#6 What the city wants
“Without really intending to we’ve been acting as a long-term case study in decoupling arts audiences from the Default Precondition.”
– Nick Delatovic
Producer Nick Delatovic muses over how a point of difference borne of laziness and circumstance has come to play a major role in defining the festival…
A Thursday night in 2013: You Are Here Festival has been running for a full week already, headquartered in a vacated menswear store 20 meters from the entrance to Mooseheads, Canberra’s most shorthand-for-drunken-clubbing nightclub. We are holding our own dance party, free of charge and alcohol-free, run by the local chapter of global dance-accessibility movement No Lights No Lycra. The crowd is sober, the songs are daggy, and the energy is furious. A few drunk Mooseheaders poke their heads inside, perhaps with trolling in mind, but they quickly leave again. They can tell that something is happening outside their frame of reference, and it’s easier to leave it be.
I’m an arts producer, an artist, and a non-drinker. Let that colour your sense of my biases as you will.
I spent 10 years playing live music in pubs before I did any other art stuff. It’s received knowledge that the service and availability of alcohol is a deal breaker for live music audiences. As in, they won’t show up without it, at least not in numbers. All-ages festivals employ labyrinthine operational models to ensure that the adults can drink while the underage attendees ‘can’t’.
In Australia the provision of alcohol is accepted as a precondition of engagement with arts events as a whole (think of book launches, exhibition openings, the theatre foyer, and so on.) Audiences are in most ways a game bunch. Shows might be indoors or outdoors, physically comfortable or physically uncomfortable, accessible to special populations or not. Just as long as there’s booze. It’s an indivisibility that would seem curious if it were anything else, for instance if the service of chocolate was a necessity for audiences (I use that analogy because I love chocolate).
You Are Here didn’t choose to be an alcohol-free festival on any ideological grounds. Launching in 2011 as a small-budget collection of events happening mostly in empty shopfronts it posed too much administrative hassle in too short a turnaround to obtain liquor permits (this aversion to red tape is also a big part of why we originally became a festival of mostly unticketed, free events). As a government-funded festival we didn’t have the stress of recouping costs, all we had to do was stay in budget and within legal frameworks. The upshot of all of these conditions is that we got away with staging a whole festival of dry events, which increased the potential for inclusivity, minimised security issues and made it a whole lot easier to clean up afterwards. Besides, being headquartered in the city meant that there were ample opportunities for our crowd to duck off and drink if they must.
They’ve been another six You Are Heres since then, and all but a tiny handful of the 500-odd events we’ve run in that time have been alcohol-free (and those were situated in licensed venues). Without really intending to we’ve been acting as a long-term case study in decoupling arts audiences from the Default Precondition.
I can’t know how much the core sensibility of our events has been shaped by the relative sobriety of our crowds. As I’ve already stated this was never a game plan that we discussed in depth. We just hoped that the audience would still come to the thing if the thing was their type of thing. And they did. Without the offer of anything else, they were irrefutably there for the art.
Of course, I hear you smartly say, for many people a swig of the good stuff helps them push through the nerves and anxiety that might make it hard for them to take a chance on a weird public event. To that I say good point-ish. As a producer I always have a responsibility to help people feel welcomed and entitled to take part in the art. I would argue that not having the magic bullet that is bar service has meant that the You Are Here team has always had to think more creatively and rigorously about how to connect to crowds.
When I look around metropolitan Australia I see a lot of people who consider themselves to be engaged day-to-day with the vibrant culture of their city. Some of them are, but most of them are just eating and drinking in spaces amidst cool design. As someone who myself spends huge chunks of time eating in these spaces myself (and who appreciates design) I’m not ready to subordinate all other art forms as mere accompaniments to a nice cocktail. Even the most hardened let-the-market-decide capitalist values the chance to choose from a variety of experiences, and that isn’t serviced by a narrowing of what culture is conceived to include.
If you’re worried about the growth of your mid-sized cultural festival then sure, adding a noodle market and craft beer is definitely going to work. And I enjoy The Phoenix and Smiths naming drinks after local musicians as much as anyone. But in a world where every independent artist’s chief rival is Netflix it’s worth forcing ourselves to go back to the first principals of what makes people enjoy the experience of art. Surprise, Challenge, Transgression, Discomfort – we can trust in these things as stuff that audiences actively want. Sometimes we can get them to it a bit quicker by not giving them everything that they already know they like.