By Amy Bortolazzo
Sydney’s budding art and culture scene has generated a push for experimentation and innovation with artists increasingly moving beyond the traditional white walls of the gallery space. The use of empty, public spaces for temporary projects by artists in Sydney is rising and The Festival of Free Spaces, presented as part of The Sydney Fringe in September 2011, was a celebration of the endless possibilities available in the creative use of public space.
This artist-run initiative introduces creativity to forgotten public spaces within Sydney’s inner west. Chris Lego, an artist based in Newtown, produced the festival with assistance from a large collective of other Sydney based artists, writers and thinkers. Lego has been living in the inner west for over twelve years, and in that time, he has become an active contributor to its creative community. His first experience participating in a public cultural event was through the Reclaim the Streets parties, which first began to occur in Sydney in 1997. Since then, Lego’s involvement in organising public cultural events has evolved, and he is now behind other events, including the Newtown DIY Market, a very successful free market held every month as a platform for local art, culture and secondhand wares.
Artist-run initiatives are not for profit, artist run spaces that play a vital role in supporting emerging artists. In Australia, they emerged nationally in the 1970s as means of extending from the restrictions of public museums and commercial galleries. They create a platform for experimentation, innovative ideas and creativity that is unrestricted by commercial and public expectations, encouraging diversity and critical feedback. They are community based and the people that participate in them are extremely passionate about contemporary art, supporting independent artists and bringing innovative ideas to the community.
The recent symposium We Are Here, developed and run by the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) and First Draft Gallery, one of Sydney’s longest running artist-run initiatives, acknowledged the important role that artist-run initiatives play in Australia. It took place from 1 – 4 September 2011 and featured a gathering of artists, curators and directors. Over 44 influential speakers presented various talks relating to the maintenance, growth, ideas and potential of the artist-run initiative in Australia. Brigid Noone, an Adelaide based independent artist and curator, presented ‘Space/No Space’, a talk which explored existing nomadic, project based, public and site-specific artist-run initiatives in Australia. Noone specifically examined the future sustainability of these projects for inner city artists. The use of public space is quickly becoming a viable option for artist-run initiatives and it benefits everyone involved, bringing culture and creativity to the wider community.
The Festival of Free Spaces makes an important statement about the use of public space. It highlights the importance of the use of it, how accessible it is and should be and questions the restrictions that are placed upon using it. Chris Lego stresses that common public space is extremely important and should be used more. However, the eternal fight for the use of it with public liability insurance and other restrictions means that many great ideas cannot go ahead. It is important for governments to realise that the unrestricted use of public space is essential in the development of culturally rich communities. The Festival of Free Spaces emphasises this. Making creative use of public space uncovers elements of a neighbourhood that are easily forgotten about. It celebrates communities and shows people what is possible with a little creativity. The festival is accessible to everyone, and engages with those outside the small arts community, something that is not necessarily possible for an art or cultural event held in an institution or gallery space.
Three main events made up the Festival of Free Spaces – Pop Up Festival, Artcore Guerilla Art Fair and Reclaim the Lanes. It was the first time that all three were brought together under one name, a fusion of previous ideas that had been developing throughout events in the inner west over recent years. Promotion around the festival was slightly secretive, as Lego believes it is exciting for people not to know exactly where an event will be held until a few hours beforehand. Artists and members of the local community have come together out of pure passion to bring free, accessible, fun and creative events to the public.
The Pop Up Festival on Friday 9 September was an unpredictable street celebration, occurring on the opening night of The Sydney Fringe. It celebrated the culture and spirit of the inner west and kick-started a month of performance, music and visual arts as part of The Sydney Fringe. Last year was the first time the Pop Up Festival was run, drawing in over 500 people and claiming the title of The Sydney Fringe’s best free event in 2010. The Pop Up Festival was a night of surprises, roving street performers, music and a giant treasure hunt.
The Artcore Guerrilla Art Fair on Thursday 15 September was a night market incorporating music, drinks and 30 independent local artists selling their work to the public. The Festival of Free Spaces insists on keeping events free for the public, as well as for the artists who participate. As such, the Artcore Guerrilla Art Fair was free for artists, enabling them to sell their work directly to the public and completely cutting out the role of the commercial gallery. The artists did not need to pay the large fees common when renting a market stall or a gallery space and they were able to keep all of the money made from the sale of their works. Local art galleries Hardware Gallery and I Heart Gallery volunteered to help source artists through their contacts, which resulted in a wide variety of local artists working across a range of different mediums.
Reclaim the Lanes on Saturday 24 September was an afternoon exploration of the forgotten lanes of Newtown. Meeting at Peace Park in Newtown, a convoy of wheelie-bin mobile sound systems, musicians, performers and anyone who wished to join in stopped in two laneways for an hour each, resulting in a unique party and celebration of the area and its community. Chris Lego claims that the event is about laying open the whole laneway and seeing what transpires – how visitors choose to engage with Reclaim the Lanes really determines its final from. A giant game of croquet and a performance from a four-piece string quartet occurred on the day, with visitors encouraged to bring anything that might add to the fun. Reclaim the Lanes made a real effort to be child friendly with hundreds of glow sticks, bubble machines and 2000 pieces of chalk present on the day. This completely changed the atmosphere of the laneway party, allowing everyone to become involved and encouraging children to be creative and spontaneous.
The Sydney Fringe is Sydney’s alternative festival for the visual and performing arts, and this was its second year in its current form. Taking part in The Sydney Fringe has been beneficial for the Festival of Free Spaces, as it has given them the opportunity to apply for funding from Marrickville Council and to approach venues as an official event. It has resulted in receiving funding for an event that Lego and his crew would have paid for themselves, as they have done with similar events in the past. The Dendy Cinema in Newtown opened their car park for free to host the Artcore Guerrilla Art Fair, making an effort to clear out all cars. Chris Lego identified this as a special thing, as the space had never been used to host a creative event before. In addition to local government funding and local businesses offering spaces and access to power, an honest relationship was formed between the event and the local police to assist in its success. Many contributed their spare time to make it all happen purely for the love of it, resulting in an event that reflected community spirit and altruism and had no room for aggression or exclusivity.
Artist run initiatives are important for Sydney’s art and culture due to their willingness to take risks and experiment. They also have the ability to eliminate the sense of exclusivity that can often exist within Sydney’s art scene. Chris Lego has done exactly this with the Festival of Free Spaces, a unique event that makes the arts more accessible and gives local, independent artists the chance to show their work to a wider audience. He emphasises the fact that it is not about what he has done – it is about the network of people that have joined forces to make it happen. It is this collective nature that means anyone can do it. The Festival of Free Spaces provides a very suitable model for cultural events in public spaces and it is clear that temporary artist-run events have the potential to lead the way in Sydney’s cultural scene.
Photographer Jennifer Dooley All of Us Together, 2011 www.allofustogether.ca
Bibliography / Further reading
Artworker Issue 2, 2008, Art Workers, viewed 15/09/2011
Carroll Harris, L. 2011, Preview: Pop Up Festival, Newtown, Music Feeds, viewed 3/09/2011,
Chris Lego, Personal communication, Monday 19 September 2011
Murn, C. July 2008, Empty Spaces: Government regulation is killing Australian culture, IPA Review, viewed 5/09/2011
The Sydney Fringe, 2011, Marrickville, Sydney, viewed 1/09/2011, <www.thesydneyfringe.com.au>
We Are Here September 2011, Event booklet, National Association for the Visual Arts, viewed 6/09/2011, <http://www.visualarts.net.au/sites/default/files/wah_booklet.pdf>