The nation’s second oldest city turns to digital urban story telling to activate its forgotten spaces
Hot off the heels of Sydney’s premier digital art festival, Vivid Sydney, comes a new light festival with a distinctively local twist. Celebrating its heritage as Australia’s second oldest city, the Victorian facades of Watt St, Newcastle, lit up on Friday night with images of times past, paying homage to the city’s unique place in the nation’s history.
From the arrival of Europeans to the twenty-first century, City Evolutions is itself a milestone in the transformation of the once infamous Steel City, from industrial heartland to creative hub boasting more artists per capita than anywhere in the country. A joint venture between the City, the University of Newcastle and independent design group ESSEM projects, Vice-Chancellor of the University Professor McMillen said the project was an innovative way of digital storytelling.
"Newcastle is an emerging creative, digital and technological hub which hasn't forgotten its roots as one of Australia's industrial powerhouses”, Professor McMillen said.
A city once synonymous with steel and heavy industry, Newcastle could not escape the forces of twentieth century globalisation and the growing competition brought on by the manufacturing powerhouses of Asia. The recession of the 1990s hit hard, with unemployment peaking at 17% in 1993. Like many former industrial cities the city struggled to come to terms with its decline, its loss of identity.
Newcastle has, however, been largely spared the same level of corrosive degeneration and social upheaval experienced by its north American and European counterparts. Aided by investment in tourism, health and education, Newcastle has gradually emerged as a regional hub of excellence in research and—much to the surprise of locals—even made the Lonely Planet’s top ten cities to visit in the world in 2011. Further, in an act of defiance against an obstinate tide of industrial decline, the city’s port has endured owing to a growing global appetite for the Hunter Valley region’s plentiful coal reserves.
But whilst the city’s hinterland has experienced population growth typical of east coast Australia, the CBD by the end of the twentieth century was on its last legs, the once bustling core facing increasing competition from new suburban shopping malls and peripheral business precincts. Then in 1989, disaster struck, with Australia’s most powerful earthquake in recent history tearing through the urban fabric and shredding landmark buildings. Embattled by nature and the allure of the suburbs, urban renewal has been a slow process. Only a few years ago, it was thought some 150 buildings still remained empty, yearning for repair and reuse.
But out of decay is born a burning desire for change—and opportunity. The City Evolutions festival is the city’s most recent demonstration of tactical urbanism; projects intended to bring life back to the CBD through activation of forgotten spaces. It is no surprise that one of the most ambitious—and successful—grass-roots urban intervention strategies was born in Newcastle. A formula now replicated in a number of other cities, Renew Newcastle matches artists, start-ups, cultural projects and community groups with unoccupied commercial space for reduced or no rent. Last month Renew Newcastle hosted 0 to 100: The Projects of Renew Newcastle, an exhibition showcasing the initiative’s activation of 52 spaces with 100 creative projects since 2009.
The City Evolutions festival, 10,000 hours in the making, builds upon this ground swell of urban activity. The interactive light show will run every night between sunset and 10pm over the next twelve months, with the creative works changing as the year progresses.