I mean all of us. Even attendees create, more so than anyone else. You create through your attendance and your interactions while present. Creators just assemble the wood, it’s the attendees that make the fire burn. We do not need for the rules to change to start doing something. We need a cultural movement, that takes the reins and does not wait for permission. And we don’t even have to be united in doing so. A decentralized movement powered by a similar ethos is just as powerful if not more so. We need the communities in each city-pocket, to come together and mobilise their resources to bring their ideas to life. Then we need those projects to support and collaborate with one another.
Keep your stupid laws in place and we could still make Sydney a super exciting place to be in. The next big thing!
Over the past 3 years we have been experiencing serious cultural back-burning (the lock-outs though I didn’t get into it much, did in fact do a lot of damage while also distracting us from creating). But this is Australia, and our seeds germinate in the fire. It is time we start growing the creative lush forest we know we can.
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