“Anyone who makes any decision about Canberra should first have to spend ten days and ten nights in the middle of Civic.”
– Yolande Norris

Prompted by our commissioned artist Alison Plevey, we reflect on the relationship between You Are Here festival and the city…

I moved to Canberra in 2001 after growing up in Broken Hill, and the cosmopolitan splendour of City Walk blew my mind. My attempts to be a sick teen rollerblader (yes, yes I know) had been largely thwarted by the relative lack of paved streets in my hometown, so I took unbridled delight from Dropping In at the top of the bus interchange and letting the gentle slope carry me all the way to the casino, past the indie record store and comic shop that I’d dreamt of my whole childhood.

The slightly-foxed, past-its-prime-that-maybe- never-was feel of Civic has always matched my intuitions of a what cities should be like, so I’ve never really related to the various conversations about How To Fix The City. That said, Canberra’s ongoing obsession with making the city vital and cool – activated – is key to You Are Here’s origin story, and by extension the last 8 years of my life.

In 2011 the Renew Newcastle model was the Big Idea that was going to save moribund city centres everywhere. The first You Are Here festival was commissioned as part of this trend toward ‘pop-up’ activity in vacant shop fronts, and the prevailing idea was that allowing for weird culture to happen in these spaces would revitalise said spaces in some general way. As it happens most of the spaces that YAH has occupied over the years have become shops again. I have no idea if there’s a causation chain there or not.

It takes about 120 seconds to get from any part of Civic to any other part. On paper it should be easy to get people to come to any one area. But Canberrans don’t navigate the city by actual distance. They navigate by narrative. There are patches and corners that have been key to their lives for as long as they remember, eddies that they get pulled back into as soon as their concentration lapses. Then there are other spaces, just a hundred meters to the left or right, that are absolute no-go zones; story-free dead spots that don’t even show up on the mental map of everyday city-dwellers.

The bus interchange, The Phoenix, Bunda St where it meets the mall – these are reliable places to have events happen, the places where people Are. Civic Square, Glebe Park, the casino end of City Walk – you might as well stage something in Timbuktu. Garema Place is right on the line – people move through there non-stop, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stop there, to do or watch something. Garema Place is hard work.

Canberra has an abundance of lovely, well-designed, spacious functional areas that never get used (my particular favourite is the Commonwealth Park Amphitheater, let us know yours). Meanwhile, spaces with far less going for then on paper capture our attention, because they already captured our imagination.

The first You Are Here festival I learnt a great many things about Canberra’s city centre. Not just logistical details, like where the power access is and who has the best stash of milk crates, but intimate details about the city as a living organism with its own routine and pattern – at times exuberant, at times subdued. We observed that the only guaranteed and omnipresent role of a city centre is as communal space for the homeless and poverty-stricken or perhaps otherwise disenfranchised. There was a marked difference between groups who were in and of the city, and groups that passed through on their way hurriedly to someplace else. I recall thinking: anyone who makes any decision about Canberra should first have to spend ten days and ten nights in the middle of Civic, should first have to see it this way.

As part of our commission series this year we’ve been having some fascinating conversations with dance artist and choreographer Alison Plevey about the notion of activating and enlivening city spaces. It is of course a notion that suggests these spaces are inactive – dead. And that this is a mark of failure. But after 8 years of being tasked as a means by which “fix” the issue, we remain unconvinced of what exactly the issue is, and what our contribution does as remedy. That’s something that’s loomed large in our thinking this year.

This week coming, August 21st to 25th, Alison and group of collaborators are going to base themselves in Civic in a sort of mobile, responsive research residency called Situate. They’ve put forward the following questions:

How can we truly draw from, not impose on, site to amplify its spirit and engage its audiences? What performance is already there? What themes underlie its essence? [Situate is] A process of witness, receiving, responding and revealing this place to it self through movement.

Alison will share updates to the Australian Dance Party Facebook page, as the work progresses throughout the week. Keep checking in and perhaps even see what they’re up to for yourself if you’re city-side next week.