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Perth needs P-EARTH art festival

Time for the arts to define us

There was much enthusiasm among arts lovers and the broader public last week when Premier Colin Barnett announced French producers Royal De Luxe would turn Perth into a modern-day Lilliput next February with their mighty marionette show The Giants.

The three-day street spectacle should be a wonderful way to open the Perth International Arts Festival and honour the Anzac centenary with the story of a little Albany lighthouse girl who was the last point of contact for many of those who lost their lives at Gallipoli.

About $2 million of taxpayers' money will go into the $5.4 million event, which shapes as a feel-good legacy project for Mr Barnett and outgoing PIAF artistic director Jonathan Holloway.

It also carries high hopes of attracting more tourists to WA and feeding the "Fabulous February" buzz around the Festival and Fringe World that makes Perth the place to be in the last month of summer.

The Giants, however, is a one-off event with a storyline retro-fitted to a show that has been performed elsewhere around the world.

As noted by The West Australian's Kent Acott recently, the Holy Grail for event tourism is the homegrown signature occasion, not some facsimile event or the leg of a franchise that could be poached by other cities with deeper pockets or collapse altogether like the Red Bull Air Race in 2010.

What is there really to distinguish one golf or tennis tournament, air race, car rally or food fair from another? And plastering a court or course with Perth logos or Experience Extraordinary WA signs may help locate the action for TV viewers. But to what extent do they compel people to jump on a plane to come and see what else might be on offer?

In the field of cultural tourism, bruised by last year's collapse of the Museum of Modern Art series at the Art Gallery of WA, moves are afoot to create an event that is homegrown, uniquely local and internationally appealing.

Some people may argue the Perth Festival already fits the bill as the oldest festival of its kind in Australia but it is just one of dozens of such international arts festivals around the world.

Eager to explore new possibilities, the Tourism Council of WA in March suggested a "River of Lights" evening boat parade along the Swan River and a cable car from Kings Park to Elizabeth Quay as part of a strategy to double the value of tourism in Perth by 2020.

That idea may not have floated too many people's boats.

But the Tourism Council's strategy also pointed to the need to continue planning for an indigenous cultural centre, which really gets to the heart of what distinguishes us from the rest of the world.

Artsource, the State's peak visual arts body, is undertaking a Lotterywest-funded feasibility study to determine the shape and prospects of a major new visual arts event that will make an international impact and deliver benefits to WA.

Event strategy consultancy Inside Lane, led by former Eventscorp and Western Force executive Mike Rees, has been hired to develop the feasibility study. Guiding principals include how such an event would be distinctively Western Australian, how it could viably engage people across the State and how it would have particular relevance to the Indian Ocean Rim and South-East Asia.

The consultants have spent the past few months picking the brains of leading cultural figures but also are encouraging ideas, thoughts and comments from the wider community through an online survey and public blog.

Elsewhere, there are terrific examples of homegrown happenings - not necessarily confined to the visual arts - that attract cultural tourists like moths to a flame.

The Burning Man is a weeklong arts festival held in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. It takes its name from the burning of a giant effigy at the centre of a pop-up carnival of culture whose participants leave no trace of their presence after it ends.

At the other end of the scale is the Venice Biennale, the world's oldest and most prestigious biennale of international contemporary art, which attracted more than 470,000 people last year. Another event with history and size on its side is the Edinburgh Fringe, which opened the first of its almost 3000 shows last night. There is now no shortage of art biennales (about 60) and fringe festivals around the world (about 100).

Closer to home, the annual Vivid Sydney festival uses light sculptures and projections to turn the harbour city's landmark buildings like the Sydney Opera House into night-time canvases. Vivid 2013 had 800,000 visitors and contributed more than $20 million to the local economy, according to Destination NSW.

Another arts-destination landmark is the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, described by CNN as the world's most far-out museum and the epicentre of a tsunami of new cultural tourism to the Apple Isle. The brainchild of professional gambler and art collector David Walsh, MONA hosts the annual MOFO and Dark Mofo festivals of public art and live performance.

Brisbane also has pulled itself up by the cultural bootstraps by investing in the magnificent Gallery of Modern Art, Australia's biggest gallery of modern art which opened in 2006 and hosts the Asia-Pacific Triennial, the world's only major exhibition series devoted to the art of our region. Last year it attracted more than 560,000 people, almost one-third of them visitors from outside Queensland, and boosted that State's economy by $27 million.

Perth missed an opportunity to stake a claim as a cultural HQ for the region in which we live in the 1980s when authorities failed to nurture the Indian Ocean Arts Festival, which featured art from the 35 countries on the Indian Ocean rim before folding in 1986.

As our regional links grow even stronger, a major arts event that extends the hand of understanding surely makes even more sense from a commercial as well as cultural sense.

For my part, I'd like to propose the P-EARTH ecological art festival.

There would be no shortage of programming opportunities.

A city defined by the elements - bathed in sunlight, blessed with wide open spaces, swept by the wind and girt by sea - could draw on the elements in a way that celebrates the environment and sustainability through art.

Imagine an art event guided by and timed to run during one of the six Noongar seasons - the Kambarang birth and wildflower season of October-November.

Early October, coinciding with the school holidays, also is the time of the National Day extended holiday in China whose growing middle-classes we are seeking to lure.

Inspired and ignited by the elements, such an event could link ancient and continuing indigenous cultural traditions with the innovations and aspirations of renewable energy and sustainable technologies.

This is where art can intersect with science under the title of the Festival of P-EARTH to inspire consumers, private enterprise and civic leaders.

WA is home to the world's most ancient landscape, the oldest continuous culture and one of the great biodiversity hotspots - things people from afar want to experience. Sculpture by the Sea and Antony Gormley's Inside Australia statues of Lake Ballard show how thrilling the juxtaposition of art and an extraordinary environment can be.

A major event also could draw on Perth's great troves of indigenous art held in the Holmes a Court Collection, the Kerry Stokes Collection, at the University of WA and the Art Gallery of WA.

It could showcase another great Perth creative endeavour, the SymbioticA biological art laboratory at UWA, which has been winning plaudits around the world for the pioneering way in which artists use the tools and technologies of science to question and explore their possibilities.

In one of the world's windiest cities, our main street is one of the most powerful wind tunnels made by humankind. Imagine harnessing this wind power by turning St Georges Terrace into a giant gallery of kinetic artworks, kites, spinners, sails, flags and sound installations animated by the elements.

We love our cars and have embraced sprawling suburbia in Perth. Why not throw open the vast carpark of a metropolitan shopping centre to present a large-scale comic dance of solar-powered vehicles? In the regions, perhaps something similar could be done with mining trucks and excavators in the Kalgoorlie Super Pit, as Opera Australia director Lyndon Terracini once did in Mt Isa with a show called Bob Cat Dancing.

It would be through quirky events such as these that the cutting-edge could find common ground with a wider audience.

In the spirit of the ancient British hill artists behind the Cerne Abbas Giant, and the synchronised crowd card displays at Olympic opening ceremonies, we could even co-ordinate a community art event in which householders turn their suburban roofs into the tiles of a giant mosaic spelling out PERTH or a smiley face that could be seen from outer space.

That would beat any overseas media attention we'd get with names emblazoned on the hoardings at the Hopman Cup.

The visual arts event online survey can be found at More details: