At seven in the evening, the bells begin to jingle. St Paul’s leads the charge, but dozens of extra installations chime in. They herald the start of White Night Melbourne, a dusk-till-dawn feat of neon artistry.
The epicentre of the activities at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets start heaving with activity. At this hour, prams and assisted walkers jockey for space. But animosity hasn’t yet set in. Anticipation is in the air, pierced through with a charged exhilaration.
It’s Melbourne’s chance to show off. As the only city in Australia to celebrate this epic cultural event, a nocturnal tribute to art, Melbourne takes centre stage.
For one night only, visitors embark on an urban adventure of art exhibitions, street performances, light installations, film screenings, concerts, and dance events. Some of the city’s best museums join in, opening their doors for the all-night extravaganza. It’s a night I wait for all year.
White Night Melbourne is inspired by Paris’s Nuit Blanche, which was conceived in 2002 to make art and culture accessible to a large number of people in public spaces. The event has since gone viral, with twenty cities across the world now participating. And Melbourne is one of them. The inaugural event in 2013 hosted 300,000 visitors. In 2014, attendees were set to top half a million.
Throughout the night, Melbourne hosts more than 100 events organised by hundreds artists and staff. The city becomes segmented into endearingly-named artistic zones, like Northern Lights and Wonderland. And every zone promises a glowing … well, wonderland.
There’s much to love about this event – and a few things to dread as well. Here’s my guide to White Night Melbourne, including how to survive the night…
1. The National Gallery of Victoria
The National Gallery of Victoria has been a consistent highlight throughout the years. Its main, stain glass-roofed hall always features some unusual exhibit. One year, a machine propelled wisps of foam into the air. There was a carousel or a still-life drawing marathon in the foyer.
Another year, there was a silent disco, where a DJ mixed disks for the privileged crowd on the dance floor, who sang along to tunes we could not hear – ravers alone could appreciate the music streaming through heavy headphones.
If you’re lucky, the NGV hosts several exhibits throughout its maze of exhibition halls. Video art, dance shows. Once there was an old school chequered dance floor that flashed different colours to the beat of electronic tunes. Every year I hope it returns…
Outside, the usually austere façade of the NGV transforms under a darkened sky. Light projections cast a mosaic of patterns or photographs or drawings onto the grey stones, lighting up the building.
2. Flinders Street
Flinders Street is both a blessing and a curse on this night. If you’ve ever tried to emerge from Flinders Street when White Night is in its prime, you’ll know what I mean. It’s a bloody zombie shuffle and you should expect to take at least fifteen minutes to journey across the intersection.
But there is at least plenty to entertain, because Flinders Street is also where the heart of White Night Melbourne exists. Along the street, dozens of buildings play along to the most marvellous light show.
Every cornice, every window, every column and arch is outlined in neon brightness. Opposite Federation Square, light projections paint buildings as circus tents and old-fashioned stores. You feel cast into a toy world.
3. The lanes
Melbourne is renowned for its laneways, but this is the laneways like you’ll never see them before. They also glow with neon luminescence. Artists are contracted to install their own art exhibits, be they movies, light projections, or extravagant structures.
Some lanes are impassable. There are jazz band stages, rock band stages, dancing stages. There are disco balls, abstract films, inflatable cones. You never know what you’ll find from one year to the next. And as a bonus, there’s less congestion down many of them…
4. The State Library of Victoria
The State Library of Victoria, a pre-eminent building of old-style architectural brilliance in Melbourne, features both external projections and light illuminations inside, in their premier reading room. Alas, there is, at any hour, a seemingly interminable line.
The wait can be about thirty minutes long, though the line moves fast. You’re entertained enough with the projections onto the façade, whether they are dinosaur skeletons, giraffe prints, or a pattern of primary colours.
But it’s worth it. The La Trobe Reading Room, usually a classical, incredibly high domed room deliciously lined with bookshelves, enchants with projections all around their dome. And in true librarian fashion, the themes are typically educational as well as enjoyable.
There is no better way to appreciate the show than to lie down on the floor and gaze upwards. You’re overcome with ironic joy the moment the security guard clambers over your sprawled legs to politely request visitors not to sit on the desks. Sitting is forbidden; please instead make a bed of our floor.
5. I Could Have Danced All Night
Every year, there is a dance stage somewhere. In the early years it was at Fed Square, but it was shifted last year to somewhere else to ease congestion (a wise move, even if the new location is a lot less charismatic). Here, hundreds of revellers gather to receive dance lessons at the I Could Have Danced All Night concert.
Peppy, exuberant dancers on stage show great patience in tutoring the receptive audience in the arts of popular dance, Zumba, swing, salsa, and Bollywood dancing (a personal favourite). You’re coached through the grooves for the final dance number from Grease and to Do the Hustle from Saturday Night Fever.
There is only one thing better than watching five hundred people gather to shimmy a 70s pop number, and that’s to join in with a crowd of five hundred people to shimmy a 70s pop number.
6. The Exhibition Building
It’s one of my favourite buildings in the whole of Melbourne, the stately Exhibition Building right out in Carlton. On a normal day I’m happy to lie on the grassy lawns and gaze at its splendor. But on White Night, it’s simply gorgeous, joining the party with some of the most marvellous storytelling light projections imagineable. It’s delicious really. That’s all I can say about it.
Well, that and the fresh air and fewer people, which brings me to my next section…
As always, no large event escapes without any downsides at all. We’re an overpopulated planet of people who love good, free entertainment and Melbournians revel in a night on the town. So, here are a few things that can mar your own White Night, if you’re not prepared to face them … (But don’t worry, I’ve also got some tips on how you can avoid it all):
-1. The crowds
The crowds intensify so that by about eight or nine o’ clock, the intersection outside Flinders St is shear chaos. Conga lines shimmy their way through stalled human traffic jams as people raise smartphones and cameras to encapsulate their memories as jpeg files.
People call out to lost companions and hands cling desperately but hopelessly to one another as you move through the horde. But the mood still, somehow, remains upbeat.
So my advice to you is simple: GO WITH IT. Have fun, have a smile. Join a conga line, embrace the zombie shuffle. You’ll get to your destination – the event is on till 7am folks!
The crowds are a hindrance to getting places, yes, but the very existence of a crowd makes you feel like you are really a part of something. Expect it and you won’t be shock, claustrophobic or disappointed.
But if you really can’t handle the crowds, slip on over to adjacent parallel streets. There’s plenty of breathing space beyond St Paul’s Cathedral. You can sneak up Russell Street or Elizabeth Street. Diverted crowds still gather there, but there’s not nearly so much claustrophobia and chaos.
Or venture to one of our many parks, including Carlton Gardens and those along the Yarra. They’ll give you a bit of downtime but often you can appreciate many more exhibits along the Yarra’s banks that aren’t nearly as chockas as the city centre is.
-2. The queues
This goes hand-in-hand with the point above. As the night spins along at an uncontrollable pace, the queues into many exhibits seem to sprawl all over the place.
Respect the queues guys! One experience that greatly marred one White Night was seeing hordes rush in at an entrance, ignoring the queue after I’d patiently waited forever and an age for my turn. Infuriating I can tell you!
The city is a marvel, so it truly can’t hurt to spend a little bit of time in line. Send a friend off for a coffee run. Upload all your photos so far on Facebook. Have a conversation (a miraculous idea I know). Enjoy your surroundings. Soak it all up!
And if you really can’t stand lines (they can admittedly get a bit tedious), time your arrival smartly. I try to get to the NGV bang on or just after 7pm. There’s barely a line and I can usually go right in. Alternatively, if you don’t mind my downside number 3 (see below), hang back late. Wait till all the early night grandmas (myself included) traipse home and relish your late-night owlishness for the easy pass you get into every building.
-3. The drunkards
As you make your weary way back to Flinders St Station to catch a train home, it becomes obvious that the pram-pushing parents and the walker-wielding elderly have called it a night. The Flinders St horde becomes more unpredictable, and somehow less savoury.
Yes, at a certain hour just beyond midnight, the night is taken over by Melbourne’s degenerate, drunken youth. Some teeter dangerously on high heels and short miniskirts. Others stumble along the kerbside with wine bottle in hand, looking ready to pick a fight.
These people are here only to grace our gutters with McDonald’s wrappers, beer bottles and filthy language. They don’t come to discover a deeper appreciation for art and beauty. And once they emerge in disproportionately disconcerting numbers, I take it as my cue to go home.
This is an easy fix. Plan your night early, be there before 7am and you’re ready to go. If you’re on your feet criss-crossing the city, you’ll be well worn out by midnight or 1am. Then you can head home and let the degenerates rule the roost.
So are you ready to survive White Night? Check out Only Melbourne’s further advice for making it through the night. Or read The Guardian’s brilliant assessment of the 2014 night here.
What else to love about Melbourne?
Not to toot my hometown’s own horn, but Melbourne is a damned fine place. Here are some other things you can check out in this marvellous city: