Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Growing Pains in Byron Bay

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Growing Pains in Byron Bay

Article excerpt

Sebastian Chan [*]

Environmental and techno groups unite in the Australian bush to mix alternative politics and artistic expression. Yet tourism may spoil the scene

Two and a half hour's drive through Australia's dense bush north of Sydney, coloured lights pulse on the crest of a hill as the low rumble of bass creeps across the immense forest. At the height of summer, the bush surrounding Byron Bay is alive with underground techno events. A far cry from the regimented and often alienating world of clubs that electronic music in Sydney and other major cities have become captive to, these events offer an escape from city life and a dose of social politics. The open space seemingly provides the freedom needed for a creative mix of artistic and political action. But the flow of foreign tourists may arrest the scene's development.

To some extent, tourism is at the origin of the local techno scene. Building on the history of gay dance parties which thrived in Sydney from the early 1980s, British tourists began bringing new music and ideas in 1989 on the back of the UK rave explosion. They organised underground events using the same tactics to evade police at home: low-key advertising and venues announced by phone number on the night. They also began setting up import record stores and became leading DJs. But by 1991-2, locals had taken over. Every weekend, four or more events could each draw several thousand people.

Meanwhile, The Vibe Tribe--a loose group of former punks, squatters and community activists--began holding free parties in Sydney's public spaces to blend grassroots community activism with the energy and futurism of rave culture. They also began setting up fundraisers for various progressive community organizations while forging alliances with local environmental groups to highlight issues such as indigenous land rights, the loss of public space to private interests, and nuclear disarmament. Electronic music was integrated into everything from community festivals to party-aligned protest events such as "Reclaim The Streets" in Sydney: multiple soundsystems were wheeled out at major road intersections, drawing thousands of spontaneous revellers to highlight the environmental effects of the automobile industry.

But by 1995, repressive regulations and police raids forced the raves off the streets and into the controlled confines of clubs. The Vibe Tribe disbanded and some leading members like Kol Diamond went to Byron Bay, where environmental alliances had been forged by other collectives like Electric Tipi. "Over the last twenty years or so Byron has become very much the nerve centre of 'alternative lifestyling', in this country," explains Diamond. "The various feral subcultures and capitalist Greenies mix freely with New Age gurus. They sit lazily in Bohemian cafes discussing the politics of making money and genetically modified soya beans whilst surfing the days away... The local council is Green [party], the local newspaper is heavily anti-development and critical of large corporate businesses, and it seems like the whole town and surrounding areas have in common a desire to keep the Big Mac out of town and keep low-density, low-impact development as the main strategy, largely because Byron Bay is totally depend ent on tourism. …

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