The cultural diversity of Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs will be on display as classical music, hip-hop and street poetry collide in Urban Chamber – Beyond, from non-profit performing arts organisation Outer Urban Projects (OUP) and the MASSIVE Hip-Hop Ensemble. Aussie Theatre’s Brendan McCallum caught up with OUP Creative Producers Irine Vela and Kate Gillick in the lead up to their Melbourne Festival debut.
Melbourne has recently become Australia’s fastest growing city, and while our civic leaders spin this growth as further proof of its liveability, it has seen a growing divide between the inner urban areas astride the Hoddle grid, and the outer suburbs beyond. Often considered as poorly serviced cultural ghettos, these outlying areas are actually teeming with creative minds ready to put their nose to the grindstone and turn heads with their unique talents, if given the right resources and support.
One outfit dedicated to the incubation of artistic capacity in Melbourne’s northern suburbs is Outer Urban Projects (OUP), a recently launched non-profit performing arts organisation that seeks to put a generation of otherwise overlooked performers bang on the cultural map and the main stages of Australia. To this end, the OUP team has marshalled an impressive array of official support to realise their goals, the first fruits of which will be the hip-hop meets classical string synergy of Urban Chamber – Beyond, at the Melbourne Recital Centre for two nights only as part of the Melbourne Festival.
The challenge is a pressing one for OUP Creative Producers Irine Vela and Kate Gillick. Gillick, who is also CEO of Outer Urban Projects, talks a little about the sponsors and benefactors behind their work. “Funding and partner support always takes time, strategy, and lots of energy,” she says. Philanthropic organisations such as the Newsboys Foundation and the Hecand Family Trust (among others), as well as Moreland City Council and Footscray Community Arts Centre, have provided invaluable support. The vitality of the culturally diverse young artists involved represented a major drawcard in securing such backing, as well as the potential to bring new audiences from the north into the city’s venues. “The Melbourne Festival and The Melbourne Rectial Centre have seen that we have something of quality to offer”, observes Gillick.
Vela, who lives and works in the North knows first-hand the raw wealth of creative energy to be found beyond the so-called Bell Street Border. “We need to be mining the riches of diversity and not ghettoizing it,” she says. “In my mind, without a thriving and supported street art, folk, and community culture there can be no meaningful high art. They go hand in hand.” For Vela, the greater the disconnect between the street and established arts establishments, the more mainstream and high culture is impoverished. Vela, as Music Director for Urban Chamber – Beyond, has been instrumental in bringing together the young artists of the OUP and getting them working alongside established performers such as street-poet Komninos and the MASSIVE hip-hop ensemble, featuring Mary Quinasacara.
“The juxtaposition of the different, yet related traditions of rap and poetry seemed interesting,” Vela says of her inspiration for drawing together the team behind Urban Chamber – Beyond. “At the beginning of the project the feeling in the room was initially tinged with mutual curiosity,” yet by the end the inherent dynamics of creative minds working in tandem took over. “Now it is about trying to find connections as collaborating artists in the work”. Behind the harmonies, the energy, and the passion, however, is a clear political objective that OUP wants to draw our attention to.
“Melbourne is a great cultural city. It’s very centralised in terms of infrastructure and of course the CBD dominates”, says Vela. Yet transit concerns, economics, and the growing spread of the city are creating new challenges, as well as opportunities. “There is a real need for cultural infrastructure to be built in the North – the artists are there, the talent is awesome”. Looking to the development of the West for inspiration and precedent, Vela is adamant that more can and should be done to harness such potential. “There is a real need for cultural infrastructure to be built in the North. It is begging for an arts centre. Footscray has one, but an arts centre for the North is overdue”.
Urban Chamber – Beyond promises to be a powerful and energising show, channeling the hopes and anxieties of a suburban youth who can draw on the cultural legacies of over five continents. When asked what audiences can expect, Vela is concise. “Song, words. Beautiful, unique voices. Harmonies. A string quartet. Acoustic guitars. Rhythm.” If Vela’s previous work is anything to go by, of which author Christos Tsiolkas observed, “this is indeed how the world sounds: hybrid, modernist and ancient”, then Melbourne’s audiences can feel confident that they are in for something special; and our city planners may just have some thinking to do.