Why White Night worked
Prior to last Saturday, the idea of getting 300,000 people out on to a single Melbourne street at midnight is the sort of thing I felt like you could only really achieve through a terrorist attack or meteor strike. Yet there we were, hundreds of thousands of us, crammed onto Swanston St in a demographically diverse swarm, wandering up and down an utterly transformed CBD, witnessing buildings lit up and changed, spaces transformed and repossessed, art, design and light cascading out through alleyways and off rooftops; the grandiose next to the minute and seeming all the grander for it. This was the inaugural White Night Festival and I don’t think anybody, from participants to organisers to members of the 300,000 were prepared for exactly what happened next.
White Night is not by any means a new idea. Pioneered by the Russians (who, appropriately, have nights where darkness never wholly falls) and first exported by the French in 2001, White Night sees a city taken over for a single evening by a 12-hour orgy of arts, performance and drunk 15-year-olds. It happened on Saturday for the first time in Melbourne, and it truly did feel like something unique in the annals of Australian urban culture. Like you were witnessing some maturation of the Australian city, and the people who lived in it. And yeah, the 15-year-olds had a pretty good time too.
I will admit that when I first heard about the prospect last November, I was suspicious. For one, it seemed like the City of Melbourne was going from having the idea to trying to execute it in the span of a few months. In the sclerotic timeframes of your average government bureaucracy this is akin to having an aneurysm, with as much pre-planning as that analogy suggests. They’d performed a similar routine with the first Melbourne Music Week a few years ago and that had been a patchily attended, poorly publicised event that could at best have been described as “proof of concept”. I saw no reason why this would be much different, especially given what was being asked of people: to come into the city on a Saturday night at a time when the Herald Sun would have you believe the CBD is usually taken over by a well-organised force of hyper-violent drunks. At its worst, it conjured images of bedlam. Tens of thousands of heavily intoxicated people being crammed into a small space with limited means of escape. It could have been the London riots all over again.
But it wasn’t. It was a night devoid of major incident. A vindication yet again of the fact that when you give people responsibility, they generally exercise it wisely. This was a night where a substantial portion of Melbourne saw their city turned into something new. Where the drunks were actively suppressed by the majority and seemed out of place. Where people were far more interested in watching clouds of foam burst lazily from a magnificent contraption in the NGV, or seeing the Cat Empire perform at 2 am on the steps of Flinders St Station, or listening to classical music fill the State Library through the early hours, or placing themselves in a projection on the wall of City Square, or grimacing through 45 minutes of straight zombie gore in ACMI’s 101 Zombie Kills, or stumbling upon jazz bands in Degraves, or listening to readings in the Wheeler Centre at 5 am, or descending into a visceral fun-house-gone-wrong in the Hi-Fi. To finish it all, at 7am a choir sang along Princes Bridge while (in a magical coincidence) a fleet of hot-air balloons took flight against the sunrise.
Still, beyond anything on offer, the most common thing you heard from people was how remarkable it felt to be part of something so immense. Even at the moments where the streets were so packed you could barely move, where the possibility of actually consuming art was reduced to almost zero, there was still this sense that you were part of something huge. Something uncommon, if not unprecedented in Australia.
Australian cities have, at best, a nervous relationship with their populations. We are one of the most highly regulated countries on Earth, a place where an overhanging tree branch is a matter that can be dealt with by the courts. We dislike letting people gather without supervision. Clear, demarked boundaries closely watched by security is usually the name of the game. It’s a symptom of the paranoia that afflicts so many free, wealthy, orderly nations: the feeling that everything we have we have because things are just so. If people are left to their own devices, why who knows what might happen. Communism?
I think this is why something like White Night felt so pure and revolutionary, in its brief, quiet way. It was the city itself inviting us in and essentially surrendering control for 12 hours. And rather than destroying the place, you saw a better side of urbanity. There was drunkenness, noise, filth and patchy mobile reception (a crime most heinous these days) in differing amounts—and no doubt next year’s inevitable expansion will see the addition of bins and toilets and more space—but for the most part you simply saw people revelling in the suddenly limitless possibilities of their home. The joy of exploration. The slight delirium of the familiar made strange. The reminder that we live within a giant, swelling organism, filled with endless difference, but occasionally capable of acting with singular purpose.
As I caught a tram home, tired and bleary, sunlight flickering at the edge of night, a young Swedish guy took the opportunity to tell me that Melbourne was the new New York. He might have been overstating the case, but for these 12 hours it felt like there was nowhere else on Earth quite like it.