Vivid Sydney 2019: 10 things to see and do, from the Cure to Spike Lee

Vivid isn’t just about the city being awash with neon. Here are the Guardian’s picks for the best offerings from the festival of light, music and art

1. Listen to Spike Lee talk about film, politics and race

We’ve already offered a run-down of things to do at Sydney film festival, held at the same time as Vivid because the city is a sucker for punishment/traffic. But movie buffs can get an extra brain massage courtesy of Spike Lee: the trailblazing film-maker behind She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X and last year’s BlacKkKlansman, which narrowly missed out on best picture at the Oscars. Lee has been described by the Guardian as “Hollywood’s political conscience”, whose fearless films – and public statements – deliver hard truths about race, class and society in the contemporary western world. He’ll be talking to Rhoda Roberts, head of Indigenous programming at the Opera House, about “issues of race in the media and Hollywood” – and to warm you up on 29 May, Andrew Bukenya and his band will be reinterpreting the music from Lee’s films at Vivid After Hours.

2. Dip into some musical nostalgia for Spunk Records’ 20th anniversary

Any music-lover in Sydney old enough speaks of it fondly: that storied time before lockout laws, when Friday nights meant hopping from venue to venue in Kings Cross, stamps crawling up their inner arm, before landing somewhat dazed at Purple Sneakers to dance until 3am. MP3 blogs brought the diaspora of hot new indie music to our iMacs, and Spunk Records was the arbiter of taste: an independent local label which brought us Sufjan Stevens, Bonnie Prince Billy, Joanna Newsom and Arcade Fire, and discovered homegrown talent like Holly Throsby, Machine Translations and the Middle East. The latter are reforming for two gigs in celebration of the label’s 20th year, also featuring Throsby, Jack Ladder, the Ocean Party and more – and if you want to keep the nostalgia feels going, Purple Sneakers is celebrating its own birthday too, at the Lansdowne Hotel in mid-June.

3. Celebrate small bars (particularly the Hollywood)

The Vivid X|Celerate program features a who’s who of Sydney’s favourite small bars and venues, including 505, the Soda Factory, Harpoon Harry’s, Freda’s, Ziggy’s, and the Dock. But the favourite of Guardian staff – and indeed anyone with a taste for cheap beer and old pubs – has to be the art deco palace of the Hollywood Hotel. For the four Fridays of Vivid, Sydney drag performers will be taking over the Hollywood to pay homage to its owner Doris Goddard, who spent a past life as a Beijing cabaret artist and London movie actor before becoming one of the most celebrated publicans in the city. Produced by hotel manager and licensee Mark Symons, Homage to Hollywood is a tribute to Goddard and her work as a female publican, featuring drag stars Suzie St James, Connie Carter, Christa Hughes and the iconic Carlotta. On her Facebook page, Goddard – who was born in 1930 – has promised she will “play a very small part in the festival” too.

4. Get dazzled by lights in the dark

Stretching more than 3km, the Light Walk – filled with light sculptures, projections and artworks – is one of the key attractions of Vivid – as long as you can handle the crowds. Starting at the Rocks, follow the map and weave through the heritage buildings up to the harbour bridge, back past the Opera House and through the Botanic Garden, past everything from creepy crawlies to giant playable instruments to preview sneak-peak images from upcoming Pixar film, Toy Story 4. If you can’t make it into the CBD, there are also mini-installations at Chatswood and Barangaroo – or you could just hop on the Ferris Wheel at Luna Park and take in a bird’s eye view of the city’s lightscape.

5. Walk with the wild things at Taronga Zoo

A light sculpture of a crocodile
Vivid Sydney at Taronga Zoo. Photograph: Richard Milnes/REX/Shutterstock

The other major installation precinct this year is Taronga Zoo, with its Lights for the Wild walk. While you’re unlikely to see the living residents of the zoo (they tend to retreat to their night quarters after dark) you can meet their luminous, larger-than-life representatives, including light sculptures of turtles, echidnas, gorillas, tigers and even bees on a 1.5-hour wander through Taronga’s hilly, harbourside terrain. The walk also features a short film at Taronga’s Centenary Theatre. Unlike the main Light Walk, it’s ticketed, so book in advance.

6. Get a dose of the Cure

Between FKA Twigs, Herbie Hancock, Dirty Three and Underworld, it’s tricky to pick the best gigs of the festival – but the Cure might be the hottest ticket in town. The legendary band made their Vivid debut in 2011, when they played their first three albums in full, and now they’re coming back with their “exquisitely morose” eighth record Disintegration, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and which lead singer Robert Smith considers his masterpiece. Featuring Smith alongside Simon Gallup, Jason Cooper, Roger O’Donnell and Reeves Gabrels, the four gigs at the Sydney Opera House will feature the album in full among selected tracks from their catalogue – and tickets are still available. If you miss out, the 30 May concert will be livestreamed right here – and Oxford Art Factory is hosting a club night devoted to the era.

7. Follow the pollinator highway

A cute thing is happening in Sydney, if you know where to look: little rest stops for bees. Set up at community centres and places of worship, the strategically placed “pollen booths” (there are only six in Sydney so far) are like B&Bs for bees, who need food and shelter every 500 metres as they pollinate their way across the city. And as more people move into cities, and more bees move out, they’re becoming urgent. The crowdfunded initiative was founded by Judith Friedlander from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS, who calls it the “B&B pollinator highway”; she’ll be holding a workshop in Chatswood to share more about the program – and how you can make your own garden bee-, bird- and butterfly-friendly.

8. Gatecrash Briggs’s house party

Rapper Adam Briggs
Briggs: taking over the Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Briggs is the kind of performer who can get on stage with nothing but a mic, a boom box and a spotlight and somehow still manage to get the party going. Fitting, then, that he’s been given a slot to curate his own personal house party, at the biggest house in town: the Sydney Opera House. He’s filled a setlist with his favourite Bad Apples (members of his record label, that is) including Electric Fields, the Kid Laroi, Birdz, Jesswar, and more. As he told Guardian Australia: “It’s called reverse gentrification … It’s about taking a space that’s iconic like the Opera House and making it our space, our building for the night.”

9. Get Kooky on the Harbour

This is the second year LGBT alt-outfit Club Kooky has set up shop at the Opera House. Last year they staged a two-day “takeover” of the Studio; this year, they’re commandeering the northern boardwalk for a one-night outdoor event. Outside Mardi Gras, there aren’t that many opportunities for a queer party on the harbour, so for that alone it might be worth stumping up the $99 (a whopping $60 jump on last year) for the secret surprise performers and glittery water views. Since the plug gets pulled on all amplifiers at 11pm, you can even be home before midnight.

10. Start a conversation about environmentalist art

A museum might not be the most obvious place to learn how to do something as DIY and Insta-crafty as how to dye fabric in your own kitchen using native plants picked from your garden, but clearly nobody told Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum is offering the workshop, hosted by the Indigenous academic and artist Fabri Blacklock, as part of its Conversation Starters weekend on 1 and 2 June, under the theme of “temperature rising”. The program is shot through with environmental activism and given an artist’s eye: if home textiles doesn’t interest you, you could, for instance, listen instead to a discussion about fusing art and science, or contribute to a large-scale plastic weaving installation that somehow combines the 20th anniversary of SpongeBob Squarepants with awareness-raising about the plight of the Great Barrier Reef.

Vivid Sydney opens on 24 May and runs until 15 June

Guardian staff

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