A Brief History of Terrible Planning Law: The Batman Treaty

Every so often someone will bail me up at the pub and ask why their miniscule little gallery gets weekly visits from every bureaucrat with a badge, yet its possible to get approval to build terrible apartment blocks everywhere/mine national forests/demolish public housing etc etc.

The short answer is that Australian planning and building laws don’t scale much based on risk or size. The process you go through to set up a gallery in an old warehouse is virtually the same as if you were tearing the warehouse down to put in a new apartment complex. This occurs because the systems are structured to produce a series of controls, mostly cost barriers, aimed at managing the activities of the kind of people who can afford to build new buildings.

When applied to less heavily financed activity, those systems are usually insurmountable. For the most part this is posed as a public health issue but if you trudge back through Australia’s planning history, the logic of the system has another origin.

From the very first moment of Australian planning law, our system was geared towards controlling large enterprise and, in doing so, pricing out those interests with less capital.

The key moment of this is Governor Bourke’s 1835 proclamation regarding Melbourne, arguably the single most important document in Australian history as it simultaneously enforces terra nullius and sets out who could legally use the new nation under what conditions.

You can read the whole thing here, but the key parts are:

I, the Governor, in virtue and in exercise of the power and authority in me vested do hereby proclaim and notify to all His Majesty’s Subjects, and others whom it may concern, that every such treaty, bargain, and contract with the Aboriginal Natives, […] is void and of no effect against the rights of the Crown; and that all persons who shall be found in possession of any such Lands […] will be considered as trespassers…

A few months earlier, John Batman had sailed from Tasmania to Port Phillip, where he successfully negotiated a ‘treaty’ with Wurundjeri leaders of the Kulin nation. They granted him two thousand square kilometres of their land in return for an annual payment of knives, jackets, rugs and flour. Today, we tend to view this as trickery on his part. At the same time, the Wurundjeri were aware of the threat they faced and negotiated a treaty which did protect them from being entirely removed from their land, or subjected to active violence.

Regardless, Bourke’s proclamation effectively said the treaty was worthless, and specified Batman would need to apply to the Crown (and pay a licensing fee) for approval to use the land.

Batman’s treaty was a test case. At that point, there was no legal assurance that the Crown’s powers extended beyond the boundaries of New South Wales and Tasmania. Batman arrived in Victoria with the aim of going into an area devoid of British law and seeing what he could get away with.

His ‘treaty’ was intended to prevent the Crown taking action against him by appealing to the sentiments of both Bourke and his boss, Lord Glenelg, who was in charge of British colonies. Both men had seen conflicts with indigenous people internationally, both knew it was morally fraught and economically costly, and were willing to consider less forceful processes.

When Batman arrived in Victoria, it was obvious to Bourke that he had no real capacity to stop him. Batman stood to produce significant economic benefit through exporting wool back to Britain, and sending out the troops to stop him would have been both costly, ineffective and politically disastrous. Accordingly, Batman did two things;

(1)Declared that the Crown owned all of Australia, not just Tasmania and the land around Sydney.

(2)Declared that anyone who wanted to use Australia had to pay the Crown a licensing fee, those who didn’t were using the land illegally, and they would be prosecuted. This included the people who’d lived on said land for centuries.

The end result of this was the biggest and fasted land rush the Empire had ever seen. The Wurundjeri found their treaty with Batman discarded, their land swamped with pastoralists, their food sources wiped out and any request for recompense treated like trespass.

The legal framing here is important. By over riding the treaty, Bourke made Wurundjeri resistance a matter of criminal trespass, rather than a military conflict. Had the treaty survived, the resultant conflict would have been a war rather than a criminal issue, and their prior occupation of the land something that could be upheld under British law.

This is because its impossible to either sign a contract for property, or militarily invade a country, without implicitly recognising a certain element of land rights. In a similar situation, the Xhosa people in the Cape Colonies had re-claimed their land a few years earlier.

Effectively what Bourke realised is that the commercial interests impacting upon the Australian landmass were too large to stop, but could be harnessed to profit the crown and colonise Australia with limited governmental investment.

Thus, instead of sending out the military to invade the Kulin nation, the Wurundjeri were mostly shot, or forced into starvation, by squatters exercising their right to prevent trespassers.

It’s easy to see this as a historical incident within colonisation; a sort of regrettable encounter with a pre-modern Terra Australis. Yet this is still how land is accessed in Australia. Unclaimed or unused land is zoned, usually through a state planning act under powers devolved by the Crown, absorbed within something like a Local Environmental Plan, and the right to use it can be obtained by seeking Development Approval. The costs associated with applying for approval are now spread out more broadly, but they still work to control a particular level of economic activity, whilst pricing others off the land. Bourke’s proclamation is the extreme end of this system, but it isn’t an anomaly.

On the Merits of Darwin Not Being Copenhagen

A few months back I did a talk at Trading Ideas,  with Joanna Best  from Troppo Architects, Charles Darwin PVC Giselle Byrnes, and one of my favourite Lord Mayors, Katrina Fong Lim. The thing I like most about Darwin is that, unlike so many cities in Australia, it isn’t hell bent on being anything other than what it is.

Reflecting on that, my talk was on the penchant within Australian urban policy to adopted a mythology formed in places like New York, London and, more recently Copenhagen:

Over the last decade or so it’s become popular to talk about ‘Creative Cities’ and the ‘Creative Class’. For a lot of smaller and regional cities, this has become short hand for “Our city is collapsing and we don’t know what to do. Maybe if we use the word ‘creativity’ a lot things will be okay!”

It’s good to be able to name and describe a problem, but this doesn’t really work. One of the reasons for this is that the language of the ‘creative city’ has been shaped by people like Charles Landry, Richard Florida and Jan Gehl, based on their experience in places like New York, Portland and Copenhagen.

If there’s something that’s immediately obvious about Darwin, it’s that it’s not New York or Portland, and its most certainly not Copenhagen. One of the things I think we need to get better at in Australia is recognising that we can’t simply transfer policies and ideas from European and American cities to Australia. I don’t say this in a parochial way. I say this because Australian cities have an economic, demographic, geographical, meteorological and governmental underpinning that is unique.

Comparing Darwin to Copenhagen is a good way to think about this.

Copenhagen was founded as a fishing village in the 10th century and its average temperature is about eight degrees. Copenhagen is about 1,250 km from London and 440 km from Berlin.

Darwin was founded in 1869 and the average temperature is about 32 degrees. Its closest neighbours are Jakarta, Perth and Adelaide, none of which are less than 2500km away.

One of the things I think we need to get better at when we have these conversations is recognising our differences from the cities of the Western Hemisphere. Our historical and geographical isolation is not merely a cosmetic difference. It is a major and unavoidable part of the structure of our cities.

A useful first step is to think about the purposes for which Australian cities were built. In Darwin’s case, we know that when John Macdougal Stuart returned from the Northern Territory in 1861, he told Governor Daly:

…the soil is of the first description; and the grass, although dry, most abundant… this is certainly the finest country I have seen in Australia.


If this country is settled, it will be one of the finest colonies under the crown, suitable for the growth of any and everything – what a splendid country for growing cotton.

When Goyder came up here to survey the future city, he was interested in its port, because that helped the British build a military link to their acquisitions in South East Asia by linking Singapore and Sydney.

Neither Goyder nor Stuart gave much thought to creativity. They didn’t say Darwin was going to be a great place for night markets, cultural festivals, artists and tourists, with innumerable vibrant laneways. They said it was a good place for cattle farming and a naval base.

Those early origins are still evident. Darwin is still a military outpost, and its still a cattle port. It shares its origins with most Australian cities; the historical origins of Australia’s urban centres are almost entirely wrapped up in shipping primary goods back to the British Empire. That, structurally, historically and culturally was their purpose.

Australian cities functioned on this rationale right up until the Seventies. Then in 1971 US President Nixon tore up a thing called the Bretton Woods Agreement and Globalisation happened. This was a rude shock for Australia, because we’d been a nation founded on a system of tariffs design to protect our historical role as a supplier of goods to Britain.

As the global economy re-geared, the way our economy functioned had to change rapidly. Australia actually did pretty well; we floated the Australian dollar on the stock exchange in 1983, we flooded resources into higher education, and we began trying to establish relationships with Asia.

During this time, it became obvious that Australia couldn’t compete with developing nations in manufacturing. We’re still a big farming nation, and we’re still, obviously, a big mining nation, but it became obvious to policy makers by the mid-Eighties that we needed something else; we needed a lot of smart people and we needed those people to be thinking up new ideas; not just new ideas about how to make money, but new ideas about how you take a cities designed for shipping cattle and housing soldiers, into cities designed to compete in a global economy built on knowledge.

And this is where we come to the topic of the creative city.

One of the worst things Australian cities do today is look at successful cities elsewhere and try to mimic what they’ve done. We see this a lot with Jan Gehl’s work. He does some great things, but no matter how much places like Wollongong or Adelaide alter their public domain, they’ll never be a European city with almost a thousand years of history, a high population density and 45 minute flight to the world’s largest economic centres.

Unfortunately, one of the negative impacts I think Gehl, Florida and Landry have had in Australia is to allow policy makers to believe complex problems can be solved with simple fables in which urban design, small bars and laneways full of novelty street furniture will produce a stable demographic and a prosperous economy.

This isn’t to say I don’t think we should change. On the contrary, the other thing I think Australian cities do badly is cling to the idea they can keep doing what they used to do. We’ve been clinging on to our car industry, fossil fuels, suburban growth and building roads everywhere for too long. Australia is no longer a place of manufacturing hubs connected to sleeper suburbs. That model no longer works.

So what do we need to do? Well, the problem we face is that no-one really knows.

When mining and manufacturing fail, we turn to the Landry, Florida and Gehl mythologies at this point simply because we don’t know how else to formulate policy or plan our cities, and they offer us simple solutions to our complex problems.

I don’t have a better simple solution, so instead I thought I’d go back to an earlier era of urban studies. When the first big cities were starting to form, they had the good fortune to house people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In the case of Athens, were all those people lived, the city had a forum that bought all the citizens together, whereupon they would all yell at each other, argue passionately and vote.

When something bad happened to Athens, like the Spartans invaded it, this forum allowed the city to draw together its citizens, pool their ideas, and help them decide what to do. The city only really faltered when it stopped harnessing the collective energy of its citizens. Indeed, the word for city, ‘polis’, doesn’t have anything to do with the built environment. It draws from ‘politea’, or the community of citizens.

The Roman word for this was civitas, providing the origin for our modern words ‘city’ and ‘citizen. The city was not a product of its design, its industries or its architecture. On the contrary, those were by-products made possibly only by its citizenship. Quite literally the city was its citizens. When I think about cultural policy and the purposes of a creative city, this is what I think we should be aiming for; mechanisms that allow cities to bring together, combine and amplify the voices and ideas of their citizens.

Fire, Death, Disease and Vibrant Laneways: A Short History of the Building Code

On Monday I was asked to talk about the Building Code in a laneway for the Sydney Architecture Festival.  I was part of a walking tour, consisting of popular local entrepreneur Simeon King, Martin O’Sullivan of Grasshopper/Small Bar Association and Tim Horton, Registrar of the NSW Architects Registration Board. Here’s a picture of Tim and myself having remarkably different emotional responses to a laneway.

Nerds Gone MildFor those who are interested, here’s the text from my talk on the Building Code. Thanks to everyone who came along – and thanks to the Festival for a great event:

Today we’re accustomed to thinking about laneways as the province of small bars, parklets and novelty street furniture campaigns. This is stark contrast to their more traditional role as wretched, miserable firetraps, full of impoverished people, rats, disease and human shit, which is what I’m going to talk about today.

A good starting point is 1854, when William Jevons arrived in Sydney from England to take up a job with the newly formed Mint. During his down time, he walked the streets writing his ‘Remarks Upon The Social Map of Sydney.’

Today, Temperance Lane is surrounded almost uniformly by retail and offices, with a couple of restaurants and bars. When Jevons visited this area, he found “wholesale stores or by petty manufactories”, “the residences of labourers, or small tradesmen or artizans”, “smiths shops, timber yards, & similar places of business”.

If there’s any planners here, I’d be interested to know if timber yards and smiths shops are still permissible uses.

Jevons wrote particularly about the houses around here, noting:

The residences in this part are mostly of very low character usually consisting of small two or three roomed cottages of considerable age, & now much dilapidated. Bricks are the most common material but perhaps one fourth part of the whole are built of weatherboards & are in very bad condition.

Toilets, he remarked, were “very scantily supplied in this neighbourhood.”

In the 1870s, the conditions had worsened, leading to a survey by the health department and several newspaper articles. In his book Leviathan, John Birmingham recalls a Herald article in which journalists visited a slum down Abercrombie Lane. The found a cab driver called Ryan living with his wife and three children in a small room in which:

There were no windows to let through a breeze and consequently the atmosphere was dominated by the piles of excrement which lay on the floor. Ryan and his wife were both drunk, the latter sitting on a wooden box with a child in her arms, mother and child completely naked.

When they tried to enter the kitchen, they stirred a vast hoard of fleas.

The fleas would later prove the most significant thing. On January 19, 1900 Arthur Payne, living at number 10 Ferry Lane, became the first victim of Sydney’s last outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, which killed 103 people.

Notably Abercombie Lane now hosts a small bar, and the plague broke out just around the corner from the Walsh Bay Fratelli Fresh.

 This is the city our building, planning and licensing systems were built to manage. Contrary to today’s focus on creativity or culture, its drivers were a fear of fire and disease.

For example, the origins of our building code date back to 1212, when fire broke out in London, killing 3000 people. Afterwards Mayor Henry Fitz-Ailwin moved to ban thatched roofs and produced regulations encouraging the use of stone in house construction.

London has a long and prestigious history of burning down. Boudicia burnt it down in 60BC, it was virtually wiped out again in 122AD, slowly rebuilt only to burn down again in 675, 798, 982, 989 and 1087, twice in the twelfth century, and four times in the thirteenth.

Of course, when we think of London burning, we think of the Great Fire of 1666, which burnt for four days and made about 90% of the city’s population homeless. There were less than a dozen recorded deaths, partly because the fire incinerated human remains, and partly because 100,000 people had died the year before when the Black Plague hit the city.

The Great Fire started in a bakery on what’s now known as Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. Originally it was called Offal Pudding Lane, because of the volume of slaughter house refuse that fell off carts going from the butchers in Eastcheap to the garbage barges on the Thames.

London did have a system of pipes for fire fighting, fed from pumps and waterwheels. But when the fire actually broke out, people panicked and, by the time they organised themselves, the waterwheels themselves were on fire.

The fire moved quickly for two reasons. Firstly, most of the houses were built of wood. And secondly, they were on streets so narrow there were no firebreaks. Maps of the disaster show it stopped at the Wall at the City’s east, the river and just by the Tower, where the garrison used gunpowder to frantically demolish buildings, and create emergency firebreaks.

The fire combined with the Black Death to produce a raft of laws that remain inherent to our cities. When the plague broke out, no one understood it was spread by rats and fleas. Asides from prayer, the response focused around isolating the sick, preventing people from gathering and trying to reduce the volume of filth on the streets.

The definitive book on this is Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, written in 1722 but built from his uncle’s journals from 1665.

He cites the Orders developed by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London as they frantically tried to control a disease they didn’t understand.

These include the appointment of Parish examiners – today’s health inspectors, directives for rakers – the precursor to today’s garbage and sanitation workers, and a series of “Orders concerning Loose Persons and Idle Assemblies”, including what we’d now recognise as place of public assembly regulations.

The council declared:

That all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, Buckler-play, or such like Causes of Assemblies of People be utterly prohibited, and the Parties offending severely punished by every Alderman in his ward.

Another directive reads:

That all publick feasting, and particularly by the Companies of this City, and Dinners at Taverns, Alehouses, and other Places of Common Entertainment be foreborn till further Order and Allowance.

A lot of people thought the plague was a curse inflicted by God because Charles the Second had done outrageous things like lift bans on theatres and allow women to perform on stage.

When the City burnt down a year later, it was taken as an excuse to produce some sort of order that might prevent further disaster. Charles the Second produced An Act for Rebuilding the Citty of London (1666), which is the precursor of today’s planning and building law. It included things like:

Item 19: Noisesome and Perilous Trades not the be in Principle Streets

This set up a distinct distinction between industrial zones and residential or commercial areas. Those areas more likely to burn down were isolated more effectively after the Fire.

Item 3: Sorts of Houses

If you look at the modern building code, it has a series of ‘Building Types” – residential, place of public assembly, office and so on. You can see this in the 1666 act, divided into four sorts of ‘houses’, with separate regulations applying to “Mansion houses for Citizens of extraordinary quality.” The regulations specified height, roof materials and the thickness of internal beams.

Finally, there was a directive specific to laneways themselves, Number 22 “Other Passages to be enlarged at discretion”, which gave the Council the power to “make wider any other such strait and narrow passages” to a width of fourteen feet, or about four metres. This was largely to help the city maintain better firebreaks in the event of another fire.

All of these laws were built to limit the inherent risk of large numbers of people living side by side in unplumbed, unlit, unventilated, wooden houses.

Particularly after the Second World War, building codes were designed to wipe out the kind of City Defoe knew by making adapting older buildings very hard, and building new suburban houses very easy. Both here and in the US, these Codes connected to New Deal policies providing mortgages for working people, and the re-zoning of farms and greenbelts to encourage new suburban housing at the expense of inner city slums. This is the city we know today.

My favourite article on building code reform, Sara Galvan’s delightful 2006 article for the Yale Law Journal, Rehabilitation Rehab Through State Building Codes:

Building codes are not neutral documents…. They create incentives to build certain types of structures, they establish economic biases toward particular materials and construction methods, and they impact urban layouts.

 The problem we currently face is that, for the first time in the history of urban planning, we want to increase our inner city populations and increase the diversity of activity in our city centres. Yet our systems of urban governance systems remain true to their historical legacy, leaving a significant hurdle between the ‘Vibrant’ visions we have for our cities, and the reality of how we manage them.





Marco Pantani

A couple of weeks back I got to read from Twenty-One Nights in July as part of a double feature at the Golden Age. Much thanks to Kate and Simeon for setting up the evening.  For anyone who missed out and is now lamenting my soliloquy on Pantani, followed by a reading from the book, here’s the former. For the latter, you had to be there I’m afraid:

In about half an hour some of you will be watching The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, which is a film about Marco Pantani, who is an interesting character. After winning the Tour de France in 1998, he got kicked out of the Tour of Italy for doping and then sort of went on a downhill bender and died in 2004 of a cocaine overdose in a hotel room.

Even though he undoubtedly doped, he’s very fondly remembered which is weird when you think about how much everyone hates Lance Armstrong now. You have to remember that this is a sport that comes from the Catholic nations of Spain, France, Belgium and, of course, Italy. Cycling makes a lot out of tragedy, corruption and martyrdom, and Pantani was all of those things.

By contrast, Armstrong was a sort of Puritan neo-liberal icon. He embodied this Reganist ideal that if you just focused hard enough, worked hard enough and believed in yourself you could achieve anything.

In 1996 Armstrong was told he was going to die of cancer, and then he went on to win the Tour seven times. In his autobiography he wrote:

I am very firm in my belief that cancer is not a form of death. I choose to redefine it: it is part of life.

Which is sort of strange. Surviving cancer is not a choice and to imply it is suggests those who die simply weren’t strong enough to choose to live, which is lunacy.

But then it’s also why Armstrong was so popular – he embodied the idea that you could decide your own fate.

Whereas there’s something different with Pantani. The writer Matt Rendell once wrote about him:

Those of us who saw him, and were inspired, were doped, at one remove, by those who doped Marco; and, like all drug-induced forms of euphoria, when the drug that induced it was gone, it existed only as a memory, and as a terrible temptation to self-deceive.

I remember reading that after Armstrong made his come back in my hometown of Adelaide, where the city council gave him the keys to the city and all the FOMILs were spray painting “Go Lance!” on the roads. At that point he was under investigation by the US federal government for doping. The self deception needed to keep believing in Armstrong was pretty intense.

We’d all like to believe we can control our own fate, but deep down we all know that’s nonsense, and I think Pantani embodies those two conflicting ideas. Within him, we can see the desire to be better than we are, but also this sort of Icarus fable of when you try to cheat fate, rather than reconcile yourself with it.

There’s a lot of cycling stars who personify the same Icarus fable. The 1906 winner Rene Pottier hung himself a year after winning the Tour, from the same hook he’d used to store his bike, 1951 winner Hugo Koblet smashed his car into a tree, 1952 winner Fausto Coppi died of malaria after being disowned by the Pope, 1973 winner Luis Ocana shot himself, and then there’s Tom Simpson, who literally rode himself to death in the Tour de France, uttering the famous last words “Put me back on my bike.”

To those who don’t follow cycling, that might just sound like the stupidity of men who didn’t know when to stop and took riding a bike too seriously. But I think it’s more complex than that. Roland Barthes once wrote:

What is sport? What is then that men put into sport? Themselves, their human universe.

I thought I’d do a quick readings that look at that idea on a grand scale, both related to an Italian cyclist called Gino Bartali, who won the Tour de France twice, once just before the Second World War, and in 1948, the same year The Bicycle Thief was made.

(Instead of the reading itself, here’s The Bicycle Thief. Thanks again to everyone who came along!)

Selected Images from the 2009 Format Festival

The 2009 Format Festival started on Friday March 1st, with an exhibit from our long time collaborators ST5K (later to morph into Street Dreams) and James Dodd. James was a lovely guy and built a projector rack for us out of a milk crate. Here’s a picture of his opening night work, in our back gallery.

James DoddThe front room looked like this:

2009 Opening NightNote the absence of a security guard. No one had told us we needed one, so we simply didn’t have one, despite operating on Hindley Street with $4 beers. Within this picture you can see Simon Loffler, who ran the street art stuff, did the design and layout for the program, and was one of the founding members of the Format Collective Inc, when we incorporated a few months later. You can also see, to the left of centre in the khaki shirt, Matt Walker, who designed Format’s logo, behind the bar is Cassie Flanagan who ran that year’s Academy of DIY and worked on the initial programming, and on the lower right is Sophie Green, who had been involved in the original zine fairs, the Academy of DIY and would later marry Joel Catchlove.

Given the venue’s wildly non-compliant status, things actually ran pretty smoothly. I think this was because we were deeply naive as to what could go wrong. Every day I would turn up, clean out the toilets, take out the bins and feel like I was having the time of my life. Here’s a picture of me enthusiastically taking out the bins.

Bins 2009In the background, you can see Format Collective foundational member Sam Rogers. I think his name was on the original lease for Format’s place on Peel Street (mine wasn’t). He was running all the publicity that year. Next to him is Caitlin ‘Bugle Face’ Tyler, who has the single loudest voice of any human I have ever met. She was doing a show about clowns in the back gallery. It was the first Format event to ever sell out.

That year we had four spaces: the front and back galleries, a ‘resource room’ for zine publishers and a courtyard, named after Jillian McKeague. The ‘resource room’ contained a photocopier, which provoked an extensive debate over a sign related to the photocopying of body parts. I forget how this argument started, but I think I ended it by asking people to stop copying their body parts as it left an oily residue on the glass, which I found deeply unnerving.

The McKeague Courtyard hosted Chloe Langford’s first exhibit with Format (the next year she ran the visual art stream), and sections of the Academy of DIY. Here you can see Format co-founder Joel Catchlove (in the baseball cap) with zinester Sophie Green. I have a sneaking suspicion the pair on the far left is Stephanie Lyall, who would end up as one of the directorial team the following year, and Tannon Kew. Tannon would later gain fame for building the steps at The Reading Room and rewiring Electra House prior to its use by Tuxedo Cat.

Joel and Sophie 2009That year’s zine fair was particularly large, hosting visitors from interstate and overseas, including Dave Roche from the US, and Lisa Dempster. Lisa would run the literature stream of Format in 2010, before taking over the Emerging Writers Festival. She now runs the Melbourne Writers Festival. Here’s a picture of her and Dave:

Lisa Dempster 2009 Most of the literature stuff was run on the final weekend. Here’s one of the panels. Note Chloe Langford, sitting next to Connor O’Brien. Connor now runs the Digital Writers Festival. You can also see Luke Sinclair, founder of Melbourne’s Sticky, front and centre here.

Indie publishing forumThen there’s the zine fair itself. Here’s a pixelated image of it:

2009 Zine FairThis was where I launched the very first version of Twenty-One Nights, which inexplicably sold out. I would have been sitting just out of shot.

The zine fair was held in the back room. As we discovered about half way through the festival, this room would occasionally fill itself with the stench of raw sewerage. We couldn’t find the source, and I spent most of the morning the zine fair worrying about it. Fortunately, there were a bunch of people spray painting in there and the air was so thick with aerosol you couldn’t smell anything else.

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.

By Bread Alone by Ernie Old

I had a wonderful time at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last week with Emma Ayres, Tom Doig and Greg Foyster, notably all long distance touring aficionados. Coincidentally, so is the MWF’s director, Lisa Dempster, who rode across the Nullarbor on her Surly. Whilst I’ve done long rides, I’ve never done so without ending back at my house, with my shower, comfortable bed and fridge stocked with carbohydrates. I can’t imagine hammering through a full century with no consolation at the end, other than a sunburnt Tom Doig and a can of catfood.

Moron to Moron – Meat in a Can from Tom Doig on Vimeo.

If you’ve read Emma, Tom and Greg’s book, something to keep an eagle eye out for is Ernie Old’s By Bread Alone. It’s been out of print for several decades now, but it’s worth the reward if you can track it down. Ernie OldIn his youth, Old had been a reasonably successful competitive cyclists, finishing fourth and eighth in Warrnambool-Melbourne. His autobiography, published in 1950, captured a rather different portion of his career.

After enlisting for both the Boer War and the First World War, he tried to sign up when World War Two broke out, but was rejected on the grounds that he was too old. To be fair, he was in his mid-Sixties. As a consolation, at the age of 71, he made a 1828km ride from Melbourne to Sydney in a mere nine days. The next year he did a round trip from Melbourne to Adelaide, followed by a 4025km trip from Melbourne to Brisbane. Next, he rode a 9650km circle from Melbourne to Darwin and back, via Adelaide, Mount Isa, Brisbane and Sydney. In 1948, aged seventy, he rode from Melbourne to Perth and back, unsupported and sleeping by the roadside each night.

His autobiography was published in 1950 when he was 76 and had just returned from Perth. He recalls being paced back in to Melbourne by Russell Mockridge:

In the morning it was arranged that Olympic cyclist Rus Mockridge, a fine Geelong boy, pilot me a few miles out of Geelong. I was then to ride to Werribee, where another escort would meet me to pilot me to the finish. Unfortunately, a cold, steady rain set in as we were leaving Geelong. So I sent Mockridge back, not wanting to see him take any risks on a severe cold before leaving for the Games.

He concludes the book by declaring, “I resolve to visit the wonderland of America (whilst still young and strong enough to ride from San Francisco to New York), as I cannot expect to cover the ground more than another 30 or 40 years.”

Unfortunately he never made it to the US. Instead, aged 85, he rode from Melbourne to Uluru, and then did a trip across Tasmania. He died in 1962, and was still riding up until 1960.

His autobiography is an interesting piece of Australian history unto itself, but also a rare first hand account of the development of the bike. He reminisces about 1896, “when pneumatic cycle tyres had come into general use”. My favourite part of the book is his first memory of seeing a bicycle, at the age of twelve in 1886:

One memorable day I was on the road in front of our house when I saw a bright flash of sunlight on something new and strange coming along the road. Soon a man appeared in the road about half a mile away, with no visible support under him. As he turned a little this way and that, there came the sudden bright flashes which I had first noticed. He came swiftly nearer and soon I was able to see that he was riding a tall, graceful wheel with a little one trailing behind. Soon the rider reached the house, swung down from his high seat and asked me for a drink of water, which I hastened to get.

He continues:

I saw at once its possibilities, the races we could have, the speeds we would attain. Boy-like I at once began to see visions and dream dreams…

It’s a wonderful book, albeit hard to track down. My copy, picked up in a secondhand store in Adelaide, is signed by Ernie Old himself, aged 83.Ernie Old Signature

A Quick Note on ‘Moron to Moron’.

I’ll be in Melbourne next week for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, where I’m sitting on a panel on cycling at Footscray Community Arts Centre, along with Greg Foyster, Emma Ayres and Tom Doig.

We’ll be riding from the Henry Turner Memorial Reserve near Victoria University’s Footscray Park Campus (leaving about 1:30) to Footscray Community Arts Centre (where we’ll start the panel at about 2:30).

I saw Tom talk about his book, Moron to Moron, a bit last year. I’ve also seen him jelly wrestling under a bridge, albeit only via YouTube. He sent me an email with the YouTube link in it with the single phrase “Not safe for work” in it. I was at work when he sent it to me, but I watched it when I got home. I had to watch it a couple of times because I couldn’t really figure out what was going on. When I eventually figured it out I  could see that he was right. Later that video was taken off YouTube.

There’s a great review of the book here:

I particularly like the struggles the reviewer has with pronouncing ‘Doig’.

There’s a far more literate clip of Emma Ayres talking here: