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The City and the Spectacle

“It was fantastic; I didn’t see anything but the backs of people’s necks for the whole night.” A friend was telling me about his experience of Melbourne’s White Night in 2014. Many people have told me about their experiences with the crowds at White Nights. Nobody that I know will be going again.

Very early on in White Nights 2013

Very early on in White Nights 2013

I didn’t go in 2014 as the crowds in 2013 were enough for me – I don’t consider queuing for food to part of an enjoyable evening. Instead I retreated to Brunswick where I saw an excellent free gig and had some good food. I know where to find good food and music in Brunswick because I’ve lived in the area for many years. I might have viewed it differently if I was a visitor.

Mega-city Melbourne has a spectacle and events based economy that needs to attract tourists and local visitors to the centre of the city. A spectacle based economy is the post-modern version of the bread and circuses economic model for a city, drawing in the festival crowd.

People might complain about individual events nobody complains about the whole spectacle based city; after all for a post-industrial city Melbourne could have ended up like Detroit. However, as Rio and the rest of Brazil knows after the 2014 World Cup, Melbourne is learning creating a spectacle based economy has costs.

Living in a spectacle driven city where every week there is a festival or major event where a large part of the economy is driven by presenting constant spectacles to attract local, interstate and international visitors might seem great but there is a dark side to the bright lights.

Few question if being presented in a festival format is appropriate. Gina McColl in “Blockbusted” (The Sydney Morning Herald, May 12, 2013) argues that blockbuster exhibitions that: “distorting the wider role and purpose of our state-funded collecting institutions: curating, exhibiting and caring for their own archive, complete with scholarly research and conservation.”

Attracting international events costs, including bribing the members of the committee that decides where these events can be hosted, paying for the event takes away money that could be spent on the needs of local residents. The spectacular events can be alienating to residents; Melbourne’s Grand Prix attracts crowds while annoying and inconveniencing residents.

While the politicians are busy trying to attract major events they ignore the fact that Melbourne’s public transport infrastructure is insufficient for hosting spectacles. During the Melbourne Commonwealth Games workers were asked to work from home to make room on public transport for people going to the games. The central hub structure of the public transport network concentrates the crowds into a small section of the inner core of the city.

Public Event Ahead

What is the real evidence for the claim about a spectacular based economy? According to a recent an evidence review, zero (Evidence Review Sports and Culture, July 2014). I will repeat that number, in case you missed it, zero. There is no evidence to back up the claims that major sporting and artistic events contribute anything to local economy but there is still faith in Melbourne that the international reputation of the city will have some subtle unmeasured effect. However, evidence counts for little in current political debates.

How do we create diverse city, aware of the dynamic forces at work? What is the tao of urban design? Urban acupuncture projects? How does a mass spectacle benefit the residents? Not just thinking about profits for multinational construction firms but local business. What does it give to the people who use the area every day?

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

2 responses to “The City and the Spectacle

  • penelope

    Nice one Mark… From a Sydney perspective we have the increasingly banal Vivid- crowds increase as work quality decreases. The most interesting, lively and redemptive thing, though, which makes it all worthwhile attending, is seeing the re-apropriation of the street by the people as they look at the art.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Yes, I have heard that making pedestrian space is the most cost effective way to increase the general happiness of the population of a city. It is a pity that in Australia that closing streets mostly happens for major festivals.

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