December 2010: we all discover there is a mysterious, cavernous and unoccupied auditorium space on the rooftop of a Canberra CBD building. Before we know it the space is proffered to students from the ANU School of Art to do as they will, and a night of artwork, bands and hijinx ensues in the form of the Chain Gang exhibition.
I checked out the art and left the show well within my bedtime, when things were still rather civilised, save the obvious early dedication of punters to the temporary bar. I can only rely on outside reports to piece the outcome together (check The RiotACTs write up HERE) but as I understand it the whole operation got a little out of hand and was shut down by the boys in blue around about pumpkin hour.
My thoughts immediately went out to the property’s owner, who had generously offered the venue to students upon hearing that artists might be interested in the space. A good deed that saw him having to deal with some unexpected fallout above and beyond sticky carpets.
The plethora of guerilla/DIY events in Canberra, fuelled by individuals with the audacious initiative that makes this city great, not only demonstrates a shortage of venues for emerging and experimental arts but also an ingrained desire of audiences to stick it to ‘The Man’. Unfortunately I fear that this desire has little connection to the realities of the situation in Canberra and far, far more to do with pop-culture saturation and romanticised notions of ‘revolution’.
A night of madness held in a building that is about to be demolished by corporate giants is a very different beast from a night of madness in a completely operational building loaned by a sympathetic and friendly property owner who has to face up to the situation the next day.
For me the worst part of Chain Gang’s aftermath isn’t that we are unlikely to see any arts events in that venue in the near future (if ever again), but that the majority of those present on the night blamed ‘The Man’ for the shutdown. I don’t know who ‘The Man’ is in this case, let alone how he has anything to do with people throwing bottles or climbing on rooftops.
Equally as useless as the blame game is using Canberra as a scapegoat when things don’t go quite right. The outcry post Chain Gang has largely been one of “Canberra never lets anything good happen” or “this is exactly why I moved away.” To this I say – the exhibition happened. The party happened. You had a good time. Poor planning and a few jerks just gave it a sour aftertaste, making it all the less likely it will happen again. I will also remind these folk – parties get shut down IN EVERY CITY IN THE ALL THE WORLD. Things get messy, people get hurt, it’s too noisy or smelly and at some point it all has to end.
If you really want to see exciting events happen in Canberra then I’m sure you realise sitting around wingeing makes you part of the problem. If you have an idea, just think about how similar things have worked or not worked in the past, take care of each other and don’t burn your bridges. And if you attend one of these events, think about who is ‘The Man’ in this situation: who has to clean up tomorrow, talk to the cops, the paramedics, the lynchmob media. Chances are it’s not the government.
Well organised events run by folk who have done their research will do more to further the possibilities for art in Canberra than any riot ever will.