Vivid Sydney is the saddest excuse for a “festival” that I have been unfortunate enough to witness. Vivid has a very specific and narrow target audience: Young families looking to take the kids on a night out, tourists, and underage teens taking party drugs and finding their futures in the pretty lights. If you are passionate about Vivid and do not fit into any of these demographics, please take a long hard look at yourself in the glowing reflection of the harbour. Then maybe throw yourself in.
Vivid has its humble beginnings in a series of light projections on the side of the Opera House in 2009. Colourful, swirling designs put the sails of the iconic structure into clear relief against the night sky, and project (no pun intended) an international image of Sydney as a modern, creative city. I believe Vivid has still not moved past its purpose as a marketing exercise for the city, and this is reflected through its inoffensive content.
Consider the artworks of Vivid. If this sounds difficult to you, it’s because there is not all that much to consider. Whilst there is a large degree of technical skill involved in putting together the impressive projection-mapping displays that comprise Vivid, it is unfortunately not used for art that actually matters. The point of the art at Vivid, broadly speaking, is now to be photographed and shared on social media. The works are not created to provoke nor express any emotional truths or question social realities. In all honesty, art is a generous term here. These are light shows designed for likes and shares.
Take this year’s upcoming pieces as an example. Already helpfully posted on the Vivid Sydney website so you can plan your Wednesday night out in the city months in advance, you’re able to see a ‘kinetic canopy of light’ that looks like neon decor from AliExpress. Or potentially you’d like to check out Macula, which comes with a glowing (pun intended) promo from Vivid: “Expect Macula to be one of this year’s crowd favourites given it provides an extraordinary backdrop for selfies and videos.”
The most concerning and saddening example of socially irrelevant art at Vivid 2022 is set to be Bump in the Night at Tumbalong Park. The installation work comprises a series of glowing tents with noises coming from inside them, which viewers can walk between and be a part of, while still apart from the individuals inside. One would expect this to be a commentary on people experiencing homelessness, perhaps even the way in which Vivid can displace them from parks and shelters in the CBD. To assume such a basic level of self awareness would clearly be naive.
Vivid’s website provides some helpful info about Bump in the Night to help dispel such notions.
“In Sydney, things tend to go bump in the night. Perhaps it is a possum party in your roof, noisy bats eating your mulberries or a brush turkey flirting with your chickens… This artwork resembles a peaceful campsite, with muffled snores heard from within the tents… Want to be a drop bear? A Bunyip? Or just a hungry bat? You decide, be loud, and be that bump in the night.”
Beyond its lack of artistic merit, the festival is particularly frustrating when viewed in the context of Sydney’s dwindling nightlife scene. Six years of lockout laws, followed by two years of rolling lockdowns and a lack of adequate income support, has resulted in countless venue closures and a club culture on life support.
Thankfully, Vivid was safely insulated from the pesky lockout laws. In 2019, over 3000 venues were eligible to be granted extensions to their trading hours on Sundays during Vivid. How generous of the State Government to ensure that their festival wasn’t subject to their own lockout restrictions — I’m sure the cruise ships and Insta shares were worth the hypocrisy.
This isn’t to say I think Vivid is irredeemable. Expansions to the program such as Vivid LIVE and Vivid Ideas are extremely welcome, and this year’s lineup looks fantastic – Tkay Maidza, Future Classic and Astral People are obvious highlights. It’s a shame that such a great program shares a name with the titular lightshow.
If Vivid is a festival of light, I’d rather be left in the dark.