I really feel for any agoraphobes who manage to end up in the center of Melbourne tonight. It must be some serious fresh hell. Standing on the steps of Flinders Street station – where people are now lined up, taking photos on their phones as if overlooking the Grand Canyon – one can see a slowly shifting expanse of half-shadowed shoulders and haircuts, an endless crowd eager to move but dragged by its own immensity, like a heavy storm cloud in a breeze. The sky (mottled grey-black with a moon bleeding through) blanches nearer the rooftops, where especial lamps, spotlights and projections cast a glow throughout the landscape. Over on Elizabeth Street, the late-night LiquorLand has a queue stretching out the door, mingling with the passers-by who knock over a chained-up bike near the tram stop, and the unkempt busker who plays a mean “Brown Eyed Girl,” and a pretty good “Down Under,” flanked by two impromptu teenage dancer girls.
A Saturday night in the heart of Melbourne will, even at the worst of times, be a little lively. But tonight the streets are closed off to traffic, teeming with tightly compacted bodies of all ages and styles, bursting into otherwise neglected alleyways, swirling with the cacophony of a hundred thousand conversations. Why? What is so special about Saturday the 22nd of February?
At first, it seems, nothing – as if the people and the attraction are one and the same, an ourobouros – why is everyone in the city? Because everyone’s in the city. At first glance – save for some extra people and lights – nothing new is happening.
But tonight, Melbourne’s second “White Night,” (an import of the all-night, all-bright “Nuit Blanche” tradition from France), the city is punctuated by countless unusual and intriguing goings-on.
As I shuffle – at the speed of a cactus growing – along Swanston Street, a incongruous, noisy man comes barging through the throng. He’s called “Uptown Brown,” and he’s your quintessential one-man-band, with a sort of steampunk twise; his elaborate setup is dubbed a Goodtimes Gyratorscope, allegedly built from parts of a crashed biplane. He strolls by, stomping each kick-drum accent into being, strumming his little guitar and singing the words to Fats Waller’s “Aint Mishavin.” It all somehow filters through an antique speaker system, invoking a crackly simulacra of the 1920s. Then he vanishes into the sea of bodies, and I carry on.
I meet a buddy and we climb the stairs of a venue called the Furdydurke, where esteemed local experimental beats label This Thing is hosting its own private White Night bash. HYPERBOREA is spinning delightfully smooth vintage funk and soul jams upon entry; we duck out during Electric Sea Spider (alas!), and return for Perth representative CATLIPS. Catlips is Katie Campbell, also of Kucka, who has been consistently smashing her own personal best lately when it comes to crisp, pulsating beat-craft and glitched out weirdo visual accompaniment. Though the crowd in the upstairs Ferdydurke bar isn’t really in a dancing sort of zone, the set roars on and creates an irresistible ambience, undulating house-infused future vibes getting all up in the collective bloodstream. Melbourne producer and freakazoid DJ hero ANDRAS FOX now takes up selector duties, and though he never smiles or shows a great deal of emotion, he effectively French-kisses every person in the room with his gyrating potpourri of slinky jams.
We spill back out onto the street, encountering friends old and new. We pass food stalls, selling wallaby burgers and kangaroo pies, among more conventional fare. In the historic Melbourne Baths – which I never actually knew existed – there is a much-anticipated synchronized swimming performance, running all night long. We watch it from the mezzanine, the water glowing purple, red, green. It’s not particularly synchronized – the first segment featuring only one swimmer, the second two (with umbrellas) whose routines differ quite a bit – but it’s beautifully wholesome fun to behold, and slightly surreal to watch scores of faces watching one or two lonesome swimmers move slowly in an enormous inner-city pool.
Down another street, we see a man in a leather jacket barking some sort of spoken word over a backing track while a still image of flames sits on a screen behind him. Further along, in a courtyard of RMIT, is an installation called “Purple Rain,” which is exactly what it says on the packet: water droplets pouring down, people walking through with umbrellas, and purple light colourizing the whole affair (I think the titular Prince tune was playing, too, but I couldn’t really hear it). Brightly coloured, dynamic projection mapping sprawls itself across countless antique buildings, like the Swanston Street library. On street corners in tiny pop-up cinemas, different mini-features from the recent Tim Winton-derived “The Turning” film play. These are just the snippets of White Night we witness. There are hundreds of other artworks, performances, films, attractions, dotting these streets, in alcoves and hidden rooms and not so hidden spaces.
Eventually we find ourselves dancing with a woman with a giant prosthetic white horn and white bodysuit, while a sort of bleached centaur man eggs everyone on, and Laid Back’s “Ride The White Horse” plays. It’s ridiculous, and great – all manner of people intermingled in a sort of aimless but joyous frivolity. Plenty of what we saw on the street tonight was either baffling or pretty mediocre, but with an expansive street festival like this, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Hardly conducive to the careful contemplation of music or art, it’s more about getting lost in the snowy phantasmagoria, letting the scattered and all-inclusive “vibe” overwhelm you. Could Perth pull off a White Night? Sure – events like the Beaufort Street festival have already demonstrated that hordes of people, some of whom might otherwise be less inclined to explore the event’s individual components, are happy to dive into the density. If it happens, I advise retaining Laid Back’s “Ride The White Horse.” Man, what a banger.