Published in Relative magazine
A few weeks upon my return from an extended overseas foray, I found myself at an event that halted the driving force behind the extended overseas foray. The event was a launch of a street press so obscure, so purposefully underground that it did not take the form of paper but was presented in DVD form, its’ mock decoupage cover a grudging nod to its paper-and-ink grandparents. This launch was unfolding at The Bakery, a new venue that did not seemed at all preoccupied with baked goods unless the good in question was iced with bohemian. It was evident that a certain ethos pervaded every inch of The Bakery from the cavernous rooms lined with street art and faded liberty-print wallpaper, to the giant letter installations on the rooftop to the grungy concrete beer garden. Here I thought I had to travel to London and New York to find places that were edgy, interesting and devoid of the footballers wives that tend to frequent Perth “nightspots.” Turns out that Perth had given birth to its own artistic enclave, in an abandoned warehouse nestled alongside the Roe Highway railway tracks. One glance at the patrons of The Bakery revealed that this was no ordinary enclave. The moody rock misfit in skinny black jeans, the beret-and-waistcoat clad ingénue spouting spoken word rhymes on stage and the little blonde pixie in the green paisley vintage were all bound by one attribute. How I could live in Perth my entire life and fail to rub shoulders with these people was beyond me, and as I left the Bakery that night, my insight clearly hindered by my decision not to wear black, it became clear that I had stumbled upon a social phenomenon particular to a city on Australia’s West Coast, more commonly referred to as “the most isolated capital in the world.
This condition began to manifest itself in many forms through the following months. Suddenly a city commonly considered to be a cultural wasteland was playing host to cutting-edge exhibitions, one-off designer boutiques were springing up alongside decaying factories, and the acid splashes of street art could be seen in the darkest corners of abandoned thoroughfares. What was left of Perth’s creative community, marginalised by the “Boomtown” ideals on which this city was founded and continues to premise itself seemed to have banded together to start a revolution.
History has shown us that revolutions are sparked as a response to conservative cultural regimes and characterised by massive imbalances in power. Over the last couple of years an innocuous little city on Australia’s west coast has been privy to the sort of national and international attention reserved for metropolises that are far more glamorous. Hailed as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, Western Australia’s mineral wealth has also given birth to a legion of accidental millionaires, their booty courtesy of a property market that has ricocheted to obscene heights. In Perth, the words “Rio Tinto” and “BHP” adorn yellow cranes in glittering lights, the wild-eyed ethos of the 1820s goldrush literally inscribed on the city’s skyline. Perhaps most notably, the figure of the “cashed-up bogan”, flying in every four weeks from a dusty mining town to indulge in heady excess in a Northbridge “nightspot” has taken his place as the city’s rightful subject. Or did he ever really leave?
The cultural myths that permeate Perth’s social landscape leave little room for those outside the burgeoning business, mining and construction industries. What are the options for the state’s young, creatively ambitious twentysomethings when the West Australian media peddle a relentless stream of stories about property investment and its related perils and when the terms “mortgage” and “portfolio” have become as ubiquitous in this town as discussions about the weather? Should a 25th birthday be commemorated with a house-and-land package in a suburb faraway enough to warrant its very own airstrip? Perhaps this segment of the population would be better served by swapping their aspirations with a shovel and some Cat boots to descend upon the Pilbara en masse.
It seems that increased support for the arts in the form of the State government’s “Ignite” package, the success of the Perth International Arts Festival under the leadership of new artistic director Shelagh Magadza and the promise of new exhibition and performance spaces have worked to dull the lure of that quintessentially Perth duo – real estate and Rio Tinto. Not-for-profit organization Form is committed to “building a state of creativity” and local designers and artists are forging collectives to rejuvenate decrepit parts of town. Writer Cry Bloxsome has identified that the West Coast is in the throes of a cultural new wave. “The Boom”, an idea that has proven central to this city’s identity, has shaken up the Perth arts scene.
But Physics dictates that fallout is a necessary part of every explosion and this is no better observed than by a Saturday night stroll through Perth’s cultural hub. Hordes queue out of pulsing nightclubs like snakes about to strike. Boys in popped collars and steel-capped boots leer at lycra-clad girls in a historic if ill-fated mating ritual. The streets are clogged with broken beer bottles and the air is stale with the stench of angry hedonism. How, then, can a Northbridge that is rife with bikie-run bars and characterised by excess and violence set the scene for the city’s creative underground?
The Keith and Lottie Gallery, The Bakery and Ginger’s Garage are among a host of interesting spaces that have emerged amongst the cultural detritus of Northbridge and have offered hitherto unheard-of avenues for collaboration and expression. But they also point to Perth’s tendency to incubate in-crowds and warring factions. West Australian music documentary Something in the Water hints at the incestuous nature of Perth’s creative realms, a clique mentality specific to the artists, writers and musicians who reside here. The “Perth Artist” can often be identified by a certain embattled pretentiousness – but is there a politics to this pretension?
The underground, as defined by Urban Dictionary, is art, opinion, or organization that exists outside mainstream society or culture and is historically embedded in the politics of resistance. Kerouac and his contemporaries rebelled against the rigid values of forties America by inhaling Benzedrine and penning frantic realms of free verse. The prolific grunge counterculture in nineties Seattle was sparked as a furious response to dot com consumerism. Perhaps, Perth’s own cultural renaissance is the revolt against vicious conservatism and wealth-obsessed economies that will pave the way for the future.