This is a note from one of the peeps behind the upcoming You Are Here, taking over vacant shopfronts and found venues in the Canberra CBD from this Thursday 10 until Sunday 20 March to present a battery of music, theatre, visual arts and performance events. I’m writing to ask for your thoughts and input on a question which has been burning a hole in my head from the inside over the last few weeks: Why has this thing gathered so much momentum so quickly?
Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra Robyn Archer called me in for a meeting in mid-November to outline to me an idea for a pilot series of arts and cultural events in March 2011. That meeting was the very first time I’d even heard of URBANcITY / You Are Here.
At that point the initiative was almost entirely conceptual – we were discussing an idea rather than an actual series. Given that the opening event of the series was barely three months away (gazing ominously at me from the other side of summer) and the series did not yet exist in any tangible form, I would normally assume the project was doomed, and back carefully away. The Centenary’s proposal, however, did not seem doomed. Even with such breathtakingly short timelines, I had the strange feeling that this idea might actually come into being.
Several features of the URBANcITY / You Are Here proposal stood out for me:
1. It was a good idea. Put artists in vacant shopfronts. Do it. The idea’s as old as the hills, invented and reinvented independently by artists all over the world – I guess because it works. In this instance, I believe it was the Centenary’s Youth Advisory Committee that put the notion forward – for which, thank you dudes.
2. The Centenary of Canberra Unit did not just come up with a good idea and then sit around mulling over what a good idea they’d had – they moved on it. Really, really fast. Within a fortnight of my first meeting about the project, the Centenary managed to secure the support of Canberra CBD Limited for the project.
On 29 November, approximately 100 days before the first event, I signed up as Creative Producer for the You Are Here initiative. Myself, Assistant Producer Yolande Norris and Technical Coordinator Anthony Arblaster had a total of 100 days to curate, produce and promote an 11-day series of arts and cultural events in shopfronts and found venues around the Canberra CBD? Not feasible. Especially considering we had no shopfronts.
That’s where the fascinating thing kicks in. See, from our very first meetings with property managers (to ask whether we might be allowed to inhabit their empty outlets this March to stuff them to the gills with creative energy), there was a sense that we didn’t need to explain what we were doing – they already understood, they approved and they wanted to support it. Same with the artists – given incredibly vague briefs and no time to plan or prepare, they came back with extraordinary concepts for events and performances that respond perfectly to the venues and spaces we are occupying. Part of this is thanks to the Centenary and Canberra CBD Limited, who have provided this project with very strong foundations in a very short time. But the response of artists and stakeholders to You Are Here goes far beyond polite encouragement – people have contributed serious energy, time and resources to help us deliver an extraordinary 11 days of activity.
Now as we start to deal with the public, I’m finding the same thing. People don’t need the idea of You Are Here explained to them – they grasp it instinctively, and while I’m trying to outline some exciting new idea for dispersing small-scale performances throughout the city or whatever, they’ve already moved on to the next idea. And the idea after that. And then they stop me mid-sentence and ask a question that makes it clear how behind the eight-ball I am.
What I want to know is: How is this possible? And what does it mean?
At the end of spring, there was no such thing as You Are Here. Now it’s hurtling towards us like headlights in the fog, and it’s well and truly beyond anyone’s abilities to stop – I’m not even sure we could slow it down. It doesn’t feel like something we created – more like we somehow flicked a switch in Canberra’s genetic code, and suddenly this thing begins to emerge – something we’ve always seen but never really noticed, just part of the background that our eyes slide over – now suddenly it’s taking on shape, colour, mass and speed, and it’s huge and fast and it’s right on top of us.
What is it about You Are Here that people are responding to? Where has this momentum come from? Is this initiative a good thing for Canberra, and if so, why?
Some input and advice would be extremely valuable at this point, because this feels like it could be a pretty cool opportunity for our city and I don’t want it to slip through my hands without even realising it was there.