Culture //

Vivid Unplugged

Alix Sanders-Garner is livid with Vivid.

On my way to see it, I felt my prejudices marshal themselves in favour of Vivid. I’d never been before, imagining it to be a LED-strewn mongrelism of New Year’s Eve and the Easter Show, a few nights when the æsthetic tenor (and, indeed, the habitués) of Darling Harbour tried the rest of the city on for size. But as I powered down one of Sydney’s most well-lit multi-lane arteries a sense of urbane nowness defrosted me, the strains of WSFM seconding the motion that I groove the digital and go with the electron flow. Life and Art bit at each other and, emboldened, I prostrated myself (at the expense of safe driving) before the altar of Energy as Idea. Live hairdryers would be my bath toys! I was Thor of the telegraph poles, maestro conductor of this circuitry of Life! Is that a supermarket, or is it Vivid? To diurnal hell, these piddling distinctions. All is vivid. You’re vivid, he/she/they are vivid. After all, what is sensation—no, what is all thought—but the frantic jive of electro-signals webbing the encephalic mush? (My science was bogus, but didn’t stop me.) The high didn’t last to Bathurst Street, but of course this is the nature of electricity: it’s largely derived from non-renewable resources, and you always end up paying for it.

So like a Bangkok Rolex the shine dulled, the mechanism rusted, affirmation fizzled into the ickiness of a dive at closing time. I tuned out of WSFM; the efforts of the 80s to naturalise electronics into the vocabulary of the love song seemed as shabby as they really were. But after all Sia’s Titanium did for the mining industry, Vivid is heavily invested in metaphors that ensure its verbal existence is as relentlessly on-theme as possible. Adventures in figurative language are to ‘viral marketing’ teams what the turtle-formation was to the Roman army: effective but an embarrassment. It happens when the certainty of the objective of communication is seriously greater than the team’s command of words. Second-order practitioners of this same art are: real estate agents, psychologists. Unsurprisingly, the crudest examples were on our campus. Lit in the manner hostesses assure us an airplane aisle would be in the unlikely case of an emergency, Eastern Avenue becomes the ‘Path to the Future.’ Just when you thought they’d do something faux-scholarly like ‘enLIGHTenment’, they point out that the future is the Spit Junction bus. Ah, the feeling of being targeted by someone shooting off-target. I was returning a library book, so that’s all I saw. There was music, and the Quad—belle of USyd’s PR—was as spectacular a canvas for nice projections as the Customs House would be later in the evening.

Back to the CBD ‘precincts’, which I did see. What really unplugged my excitement was that Vivid didn’t go anywhere near as far as it had licence to go. I wanted to be assaulted. Assaulted by the exuberant honesty of an electrospectacle taken to the max. I wanted torch-bearing scuba-divers in the harbour, dancers in tube-lighting, boats of bulbs berthed at Bennelong. I wanted cash-trash, chlorinated laser-fountains, a foretaste of what Sydney might be like once the scaffolding comes down at Barangaroo. Instead, I got an acrobat doing handstand yoga at The Rocks.[1] Vivid as a form is inheritor of an ancient tradition of shameless state-funded display: imperial triumphs, the World Exhibitions. But it takes from these in function, not form; it drew the crowds but failed to seduce them. Don’t forget Vivid—‘light, music, and ideas’— is foremost an industry fair and NSW investment in all things to do with the ascendant class of ‘creatives’ in business and technology ‘workplaces.’ Peruse the sponsor list.

But it does bill itself as a ‘festival’ and it fails on that front. Despite the helpful ‘itineraries’, apps, and guided walks (taper your loins as you jog around the Quay with Michelle Bridges), Vivid in the city was too piecey. A needlessly curatorial attitude meant that individual works were plonked all about—dissonant, pretentious, lonely, and unable to live up to the anticipation their arrangement creates. As a result, wherever an exhibit was lodged the crowd coagulated; chances of actually beholding the source of interest were low if you had neither saintly patience nor sharp elbows. Without narrative, more careful works like Amanda Parer’s chinoiserie pig-lantern ‘Entitle’ got as quick a glance as everything else. Most didn’t even find ‘Life Story’, where a moving fresco of animals shone down from the vault of the Argyle Cut. So the crowds ambled, enjoying the convivial environment but confused and on the precipice of bored. Martin Place was the worst, given the space’s potential for sheltering theatrical effects: past the touch-me-interactive spinal cords was a pop-up bazaar where crappy food stalls terminated in an enclosure for the cool cats to drink designer beer. Beyond that, an illuminated cube on a pole purports to “explore the way space is perceived by challenging and confounding our perception of light”. Nothing registers the gap between sentence and sculpture, between the obligatory palaver of the Artist’s Statement and the actual life of the work, like a light show.

If the decision was made to have individual works ballasted with significance, more should have been delivered in the way of cleverness and interest. For a festival with such a specific focus, uses of light and digital media were desperately unilluminating. Mostly glowing, sound-making thingamajigs permitting varying degrees of audience participation. Or colours and images thrown onto obliging architectural surfaces. This isn’t enough anymore; neither are novelties. Today electrical light is considered a medium and you only notice its independent existence at the moment of summoning it to your front porch or your phablet. And yet this situation offers new opportunities for spectacle and comedy: when we don’t know first-hand how things work, our childlike belief in (and reliance on) the epiphanic unreal is restored. But at Vivid, the conceptual imagination was as feeble as the visual drama was demure. More punches are packed in decorating a parish fête, where the metaphysical stakes are higher and the budget lower. Where are the quips about Mike Baird privatising the electricity? Or suggestions that next Vivid’s closing ceremony could coincide with Earth Hour? Alas.

The eunuchs who man ‘the arts’ titter at the mention of Vivid—an ill-advised snobbery, like thinking your favourite flavour of chips superior to the next fellow’s. It comes out of the same factory. But Vivid is something Sydneysiders deem particularly worth attending. They have given it the great Australian honour, perhaps a recourse to the part-Germanic origins of our language, of compressing a sentence into one slurred word. Weargoanvivid. That is, we’re going to Vivid. Nothing approaching this level of citizenly familiarity is achieved by other mega-arts events. Nobody says weargoanbeenarlay. Biennale? Biennale? Parts of Sydney are just getting used to Carbonara.

Hopefully Vivid 2016 will up the voltage and be both smarter and more carnivalesque. By any measure, this year was a numbers success.

They came, they saw, they bought light-up Minnie Mouse ears.


[1] Nearby, a rather good Euro-style hot-dog to be had at the night market.