Robyn Archer never meant to be a festival director. For one thing, finding the time wouldn’t be easy. One of Australia’s leading cabaret artists, Archer was also busy finding success as an author, playwright and actor. She stumbled upon her latest career path in 1993, when a friend asked her to direct the Canberra Festival.
“As with most of my career, it’s all entirely by accident,” Archer says. “I’ve always been incapable of anything like a five-year plan. Anything that’s happened to me is because somebody says to me ‘would you like to try this’, and it’s invariably something which scares the hell out of me. For some unknown reason I just say yes.”
At the time, she didn’t feel that she was a natural choice for the role. “Most festival directors were men, were usually from Britain and had beards. So I became the first woman to direct one of Australia’s major festivals.”
Archer has since curated several big-name festivals and created several more. This month her creation The Light in Winter sees Federation Square transformed into a glowing refuge against the winter darkness.
Rob Caslick \ CBraille
“It’s obvious by figures alone that when June came in the past, the city shut down and the square started to get a bit gloomy,” Archer says. “Now that doesn’t happen until July, because the square has become livelier and people don’t really feel the cold as much. So in that sense the festival has warmed up the heart of Melbourne.”
Exhibits this year include a solstice celebration, a shining UFO and a specially commissioned sculpture by renowned Spanish collective Luzinterruptus. The latter promises to be a surprise to everyone involved.
“We don’t quite know what it’s going to look like, but they tend to be books that are lit in various ways, so you get a lava flow of books,” Archer says. “We’ve really given them Federation Square and its environs to do what they like.”
Books are very much the theme of this year’s exhibits. Given 2012 is the National Year of Reading, Archer (one of that program’s ambassadors) decided to focus on the importance of storytelling. As a result, the festival features a wide range of approaches to the art of reading, reflecting Archer’s keenness to involve as many different local communities as possible.
A campfire, run by indigenous elders and artists, will burn throughout June, providing a beacon for storytellers. Members of Melbourne’s Greek, Japanese and Jewish communities will host calligraphy workshops. And one of the most intriguing exhibits will ignore words and, instead, read the body.
“There are some cultures where reading only came with the arrival of Christianity,” Archer explains. “The reading that those cultures did was all about signs on the body, patterns, hieroglyphs, that sort of thing. We wanted to honour that.”
The highlight of this particular exhibition will see a Pacific Islander performer become a work of art herself, as she receives a tattoo. “It’s a tattoo down her backbone using preChristian-era hieroglyphs and, when she rises, she’ll then acknowledged as a person of wisdom in her adopted country.”
Another exhibit is equally tactile, if somewhat less painful. Created by Sydney engineer Rob Caslick, cBraille will be a lighting installation for the blind.
“We talk about light and things being beautiful, but that begs the question, well, what if you don’t have light? There’s a whole lot of backlit Braille and a soundscape. It allows visually impaired people to read it and also gives the wider population a sense of what it’s like to be without sight.”
Luzinterruptus \ Literature Versus Traffic
© GUSTAVO SANABRIA
There will also be more traditional approaches to the art of reading. Across five Saturdays, classic Victorian novel The Mystery of a Hansom Cab will be read in weekly instalments. The task of reading aloud will be split between visiting volunteers and a few famous faces.
There’s also Reading in Bed, in which people will be invited to spend the night in Fed Square, reading by whatever light source they use at home — be it bedside lamp, iPad or Kindle. A photograph of the gathered throng will be taken for posterity and readers will be asked to leave behind their rugs and sleeping bags for the Salvation Army.
Certainly, the festival will have no shortage of unusual bedfellows. Archer says her approach to curating owes a lot to her onstage background. “My mentor always used to say cabaret was all about the art of juxtaposition – about taking the young and old, familiar and unfamiliar – and putting them together in such a way that the one informs the one after. I think that’s a perfect description of festival making.”
The Light in Winter runs until July 1 in Federation Square. All events are free.