Tourism, Spectacle and Major Events

The first time I performed for a world televisual audience was as a child foot solider for imperialist propaganda. The year was 1982 and the occasion was the Opening Ceremony of ‘Brisbane’s ‘Commonwealth Games’ aka the ‘Stolenwealth Games’. This collision of tourism, spectacle and major event was opened by Prince Phillip and closed by the Queen and cemented friendships between all the nation states fucked over by the British Empire. I’d fallen in with a bad crowd and I’m related to some of them.  

My job was as a blue pixel in the ‘Australian’ flag. It was an invaluable early lesson in the relationship between Nationalism and big budget spectacle to unite, entertain and distract the masses. The well-trodden tropes of escapist pageantry work as the foundation in soft power denial narratives that pretend to flesh out ‘who we are’ and cement our ‘place in the world’. At 15, I couldn’t yet see the similarities between what I was doing and the Hitler Youth.

Out onto the pitch I marched in a royal blue 2-piece terry towelling tracksuit, one of 6074 school children from 238 State schools between the ages of 12 and 15 cast into this expansive, dangerous pantomime. Swapping out the realities of Empire with the sentimental, fantastical and populist lies of Straya was quite the production. Students from Exclusive private schools were too busy being taught crony economics, (in state schools ‘Business Studies’ suffice), to be drafted into this chorus line. This was proletariat cannon fodder. 

The Eyes of the World were on ‘Brisbane’ and we were relishing showing ourselves off as the powerhouse leaders of commerce and culture for the whole region. ‘Amour propre’, international projection, why not? A capacity crowd sat cheering in the new Queen Elizabeth II stadium, our purpose-built colosseum-arena, proud, confident and comfortable in swishy new seats. There is no problem a new stadium can’t fix. No expense was spared; no luxury was too luxuriant. Bloody hell, we deserved a party. ‘Queensland’ hosted these ‘Friendly Games’ and it was ‘Beautiful One Day and Perfect the Next!’ Cooooeee! 


I was the kind of kid motivated by the ribbons, medals and certificates awarded on school assembly. Also, I’d sign up to any and every extra-curricular activity that got me out of class. McDonald’s sponsored these ‘Commonwealth’ Games, their logo is on my Participation Award, an example of sports washing. To operate franchises with outlets seemingly everywhere the corporation has to convince a myriad of regulators and experts that ‘Supersizing my burger and fries’ is but harmless family fun. ‘Mummy, if McDonald’s isn’t good for you how come there’s one at the hospital?’ 

‘Write and ask the Health Minister that darling.’ It doesn’t always end in a stay at Ronald McDonald House. 

A beloved mascot can sell an audience almost anything. Matilda was a 13-metre high, 6 tonne cartoon kangaroo fabricated on top of a forklift truck. When driven into QEII Matilda turned her head, wriggled her ears and with a knowing, disarmingly seductive wink, Matilda had us eating out of her fury paw. Supercute little Joey’s, tucked up safe inside Matilda’s pouch bounded out onto trampoline’s and performed perfect backflips just for us! The ABC, the propaganda arm of Empire, captured the magic for all time.

Hyperbole does not age well: Part 1  You can see me on screen at about the 4-minute mark, marching right behind Jennifer Browne. I’m the one talking. We were not supposed to talk. 

One-time national hero and convicted pederast Rolf Harris entered the QEII stadium surrounded by an ocean of excited school children. What could go wrong?  ‘Australia’s’ answer to Jimmy Saville, Rolf serenaded the cheering crowd with his thin rendition of settler classic Waltzing Matilda. Rolf’s stage, atop a flatbed truck , was part of his meticulously crafted, down-home charm. Opportunistic evil camouflaged behind an unrelentingly harmless, eccentric Uncle act that Harris worked so tirelessly to perfect. It’s what got him booked for gigs. 

Politics and Sport

Almost everyone loves Sport. Cheering for our winners, commiserating with the losers, the ‘also rans’, the ‘what-if’s’. Crowds united in the drama of the starting guns and the medal tallies, the teams and the tracksuits. The flexed pecs and the enormous glutes. When ‘ordinary Aussie’ Dean Lukin, the Tuna fisherman from WA snatched and jerked his way to weightlifting victory, we all celebrated. Who can lift/run/throw/swim/shoot/ride the highest, the lowest, the fastest in the ‘Commonwealth’? Who can break the records, hold the records, cheat the records? Who is going down in history? The politics of sport is a minefield microcosm of meddling and mismanagement but fuck it’s a good day out. A close game, a mighty match, a contested contest, Sport has the capacity to take our minds off almost anything. And that’s why politicians love it. Sport unites and diverts us. And sport is competition monetized, so business loves it too.

Deals Deals Deals

Lobster with Mobsters 

Grand Committees of great men and their spin doctors pitched the idea that hosting the Games was the beginning of ‘Queensland’s’ transformation from sleepy, racist Northern backwater into ‘Australia’s’ most progressive state. It worked a beauty. The Games were ‘putting ‘Brisbane’ on the map’. The Deep North moniker washed away in a marketing men’s wet dream. This was a once in a lifetime coming of age major event for a country town transitioning into a cosmopolitan new city. A city brimming with opportunity for the pugnacious entrepreneurs and former bankrupts meeting in airport lounges and the foyer of the Sheraton Mirage. The hustlers and the carpetbaggers, the go-getters and the opportunistic outsiders, the ambitious self-starters all assembled in their team colour: the grey suit. Chomping at the bit to attend the right parties, meet the right people, to do a deal and carve off a slice of the Optimism pie. Schmooze the Minister, sign the contract and get in on some Government capture through relentless politicking. Procurements procured over mud crab and a frosty XXXX. Economic downturns are called depressions for a reason. The despot Premier Sir Joh Bjelke Pedersen was having none of that. People at a good party spend good money

A thriving metropolis like ‘Brisbane’ needed a masterplan and a master re-build and another round of compulsory acquisitions. New freeways and highways, toll roads and motorways. New passes over and tunnels under. New bridges and ferries and terminals and hubs. There were mariners to marine, boardwalks to board, dams to be damned, cultural precincts for culture. Canals for the bull sharks and security guards for the exclusive gated communities. You can never be too secure. The old casino needed an upgrade and a Skydeck. Some customers won’t want to leave, so build apartment towers and they won’t have to. ‘Have you considered hosting a World’s Fair?’ enquired the team of experts.

A Brief History:

Originally called the British Empire Games, ‘Australia’ has hosted more Commonwealth Games than any other colony. We’re the needy child of the Empire, forever vying for the attention of mummy and daddy. There was Sydney ‘38, Perth ‘62, Brisbane ‘82, Melbourne 2006, Gold Coast 2018, and Regional Victoria in 2026. Hosting Games costs a fuck-tonne but don’t worry, we’re rich. Mean and rich. We’re addicted to big builds. You never hear organisers say: ‘let’s just use the stadium we got from last time’.

The Commonwealth Games is an International gaslighter Summit. In ’82 the Chief Gaslighter didn’t even bother to show up and cut the ribbon to the new stadium named after her. She outsourced it to her unpopular husband. Queen Elizabeth’s snub did not go down well with the Australian Women’s Weekly crowd, so she had to work extra hard from then on, to convince us of her almightiness. The Royal Britannia Yacht was berthed at Newstead for the duration, a floating palace to astonish. Attending the Royal Gala Performance at the now demolished Her Majesty Theatre, the Queen came up the Mall (Queen Street mall not Pall Mall) in a Rolls Royce. An opulent vision in Gold, she dazzled onlookers with a spectacular tiara of looted gemstones from one outpost or other. No expense was spared on this night of nights. Jackie Love belted out a rendition of ‘Fame’ because what even are you if you’re not famous? When Slim Dusty sang ‘There’s nothing so lonesome as a pub with no beer’ everyone agreed. Members of the ruling class here got to rub shoulders with each other in the vicinity of the illegitimate head of Church, State and military. No one mentioned Gough. Doing the tough yards on stage representing all people of colour was Channel 9 regular Kamahl. 

With dreams of domination, proudly on display the ‘Commonwealth’ Games telecasts national deception to international audiences, ignoring unstable regional relationships and strained foreign affairs. We ‘harness the games capacity to promote economic, geopolitical, and diplomatic power’ by whipping an opponent’s ass at sport.

Shaping a national identity as preposterous as the one ‘Australia’ mustered in the 80’s is a major achievement at any time in history. Conceits and denials are addictive drugs. Stereotypical national virtues do not spring from nowhere. They are modelled and meticulously sculpted into existence. The ’82 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony Display was ‘Master of Ceremonies’ Ric Birch’s first hit. He rapidly escalated it into an international career creating and producing ‘globally seen ceremonies’ at Commonwealth and Olympic Games. Who can forget the moment when disoriented caged doves were accidently sacrificed into the flaming caldron of the Los Angeles Olympics? As Director of Entertainment at World Expo 88 in Brisbane, Ric worked tirelessly distracting audiences from the heinous reality of what the ‘Australian Bicentenary’ year commemorated. Legitimising the illegitimate, attempting to make conscionable that which is unconscionable, is the work.  

The laconic, laidback larrikin trope, with occasional boisterous outbursts holds great appeal to large audiences. The pioneering spirit of ye olde pulls at the heartstrings. The culture propagandised the idea that we are a ‘young nation’ of fun-loving, sun-loving, sport obsessed rogues who, on a hot day don’t mind the occasional ice-cold beer. Think Paul Hogan and Strop, Men at Work, the bold, playful, celebratory designs of Ken Done, artists Brett Whiteley and John Olsen. 

One of the best training grounds for learning how to conjure up and monetize national virtue is drama club, Scotch College, ‘Melbourne’. That’s where Ric Birch did his apprenticeship in theatrical fantasy. Tapping right into the blue-chip end of the old boy’s network in Melbourne’s leafy Eastern suburbs, Scotch College was founded pre-Federation, in 1851. It’s motto is Deo Patriae Litteris : For God, for Country, and for Learning! Scotch College empowers it’s students to first take control of their own lives and then take control of everyone else’s.

Scotch College has more Old Boys on the ‘Who’s Who in ‘Australia’ list than any other. Based on the Chumocracy model of the elite English education system, Scotch College uses state subsidies to indoctrinate another generation with the ‘Prestige Exclusivity’ rhetoric. Scotch has moulded and nurtured the potentials of many a founding father. There are Governors and Governor Generals, Prime Ministers and Premiers, Cabinet Ministers and Vice Regals, Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors, Judges, Justices and Jazz Musicians. There are Directors and Chairmen, Founders and Executives, Lobbyists and Think Tanks. Sporting Stars from all the fields attend Scotch, poached with ‘generous’ scholarships from the ‘less fortunate’ outer nether regions, put to work as the tireless representative spokesmen of Scotch par Excellence. 

From these old school ties they seep into church and court, into parliament and bank and into corporate office. Fossil fuel execs, James Hardie CEO John Reid went to Scotch. Sir Archibald Glenn, Chairman of something called ‘Imperial Chemical Industries Australia’ went to Scotch. The quid pro-quo set, the ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ set, the ‘let’s privatise public assets because it will be cheaper for Us to own the profits’ set. Liberal Party elites Andrew Peacock (could have been PM but he didn’t want it), Jeff Kennett, seller-off of public schools, now unironically advocating for those ‘left behind’ through Lifeline and Beyond Blue. 

Radical reform of a society with growing inequity should start by de-funding Scotch College and all such organisations.    

In looking back at photos and footage of young me, happy as a lark, co-opted out of school and signed up to participate in an elaborate and expensive charade I see that the ‘Post-Truth Age’ began not with the internet or with Trump and his enablers like Rupert’s Fox News. Departures from reality pollute historyThe ’82 Stolenwealth games was the largest protest for Aboriginal Rights ever held. Protestors highlighted human rights violations, Destiny Deacon was there, up from Melbourne Uni. Young Richard Bell was there, young Gary Foley said, ‘we’re letting the world know what’s going on here’.  22 minutes directed by Dewi Wilson and Karina Hogan. 

Antonio Gramsci called the things we accept without question the Cultural Hegemony. Star Trek fans are familiar with Reality Distortion Fields. They’re a phenomenon whereby perpetrators attempt to convince themselves and others of almost anything. With indomitable will and charisma the culprits attempt to ‘bend’ any fact to suit their own purpose. The usual rules of bullshit do not apply. The ‘special’ and the ‘chosen’ will not take no for an answer. Surrounding themselves with sycophants to anchor their delusion, reality distortion fields love to create and infect ‘popular culture’. Popularity is good bang-for-buck. Swapping out truth for fantasy and a big budget. 

Expo ’88

Leisure in the Age of Technology

Calling an event a World’s Fair when the world is not and has never been fair, doesn’t stand up so ‘Brisbane’s’ World’s Fair got rebranded into Expo 88. Its theme was Leisure in the Age of Technology. Nothing ages as poorly as anticipating the future. Realistic but fake, magical fantasy but also a nightmare, family fun day but queues everywhere and fucking expensive. Always fucking expensive. Re-energizing the colonial project with more stakeholders and partnerships than an international business summit. Book in the Queen, she’ll need to be here to cut the ribbon and see how well we aren’t doing. 

Staged on the unceded lands of the Jagerra Peoples,  Expo ’88 was  the crowning event of the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations that also re-enacted the arrival of the First Fleet into Sydney Harbour ffs. Expo 88 had $625 million to spend, hosted pavilions from 36 nations, 52 Government Agencies and 50 Corporations, all putting their best feet forward, competing for the hearts and minds of visitors. The difference between a nation and a corporation isn’t so much. Governments run just like corporations. Bad corporations. In the Queensland Pavilion we were to ‘Join the Spirit’, sightseers were herded onto a ‘people mover’ and carried through exhibits illustrating ‘Queensland’s’ white history. The ride concluded with the State’s plan to construct a Space Centre at Cape York. It didn’t happen but it sounded good. 

Natural History but not natural, actual or historically factual-

Man-made natural environments of unsurpassed realism proved to be overwhelmingly popular at Expo ’88. There were Realistic Wildlife habitats that weren’t real. Nature based play equipment modelled in fibreglass, designed, manufactured and installed at great expense. Hand-crafted plastic replicas of wood. Wood rots but plastic is forever. Inspired by the natural world but not respectful of the natural world, there were custom designed and built environments to add excitement, authenticity, and value, but without the bugs. Not a creature left.

Referencing Theme Parks and zoo exhibits with a Convention Centre overlay, there were artificial rocks and caves, animal statues, artificial trees and plants, aquariums, man-made waterfalls, water features and water play. Presentations conquering the wild and expressing our dominance and authority over mother nature were big. ‘Leisure in the Age of Technology’ was a dystopian wonderland of unchecked privilege and delusional power. Programmed to bolster consumer confidence by shining an international light on the Sunshine State, this was a regional take on Disneyland. Advertisements take many forms. 

New Zealand’s Pavilion was so popular the queue could be a 4-6 hour wait. The building’s exterior was a distinctive turquoise colour water wall that was supposed to be reminiscent of a paua shell but wasn’t. In front of this was a stage for Māori dancing. Once you got past the ‘Hall of Fame’ where New Zealand’s heroes and inventions were chronicled in ice, it was straight into the ‘Theatre of Sensation’. Comfortably straddled a gyrating sheep movie seat, the ‘animated’ presentation of Footrot Flats reassured audiences they weren’t wasting their time and money celebrating not much. The NZ Pavilion experience ended with a replica glow-worm cave so realistic you could swear you were in a real cave with real glow worms. A replica ancient Kauri Forest adjoining the banks of Expo’s popular Pacific Lagoon rounded out the encounter. Here, amongst the artificial mist one could explore the wonders of New Zealand’s pretend forests. Several real ancient tree stumps had been flown in to add authenticity to the display. Logan Brewer Production Design won lots of awards for their work on NZ’s national pavilion and parlayed this award-winning success into the perpetuation of more delusion at the Universal Exposition in Seville, Spain, 1992. Puff down Logan Brewer.       

The Munich Fest Haus was another real hit and did a roaring trade upselling binge drinking culture already fashionable here but German style. Who knew plastic cups got so big? Customers sat at huge tables sometimes with people they didn’t already know Three pints in they might even say something to each other. ‘The Chicken Dance’ played loudly and frequently. Nobody loves a flash mob synchronized dance as much as a Haus full of inebriated tourists.     

The best way to get around the 40-hectare (99 acre) Expo site and wonder at the arenas and boardwalks, piazzas and cultural forecourts was to ride the monorail. Walking is slow and free and good for your health, but also old fashioned, not technologically advanced or exciting. So ‘Queensland’ bought the monorail off the lovely monorail salesman just like on the Simpson’s. KITT from Night Rider was at Expo representing American cultural imperialism, and so was the UN, the EU and Vatican City and Universal Studios had pavilions for those who really get in to make believe. Alaska Day at Expo 88 including footage of glacier ice flown in special for visitors to watch melt. No joke.

Expo Oz- 

Organisers called in the big guns and commissioned Disney’s Imagineering Division to design Expo’s mascot. Expo Oz is a platypus with a blue bill and an extensive wardrobe who worked tirelessly to win over our hearts. Sometimes Expo wears Speedo’s and plays Lifesaver. Expo has a bright yellow safari jacket and matching slouch hat like the ones the diggers wore to war. A platypus in a slouch hat, an endangered species fighting man for survival….. On special occasions Expo Oz wore a tux and tails like the local dignitaries wore to kiss the Queen’s ring. 

Disney don’t work cheap, so Expo Oz mutated into 500 unique souvenir memorabilia’s, a fond memento for every price point. Expo was at the end of Sir Joh Bjelke Pederson’s Reign of Terror. Expo 88 was to Joh what the Falklands War was to Margaret Thatcher: a diversion away from dwindling popularity, a last gasp at retaining power. It worked for Thatcher. It didn’t work for Joh.

The second time I ever appeared on TV I was employed as a Public Relations Attendant for the Queensland Pavilion at Expo ’88. One day my job was to stand behind Margaret Thatcher and get the uniform into frame. She was handed a koala to cuddle for the assembled international press but it pissed on her. Footage of this karmic event was broadcast on Clive James’ round-up of that year, 1988, where friends saw me and alerted me to its presence which I recorded onto VHS tape but then lost. Like at the Games, I wore a uniform bought for me by the state of Queensland, this one seemingly inspired by Duran Duran. It too was ‘Royal Blue’, trimmed in red and yellow and had us looking like flight attendants on a trip to nowhere. 

‘Major Events’ like Expo 88 need to commission a theme song to capture the sense of excitement of the moment.  ‘Together We’ll Show the World!’ is a bombastic anthem that leans into the casual superiority and pomposity of 80’s ‘Straya’. The tune does not allow itself to be bogged down in the details of who ‘we’ are; ‘what’ ‘we’ aim to prove; and to whom. Within a framework of ‘National Identity’ foundation myths, ‘Together We’ll Show the World’ taps into crueller, stupider, more jingoistic forms at pre-eminence on a ‘world stage’. 

‘Brisbane’ didn’t want the party to end. On the last night The Seekers played their classic tune ‘The Carnival is Over’ on the riverstage. The song taps right into the morbid sentimentality beloved of boomers everywhere. There was nary a dry eye left in the place. Expo 88 was brought to its teary conclusion until the next Urban Renewal Authority swings into gear. 

Major Events mask the rapid development of sites like the South Brisbane locale, that many believe would be best left alone. Concerns are bulldozed behind a screen of smoke and the whistles and the jobs and the growth narratives beloved of politicians and ‘infrastructure’ providers, to create ‘narratives’ of momentum and perpetual growth that is unsustainable. 

There are those holding on for dear life to the delusional narratives of the proud pioneering spirit and the laconic ‘she’ll be right mate, no worries’ bullshit on which so much of the ‘Australian’ cultural identity would prefer to remain. Slogans, jingles, mascots and jingoistic spin create business and development opportunity aplenty. When ‘Australia’ won the America’s Cup we got so confident we supersized our homes, we’ve the biggest homes in the world. 

Many remain enamoured with the idea that humans are in charge of life’s ‘major events’. The perpetuation of this falsity has always been absurd but it’s getting more so with every passing flood. The ‘Aren’t We Doing Very Well Even As We’re Going Down’ Crowd fill their social calendars with Major cultural and sporting Events, jetting in for brief stays in luxury hotels, sitting in the best seats. The only major thing about most major events is the major footprint we can’t afford. 

What are we building, who for and what is the true cost of the endless charades? (asking for a friend)

Essay for ‘Nothing is More Important than Hanging out’

Curated by Sarah Brasier and Jemi Gale

Outer Space Gallery

Photo: Louis Lim

Photo: Louis Lim

Photo: Louis Lim