Life

VIVID Sydney Is An Electric, Eclectic Call To See Australia In Winter


VIVID Sydney

“So…” my sister, Anna, begins between alternating bites of polish sausage slathered in upmarket mustard and waffle-on-a-stick drowned in chocolate sauce, “explain to me how this fits with the tiny concert we went to last night?”

She gestures towards a sea of food vendors, street performers, and interactive light displays. The scene is blissfully chaotic, a sort of maximalist carnival aimed at activating all your senses in unison. As an avowed hedonist, I am literally in paradise. Even the slight chill doesn’t bug me.

“I’m not sure, really,” I say, marveling at the phantasmagoric projections beamed onto the Sydney Opera House, across the harbor from where we’re posted up. “It’s all just… really fun, interesting, weird stuff jammed into a month. Tomorrow I’m seeing Spike Lee at City Hall. There’s a comedy show later in the week.”

“Fun, interesting, weird stuff” is about as good of a tagline as you’re going to find for VIVID Sydney, a month-long festival spanning May and early June. It ranges across the city and out into the suburbs, featuring light shows, concerts, chef’s dinners, salon talks, and TED-like symposiums. There is so much going on every night, it would be easy to think “who can actually attend all this stuff” — sort of the festival equivalent of the peak TV conundrum, “who watches all these shows?” But sure enough, people show up. Lots of them. Now 11 years old, VIVID has found its audience between Sydneysiders, New South Wales residents on short jaunts, and vacationers from further abroad.

In all the world, Sydney is perhaps the perfect city for VIVID. Having been to the city roughly a dozen times, there is one thing I know about the locals: they get out. Sure, they complain about rent and restaurant prices like anyone else living in big cities, but they do it while sipping $18 AUD cocktails at rooftop bars at 3 pm on a Wednesday. There is perhaps no more social big city on earth. So a festival that is just sort of everywhere all at once fits nicely.

Here’s a rundown of what I saw, smelled, ate, drank, listened too, and immersed myself in over the four nights I spent in Sydney for VIVID 2019. Of course, if you head to the festival next year you won’t be able to replicate this trip, it’s always changing, but if I know anything about VIVID it’s this: there will be lots to do and it will be big, bright, and loud in all the best ways.

DAY 1 — TURN UP FROM XIRA

Watching Xira at Sydney’s historic Ziggy’s Barbershop as part of the X|CELERATE: Women In Music program felt akin to seeing Billie Eilish a few months before everyone else got in on the secret. Xira came on stage an demanded the crowd’s attention from the word “go.” She was joined in her set by her fiance and two more band members, but it was always crystal clear whose show this was.

While Xira cycled through soul-funk-pop fusion cuts — hook-heavy songs that felt Coachella-ready — a projection of random Rick & Morty episodes played on a backing screen. At first, models and club kids danced up front while slightly-older Sydney hipsters bobbed their heads in the back like they were seeing some vintage Social Distortion. Eventually, the dancing vibes seeped toward the back of the room, like ink bleeding across cotton. By the time Xira turned control of the small room (with a collage of well-coifed 90s celebrities covering every inch of wall) over to Lupa J, the whole crowd was fully feeling the moment.

It was the sort of tiny venue, high-energy show that happens all too rarely these days. One of those nights where you think, “this person is going to be famous as sh*t in a few years.” When a festival can turn you on to that level of artist, it’s a good sign.

DAY 2 — LIT

There are a surprising number of light festivals on this planet. Many of them are cool. A few are large enough to be stunning. But it’s hard for any to compare to VIVID. The festival takes an extremely more-the-merrier approach to the projections and light shows around the city. Ships motor through the harbor with just a few strings of icicle lights tied on their prows. The Sydney Harbor Bridge is cool but not startling.

Then there’s the famed Sydney Opera House, which is truly a spectacle. Each night of the festival, it’s fully engulfed in a heaving, twisting, surge of diodes, 3-d designs, limbs, morphing bacteria, and tentacles. At times, the landmark looked truly alive.

Though the Opera House was the biggest display, it wasn’t the only immersive experience. Walking the harbor and Circular Quay, I saw glowing art installations one minute and interactive projections the next. Pale-colored orbs hovered overhead and psychedelic projections danced across the walls. No one was pointing these out to attendees, there was no need. They were everywhere you looked.

Wandering through Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens I came to a field of (man-made) fireflies dancing in the night sky and a maze made of giant green-glowing blades of grass, wavering in the wind. Swinging back toward Circular Quay, Street Food Live brought dozens of hawkers together serving Aussie street food classics — from meat pies to every Australian’s favorite hangover dish: chicken laksa. I devoured both in short order. And then had dessert.

DAY 3 –A SPIKE LEE (SPEAKING) JOINT

I like Spike Lee. I watch all his movies. I’ve listened to him on a few podcasts. But I am not really an “I need to see a speech by Spike Lee”-level fan. Or so I thought. Seeing Spike on my third night of VIVID, at the Sydney Town Hall, was a crystallization of many of the conversations about race and representation being held in the United States and Australia right now. And the filmmaker’s insight on these issues was honest, brave, and searing.

Lee came out on stage wearing an Aboriginal Flag teeshirt. Before the moderator could even ask a question, he’d started in on a reflection on race and identity in Australia and the United States — with a clear nod to the mistreatment of Indigenous people in both nations. Later, he’d go on to talk about his films and the inspirations and motivations behind them, though the thread of social justice was always present.

To see how the man thinks, and how he — as one of our nation’s premier storytellers — sees our current cultural moment, was deeply illuminating. It was a level of insight I don’t go to festivals expecting, but one I really appreciated nonetheless.

DAY 4 — FROM THE BRIGHT LIGHTS TO THE BUSH

One of the most interesting things about Sydney is just how easy it is to escape the city and get into Australia’s beloved outback. Sure, taking a 20-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay to Manly Beach didn’t exactly qualify as “bush,” but I sure didn’t feel any urban trappings as I tore through forests full of eucalyptus on a mountain bike with the team at Joe’s Mountain Bike Tours. I’d needed a little break from the technological world of VIVID and this escape provided exactly what I’d been looking for.

To be perfectly honest, though I promised my hosts via email that I was very comfortable on a mountain bike, I hadn’t actually ridden one since I was about twelve. The good news is that the level of coaching and equipment provided by Joe’s team made it easy for me to pull off this white lie. I’m sure I looked like a rookie, but by the end of the day I was rolling down cascading grades and charging up stair-stepping root systems, banging the hell out of a bike I didn’t have to worry about maintaining.

After a few hours, I was sweating, every bit of energy was sapped from my legs, and I was already planning all which burger I’d pick and which beers I’d drink when I got down the hill, to Four Pines Brewing Company. I settled on the Manly Mega Burger — two Aussie beef patties, bacon, double cheese — and the “juiciest IPA you brew.”

Did I consume back every calorie I’d just burnt? Absolutely. Was it worth it? 100%.

***

“Fun, interesting, weird,” that’s the mantra.

After four days at VIVID do I know how Spike Lee, a sea of glowing fireflies, a massive street food fair, and a concert in a barbershop fit together? Not really. And I say that having missed the comedy troupe I was slated to see. In fact, the whole mix at VIVID is so eclectic that I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if I later found out my mountain bike ride was festival-sanctioned too.

There was one unifying factor in the broader experience, though. Every moment I spent walking among the acid-flashback inducing light and art shows, drinking specialty cocktails, eating glowing desserts, and listening to bands and speakers was an absolute feast for the senses. My nerve endings hummed. There was always something that made me marvel or wonder or dance or simply slow down to think.

Which is all to say that VIVID left me feeling fully alive. And really, what more could you possibly ask of a festival?

Demas Rusli for VIVID Sydney


WHERE TO STAY:

Ovolo Woolloomooloo Boutique & Luxury Design Hotel // This property is built into a massive wharf-front packing-house-turned-boutique hotel. The design eschews the rustic Australian nautical touches though and goes full mid-century. It works. This place is like a world unto itself — with a bar, bakery, and vegan restaurant all on site — and the quality of each is absolutely impeccable.

Once you try the sourdough with vegan butter and nutritional yeast at Alibi, your who perspective on plant-based comfort foods will immediately shift.

Paramount House Hotel // This boutique hotel on the Sydney Paramount in Surry Hills is so cool that it hurts. You just want to have sex under the copper showers, brunch your day away in the lobby restaurant, and pre-party at the Golden Age Cinema & Bar. But the real star — besides the perfectly appointed rooms — is the adjoining restaurant: Poly. The restaurant is just-experimental-enough, with pickled mussels and octopus on the menu next to a burnt honey-braised shortrib. The service, the cocktails, and the food have few equals in Sydney.

For dessert: The sticky date pudding donut is an absolute must.

Uproxx was hosted for this story by Destination New South Wales. However, they did not review or approve this story. You can learn more about the Uproxx Press Trip policy here.

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