Tag Archives: Vivid

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 4

Saturday dawned with yet another clear sky. I finally understood that El Niño and the weather gods are smiling on the Writers’ Festival this year, and my light linen jacket was all the warmth I needed. It was my busiest day at the Festival, even busier for The Art Student, who went in early for The Joy of Art with Betty Churcher, John Armstrong and Alex Monroe. Rachel Kent, director of the MCA, who chaired the session, tried to keep up the SWF tradition of ditching her advertised topic, in this case presumably because joy hasn’t been sufficiently theorised, but according to the Art Student the panellists gave the audience what they’d paid for and kept joy on the agenda.

I arrived at Walsh Bay in time to join the AS in the packed Sydney Theatre for

11.30 am: Reza Aslan: Zealot
There’s a famous clip on YouTube of Reza Aslan being interviewed on Fox News. The Fox person is outraged that Aslan, a Muslim, has written Zealot, a book about Jesus Christ. The implication hangs in the air that this close to a literary equivalent of 9/11. Aslan is the very picture of cool reason, repeating over and over that he is a scholar who studies religion and has a scholarly interest in Jesus. He insists, to the point of being boring, that his primary identity in this context is as a scholar rather than as a Muslim.

I was a little worried that he might be just as one-track boring when not dealing with a terrified fundamentalist, a worry which was intensified by my past experience of interlocutor Steven Gale as somehow impersonal, even mechanical. But my worries were total garbage  – both men were fabulous. Reza Aslan was witty, warm and exuberant as well as scholarly; Steven Gale obviously liked him and revealed a mischievous streak of his own, at one stage slapping his thighs in enjoyment.

Aslan’s book is about the historical Jesus rather than what he calls ‘the Christ of faith’, but he’s not a debunker – not, as he put it one of those biblical scholars who peers as if down a microscope and cries, ‘Ooh, look at all the people believing things!’ Asked what was known with certainty about the historical Jesus, he said that if you brought a hundred biblical scholars onto the stage and asked that question, once the fisticuffs had finished they would come up with a hundred different answers. But they would agree on three things: he was a Jew; he preached something called the kingdom of heaven, though there would be much disagreement about what it was; and the Roman occupiers executed him because of that. All the same, he says there’s nothing particularly new in his book – its aim is to open up the field to a wider audience. Sure, he takes many positions that other scholars will disagree with, but then he lists the disagreers in copious endnotes.

Jesus was almost certainly illiterate. He was one of probably hundreds of self-proclaimed messiahs of the first century of the common era, which Aslan said was the Middle East’s most turbulent period in history (cue gasp from audience!). Every messiah, including Jesus, had a project to free the Jewish people from the oppressive Romans, and when each one failed he was seen not to have been the real messiah. Jesus differed crucially (no pun intended, the cross wasn’t particularly distinctive) in that his disciples reported experiencing him as risen from the dead – something completely novel in the Hebrew context.

The four Gospels, he pointed out uncontroversially, were written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Given that the Jesus movement had been pretty unsuccessful among Jews, the Gospel accounts were tailored to make it more attractive to the Romans. This they did in three ways: they made Jesus’ teachings seem less embedded in Jewish culture, more ‘universal’; they removed the nationalism, translating it into ‘spiritual’ terms; they shifted the blame for his death from the Romans to the Jews (what we know of the historical Pontius Pilate’s extraordinary cruelty makes the Gospels’ account of him reluctantly complying with the High Priests’ demand that he crucify Jesus completely implausible).

Aslan ended on an enigmatic note: in all the gospels, it was women who discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead. This is a stumbling block for historians, because at that time women could not be called as witnesses, so if the gospels were inventing the story they would have picked  someone else as the discoverers. [I immediately decided that Mary Magdalen was the key person who ensured that the Jesus movement survived his death.]

We had an hour for lunch and then were just about the last people to squeeze into the Philharmonia Studio for

1.30: The Changing Face of Indigeneity: Now and Beyond
Wesley Enoch, Anita Heiss and playwright Nakkiah Lui were on a panel chaired beautifully by Lydia Miller. If I understood what Lydia Miller said in her introductory remarks, Native Title legislation of the early 1990s changed the way people in Australia think about indigenous identity, because it led to a diversity of narratives. There is also diversity because of intergenerational differences – I think I heard correctly that 60 percent of Aboriginal Australians are now under 25 years old, and 40 percent of those are under 15.

The panellists, two from the theatre and one novelist, addressed the theme interestingly. Wesley Enoch described himself as a psychological vampire, looking around for young Aboriginal blood for use in the theatre. Anita Heiss told us that there are 60 different pieces of legislation in Australia defining what it is to be Aboriginal, and this obsession on the part of whites with defining Aboriginal identity  was something that Aboriginal artists constantly have to negotiate: ‘We don’t sit around discussing identity with each other all day, you know. We have other things to do, like shopping.’  Nakkiah Lui, who spoke very quickly with the result that she was often incomprehensible to me (more about that later), said she was interested in critiquing the power relationships that were the context of cultural work. All three of them brought both zest and urgency to the question of challenging the dominant culture’s unremitting project of containing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in straitening identities.

[I’m writing this after seeing the wonderful Brothers Wreck at Belvoir Street on Sunday evening. The play reminded me of two other comments: Nakkiah Lui pointed out that there had been two Indigenous productions a year at Belvoir Street for some time now, and that this was building on an established tradition of Aboriginal theatre making. Wesley Enoch said that at the Queensland Theatre Company (of which he is Artistic Director) they find that if the audience is more than 20 percent Aboriginal, the response to Aboriginal theatre is completely different – the white audience members become a lot less uncertain in their responses, more open to the work.]

And then with a rapid change of mindset, to

3 pm: #three jerks,
This is a descendant of Alleyway Honour, a highlight of the 2009 Writers’ Festival. Like that event it is an austerely theatrical reading devised by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and directed by Roslyn Oades. Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Luke Carman and Peter Polites, three of the five readers from the earlier production, here read interlocking first-person stories. My assumption is that each of them wrote his own story.

Opening with an infamous 2006 quote from Sydney Muslim cleric Sheikh Hilaly about where blame should be apportioned for a number of rapes in Western Sydney, the stories play out a key couple of days in the lives of a number of Western Sydney adolescents – a gay Greek boy, a white boy who gets caught up in a petty crime, and Lebanese boys dealing with adolescent sexual politics. Some of it is confronting stuff, but there’s an intelligent reaching for understanding, and a basic decency in all three narratives.

The show is scheduled for a second appearance at the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne: at the Wheeler Centre 7 pm Friday 30 May. So if you’re in Melbourne here’s a chance to hear voices direct from Western Sydney, to provide some kind of counterpoint to the constant wailing about Western Sydney in the political commentariat.

[Luke Carman read very quickly, too quickly for me to understand most of it. This being the third time I’ve made such a complaint at this Festival, I have to ask if the problem isn’t with me rather than the rapid speakers. My ever-sympathetic partner is adamant that the problem is not that Melbourne poets, young playwrights and anglophone Western Sydneysiders talk too fast, but that my deafness has passed the point where I need a hearing aid.]

Bickering amiably about my growing disability, we headed up the queue outside the same theatre for the next session:

4.30: Jeremy Scahill: Dirty Wars
Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist from the US, chatted for an hour to Australian TV journalist  Mark Davis about his book detailing the extent of the US’s covert military operations, particularly those undertaken by the Joint Security Operations Council.  This was pretty scary stuff: Scahill’s early discoveries were dismissed by a spokesman for the White House as conspiracy fantasy, but the Snowden tapes confirmed that he was right on the money. Denied access to top levels of the military and the government, he has nonetheless built a substantial number of sources at the operational level. Mark Davis repeatedly expressed his astonishment and envy that in the US public employees seem to be willing to speak frankly to the press in a way that is not only illegal in Australia, but also simply not done.

Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (subtitle taken from a Dick Cheney memo) is a hefty paperback. We stayed to watch the film of the same name, which follows his investigation into darker and darker territory until it reaches the climax of the killing by drone of a 16 year old boy, a US citizen against whom no charge had every been made. This was by a military unit that was legitimised by Rumsfeld but now operates under Barack Obama’s direct authority.

We walked to the train though the incredible crowds that had turned out for the first Saturday night of the Vivid Festival. The Opera House, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Customs House are all lit spectacularly. Having just come from these revelations of what the government of our special allies are doing in almost complete secrecy it was hard not to think of bread and circuses. Here’s the bit from Juvenal’s 10th Satire (which I found on Wikipedia):

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 3


The view from outside the Bar at the End of the Wharf

On Friday the sun was still shining. My only event of the day, in the Wharf Theatre 2, confusingly located on Pier 4, was

4.30: The Big Read

This is story time for a big room full of big people. It’s not quite as comforting as dozing off on your mother’s lap to the sound of a Hans Andersen horror story. Dozing is not unheard of, but the main point, at least for me, is to sample bits from writers who are new to me or who, as with two of this year’s line-up, I’ve developed a prejudice against (I’m not saying which).

But first, the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist awards were presented by Linda Morris, who writes for the Herald on literary matters. These awards, instigated 18 years ago by Susan Wyndham who was and still is  Herald‘s literary editor, carry no monetary prize – each of four young(ish) people was presented with a certificate and what looked like a bottle of wine. They were: Luke Carman (An Elegant Young Man), who has been appearing in this blog for some years now; Balli Kaur Jaswal (Inheritance); Hannah Kent (Burial Rites); and Fiona McFarlane (whose The Night Guest won a money prize at the NSW Premier’s Awards). They stood in a row looking awkward while we applauded, then politely melted into the darkness to make way for the older writers, introduced with her trademark enthusiasm by Annette Shun Wah.

Lian Hearn, the novelist of mediaeval Japan formerly known as Gillian Rubinstein, author of much loved children’s books such as Space Demons and Beyond the Labyrinth, read to us from her latest Japan novel, The Storyteller and his Three Daughters, a smooth, lucid excerpt that was mainly about writing.

Dara Horn from the US read from A Guide for the Perplexed – her book, not Maimonides’ – giving us an intriguing glimpse of a book in which tales from two different eras explore the idea of having a total record of a life: in one, a character develops software that records everything; in the other a late 19th century scholar discovers a comprehensive trove of documents in a Cairo synagogue that had not been cleaned out for a thousand years.  Such a trove of documents really has been found, and such software isn’t entirely implausible

Alex Miller read from Coal Creek. I’m afraid I didn’t get much sense of the book from this reading. It was largely a mundane recount of a man and a horse called Mother and it went on well over its allotted time so that everyone else had to whip their readings along.

Eimear McBride read from A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. In the bit she read the character was a 13 year old girl who may or may not have been contemplating suicide by drowning. The uncertainty was in the character’s mind, rather than mine, I think. The precise meaning didn’t matter so much: as Annette Shun Wah commented, it was like listening to jazz with, I would add, a beautiful Irish/Joycean accent. (The ABC has uploaded an earlier session of Eimear McBride in conversation with Michael Cathcart.)

Adam Johnson finished us off with a chilling bit from The Orphan Master’s Son. ‘You won’t understand this,’ he said, ‘because it’s an extract.’ It was the session’s only piece with a clear, strong narrative, and I would have rushed out to buy the book only two of my companions said they had read most of it, thought it was  really wonderful, but couldn’t finish it because it was so unremittingly grim. I still might give it a go …

We were on the train home before the Opera House and Customs House lit up for the Vivid Festival. We’ll look at the lights tonight, after a full day at the festival.

Social Firefly at Wellington Lux

Sydney has Vivid. Wellington has Lux.

My son Liam Ryan and his collaborators Frank Maguire and Jason McDermott, have had installations in Vivid Sydney for three years now. This year they go international: Wellington Lux has invited them to bring their 2011 creation, Social Firefly, across the Tasman. It will be part of the Urban Alive exhibition in Wellington 21–24 June, and they will be speaking at a Symposium on Sunday 23 June. My Kiwi reader, if there is one, has now been given advance notice.


Morphic Mirror at the Vivid Festival

Winter’s coming on in Sydney, with fog and bitter chills (bitter by Sydney standards – probably balmy if you’re from Saskatchewan). The Writers’ Festival is over and the Film Festival is more than a week away. But there’s Vivid to light up our nights.

The Opera House, Customs House and the MCA become screens for brilliant animation at 6 o’clock every night from last Friday to Monday week. I don’t think any of the three is up to the standard set in the last two years, but it’s still worth joining the crowds at Circular Quay each night for the spectacle. There are luminous spectacles along Macquarie Street, in Luna Park, and in Darling Harbour as well – I haven’t seen them yet, but the photos on the Vivid site are very promising.

Those are the big items. But the walk from the Opera House to the Rocks and down to Walsh Bay involves, I don’t know, hundreds of smaller scale light sculptures and installations. There’s an electric graffiti wall in a lane in the Rocks that has butterflies flying through rainforest – but all the foliage wilts and dies when anyone walks too close. There are myriad mirror balls in a Walsh Bay breezeway. There are enough interactive light-projecting set-ups to keep a family happy for hours.

And again this year, my brilliant son Liam and friends are part of it, with their creation, the Morphic Mirror. It’s a responsive funhouse mirror: hold your arms wide and the surface of the mirror contorts so that  your reflection broadens; wave your hands in the air, cross your arms over your body, and your image morphs in response. Like the Social Fireflies and Screaming Rapture of previous years, the Morphic Mirror has an intimate, human-sized feel, and as this video demonstrates is a real crowd pleaser, one person at a time.

Morphic Mirror is created by Frank Maguire, Jason McDermott and Liam Ryan.

There’s more to Vivid than the lights. Evidently there’s music and ideas as well. The lights will do me.

My two sons and friends

Have a look at this music video, directed by my elder son, featuring the Screaming Rapture of which my younger son is co-creator, music by a friend of them both.

If you saw the Screaming Rapture at last year’s Vivid Festival, you probably would have had no idea it was capable of the kind of complex responsiveness it shows here.

(If the embedding doesn’t work, you can see the clip on YouTube.)

Screaming Rapture at Vivid

I’ve been having trouble getting to the blogging desk this week, but I can’t let any more time go past without saying what a great time I had visiting Vivid down at the Quay last Friday night.

Vivid is billed as a Festival of Light, Music and Ideas. All I’ve seen is the light. I was at a lecture on contemporary art recently where a stooped and grey-bearded gentleman decried the ascendancy of spectacularism in contemporary art exhibitions. He may have said something about bread and circuses, and he certainly did say that somehow spectacle serves the agendas of governments. So I’m uneasily aware that I may be contributing to the end of civilisation as we know it if I recommend the multi-faceted spectacle of Circular Quay just now. However, recommend it I will.

The lighting of the Opera House Sails is fabulous: the moment when they started to flutter was heartstopping. The sails, the Customs House trompe l’oeil and  the gigantic Socialist Realist animation on the MCA are the Really Big Items, with the sunflowers and roses in the Argyle Cut not far behind. But there are any number of smaller works, many of them interactive, to enrich a stroll around the quay from now until 11 June.

In some ways the most restrained exhibit of all is Screaming Rapture. In contrast to the bright colours everywhere else, it’s a relatively small, stark black structure with a white light inside it. All it does is respond to sound – different ones of its black louvres open in response to different frequencies, volumes and durations. As we arrived from the Rocks, we could hear rhythmic clapping, which turned out to be someone playing with it. In my brief time in front of it, a small child sang and just the top row of louvres flickered. A man shouted basso profondo and just the bottom rows stood open. I sang ‘My love is like a red red rose’, and it moved prettily. Later we heard prolonged screaming and saw the whole rectangle show bright white.

Photo by Reuters, downloaded from hungeree.com

There’s a nice piece on the SMH site where one of the creators, Frank Maguire, talks about it. My son Liam Ryan is another of the brains (and late night labourers) who brought it into being. It’s not just paternal warmth that makes me think that amid all the awe-inspiring (I mistyped that as aww-inspiring, and I guess that’s accurate as well)  spectacle, this piece speaks of a world where technology is at our beck and call, doing the bidding of even the smallest child.

The Screaming Rapture Cometh

Last year my son Liam was one of the team that created Social Fireflies for the Vivid festival. This year they’re producing Screaming Rapture. The social fireflies moved in response to light, from outside or from each other. The louvres of the rapture respond to sound. You make a noise. They flash. I don’t know about the title, but it’s looking cool.

Fireflies in the Inner West Courier

That‘s my son, one of ‘three inner west designers’:

In a fig tree in Circular Quay there are 48 mechanical fireflies ready and waiting to dance with you.

Each firefly has a brain, which is a circuit board, and an energy efficient LED light in their tail.


On Friday night we caught the bus to Circular Quay for the start of Vivid. To tell the truth, I’ve had only the vaguest idea of what Vivid is until now. Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed have featured in past years, and I’ve heard that the Opera house has been lit spectacularly. I’ve meant to have a look, but never managed the trip to town. I’m not sure I’ve completely grasped the concept yet, but it’s at least partly a festival of light-related art.

The animated illuminations of the Opera House are wonderful. The Customs House, if anything, is even more wonderful. For gee-whiz technical brilliance and stuff you can’t take your eyes off, they’d both be hard to beat. There’s a reason so many people were lugging proper cameras with tripods around the Quay area. I won’t embarrass myself by uploading any of what I managed to capture on my iPhone. Vivid have a photostream on Flickr, and here’s someone else’s take on Customs House from You Tube:

Apart from the two big items, there are more than 40 ‘light sculptures‘ scattered around the Quay and the Rocks. Number 23, Social Firefly, was the big drawcard for us. Created by Jason McDermott, Liam Ryan & Frank Maguire, the second of whom is one of my two brilliant sons, it’s a medium sized fig tree near the MCA that’s full of gizmos. Here’s a phone shot of one gizmo in captivity:

The tails of these gizmos (at the bottom of the one in the photo) light up firefly green when light shines on them, and they also move in response to light. So a beam of light from, say, the torch tethered to the tree, will make one of the ‘fireflies’ light up, and set it swinging back and forth. When its light hits another, that one is animated in turn, and soon the whole tree is full of dancing green lights. It’s not the only interactive sculpture, and it’s certainly not the easiest to photograph or film (as the Art Student and I demonstrated to our own satisfaction), but it’s fascinating, and gets the paternal pride cells swelling

So there you are, that’s a glimpse of this Vivid thing that fills the weeks between the Writers’ Festival and the Film Festival in Sydney.


The Sydney Writers’ Festival is over, and Vivid is about to light the town up. In this house we’ve been aware of a Vivid project that looks very interesting, and the Sydney Morning Herald site put up a teaser for it on the weekend:

They buzz like fireflies, light up like fireflies, but forget about calling them insects. Social Firefly is the latest installation to be announced as part of the Vivid festival, and is made up of a smattering of interactive robots flying around the fig tree at the Overseas Passenger Terminal.

The creatures are a collaboration between designers Liam Ryan and Jason McDermott from the firm Arup and Frank Maguire.

They have been programmed to respond to light, and to each other.

‘When light is shone on one of these little creatures, it will react and change the way it is moving and shine light around its immediate neighbourhood,’ McDermott said.

Visitors to the installation will be able to shine torches on the ‘fireflies’ to provoke a response, and see the ripple effect of that on the community in the tree.

Vivid starts of Friday, and Fireflies is scheduled to be switched on at 6 o’clock.