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Sydney’s Vivid Festival champions its creative sectors – and its cityscape. Could we one day have a New Zealand equivalent?

Last month, I was given the opportunity to hop across the ditch, travel to Sydney and experience the city’s Vivid festival, an annual celebration divided into three pillars: lights, music and ideas – or more aptly, the city’s creative backbone.

For those not in the know, the best of Australia’s design, tech and innovation is on show at Vivid in a three-week long collation of lighting, music, art, events and speakers.

As is always the case, even some New Zealanders end up getting in the mix: last year, Kiwi Ash Bolland was the director of the animated show ‘Audio Creatures’ displayed on Sydney’s Opera House – one of the main attractions of the festival – while the New Zealand designed Ubco 2X2 electric bike was part of this year’s Good Design showcase.

Walking around the Sydney streets at night feels a bit like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. The city turns into a psychedelic melting pot of colours, with light fixtures decorating everything from Ferris wheels, to the middle of the harbour, to the enclosures at Taronga Zoo.

Vivid’s creative director Ignatius Jones says that each year, the streets of Sydney are treated as a canvas by taking art off of the walls of exhibitions and museums and putting it onto the cityscape.  

“Vivid Sydney is about encouraging diversity, creativity and individual artistic license,” he says. “Presenting icons such as the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge in a way people have never seen is always exciting, and we’re always looking to surprise.”

Inspiration for the ideas that feature on this canvas comes from everywhere, he says, while most of it is generated authentically rather than defining a key topic or theme for the festival.

The goal is to strike a chord with the audience, he says, which is why as part of the ‘Ideas’ section of the festival, there was a lean towards discussions around technology and artificial intelligence (like events called ‘Mummy, can I marry my avatar?) as well as cultural hot topics such as the #MeToo movement, how to disrupt the education system and exploration (while in Sydney, Idealog interviewed Avatar and Titanic James Cameron about deep sea exploration, which will be in our upcoming Technology issue).

“Those topics are on people’s minds, so we seek to delve deeper and offer up credible and renowned talent who can speak about them with authority,” Jones says.

After three days spent mixing with local creatives at the Semi-Permanent Sydney event, as well as a few nights spent roaming the city and seeing the merging of modern technology meeting artwork, I came away in no doubt that the festival is successful in championing the city’s creative sectors.

But I’m also undeniably more invested in this kind of stuff, given my job title. So what about the everyday sort of person who isn’t writing about these sectors on a day-to-day basis? Do they come away with an appreciation for the creative sector, too?

Jones thinks so. Alongside bringing profile to Sydney in the traditionally quieter winter months, he says Vivid gives local and international artists the chance to showcase their work to a public that might not have necessarily have sought it out otherwise, making it accessible and relatable.

“Different people will get different things out of a common experience. Some will admire the art, some will be in awe of the technological support behind the installations and others will just enjoy a night out with a different backdrop to Sydney,” he says.

“There are also some people who will be inspired in their own artistry.

“The entire programme brings creativity into the mainstream and paves the way for people who may not have usually considered experiencing the art, music or speakers we have on offer to do exactly that.

And while up-and-coming artists are showcased, the festival also draws some pretty big names into town. James Cameron, Solange and Neil Finn were all in attendance to talk or perform, while Google Empathy Lab founder Danielle Krettek and ex-Wired editor Scott Dadich were some of the headliners at the Semi-Permanent Sydney event (keep your eyes peeled for an interview with both in the Tech Issue), adding some international clout.

Semipermanent Sydney

For those who think that it’s just an expensive exercise in making a city look pretty, Vivid is also an economic boon. Last year, 2.33 million people attended the festival, injecting an AU$143 million boost to the New South Wales economy. This shows you can put a price on creativity – and a high one at that.

All of this reminded me of a report released by PwC and DesignCo, which declared that New Zealand’s design sector contributed $10.1 billion to our GDP last year. Clearly, we’re pretty talented in this area (if you don’t believe me, take the fact an Australian festival entrusted a Kiwi to direct its Opera House animated show at Vivid Sydney last year as proof).

It seems strange that this sector in Aotearoa is thriving, and yet we have nothing of Vivid Sydney’s calibre to celebrate our creative chops across design and tech in an urban environment.

Wellington’s Lux Festival is an amazing public lights festival, but doesn’t have a speaker or events schedule wrapped around it. Techweek always provides great inspiration with its talks, but is missing the design or art showcase side of things. We also have our own Semi-Permanent Auckland event, just not a wider festival surrounding it. 

For now, Kiwis will continue to seek out inspiration at Vivid Sydney. And conveniently it’s only a three hour flight away. But I hope that one day, we might be bold enough to try celebrate our different creative sectors – and our cities – on our home turf.

Elly travelled to Vivid Sydney courtesy of Destination New South Wales.

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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