Opera House ads are not 'food for everyone'



Cars in their hundreds chug along Broadway in the Sydney CBD and the skyscrapers create a grey canopy above strolling pedestrians. You don't have to stray far off the main road to find yourself in the heart of the inner city suburb of Chippendale.

The Sydney Opera House is seen promoting the Everest race during the TAB Everest Barrier Draw on 9 October 2018. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images for The ATC)It's not the early 20th-century façade on the terrace housing which first catches your eye but the public footpath crowded in greenery. On closer inspection, it becomes clear the street is scattered with dozens of planter boxes. They range from simple ferns to entire vegetable gardens, all tended to by the local residents.

While the practice of growing plants on nature strips is against the use of public space in most council areas, the residents of Chippendale actively promote the use of the streets to grow gardens that serve up 'food for everyone'. When I met the pioneer of the movement, Michael Mobbs, in his off-the-grid home, he was excited for the community to get involved and learn from each other as they shared the skills and knowledge of sustainable gardening.

The 'Sustainable Chippendale Plan', which is entirely based on public land, has no legal force behind it. In 2015, the council exhibited the plan but decided against taking it up as a council project. So what makes it socially acceptable for these residents to use public space for their social project?

There are a few ways an individual or a group can interact with public spaces. The first is to sit in or walk through a place while crunching on a delicious apple. The second is to inhabit the space, deciding to grow an apple tree and sharing this experience with others (like the residents in Chippendale). The third would be to grow the tree and then pick the apples behind your neighbours' backs, selling them to Woolworths for profit.

The latter is how Australians feel about the NSW state government auctioning off the sails of the Sydney Opera House to the highest bidder without consulting its neighbours — the Australian people.

Unlike the espalier fruit trees in Chippendale, the commodification of public space is not 'food for everyone'. When the government accepts a financial contract to modify a place enjoyed by the public, it alters the social contract and therefore the behaviour allowed to occur within it. Space is no longer defined by the possibility of what it can be for the public, but instead, by what it isn't.


"Public space when sold off becomes defined not by the public being able to use the space, but by the space being able to use the public."


When the Everest advertising was projected onto the iconic landmark, the values of Circular Quay and the social expectation of Australians became politically regulated. This is because while the Opera House and its forecourt may remain a public thoroughfare, the sails for the duration of the advert become a private entity.

This corporate presence, no matter the brand, creates an expectation for the people inhabiting the public space to consume the product, whether it's betting on horses or buying an airline ticket. Public space when sold off becomes defined not by the public being able to use the space, but by the space being able to use the public.

These are social contracts common in public spaces such as shopping centres or private museums, where space represents a corporation, yet the public are encouraged to exist. The Australian public has a history in expecting the transparency of state-owned infrastructure such as parks, squares and landmarks to be free of corporate interference.

Public spaces being left to the public is somewhat crucial to the ability of the population to engage in the democratic process. Urban geographer Kurt Iveson from the University of Sydney has discussed the revolution that public space now faces as social movements mobilise on social media.

Both the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring are often praised for using social media to create a swell of support for causes; however, if it wasn't for the physical presence of people in the streets, it's hard to know whether people would remember these events.

This was certainly the case on Tuesday evening as over 1000 people gathered to protest at the Opera House. This demonstration of phone lights and torches to interrupt the projected advertisement was only made possible through the intersection of technology and the free use of public space.

When you look at the use of public space in Chippendale, it calls to mind the importance of intention when occupying a place that belongs to everybody. While not legal, the local council has no problem with a project that is safe, not-for-profit and inclusive. If anything, it has enhanced the experience of the streetscape for locals.

By comparison, a very small percentage of Australians will attend the races this weekend and even fewer will own a stake in a racehorse. It is an exclusive call to action on a landmark that is meant to be inclusive of an entire nation of constituents.



Francine CrimminsFrancine Crimmins is a writer and radio journalist. She has also contributed to the ABC and The Wire. She is on twitter @frankiecrimmins


Main image: The Sydney Opera House is seen promoting the Everest race during the TAB Everest Barrier Draw on 9 October 2018. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images for The ATC)

Topic tags: Francine Crimmins, Sydney Opera House, public spaces



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Existing comments

Another big nail in the Liberal Party's coffin in NSW.

john frawley | 12 October 2018  

Aesthetics (which is a quasi-religion) governs whether the surface of the sails should be used to display images. Like swearing, the impact is greatest when the use is measured. Unlike the example of Chippendale, the sails are designed to be experienced by public not so much at the Opera House as at a physical and virtual distance from it. Technically, as most ‘Australians’ are economic free-riders on the Opera House, basking in its reflective glory but not contributing a cent towards it, unless the House receives federal funding in which case the contribution will be a few cents per capita, it is the NSW population, including the off-gridders of Chippendale, who are ‘neighbours’, towards whose welfare the NSW government will be dedicating whatever ‘profit’ it makes from sails spruiking when it contributes that same amount into a charitable fund known as NSW consolidated revenue.

roy chen yee | 14 October 2018  

What are we about? On the first Tuesday in November 'the nation stops' for a horse race and now one of the two symbols of Sydney is used as a billboard for another horse race. Anyone visiting from another planet could be forgiven for wondering where our priorities lie.

Joanna Elliott | 15 October 2018  

Crass commercialism gone bananas! The Opera House sails are in the public domain, they are not the preserve of the pollies or their big business financial backers! Good on the people of Chippendale , they are using the public domain for the good of their fellow citizens.

Gavin O'Brien | 16 October 2018  

Well now Roy, you've got me thinking. How about a Maccas' arch over the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park?

Ginger Meggs | 23 October 2018  


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