Festival in Light ignores local advice, talent


p2356-festival-in-lights-okBy ERWIN CHLANDA
Some FAQs not covered by the “Parrtjima – a Festival in Light” website:
Is the “first authentic Indigenous light festival of its kind in the world,” running for 10 days, really worth the nearly $8m price tag over six years?
How come the bulk of the taxpayers’ money goes to a Sydney company and just a handful of the huge local pool of artists and technicians are involved?
And how “authentic” is the show when the organisers stubbornly persist in presenting a caterpillar dreaming whilst having been told, at least since May, that a dog dreaming is the story of that part of the range where show is being staged, at the Desert Park?
PHOTO above right: This image from the ABC TV News report on Saturday shows representations of caterpillars on the northern flank of the range. 
A 45 minute walk eastward from Simpson’s Gap on the Larapinta Trail will take you to a hill from which you can watch the sun setting on the MacDonnells to the south.
The beauty and purity of the range turning orange and then blood red will take your breath away, and the magnitude of the spectacle – dozens of kilometres wide rather than two or three – leaves Uluru (Ayers Rock), well, in the shade.
There are probably a few hundred locations like that throughout the West Macs, and the East Macs, which are world famous for their magnificent natural colours.
On top of that, the night skies in The Centre are renowned for their crystalline brilliance.
All that makes it a puzzle why ex-Chief Minister Adam Giles decided to bring in a Sydney based company at a cost of $1.3m per 10-day season for six seasons (that makes it $7.8m) to show the public – what? Artificial colours on a hill?
Is what nature provides not good enough? Is raising a vital question of branding, something our tourism promoters could have a problem with?
It soon became clear at Friday’s opening that nature hasn’t got much to worry about.
If you managed to settle down somewhere to “experience the oldest continuous culture on earth like never before” – as the spin would have it – the noise of buses every 10 minutes ferrying spectators in and out, and amplified other special effects audio would have made you yearn for a quiet night by a campfire, looking at the stars.
The lavishly catered dinner (by Lisa Perry, Reality Bites) at Madigans was an interesting affair: Just one politician was present (Stuart MLA Scott McConnell, representing the absent Chief Minister Michael Gunner); one town council member (Mayor Damien Ryan); most of the usual suspects at functions of this type were not there; two tables of Aboriginal people, whose culture after all was supposed to be the centrepiece of this gathering, not interacting to any significant extent with the rest; one table for a Virgin air crew.
The speeches constantly trumpeted 2.5 kilometres wide, 300-million-year-old “canvas” for the art works.
If it’s Indigenous canvasses you want to see, instead of Ersatz Aboriginal culture, just down the road at the Araluen Art Centre the Desert Mob exhibition would be hard to beat, and there is no question of its authenticity.
Which brings us to the issue of consultation which – as the opening crowd was told tirelessly – was extensive and exhaustive.
How come then that Parrtjima doesn’t get the core message right?

There is extensive documentation of the dog story, including by senior custodian Doris Stuart, and also the late Harold Ross, who appeared in a local TV documentary screened on Imparja in 1991. It was produced and filmed by the writer of this report, Erwin Chlanda, and edited by David Nixon, a highly skilled local video artist, active in The Centre for decades (see video clip above of the first two minutes).
Yet Parrtjima’s projected shapes spinning and whizzing around from time to time, made up of white dots, clearly represent caterpillars, not a dog.
Mrs Stuart said in May about her negotiations with the organisers at the time: “I could not understand what they were doing. No-one was upfront.”
She was speaking through a mutually trusted intermediary yesterday. This is how he relayed her statements: “The terms ‘consultation’ and ‘authentic’ must be challenged.
“The Adam Giles crew knew what they wanted and did not follow the advice given by custodians.
“The butterfly depicted does not come out at night. This is relevant given that the display is part of the Desert Park.
“If the NT Government invested that much money in protecting and enhancing specific sites this would be of more abiding interest to tourists coming here seeking authentic exposure to Indigenous culture and ecology.”
AGB Events director Anthony Bastic and curator Giles Wesley were not available after the event to answer questions, according to the publicity company, also Sydney based. Mr Wesley is on a camping trip, we were told, and Mr Bastic “may” be available today. No doubt he will be in touch when he is good and ready.
In the meantime, according to the Parrtjima website, we can find out how “dreaming stories have been passed down for thousands of years and continue to be passed on today” from the Australian Museum – also in Sydney.
Consultation did take place, according to local arts sources, but it seems Parrtjima was resolved to ignore what they were told.
Red Hot Arts chairman Jason Quin says his group went into talks with the intention of collaborating with local skills and capacity but “not a lot came to fruition. Hopefully there will be stronger outcomes in the future, if Parrtjima continues”.
He says former Chief Minister Adam Giles “drove the discussion” and the organisers made it clear there would be no money for local partners.
This year’s Alice Desert Festival was reduced to promoting under a handful of independent events. Parrtjima is taking place in festival month, kicking off with Desert Mob and Desert Song, in a very busy period for the creative sector.  (NT Government funding for the Desert Festival last year was $180,000.)
Psychologist Craig San Roque, serving on prominent arts organisations but speaking in his own right, says Mrs Stuart and family took part of the discussions with Parrtjima personnel, especially Mr Wesley, who was attentive and became acquainted with the delicate cultural issues, especially that Mt Gillen is a dog, not a caterpillar dreaming site.
“This is not a story to be played with,” says Dr San Roque.
But is was clear the then Chief Minister “would make the festival go ahead”.
Dr San Roque says he is aware of efforts to involve local people to “brief, orient and assist” but with scant results.
“I am shocked to see so much money being spent without local theatre people, actors, technicians, black and white, being involved. It is a big disappointment.
“The light show is showing the wrong story – it’s Alice Springs Aboriginal Disneyland on the way.”
Photographer Mike Gillam says it was clear to him that Parrtjima, in its present form, was a done deal and the consultation was simply going through the motions.
A much better result could have been achieved in another location, he argues: In the town centre are buildings, pavements and surfaces suitable for projections and the light show would have been “closer to the people”.
Multiple curators could have developed different parts of the story.
However, in his conversations with the organisers he noticed the project was already “locked in”.
Mr Gillam was critical of the cost of show: He had to exhaustively document a grant, subject to peer review, for $20,000 to fit out an empty “pop-up shop” in Todd Mall to show Maximon of Mparntwe, a magnificent photographic celebration of the natural environment and particularly the birds of the Centre. It had 5000 visits. The project took two months of his time plus further expense.
“I am sure the cost of Parrtjima will be discussed in the community. We have a strong, creative community and the expenditure makes us look like flat footed amateurs.”
Visitors who made notes into Mr Gillam’s comment book highly praised the quality of his work.
(See also Mr Gillam’s comment below.)
Mr Nixon says with the town’s “plethora of visual and performance artists, it would have been amazing what we could have done with $1.3m”.
Meanwhile the town wants to become the home of the national Indigenous cultural centre. A firm gets a sensitive multi-million dollar cultural contract from the NT Government and calls the story about a sacred site a “legend”. Is Christ dying on the cross a legend? The dysfunctional Lhere Artepe native title organisation is acknowledged in “an extensive consultation process to respectfully bring Parrtjima to life”.
Michael Gunner, over to you.


  1. I wonder why tours operators / tour guides have to prove their knowledge and understanding of the stories surrounding Alice Springs / Mparntwe to be accredited by the NT Tourism Bureau if we produce a spectacle based on inaccurate / misplaced stories.
    We can found them all in a guide to the dreaming tracks and sites of Alice Springs: “A town like Mparntwe.”
    So one can ask, is the booklet wrong?
    What are we selling to the tourist: A Disney show or true Aborigine culture?
    Is Alice is becoming a new Dreamworld?

  2. Several months ago I met with people from Vivid including Artistic Director, Giles Wesley, a lighting specialist with a well deserved reputation for excellence. I got the impression they were being directed to use Mt Gillen as a backdrop for the show. I’d hazard a guess they were receiving instructions at a political level and less so from Desert Park staff.
    I encouraged them to re-think their choice of site and pointed out the advantages of using the many multi faceted features of the town centre as a canvass for projection. The wide pavements, various buildings, parks and sky offer appropriate surfaces with the added advantage of better reflecting human scale and offering greater intimacy for spectators. Imagine various nodes connected by short walks that could be value added by local storytellers and guides bringing to life cultural elements that are invisible to most of us. This would add a rich and softer layer to the built environment and expose many more people, on multiple occasions to the offering.
    I highlighted the retail downturn and the great social and economic benefits of revitalising the town centre through story-telling delivered by a strong programme of visual and performing arts.
    I showed them through my photographic light box exhibition (just before it was dismantled) in a long vacant office and recounted the community response we’d received. Vivid representatives seemed receptive but they were acutely aware of the upcoming Territory elections.
    I reassured them the Giles Government was unlikely to be returned and we agreed that Vivid was ultimately responsible for the art direction and perhaps this should include the site/s.
    I pressed the point that cultural and environmental restrictions should not be viewed as impediments to a creative enterprise, rather, that such conditions helped designers to think laterally, step away from the obvious and often enough, avoid the hideous cliché.
    Vivid were talking to a number of arts organisations and I was hopeful that most would express some concern and maybe, just maybe, respect and unity would win the day.
    In all fairness, I’ve yet to experience the light show, deciding to wait until the rehearsals are over and the crowds reduce. I’ve seen some segments of imagery but not heard the narration.
    On opening night, I drove to Ilparpa to take some photographs looking over the range to the north. The light spectacle was not designed with this view in mind. The range was visible in silhouette and the light beams pointing into the sky, looked like WW2 searchlights so I waited for a plane to enter the image.
    Then I turned and looked the other way. With much lower light pollution, Ilparpa residents are living the dream. Could the spectacle hidden behind the range to the north really compare with the unfathomable beauty of this night sky experience; this primal sense of peace and wonder denied to city dwellers who must console themselves with city lights and light sculptures?
    I overcame a surge of envy and took a few images of the brilliant stars to the south and south-east. All the proceeds from the sale of TIO could not match this or for that matter, the cloudscape at sunrise this morning.
    In my view the outrageous spending spree of the final year of the Giles government is marred by autocratic decision making and politically expedient time frames that profoundly short-changed our community.
    Given political dictates and the short lead time for Vivid’s creative team, I’m not hopeful that this public money will deliver great outcomes for the town’s artistic reputation or our economy.
    On this score, accountability and evaluation will be needed and I hope the data is being gathered for objective analysis.
    As our social problems loom ever larger, lacklustre governments will continue to serve up distractions, made even less palatable by the spin. Thanks to the Alice Springs News Online reporters for asking the big questions, taking some personal heat and doing their job.

  3. I strongly agree that, should it go ahead in future, this festival should utilise the built environment in Alice Springs and get lasers and lights away from the wildlife that live on the refuge of Mt Gillen.
    Our natural heritage is not just a blank canvas to be blasted with lasers and floodlights for a stunt.
    There is strong reason to suspect that the current event is wrecking havoc with the wildlife of the mountain – a site host to protected species and supposedly a protected site in itself. It was madness to allow it this year, but to do it again like this next year would be utterly insane.
    This festival seems to have been shame job whichever angle you look at it from.
    And what a spectacular waste to cut out local people from the production and instead funnel such huge sums of public money interstate.
    Has anyone asked Giles exactly why he diverted so much money away from Alice Springs, the town he claimed to represent and which gave him his job in the first place?

  4. Thank you to the Alice Springs News for reporting on this event and providing opportunity for comment.
    I would like to clarify that there is no relationship between funding received by Red Hot Arts from the NT Government, including for the Desert Festival, and Parrtjima.

  5. Fully endorse your comment Mike … having viewed the illuminated range I suspect you’d only be left aghast at this expensive entertainment, and to what end?

  6. I would have to say that except for the static displays, Parrtjima was a disappointment.
    The light show on and about the range was about as artistically creative as a fireworks display.
    Is this really what tourists come to Alice Springs to see?
    Quite apart from the issues around authenticity and sensitivity to wildlife, it was not the kind of high quality production that I would associate with the Desert Park, nor for that matter the town.

  7. Interesting article, especially our grandfather Harold Pengarte Ross (Rest In Peace Tartart) from Antulye being mentioned and the YouTube film clip being viewed, of my grandfather singing the songs of the Dog and Hunter.
    Yet so called Apmereke Artweye know nothing.
    Some so called senior custodians know nothing of Arrernte law and stories. They did not know the Light Festival was going to happen. I think not.
    That person knew it was going to happen, and debated their right as the dog’s dreaming they are from. They even wrote to people saying THEY ARE THE DOGs … wow, who let the dogs out?
    Woof, woof, woof. SHAME JOB.
    What can we say, Apurenge 🙂

  8. To Ntulye-arenye Tyerrutye.
    Are you one of the same Ntulye TOs that named Emily / Jessie / Heavitree Gaps “Yeperenye”?
    The parks are now officially named as “Yeperenye / Emily and Jessie Gaps Nature Park” – google it. The Utnerrengatye is the story for that country, and the “TOs” gave it the wrong name, placed a story and name there that don’t belong.
    And you assert the knowledge of current Ntulye people. Talk about shame … the past Apmerele-artweye’s would be disgusted.


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