Sydney Morning Herald MAY 29, 2009 - by Elicia Murray


What's got five arms, six heads and is run by a committee? Sydney's winter festival. But that's not what it's called. It's called Vivid Sydney. Even though it kicked off this week, you could be forgiven for not having the faintest idea what it's about.

The event has about as many elements as dollars spent on it. For what? It's hard to say, as there is no unifying theme. It's supposed to be a celebration of music, light and ideas. I've been quite fond of music, light and ideas for some time, but bundling them together and calling them Vivid Sydney strikes me as an Iron Chef approach to events management. Reach into the cupboard, pull out a handful of mystery ingredients and serve a dish that will make the kooky Japanese actress gush, "Oh, what a delicious combination of flavours."

Take the title, Vivid. A lovely word. No doubt it rolled off the tongues of the creatives enlisted by the Government's events and tourism agencies to spruik the city during the dull winter months. I might even be able to cope with Vivid Sydney if it stopped there, but come summer, we'll be asked to remember that a disparate group of warm-weather activities are lumped under another banner, Vivacity. Turning a gorgeous word into a cogent concept takes more than a few ideas scrawled on a whiteboard. No idea might be a bad idea in a brainstorming session, but plenty turn bad once inflicted on the real world. And the closer you look at Vivid, the harder it is to understand.

It has four festivals. There is a light festival, but it is not the one called Luminous. That's the name of the music festival, curated by the British music supremo Brian Eno, at the Opera House. The light part is called Smart Light Sydney. It has its own theme, "city and memory". (Eno also has a bit-part in the light extravaganza, having led a team that splashed fancy colours onto the Opera House sails.)

Then there is Creative Sydney, which pumps the city's role as the creative hub of the Asia-Pacific region. And, finally, Fire Water re-creates an exploding convict ship for three nights. With music. And light. Geddit?

For each of the four, there is at least one curator, director, programmer or producer, not to mention teams of publicists stumbling over themselves to explain what it's all about. And still, we don't really know.

Todd Sampson, the chief executive officer of Leo Burnett and a panellist on ABC1's The Gruen Transfer, says the festival is so complicated it is tempting just to stay home. "It is kind of vivid complexity," Sampson says.

He says there are so many different elements that it's nigh on impossible to communicate any of them clearly. "You need to keep it simple, especially when it's an events-based thing. If people are a little bit confused, they'll do nothing."

Even Events NSW's boss, Geoff Parmenter, concedes it will take some time for people to wrap their heads around the concept. "What we're doing here is creating a brand new innovative format of festival from scratch."

Most successful festivals - Tropfest, for instance - develop organically over a decade or more, but the organisers want to accelerate the process so that Vivid Sydney becomes a signature event in just two or three years.

With their limited marketing budget, do they really expect that some Londoner with wanderlust will scratch his head and say to himself, "I think this year I will go to Vivid Sydney"?

If we must invent a theme so that a smorgasbord of events can fit neatly on a master events calendar brochure, why not just call it something straightforward, like the Sydney Winter Festival?

Well, because that name has already been nabbed by some alpine folk who plan to erect an ice rink outside St Mary's Cathedral next month. Even so, Parmenter takes issue with the word "winter", which he says conjures up unflattering chilly images. "Patently Sydney isn't coated in permafrost in the month of June."

He says Vivid Sydney has attracted strong interest from around Australia and overseas. The combination of spectacular images of the Opera House and the big-name Eno had ensured "some reasonable penetration".

"That's at the heart of Vivid going forward," he says.

Going forward. I might just strap my skates on and head to the ice rink. At least I know what I'm in for.