Cultural Collisions

The University of Melbourne became a Melbourne Festival precinct for the first time this year for the launch of its biennial event Cultural Collisions.

Over two weeks in October, the University's Parkville campus was transformed into a precinct of the international Melbourne Festival, animated by performances, exhibitions and installations by students, staff and guest artists.

Conceived and curated by internationally renowned composer and festival director Jonathan Mills, Cultural Collisions: Grainger | Griffins explored the maverick and prescient genius of three visionaries connected with the University: composer and virtuoso Percy Grainger and Chicago architects Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin.

Across the campus, works by students, staff and guest artists dazzled visitors, proposing, as Mills stated, “connections between music and mathematics, poetry and place, spirituality and space.”

Ethereal Eye: projections under the Newman College dome. Image: Sharon Walker
Ethereal Eye: projections under the Newman College dome. Image: Sharon Walker.

Under the dome of the dining hall at Newman College, a Griffins’ masterpiece, musicians from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music performed Mills' Ethereal Eye, itself an homage to the Griffins, on custom made microtonal instruments inspired by proportions in architecture. Projections by artist Ian de Gruchy saturated the symmetries of the architecture, as notes from Soprano Justine Anderson cascaded from the balcony onto the listeners below.

Pholiota exhibition: knitlock bricks used to build a replica of Walter Burley Griffin's home. Image: Peter Casamento
Pholiota exhibition: knitlock bricks used to build a replica of Walter Burley Griffin's home. Image: Peter Casamento.

At the Melbourne School of Design, Master of Architecture students, under the guidance of Professor Philip Goad, built a 1:1 replica of the Griffins' Melbourne home, Pholiota, using the knitlock construction method the Griffins invented. With each brick handmade for the exhibition, visitors were treated to the experience of the Griffins' home, both radical and homey, its scale and symmetry laying out the lived expression of the Griffins' vision for a suburban utopia.

Interactive instruments at the Ian Potter Museum of Art.
Interactive instruments at the Ian Potter Museum of Art.

At the Ian Potter Museum of Art, students of the VCA's Sculpture and Spatial Practice and the Melbourne School of Engineering, led by artist Laura Woodward, proposed responses – at once playful, confronting, tender and experimental - to the legacy of Percy Grainger, with wondrous kinetic mechanical instruments, interactive sculptures, installations and performances.

12 percussionists, 16 electric and acoustic guitarists, six singers, five pianists and 40 wind players from the MCM and ANAM (Australian National Academy of Music) delighted audiences with the many musical sides and influences of Grainger in an intriguing and diverse program performed at Melba Hall, ranging from the highly experimental to folk and the exotic.

Grainger's own museum at the University featured two exhibitions. Grainger the Accidental Futurist explored Grainger’s singularity as virtuoso, inventor, designer of multi-coloured costumes, vegetarian and extreme fitness junkie. While Experiments in Freedom rebuilt some of Grainger's extraordinary free music machines. Visitors plucked, turned handles and slid giant bows to elicit gliding sounds on the Kangaroo Pouch Machine, operate the Reed Box Tone Tool (powered by air suction), and watch light turn to sound on Electric Eye Tone Tool, instruments that are arguably precursors to today's synthesisers.

Inside the Ethereal Eye: visitors watching Kenderdine and Shaw's projection exhibition.
Inside the Ethereal Eye: visitors watching Kenderdine and Shaw’s projection exhibition.

A stunning, immersive digital experience, presented in a six-metre high resolution 3D projection dome in the Faculty of Arts’ new Arts West mused on the Griffins’ architectural treasures, a collaboration between the University’s Transformative Technologies Research Unit and media artists Sarah Kenderdine and Jeffrey Shaw.

And an enchanting “living organ” by artist Rodney Hall, made from weather balloons breathed and sang in the atmospheric Old Quad, recalling Grainger’s Free Music Machines.

As a culmination of the flurry of creativity, dedication and exuberance over the year leading up to the festival, staff, students, alumni and artists gathered to celebrate at the Melbourne Festival Artists Party, staged in the South Lawn underground car park.  An engineering feat and an expanse of columns and darkness, the car park was transformed by lights, smoke, a long bar and music curated by leading DJ Chiara Kickdrum, creating what a visitor termed a “Berlin experience”.

The South Lawn underground carpark transformed by lights smoke and music.
The South Lawn underground carpark transformed by lights smoke and music.

The Future of the Object, a symposium held as part of Cultural Collisions, attracted 30 speakers from Australia, Canada, UK, US, including leading scholars, artists, curators and experts from across the university, library, galleries, and museums sector, who explored the dynamics of the digital and material, and our growing re-engagement with objects.

Cultural Collisions: Grainger | Griffins as an example of an engaged and welcoming campus, and of student engagement that provided unparalleled professional experience, was deeply embedded in the academic mission; building on not only the talent we have here at the university, but on our collections, teaching, learning and research.

Melbourne Festival Artists Party, South Lawn underground carpark.
Melbourne Festival Artists Party, South Lawn underground carpark.

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