Changing cultural narratives by sparking public conversation

The 2022 BLEACH* Festival is not only commissioning new work, it’s changing the way locals and visitors alike perceive and experience the Gold Coast.
Brightly coloured projections wash over a group of five people standing and sitting close together, making their features hard to distinguish.

The world’s best arts festivals are quintessentially of their place – refracting their location through a cultural lens in a way that can’t be duplicated elsewhere: not with the same relevance and specificity, at least.

‘Festivals allow people to see their home reflected differently,’ explained Rose Dennis, the CEO and Artistic Director of the Gold Coast’s BLEACH* Festival.

‘It’s also great if you’re a visitor because you get a sense of the identity of that place thanks to festivals, and then if you’re a local, festivals like BLEACH* are an opportunity for you to have agency and ownership over the place you call home,’ she said.

But beyond simply embodying local concerns and values and employing local artists, is it possible for festivals to not only be of a place but to change perceptions of that place entirely?

‘Yes, absolutely’ Dennis said. ‘One of the reasons locals so celebrate our festival is because there is still an element of frustration about the narrative that gets wrapped around the Gold Coast. You know, that it’s all about beaches and blonde hair and superficiality.

‘But actually, I find the Gold Coast community and the local residents really incredibly generous, incredibly proud and civic minded, and they get behind BLEACH* because they really feel like it’s theirs,’ she told ArtsHub.

By presenting sophisticated arts experiences across a range of locations and focusing on a uniquely placed-based program, BLEACH* helps locals see the City of Gold Coast in a new light, while visitors are encouraged to abandon stereotypes rooted in the clichés of decades past and celebrate the Gold Coast as it is today – a diverse and thriving metropolis which has grown to become Australia’s largest non-capital city.

For her 2022 program, Dennis is focusing on themes of visibility, professional practice and diversity. She noted that when visitors think of the Gold Coast, ‘a lot of people don’t necessarily think of it as being really diverse, but it is – you just have to dig a little deeper.’

Consequently, for her 2022 program, Dennis has tried to ‘really position Gold Coast as being a global city, because we’ve got so many different nationalities living here’.

House of Alexander will among the many fabulous performers at Bliss as part of BLEACH* 2022. Photo: Joel Devereux.

That diversity includes the people of the Yugambeh Nation, part of the world’s oldest continually thriving culture, and Dennis is delighted that a Yugambeh language workshop has been one of the first events in the festival program to be fully booked.

‘The first things to sell out or be completely subscribed to in the festival are the workshops, and we offer a Yugambeh language workshop, offer a fire-making workshop, and offer a botanical tie-dyeing workshop led by three fabulous and very proficient First Nations artists here, and they sold out within the first week,’ she said.

Dennis attributes the popularity of such workshops to locals wanting a deeper sense of connection with the place they call home.

‘People want that experience. They don’t just want to be spoon fed – certainly not audiences at BLEACH*. They love being part of a conversation. And we love, I love, that the festival can be the catalyst for those conversations in the city.’

Now in its 11th year, BLEACH* has weathered the COVID storms which saw its most recent iterations either cancelled or reimagined, and Dennis is eager to present her first full festival program since being appointed to the role in July 2019. She’s also excited to see how the program resonates not only with the local community but with the wider Australian arts industry.

Home Grown Opera at the Gold Coast Regional Botanic Gardens as part of BLEACH* 2022. Photo: Art-Work Agency.

One of Dennis’ strategies to ensure the festival contributes to a national conversation in the arts sector is to ensure BLEACH* plays a key role in developing new works. Over the coming weeks, five groups of artists have been invited to practise full-time in-residence at the festival’s North Burleigh Hub (one of four key festival hubs in the City of Gold Coast) in the lead-up to and during the festival.

Working under the public gaze, it’s intended that the artists will create new works specifically connected to place, demystifying the creative process in the process and helping artists and the public reconnect after the turmoil and distancing of COVID.

‘The provocation I’ve given all those artists is to “undo your desire to deliver.” So people come in with a concept but then for these next three and a half weeks, their work is very much shaped by their interactions with the public,’ Dennis explained.

It’s also an important opportunity to engage the general public in conversations about professional practice, she continued.

‘The festival team and myself will be on the ground every day talking to people, and I think because the Gold Coast is still evolving its cultural identity, some of the robust dialogue you might have connected with Sydney and Melbourne around professional practice just doesn’t have the same depth here … and I think coming off the back of two years of COVID, making professional practice really visible for the general public is also really important to me.’

Explore the unique tales of the Gold Coast hinterlands through The Acoustic Life of Sheds at BLEACH* 2022. Photo: Art-Work Agency.

Community members are encouraged to watch the artists at work – from the inception of an idea through the process of creation and finally, to the culmination, when the new works premiere in the second week of BLEACH* – as they themselves go about their day-to-day lives 2022.

‘It’s about opening up the festival model. It’s really difficult, when you’re putting something like this together, to not having a singular voice [in control]. So how do we continue to open up a conversation with different people in the city and better understand the stories that they are wanting to hear or the stories that they think are important to tell?

‘So you’ve got a much bigger shared voice in the program this year than a single artistic director buying in work. That’s not BLEACH* – BLEACH* is so much about building the festival from the ground up and bringing people along with you as part of the conversation, and celebrating together,’ Dennis continued.

‘And all of those artists-in-residence are definitely up for the challenge. Simultaneously, the festival will have invested in five new works, which is also fabulous for us. We’re so excited to be paying artists beyond just a buy-in but actually to create work in place for the next month, and of place as well.’

Bleach* Festival runs from 11-21 August. Explore the program and book tickets today.

Richard Watts OAM is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, a Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend, and was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize in 2020. In 2021 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Green Room Awards Association. Most recently, Richard received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in June 2024. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts