A Speakeasy with Flammable Exit Signs: Memories of the 2009 Format Festival

People had been enthused about the 2008 Format Festival or, at least, I believed they were enthused. Either way, there was virtually nothing else of interest in my life other than the occasional No Through Road show. So, after Joel left the country, I decided not only to run Format again, but to expand it tenfold.

From this Quixotic moment, Format grew. It was fertilized by three other sources:

  • I’d managed to secure three small grants, totalling $14,000. I’d never seen that much money before in my life, and had a wildly optimistic notion of what it might achieve. The direct outcome of this was the decision to run the festival for two weeks straight which, in retrospect, was foolish
  • Fringe provided in-kind administrative and production support that year, provided by Zillah Morrow (who was sane and rational) and Jillian McKeague (who was not). Jillian secured us the dilapidated 145 Hindley Street site, which had been rejected by another theatre company. The place was utterly unfit for human use. It had no power, no water and a week before we opened the landlord walled up the toilets. Neither Jillian nor we saw this as a problem.
  • I’d begun running weekly ‘programming’ meetings at the Exeter. At one of these Paul Gallasch turned up. At a meeting with Fringe, they suggested we obtain a production manager. Neither of us knew what this was, but Paul decided that would be his job title. His first act on the job was to decide we should obtain a liquor license. He then secured the most immense amounts of free wine.

This was when we first met Jennifer Greer-Holmes, who would later end up as Format’s Chair. She was working as the producer of a show entitled simply ‘Cunts’, featuring several hundred sculptures of vaginas made by a (male) farmer based on life models. This was slated to open in the former ice skating rink directly above us.

A week before Format opened we were told we couldn’t sell alcohol after all because the owner had walled up the toilets. Jillian McKeague initially told us we should simply operate as a toilet-free speakeasy. We’d begun arranging for this. Then Jillian rang us up, begging us not to. Apparently it was highly illegal and would create all sorts of problems.

Paul and I were feeling quite downhearted. We went to the World’s End with Jennifer and offered her the boxes of ‘champagne’ we’d purchased for opening night. She said the Farmer had managed to get some of the toilets working upstairs and told us we could use them. We arranged to have a liquor licensing inspector come through at 7AM on the Friday we were set to open.

Paul and I had never dealt with the liquor licensing inspector before. We had no idea what they looked for, but thought it would be best if the place smelt clean. We stayed up till 2AM the night before, coating everything with bleach. Our license was awarded just in time for opening night.

Here’s a picture of Jillian and Paul opening the 2009 Format Festival:

Launch of 2009 Format FestivalNote the haphazard wiring. The Exit signs were made of cardboard, with ‘Exit’ written on them in brightly coloured pens, right up until the final couple of days, when one of Fringe’s production staff turned up to install proper ones.

Also note you can see Chloe Langford’s illustration in the background of this shot, directly behind Jillian’s head.

I’ll post some more pictures from the 2009 Format Festival tomorrow.

Fear and Weeping: Some Memories of Format’s Pre-History

I’ll be heading back to Adelaide at the end of the week to launch Twenty-One Nights in July at Format’s 2014 zine fair. This is fitting, given the original version was launched at the 2009 zine fair. All the event details are here.

This has set me wandering down memory lane, remembering the early days of Format. I always think of the 2009 festival fondly. I’d decided to ‘direct’ it after virtually everyone I knew left South Australia, including Format’s co-founder Joel Catchlove.

Notably, the zine fair actually pre-dates Format itself. Joel and I had started running it in 2006, with the first one on the roof of the former Madlove Bar, later Tuxedo Cat, and now student apartments. This was so successful a local experimental poet dubbed us a ‘disgrace to the underground’. When we ran the second one (in the laneway behind the Exeter) in 2007 he turned up and began playing bongos until local traders told him to leave. Here’s Joel’s flyer for the 2007 fair:

Zine Fair 2007We’d operated under the title ‘Ministry of Zines’, and our old ‘blogspot’ is still online.

The 2007 fair was also the start of support from the Adelaide Fringe, who arranged for a large supply of trestle tables and allowed us to exploit their staff, beginning with Steve Mayhew and Jane Fuller. Later, the task was assigned to Rino del Zoppo, whose name alone was enough to recommend him.

Joel and I had also run an event called the Academy of DIY. In 2008 Rino asked Joel and I to include both the zine fair and the Academy within a proto-literary festival he was trying to start, under the working title of Format. At some point we simply highjacked it.

I remember Rino falling asleep in some bean bags at one point.

That year, we were in the old Balfour’s factory site. It looked like this:

2007 Zine FairImmediately afterwards, Joel fled to South America and this place was turned into apartments.

Around the same time, my then girlfriend (referred to as the Furniture Removalist in Twenty-One Nights) had moved to Berlin. This began my descent into both attempting to run a festival and trying to write a book about the Tour de France. Both would find form in March 2009, which I’ll document in the next post.

Cultural Political Economy of Small Cities, edited by Bas van Heur and Anne Lorentzen

I’ve become a big fan of Bas van Heur lately. Asides from heading Cosmopolis, he writes a lot about small and regional cities. He’s got a great chapter on “Small Cities and the Sociospatial Specificity of Economic Development” in a book he’s co-edited with Anne Lorentzen called Cultural Political Economy of Small Cities (2011).

For the most part van Heur looks at the ‘Creative City’ agenda set by people like Richard Florida, Charles Landry and Jan Gehl. The basic assumption behind this agenda is that indicators of a successful city can be taken from major metropoles (London, New York or, in Gehl’s case, Copenhagen) and applied to much smaller cities.

The problem I’ve always had with these people is that their logic invariably runs like this :

(1) Cities with a strong economy have lots of creative people.
(2) Creative people like going to small bars.
(3) Therefore, if your city has small bars it will have a strong economy.

Rhetorically, this approach is popular because it looks at a successful city, hones in on one particular phenomena (i.e; small bars), and then de-contextualises that one thing so as to present it as the cause of economic and demographic success.

That allows policy makers to declare city revival as a matter of one thing, which means they can measure and produce strategy around that one thing, and avoid complexity or ambiguity.

As van Heur points out, this approach rarely works.

He’s quoted at length in a report commissioned by the EU, which you can download here. They label this phenomenon of adopting decontextualised policy frameworks ‘Fast Policy Transfer’, warning:

Fast policy transfer is extremely dangerous because small cities all over the world tend to follow “metropolitan imaginaries” (Van Heur, 2010a) frequently with inappropriate results.

Van Heur proposes that one of the ways to overcome this sort of simplistic approach is to broaden the research frameworks underpinning policy to include measurements of:
1. Place
2. Territoriality
3. Scale
4. Networks

I started applying this logic to Australian cultural and planning policy. And I almost immediately got stuck on ‘place’ and ‘territoriality’.
I ended up wading into Justice Blackburn’s ruling in the 1971 Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd case, which hinged on the issue of whether the Federal government had the right to sell mining rights on Yolngu land. Blackburn upheld an English common law definition allowing the British to claim ownership over ‘desert and uncultivated lands’. The clincher was a definition that this included ‘uncivilized inhabitants in a primitive state of society’.

The terms ‘uncivilised’ and ‘primitive’ are pretty clearly subject to perception based assessment. They work the same way terms like ‘creativity’ or ‘vibrancy’ do; they have no clear definition and allow policy makers to read in whatever they want. Usually, they’ll look for pre-existing models, so as to reduce the ambiguity and provide clearer pathways.

The ‘creative city’ agenda tends to focus on laneways, small bars and public realm campaigns. The use of European indicators to detect legitimate culture allowed policy makers to ignore a pre-colonial legal framework, systems of land ownership and non-British occupation.
It’s weird, because Governor Phillip and his lieutenant, Judge Advocate David Collins, had already confirmed the existence of these non-British frameworks within the first year of colonisation. It’s like an initial moment of perception was wiped out as the discourse of British law gained strength.
The Mabo ruling ultimately overturned Blackburn’s judgement. I suppose Terra Nullius is the extreme end of things, but what I find interesting about it is the suggestion that Australian policy follows a discursive structure so fundamentally warped it can get things so very wrong for so very long.