THE CIVIC VOICE AT THE HEART OF FED SQUARE’S CONTESTED PUBLIC SPACE

Fed Square’s annual program of events, activities, happenings, gatherings, protests, vigils, and occasional fits of inspiration is a curious blend of the planned and the accidental. Neither a formally curated hierarchy, nor a completely open-access “hall for hire”, the “Program” – as we will refer to the sum of all parts for convenience – is in reality a perpetual experiment in balancing contested public expectations of civic life.

 

Fed Square’s Program comprises activities generated internally, and activities that are generated by external sources. The structure of the organization that delivers the Program has evolved over 15 years to best facilitate the maximum number of quality events, derived from as many sources as possible, presented to the public as an integrated and harmonious overall offer. The Program exists increasingly within a prevailing culture that places value on experience-based consumerism and social media technologies that encourage lateral conversations, rather than top-down proclamations. So it is essential that the Program embrace this place-focused, lateral, multi-narrative social context by encouraging deeper connections with and between all our constituents, including visitors, participants, staff and Fed Square tenants.

 

Of course, easier written than done. In the last full financial year, Fed Square facilitated over 1600 formal events of all shapes and sizes – including major concerts, Melbourne’s largest New Year’s Eve celebration, commissioned art works, over 40 multicultural community festivals, numerous commercial promotions, over 300 free craft, health and wellbeing sessions, major sporting live-sits, numerous school and professional concerts, an ice skating rink and even a giant water slide running through the main plaza. Not to mention countless informal small and large cause-based protests and meet-ups. In addition, the 24/7 public screen program has become internationally renowned for having a primary focus on creative and community expression – unlike most public LED displays which are overwhelmingly, unimaginatively, commercial.

 

The sheer quantity and diversity of this approach is only able to work, by and large, because it avoids those extremes of typical event programming – being neither a passive “hall for hire”, nor a top-down “programming autocracy” as is common in curator-led institutions like galleries or arts centres.

 

Rather, the multi-faceted Program at Fed Square embodies a new approach – one that actively instigates and resources initiatives, but is also fully engaged with and responsive to its mass of diverse stakeholders.

 

So, the Program isn’t just about producing events for the community – it is about working pro-actively with the community, thereby promulgating an overall civic voice and consistently celebrating the site’s totally unique and incomparable sense of physical place. And this far into Melbourne’s biggest-ever experiment in placemaking, we recognize prevailing trends in public space and social media use point to a general appetite for more individually engaging, customized experiences. We aim to reflect this in the program by gradually evolving and aligning a number of individual experiences towards this palpably deeper level of conversation with our multi-faceted community.

 

The programming team at Fed Square is responsible for delivering a year round program of events and activities animating all key areas of the site to create a place of gathering, community ownership, discourse, stimulation, learning and entertainment. Such visitor activity and experiences is achieved through delivery of integrated program streams: events, multimedia, creative, regular events and education and consolidated activities, with a particular focus on activities and events which are unique in their manifestation at Fed Square – which cannot be experienced in the same way, anywhere else, and are integrated into an overall experience in various ways – through mindfulness of spatial factors (physical, visual and aural proximity), temporal factors (daily scheduling, seasonality, broader urban and national event context), and synergetic factors (can two or more activities be combined for program gain or resource efficiencies? Can tenants benefit from particular initiatives?). Fundamentally, this focus on integration serves to answer one core question: What does this Fed Square experience look like from the visitor’s perspective? The whole should always be greater than the sum of the individual parts.

 

The Program team making these considerations, accordingly, must be inherently flexible and nimble in prioritizing space and other assets for events. Sixteen full time staff (plus occasional casuals and production contractors) implement this methodology daily. Ranging from specific sector skillsets such as multimedia, education, creative and recurrent event programmers, to more general third party event account managers, the industry skillsets associated with these staff are underpinned by a healthy degree of “reactive opportunism” – the ability to detect opportunity for an event’s potential to increase its impact based on any number of extenuating factors – more simply, making the best programming choices based on a full and intuitive grasp of the broader social and seasonal context in which something is being presented. There is inherently a constant degree of risk in public programming – it is impossible to predict fully the circumstances that will transpire and audiences that will attend any particular event – but then, in every programming respect except health and safety, a tolerance for a degree of failure is necessary.

 

Even more fundamentally, the Program is intended to enable the maximum number of activity generators (ie event clients and FSPL internal programmers) to produce events and activities on-site which encourage public participants to engage and to leave their mark at Fed Square. This means maximizing the ways in which both activity generators and public participants build direct relationships with each other and the company. So for external event clients, this means teasing out opportunities within each activity to directly connect with the public – perhaps adding a Twitter feed to a main stage activation, soliciting a contribution to Fed Story, designing an event in such a way that the public can dynamically feed back to the generators and each other, rather than simply being passive spectators. 

 

For internally generated Fed Square initiatives, this means placing interactivity and opportunities for conversation at the heart of any program stream – book clubs and workshops within a book market, artist talks within interactive (vs passive) creative commissions, multimedia projects premised on two-way conversation rather than simply passive content display, education experiences that enable student agency rather than passive tours.

 

The point of this focus is not to exclude any activity from Fed Square, but rather to encourage all staff, clients and participants to be mindful of opportunities within any activity that encourage the involvement of others visiting the square – to spread and share participation in activities, in preference to presenting things in isolation.

 

Again, our prevailing cultural and technological context is shifting away from single-direction narratives and towards shared conversations. Public programming should not, and if successful cannot, happen in an isolated bubble. It happens in a sea of ongoing, interconnected conversations – of civic voices. And so in the business of place-making, where numerous and often divergent voices all want to cut through and be heard, it is incumbent on programmers, and all those who purport to be place makers, to understand that at the heart of all public places, lies an unsolvable, and perpetually stimulating, sense of contestation.

 

FED SQUARE, MELBOURNE

issue 2. summer 2016

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