In 2010 the Fairfax press wondered if Brisbane was Australia’s new cultural capital. Last week on Radio National’s Big Ideas, contributors to the latest edition of Griffith Review, Tasmania – The Tipping Point?, pondered (somewhat ambivalently) whether it might be Hobart. The Lifted Brow are doing their bit for the west with their ‘What Even Is Perth?’ edition. But there’s a dark horse in this race and for my money it’s a front-runner. It’s called Canberra.
2013 is Canberra’s Centenary. Meanjin is all over it: The Canberra Edition, which ‘visits Canberra in the city’s 100th year to take the pulse of our elusive, much-maligned capital’, tells it like it is. If this is the first you’ve heard of it, it’s time to review your 12-month plan. This is Canberra’s big year, and when I say big I mean staggeringly, unbelievably huge.
A cursory check of the Centenary website’s front page reveals there are in excess of one hundred separate events you can attend in the humble month of April. Many of these, like last month’s 10-day multi-arts program You Are Here, which occupied shop fronts and late night hubs to showcase Canberra’s independent and experimental arts scene – and which recorded more attendees than any other year – are actual festivals themselves.
‘What’s interesting about the Centenary of Canberra’, says Julian Hobba, Manager of the Arts and Culture Program, ‘is that it seems to employ a “European city of culture” model, as opposed to a 16-day arts festival model. It’s unprecedented. I can’t think of anything of its type that’s been done before.’
For the record, Julian is my ex-boyfriend. Canberra – that enchanter, that seducer of artists – lured him from me, and from cosmopolitan Melbourne, in late 2011. Speaking to him about the diverse range of projects he’s been working on under Robyn Archer, the Centenary’s Creative Director and cultural force-to-be-reckoned-with, I quickly realised that identifying highlights is a fool’s game.
That aside, my interests were piqued by theatrical project, The Major Minor Party, by Sydney-based performance company version 1.0. Robbie Swan and Fiona Patten have been running the Australian Sex Party from their home in Yarralumla since 2009. Known for their political documentary theatre, version 1.0 are drawing on this Canberran history to make a performance work to be staged in May/June. Sexy.
But, as Julian reminded me, there’s a perception that nothing goes on in Canberra except for federal politics. ‘It’s not until you’re here that you realize the investment that has been made in both enormous national cultural institutions, local arts and community hobbies and events… There are a lot of young artists here, and increasingly a lot of young people who are choosing to stay here, to make their careers here, which seems like a change from 20 years ago.’
An event that reflects this diversity of local culture is October’s SPIN: Canberra’s Weekends on Wheels, an unlikely combination of yarn spinning (literally and figuratively), cars, fashion and dance devoted to Canberra’s penchant for wheels. 24-hour mountain-biking and skateboarding events will coincide with the Museum of the Long Weekend in which 40 vintage campervans – each a mobile exhibition space of its own – will make their way from every corner of the country to converge on Lake Burley Griffin. Founding producer of the Melbourne-based Women’s Circus, Donna Jackson, will direct Spin Saturday, a mélange of events including pro-am dance groups doing performances inspired by cars from different decades, two vintage Canberra transport authority busses getting transformed into cinemas, and local roller derby teams showcasing their daredevil sport. After dark, ‘SpinWear’ will exhibit wearable fashion by local costume makers and designers made principally out of car parts, and Mark Seymour’s Petrosexuals will perform car tunes. And yes, SPIN also involves high profile speakers performing political ‘spin’ at the Museum of Australian Democracy.
Sculptors and installation artists should make their travel plans for May, when TOUCH: Sculpture and the Land, a program celebrating Canberra’s strong history of sculpture, runs for the entire month. As part of this, the National Gallery will be presenting an international sculpture symposium whose flagship event is the maiden flight of a Centenary commissioned hot air balloon designed by Patricia Piccinini.
Cinephiles note: Canberra International Film Festival’s new ‘Body of Work’ program, a Centenary initiative, will annually honour the oeuvre of an international film luminary. This year’s guest is indie cinema impresario Harvey Weinstein. You know, that guy that produced Pulp Fiction, founded Miramax and has won about 75 Oscars? Yeah, he’ll be hanging out in Canberra in October, talking shop with local film peeps.
The contest of ‘Which unlikely Australian state capital is the nation’s new thriving cultural centre?’ may have become a journalistic cliché that exploits interstate rivalries and inevitably irons out the nuances of local culture. But if we’re going to play it then I’m sorry friends, there is a clear winner this year.
Dion Kagan is a Killings columnist and an academic and arts writer who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He lectures in gender and sexuality studies in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University.