Friday 10 March 2017

A White Night in Ballarat

Last weekend, Narrelle and I headed to Ballarat to experience its very first White Night.

I'd already written a preview of the all-night arts event for Fairfax Media's Traveller section, so I was curious to see how it would play out on the night.

White Night/Nuit Blanche has traditionally been an event staged by big cities - St Petersburg, Toronto, Paris, Melbourne - not a regional city of 100,000 people. Would it work?

It looked good from the start. When we stepped out of our Lydiard Street hotel at 10pm after a strategic nap, White Night had been underway for three hours and the city centre was packed with people.

As at White Night Melbourne, people were moving from artwork to artwork, with the largest pieces being huge illuminations mapped to Ballarat's plentiful historic facades.

In fact, the first thing we realised was that our own accommodation, Craig's Royal Hotel, was one of the buildings acting as a canvas:

There were smaller works to be discovered in the side streets running off Lydiard. One of these, Do Not Go Gentle, was a mesmerising video presentation in a vacant lot, examining ageing and the gaining of wisdom:

There were many of these interesting smaller pieces - including a mobile work, Crate Expectations, a strange object made of crates which trundled around producing curious effects and items as it occasionally popped open...

... and this, a row of "Here's Johnny!" heads smirking maniacally on screens in the window of the Regent Cinemas:

But the star attraction of White Night was undeniable the set of illuminations along Lydiard Street. It was here that White Night Ballarat had several advantages over its Melbourne equivalent.

Firstly, it was much easier to navigate Ballarat's White Night zone, which was basically two connected stretches of the city's broad goldrush-era streets, Lydiard and Sturt. It was crowded, but never did we feel that we couldn't progress.

Secondly, the relatively compact area enabled a visual unity that's impossible in Melbourne's sprawling White Night zone. One could stand at one end of Lydiard Street and see a stretch of illuminated facades along both sides, a kind of magical avatar of the daytime city:

Another asset was Ballarat's tumultuous 19th century history, in which it rocketed into prominence as a rough-and-tumble gold mining community after the metal was discovered there in 1851. This lent a certain thematic unity to the illuminations, several of which drew on the city's past.

As an Australian history graduate I particularly liked this projection on the old post office building, which referred to the Eureka Stockade revolt of 1854:

On the other side of Lydiard was a work drawing on a much deeper past. More Than 1 Nation by local Aboriginal art group Pitcha Makin Fellas told the story of Australia's indigenous people, and wasn't shy about referencing the harsh realities of European settlement.

It was by far the best work of the night, an animated journey through centuries, and much admired by onlookers. It was good to see that such public art could still be frank and confronting.

Here are two clips I filmed on the night, the latter one dealing with more modern times:

The first White Night Ballarat was, to my eyes, a success both in crowd appeal and artistic merit.

The only flaw, it turned out, was the 12-hour timespan. While this made sense in Melbourne, where the huge crowds gave people good reason to enter the city in the wee small hours before dawn, in Ballarat it was easy to see everything during more reasonable hours.

As a result, when we walked back to our hotel at 3am, after drinks with friends at the buzzing Mitchell Harris wine bar, we found Lydiard Street almost deserted:

On reflection, it might have worked better to stage White Night Ballarat from, say, 7pm to 3am, rather than run all the way to the scheduled 7am.

Quiet finale aside, White Night Ballarat provided proof that successful big art events don't have to be the sole possession of big cities.

Whether there'll be a second such event in the goldfields city has yet to be decided, but I hope it happens. It was a great night out among the art, crowds, and colourful history.

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