Shedding light on cultural frameworks for prosperous economic strategy

Over the last decade a new form of festival has been flooding cities and lighting up the faces of citizens. Pardon the cliche puns, but of course I am talking about events that use projections to temporarily activate urban landscapes. In these events surfaces that are passive, be it not for the history they represent, come alive under a mask of digitally rendered images.

So it is of no surprise that as the Fisher’s Ghost Festival in Campbelltown wrapped up for another year, Councillors had already passed a motion to conduct a feasibility study on how to re-invigorate the festival – at night time.

The Fisher’s Ghost Festival is an annual ten day event every November in Campbelltown. It takes its name from the local legend of Frederick George James Fisher – a convict and local farmer who mysteriously disappeared in 1826. So the legend goes, wealthy farmer John Farley stumbled into a local hotel claiming to have seen Fisher’s ghost sitting on the rail of a bridge (now located in the C-A-C sculpture garden). He claimed that the ghost pointed into the distance of a nearby paddock, where Fisher’s body was later located. The legend inspired a generation, including Raymond Longford’s 1924 silent film, but for contemporary audiences attuned to postcolonial issues, a community festival in his name is jarring. Over the past two years, the festival has seen minor program amendments. However this year it became more apparent, particularly at the once popular street parade, that a renewed creative vision is required in order for the place-based festival to remain relevant to the region’s audience

Local media was quick to jump on what was referred to as a Vivid-esque opportunity, especially given that 2016 marked the second year of IlluminARTe. With audience numbers growing to 25,000, IlluminARTe is a night-time event held in Picton, the centre of neighbouring Wollondilly Shire Council.

Most of the local discourse around the motion from Campbelltown Councillor George Brticevic, has underplayed the logistics of hosting a “Vivid-esque” event. As residents of Picton who participated in the development of IlluminARTe know, it is much more than just flooding buildings – historic and modern – in light. These projections require technical skills in digital rendering and mapping, as well as an artistic skill set such as understanding use of colour and composition. These festivals represent a shift away from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to STEAM (where the A stands for the Arts) thinking.

More importantly though, there is a conflation around the distinctly different models posed by Vivid Sydney and IlluminARTe in Picton.
If analysed Campbelltown City Council can learn a great deal from these distinctions. Both Destination NSW and Wollondilly Shire Council demonstrate that prosperous cities reconcile economic strategy with cultural programming. Mistakenly, economic and cultural strategy are often seen to be at odds, but need to coexist for prosperous civic life. Jon Hawkes argued this case in his 2001 paper ‘The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability’. There is yet to be another text written to further or challenge his idea that prosperous cities integrate Social, Economic, Environmental and sustainability strategies with a cultural framework for assessment.

For Destination NSW and Vivid Sydney, this is executed with a top down strategy – where tourism and economic strategy drive cultural programming – bringing leading global thought leaders together in a slurry of overpriced events. Whereas for IlluminARTe in Picton, a clear bottom-up community cultural development framework is employed.  A series of artist-led workshops with residents and schools assists in the development of content for the festival and local makers populate a night market. Local assets are embraced as global. For Campbelltown, I would argue that there is a huge opportunity to reconcile the two models and shape best practice.

I should call out that I have a personal interest in this – I am a resident of the Campbelltown LGA and passionate advocate for the arts and issues affecting young people. I have an appreciation for the role of local government. As the institution (in theory) closest to its citizens and acting in their service, this motion to reimagine the Fisher’s Ghost Festival is an opportunity to not only bridge Economic Strategy with Community Cultural Development, but to bridge the generation gap and increase the visibility of diversity in public spaces.

Beyond researching existing case studies nationally and internationally, how can Campbelltown start to explore what is best practice in creative activation of public spaces?
It starts with co-design. ABS data suggests that nearly 60% of Campbelltown’s population is 18-59. Once an area for new families, it is earmarked for exponential growth over the next two decades. This means many of the services and facilities need to adapt and infrastructure needs to be upgraded if the region is going to retain the skills and knowledge of its youth population.

At this year’s festival, my personal observation was that young people aged 18-29 were not effectively catered for. I attended in both official and personal capacities, but it felt like a somewhat tokenistic inclusion, frustrated by the ongoing ghosts and ghouls connotation. That’s where Co-Design will be an effective model to drive creative vision for the festival.

Co-Design is a collaborative framework for strategy and culture. It brings together people with different knowledge and skill sets to co-create solutions to problems.

Ensuring the end user is involved from the ideation to implementation stages is crucial to the co-design model. It acknowledges that young people’s skill sets and experiences can be combined with that of other generations to create innovative solutions. For the major place-based festival on the LGA’s calendar, bridging the generation gap will be crucial moving forward and co-design can help facilitate that.

Best practice in place-based activations:

  • reconcile economic policy with community cultural engagement and development
  • drives tourism through world-class events, but
  • finds integrity in building connectivity and pride in fostering community identity.

As Campbelltown shapes its identity into the future, the Fisher’s Ghost Festival needs to be thrust into the future as a leader in STEAM thinking and best practice in community cultural engagement. If the impacts of temporary place-based events are only felt in the short term, then they are not best practice.

Building a sense of pride in place and connectivity in residents should resound throughout the year, with festivals merely an opportunity to facilitate the coming together of communities.


This article was first published by State of the Arts Media on the 15th December, 2016.
Image by Brett Atkins and courtesy of Wollondilly Shire Council and Southern Tablelands Arts.

%d bloggers like this: