Another year gone, another Tropfest to take in. Another of Sydney’s ubiquitous summer ‘events’ designed to key its citizens into the pulsating heart of this global city of ours. But after returning home to Sydney after some time away, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that these ‘events’ underwrite a sanitising of the city and a privileging of access based on a growing spatial inequality. Sydney’s ‘event’ culture, typified by Tropfest, the New Year’s Eve fireworks and the Sydney Festival perpetuate an imagining of the city that is increasingly divorced from the reality of its citizens.
The litany of officially sanctioned cultural ‘events’ form part of a wider strategy of promoting Sydney’s ‘liveability’ in the global market to attract investment and tourism, to remind us, as Barry O’Farrell is so oft to do, that Sydney ‘is open for business’. Language is key: ‘going out’ has become ‘participating in a night-time economy’. The problem arises if you actually want to attend any of these events using public transport.
At the same time that London is moving its Underground to a 24/7 service (replacing the already excellent night buses) and asking serious questions about bicycle infrastructure, taxis and cars are given priority in the City of Sydney. At Tropfest there were no public buses at the exit gates ready to take event-goers to Central Station. Instead priority access was given to taxis (for those who could afford them) while the rest of us were forced to walk or vainly seek out a functional and safe bike path.
Evidence of this privatisation by wilful neglect is everywhere. Try getting a bus from Bondi Beach to Bondi Junction on the first day of summer – surely surely part of our cultural imagining! Good luck, they’re full. Every New Year’s Day, I’m regaled with horror stories of three hour walks from the public viewing points on the harbour. What about taking a bottle of wine from one of DestinationNSW’s venerated ‘world class’ wine regions to any public event? To the cricket? No chance! If you want to catch a bus on King St in Newtown, one of Sydney’s busiest night-time ‘economies’ after midnight on a Saturday night, be prepared to wait a few hours. Try going for a meal in Cabramatta from anywhere east of Strathfield on public transport. Try finding out what time your bus is actually coming without paying for a third party app. The demand for these services is there but the willingness to provide it by public means is not, and as a result, we creep closer and closer to excluding those who rely on public transport and so reduce the chance of creating any meaningful cultural exchanges.
Spatial inequality, or the unequal access to the city’s common pleasures and resources is now the story of Sydney. The ‘City of Villages’ motto is nothing but an excuse for a lack of connectivity. At the same time that debates over rent control influenced Angela Merkel’s attempts to form a coalition government in Germany, the idea that public policy should do anything but encourage private development is an anathema in this city. The travails of Eddie Obeid et al remind us that the Rum Corps are still very much a part of this city’s governance, while the history of Jack Mundey and the Green Bans movement to save the Rocks is deliberately forgotten.
The story of James Packer’s VIP- only casino on one of the world’s most beautiful pieces of land at Barangaroo is surely the story of this city and its approach to urban equality. As the rest of the city is faced with impending lock-downs, mandatory sentences and the inability to buy a drink from a bottle shop after 10pm, the transnational elites gambling at Barangaroo casino are to be exempted. The proposition of the NSW Police determining my fate on a night out is a far scarier prospect than the statistically decreasing prospect of any ‘king hit’. As Adam Brereton wrote in the Guardian recently: ‘the way we drink (and take drugs) is, and will always be, about how much freedom we have to assemble.’ Or as HG Nelson once asked: ‘where are the sniffer dogs on the ARIA red carpet?’
So amongst the moral panic, explicit violence and constant service failures, there is a human bravery in catching public transport to Centennial Park from Hurstville, Cabramatta, Parramatta or Cronulla on a Sunday night for Tropfest. And what were the brave confronted with when they arrived? In the first instance they were bombarded with the loud assertion from a man in a hat that this WAS ‘the greatest and biggest short film festival in the world!!!!’ (Cannes, etc. anyone?) They were intoned to cheer at nothing so that TV sound crews could create the illusion of atmosphere. After spending too much money for a drink, they settled onto their picnic rugs only to have to endure eight short ‘films’ from Qantas extolling their virtues as our national airline and the ‘uniqueness’ of our land. The audience were then commanded to ‘tweet!’, to ‘hashtag!’ to ‘experience!’, as long as whatever they did fit the orchestrated imagining of ‘fun’ and ‘frivolity’. (My friend’s tweet that Qantas should have commissioned short films to follow the lives of the thousand workers just laid off never made it into the discussion). They were then forced to witness a piece of postcolonial military propaganda, a film that reduced the Afghani people (evacuated of all agency or history) to a reminder of our own good luck to be at Tropfest.
After a few hours of inane presenter banter and self-congratulation, I think our brave commuter would have been left a bit mystified. As they sat waiting for the next bus or train to arrive they might even have begun to ask a difficult question for the organisers: ‘Where were the female voices?’ Out of the sixteen films shown only three women directors made it into the final showing (one in a partnership with a male sibling) and none onto the podium (unless you count a male actor, playing a man, pretending to be a woman, post sex-change). The ethnic makeup of the directors seemed equally problematic. Amongst all the noise and brouhaha of creativity, this ‘event’s’ overwhelming desire to be heard revealed a great deal about the city’s insecurity with its place in the world and the inequalities that mark it.
Unfortunately, this deep insecurity, masked by the need to be loud and entrepreneurial, seems to have permeated the city’s entire cultural scene. Every day I am bombarded with e-mails and invites to ‘pop-up’ shops, bars, food trucks, #genuineMexicanstreetfood; to ‘launches’, ‘campaigns’ and ‘unique experiences’. The echo chamber of self-congratulation is deafening. Where are the critics? Who is shining the light on the fact that to pay homage to the decor of an American dive bar while failing to match its notoriety for cheap prices is disingenuous? Am I the only one who thinks there are cultural references beyond New York City? Where’s the affordable film being shown for the sake of the film and not the bar receipts that aren’t moonlit? Who is pointing out that all the new small bars are owned and run by the same people; that the cheap liquor licenses – for all their benefits – are now a license to print money off the back of exorbitant drink princes and to build an empire of establishments as sanitised as the old boozers were? We desperately need critics unafraid to challenge individual’s enterprise, giving an honest appraisal of the city’s fortunes in its endeavour for cultural relevance so that a discourse beyond ‘events’ can flourish.
As with every city, the most interesting things are undoubtedly happening far from the auspices of DestinationNSW or the pages of Concrete Playground. I’m sure I’m doing a disservice to many creative people in this city. And perhaps I’m not looking in the right places. The Western Sydney Wanderers’ Red and Black Brigade for example are unique in having rejected the sanitised version of football crowds promoted by Football Federation Australia. The recent violent altercation between opposing sets of fans suggests that opposing corporate sanitisation comes with its own dangers. Yet overall their jouissance is captivating, and as Football Federation Australia attempts to reign these fans into its corporate image (including the use of surveillance at games) we are reminded that the history of the game and this City is formed through the history of immigration and multi-ethnicity. Still, the original guardians of the land are barely recognised in any meaningful way at football events or otherwise.
Music, too, stills seems a place of alterity. Moves by local councils to embrace live music as a stimulus of night time economy’s (despite previous wilful neglect) cannot empty the act of its own shape, colour, movement and sense of community. You can still go and see a great local band at the Factory Theatre in Marrickville for a tenner on a Saturday night. And you should. Too bad a can of beer will cost you $7 (do I really have to drink from a plastic cup?!) and you won’t be able to catch the bus home.