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52 Weeks of #SydCulture: Week 16

By Roslyn Helper

Welcome to the 15th guest blog post of Time Out Sydney's 52 Weeks of #SydCulture 2017 challenge! April's culture selector is Roslyn Helper: director of Underbelly Arts Festival, artist (solo and as part of Zin), and former artistic director of Electrofringe. Every Wednesday of April, Roslyn will be telling us what she loved the week before. Think of it as your recommendations for this week, from someone who sees a helluva lot of arts and culture. Over to her.

This week a friend posted on Facebook: “Sydney needs less Pop Ups and more STAY UPs”. The statement received hundreds of likes and dozens of comments.

Sydney is a city where the lifespan of your favourite restaurant could be three months, where rental accommodation can feel like a perpetual AirBnB pop up, and where many independent art spaces have to close their doors within a year or two of opening, due to red tape, high rental prices or neighbour complaints. It is, as one commenter quipped, “the city that always sleeps… kind of the opposite of New York”. Pop up culture definitely plays an important role in maintaining the vibrancy and excitement of inner-city life, but conversely, the effects of a culture that champions transience, impermanence and instability can take its toll on individuals and communities trying to establish meaningful, lasting connection.

Enter Down / Under, the new independent space for art located underneath Freda’s in Chippendale. The space has recently been transformed from a leaky, dusty underground storage room into a white walled multi-purpose gallery and art space. Curated by a team led by Anna May Kirk, it’s a clever, legal marriage of art and booze, bringing audiences into the bar on weeknights whilst providing free space for artists to present their work.

Last week, my collaborator Harriet Gillies and I were invited to show some new work at Down / Under as part of their performance program. We decided to use the opportunity to present excerpts of a new performance we have been working on, where I have written a script assisted by an automated text prediction keyboard on my phone – and given the results to Harriet to bring to life on stage. The work doesn’t yet have a name. Before Thursday’s performance there wasn’t a complete working script, any confirmed actors, no documentation, and no real forward momentum. On Thursday night, I sat in the audience, not having seen much of the creative development, not really knowing what to expect.

Jackson Davis and Harriet Gordon-Anderson in 'Swiftkey' (work in progress showing) at Down // Under
Photograph: Lucien Alperstein

What ensued was a cataclysmic rush of YouTube videos showing AIs talking to each other; actors running around in their underpants, each holding a portable Bluetooth speaker pumping ‘Dancing On My Own’ by Robyn; a scene with two actors stacking cans and talking vaguely about the apocalypse; a scene later with two actors taking those cans, opening them and pouring the contents over their heads whilst reciting the same section of script; the eeriness of automated language performed so naturalistically that it felt real; and of course the joys and cringes of a new work coming to life for the first time amidst a raucous, enthusiastic audience.

After mopping the tomato splattered walls and packing down the teleprompters, projectors and live feed cameras, we ascended to the bar. Earl Grey was spinning tunes followed later by synth and drum duo Freda & Jackson and headlined by James Pants, where subconscious head nodding slowly morphed into full blown dancing as the rhythms twitched our joints and the night morphed into a subterranean sweat den.

Zin presents 'Swiftkey'
Photograph: Lucien Alperstein

Down / Under has provided Harriet and I – and many other artists over the course of its so-far-short life, the opportunity to experiment. To be silly, to be serious. To get new work up in a low-stakes environment with 100 people squished in along the benches and floor, beers in hand, to witness the beginnings of new art in the making. The consistency and diversity of the space’s programming – performances, film screenings, exhibitions, poetry readings – is exactly the sort of cultural production that can occur with a bit of stability. I very much hope Down / Under is here to stay up – or down, as it were.

Check out our hit list of the best art in Sydney this month – then read more about our 52 Weeks of #SydCulture challenge, and let us know what you're seeing/loving on Instagram via the hashtag #SydCulture.

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