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Sydney's endangered nightlife is the biggest threat to our arts scene

Written by
Jess Scully

In her final guest blog as part of Time Out Sydney's 52 Weeks of #SydCulture campaign, curator and City of Sydney councillor Jess Scully draws a line between a city's nightlife and its arts life, and advocates for the hybrid spaces and after-dark hives of creativity that are currently an endangered species.

What's the connection between culture and nightlife? Can you have a great creative life in a city that dozes after dusk? Sure, there are art capitals without a banging nightlife – unless I am missing something major about Basel in Switzerland, home of Art Basel, or the sleepy German town of Kassel, which is transformed into an art Mecca every five years during Documenta – but they are the exception, not the rule. 

Basel and Kassel and their respective art fairs/festivals are places where art is exhibited and traded, not created. They’re the end of the creative food chain, not the beginning. If we look to the cultural hives of the Western world, however, we see a pattern: in Berlin, Berghain and clubs in general are part of one ecosystem with the studios and art spaces; likewise, the bars and venues of Bushwick feed Brooklyn’s creative community. 

In these ‘cultural capitals’, after dark watering holes and party playgrounds are not optional extras, they’re at the foundation – places where artists and creative thinkers work, meet, test out ideas and invent the new. If we want Sydney to be a place that generates new thinking, we need to champion places where people can let go, meet each other, and experiment (creatively) in public.

Place-making and marketing types often talk up the Museum Mile in NYC or Sydney’s “cultural ribbon”, and they’re important too – but I’m keeping my eye on the Redfern Run instead. (OK, I just made that up, but let’s go with it.) Bookended by Freda's at one end and The Bearded Tit at the other, the Redfern Run is a different kind of cultural landmark. It’s not obvious, but there is a connection between hedonism, divergence, celebration and innovation. Creativity isn’t just born in the sterile confines of a startup incubator. New ideas need to be tested: they need friction and failure and tension. If we want the energy and vitality that defines a creative capital, we need the diverse communities, the grit, the noise, the openness and unpredictability that these spaces offer.

The Bearded Tit, Redfern
Photograph: Anna Kucera

Run by a collective which includes one of the King Pins (a legendary art posse), the Bearded Tit invites artists to exhibit in their front window, and on the screens behind the bar – I love looking up to see video art from Luke Temby where another joint might be playing the footy. This week, there is a giant sparkly golden clitoris in the window, thanks to artist Alli Sebastian Wolf, giving the ‘Fern an anatomy lesson.

At Freda's, on the first Wednesday of every month, After pARTY invites an artist to turn the whole club into a performance. I’ll never forget sweating my heart out at the Rosie Deacon edition, as women in pink full-face onesies danced through the crowd, handing out lollies from the Redfern convenience store Deacon had lovingly recreated beside the bar.

This week at Freda's, I smoked apple cinnamon tobacco from one of the sishas out front, before artist Leila El Rayes took to the floor in her three-tiered skirt, shimmying and jiggling rows of sharp knives while a drummer wound the crowd up. The work is called ‘Vulnerable & Volatile’, and while she danced, El Rayes wore a sign saying “Gimme Danger”, hinting at the double-edged sword of inhabiting an identity that is simultaneously demonised as aggressor and sidelined as victim.

Artist Leila El Rayes performs at after pARTY at Freda's, Chippendale
Photograph: Tim Da-Rin

Freda's and the Tit are not the only ones consciously melding art and nightlife: the Oxford Art Factory is determined to keep Oxford Street interesting by reinforcing the connection between the messy creative process and the world of music and entertainment. But in Sydney in 2017, these spaces are an endangered species that needs our protection. If we want a city where art and ideas are born, not just traded, we need to support and cultivate the spaces where there is chaos, glitter, and sweat on the dancefloor. Gimme golden clits, gimme swirling daggers, gimme danger.

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