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Canberra: legacy-making & future-thinking

Keith Gallasch, Robyn Archer, Canberra 100

 Sedimentary City Canberra by Brit Andresen and Mara Francis, Urban Innovations Collaborative, CAPITheticAL Design Competition Sedimentary City Canberra by Brit Andresen and Mara Francis, Urban Innovations Collaborative, CAPITheticAL Design Competition
photo courtesy Canberra 100
“My feeling is that the program in print and online is always a mere blueprint and you really rely on the people to take it up. It’s like my feeling always that the cultural landscape of any place is a three-legged stool: it’s audience, artist and the dialogue that surrounds them. If any of those three go astray you’re probably in trouble. In this case, I think the people of Canberra have taken up the blueprint and used it.”

When I meet Robyn Archer in Sydney to discuss the progress of Canberra 100, of which she is Creative Director, she’s more than pleased with the response she’s had from the people of Australia’s capital, great turnout at events, people thanking her in the street and “projects that are generating opportunities for local artists like never before.”


Archer is particularly pleased with the national interest Canberra 100 has generated in the media about the city’s designers Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin: “That was intentional, to say why don’t we just hark back to bold beginnings and ideals and aspirations. My focus since the beginning of the year has been, what’s the legacy going to be? It’s good to have everything going on this year but we hope that the seeds we’ve planted are going to have a legacy into the future.”

One legacy Archer points to resides in Canberra 100 promoting “just how much fodder there is for artists in terms of the Australian story in places like the National Film and Sound Archive, the Library and Museum. Terrific reference points all over the place.”

Street swag art

Among a number of exhibitions at independent galleries that have impressed Archer, she was particularly taken by Flipside curated by Merryn Gates: “an exhibition about homelessness in Canberra. Street Swags are made by Jean Madden in Brisbane in consultation with homeless people. They’re very light canvas with a light foam lining, fold up as a shoulder bag and have been given to 26,000 homeless people already. There’s one of these in the show but it’s beautifully printed by Gates with images of Walter and Marion Burley Griffin (Dream City, 2013). I love it and we’re hoping to do a project about homelessness in the capital in the future.”

Parties at the Shops

Archer is especially delighted by the success of Parties at the Shops. “My thinking right at the beginning was well, if we can do you a spectacle on 11 March, on the actual birthday of the city why don’t you do it for yourselves as well—parties at your local shopping centre that you can walk to. Well, it was unbelievable. I visited 17 on the one day. In Yarralumla, the residents had a dinner. There were 450 people sitting outside under the trees eating and dancing to a Zydeco band. The one at Watson was similar with about 600 people. But what was so moving was a really tiny place whose one shop is a graffiti-ed convenience store. Two hundred and fifty people had a barbeque, double garage doors rolled up and DJs playing. Out of that they decided they’d revive the Residents Association. They were saying really beautiful things like “next time—already with the idea that there would be a next time—we’ll invite the people from the suburb next door because all their shops have closed. I think that Parties at the Shops and You Are Here (the 10-day multi-arts festival spread around the CBD showcasing Canberra’s emerging and alternative arts communities) are the real ‘no-brainers’ that will survive.”

Celebrating the cultural calendar

Part of the reason for Canberra 100’s immersive character is Archer’s incorporation of the city’s annual events and national conferences into the year long celebration: “It was really about profiling the natural cultural calendar of Canberra anyway—things like the Canberra International Music Festival are really fantastic. It’s one of the festivals that I think should be encouraged in the future, mainly because Chris Latham has brought it into Griffin-inspired venues in the series of three that he’s done. So as with the best festivals, you get to explore the city. What I did was to look at what was on the cultural calendar already, make people aware of that but then plug some of the gaps and introduce some new ideas. There are so many conferences on and, to my chagrin, so many opening or closing on Saturdays and Sundays. Days off are now a thing of the past (LAUGHS). So many organisations chose to have their national conferences in Canberra this year.”

Archer has to make many an opening speech during Canberra 100. The day we meet she’s to open an Arthur Boyd exhibition “about his political life, at the Museum of Australian Democracy—part of the ongoing series they’re running all year called The Art of Influence, which is all about arts policy and political engagement. Last week was the Gallery Guides’ Conference, next I address the Midwives’ Association and then the Museums Australia Conference. So, Canberra 100 is big, very mixed and it’s full-on the whole time—and it jumps around violently from things I know little about to things with which I’m very familiar.”

Science and art

Science is a significant component of Canberra 100, in Science Week and beyond. “The science credentials of Canberra are amazing. There’s been a series of Canberra Nobel Laureates coming back to talk about their work. But the interface between art and science is also enormous,” says Archer, citing the work of Erica Secombe, who has been working with CSIRO but also now with the ANU Department of Nuclear Physics using their imaging technology. Erica looks at what they’re doing and, to some extent, her investigation is driving some of their research, which is the best possible collaboration. This is again about Canberra as a resource. And also about artists who come from science families: David Finnegan, one of the founders of Boho Interactive, his father was at the CSIRO and Huey Benjamin who’s composing for Garry Stewart’s new work for the Australian Ballet, Monumental, is from a science family in Canberra.”

Celebrating First Australians

A major component of Canberra 100 is the Indigenous program: “I’m particularly proud that the people who’ve produced that program are in Mildura—Helen Healy’s HHO Events. It’s really nice to think of the national capital stimulating a very big national Indigenous program that’s operated out of Mildura.

“Kungkarangkalpa: Seven Sisters Songline, performed by senior dancers from Central Australia outdoors at the National Museum was fantastic. Wesley Enoch did a great job on that of telling the story very, very honestly. He provided just a beautiful simple, screen-based background for traditional performers to bring their story down for the first time.” With a large program spread across the year, Celebrating First Australians has its own printed program (also available online).

“Canberra 100 is all about changing perceptions of the national capital—it’s actually made people aware of a very strong local Indigenous community. We’re showing the work of many, many local performers and artists. Jenni Kemarre Martiniello is a glass artist who has been working with Venetian glass technique to create interpretations of eel traps—they’re absolutely exquisite. She has a studio at the Canberra Glass Works. This celebration is about a young singer like Anita Barlow and established ones like Dale Huddleston and his family. The ACT’s unique in that it has an elected Indigenous body that looks after the interface between local policy and consultation directly with the ACT government, and they told me, ‘You’ve really got to get to the grass roots of stuff. There’s a mixed touch footie carnival at the Boomanulla Oval. Get out and do [Canberra 100] there.’ Locals don’t think that there’s an Indigenous community here and yet we’ve been taken out by one of the rangers, Adrian Brown, to rock art sites that are dated to 800 years old and they’re 30 minutes out from Canberra.”

Coming up in the Celebrating First Australian’s program is Big hART’s Hip Bone Sticking Out, QL2’s Hit the Floor Together which is being led by young Indigenous choreographer Daniel Riley McKinley and a forum entitled Inside Out—“the first day will be an overview of the past and where activism has got us to this point. The second day is given over entirely to younger groups—particularly those who are using cultural pathways for activism, artists like Warwick Thornton. On the second day it’s much more about people who are taking the cultural route to demonstrate and others working from the inside. Nothing could be plainer than Thornton’s Samson and Delilah to tell you how it is and then it’s up to you to go there. Others like Tim Goodwin are going inside. He’s a terrific lawyer who has been working for the High Court in Melbourne. He was a Fulbright Scholar. He’s going the legal pathway—more the Larissa Berendt sort of path. So, many, instead of demonstrating on the outside, at the fringes, in the street, are coming into the professions, getting all the craft and skills and doing it that way. But whenever I say that to some senior Indigenous leaders they say, ‘Yeh but is it just a cop out? Are they just doin’ the art and not doin’ the stuff on the streets, ‘the hard stuff?’ That forum will be on in association with NAIDOC Week and there are a number of exhibitions as well.”

Archer says of Hip Bone Sticking Out, that Big hART “has been working in Roebourne in WA for a long time and Roebourne is, as we know, a very divided community over whether mining and its returns are a great thing or are just going to stuff everything up. Big hART have been working mainly with young kids and really looking at a very optimistic future. Whatever happens the kids will take it on, bring it on. We’re giving free tickets to the local Indigenous community so they actually get to see all the shows and meet and talk to the artists.”

Future Canberras

If Canberra 100 asks locals and all Australians to take a fresh look at the city, its creative history and what it offers now, not least for emerging artists, what has been the role of the event in terms of speculating on Canberra’s future?

Archer says, “I think the most significant change to Canberra will happen if the high speed rail ever gets up—whether that’s in our lifetime or not, but at some point it will, and that will change things. If you can live in Canberra and be 45 minutes away from your job in Sydney there will be a lot more people who will want to live in this pristine bushland and that will drive a whole lot of necessary environmental changes because there isn’t really enough water even for 370,000 people. Scrivener the original surveyor thought there was enough for 250,000 people and he was right but the need has become more and more pressured and with Climate Change it’s exacerbated. One presumes that necessity will be the mother of invention.”

The issue of the future was addressed by offering landscape architects the opportunity to imagine a Canberra of the future in the CAPITheticAL design competition. Archer wanted the entrants “to put themselves in the same place as the competitors who had to design the city in 1911” but for a 21st century Canberra. She points out that for many of the entrants sustainability and a sense of democracy were high priorities. There were 1200 expressions of interest and 114 entries from 24 countries from which 20 were chosen for exhibition at the Gallery of Australian Design and judging for a $70,000 prize. The winner, Ecoscape’s The Northern Capital, which would doubtless appeal to Tony Abbott and Bob Katter, maintains the ACT city for Parliament and the public service, but creates a new city “on the edge of another manufactured lake, namely Lake Argyll in the Kimberley region… to deal with Asian and northern development.”

Second prize went to the quite beautiful if equally disturbing Sedimentary City Canberra, aerial views of city and surrounding landscape into the future. Curator Michael Desmond describes the entry, created by Brit Andresen and Mara Francis of Architecture and Urban Innovations Collaborative (A+UIC), as dealing with time, “shrinking and contracting both the lake and the city in response to drought, fires and the full effects of climate change and economic fluctuations, showing the city as a living organism, tuned to the epic history of humanity” (catalogue).


First Flight, Skywhale, Patricia Piccinini First Flight, Skywhale, Patricia Piccinini
photo Mark Chew
Canberra-born visual artist and sculptor Patricia Piccinini has strikingly realised a melding of past and future in Skywhale, a full-scale hot air balloon in the shape of a recognisably Piccininian hybrid, here a multi-breasted, benign maternal mammal, lingering contemplatively over the Australian landscape—evoking both ancient mother goddesses and evolving mutancy. Not surprisingly, Skywhale has been greeted with both repulsion and fascination, and some nonsensical and censorious politicking. Festivals that celebrate the past certainly sustain and reinvigorate legacy but unless they have vision, asking where are we are now and where are we going, and demonstrate these—they will have no legacy of their own to bequeath to future generations. Robyn Archer has built a centenary with an eye to the future.

For the program for the next six months of the Canberra Centenary go to and look out for a forthcoming RealTime e-dition guide to the festival.

See Robyn Archer talking about Canberra 100 back in November on RealTime TV

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 18-19

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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