It wasn’t that long ago that Northcote was a haven for artists and musicians. Its combination of low rents and sizeable properties gave rise to a hotbed of painters, sculptors and musicians creating art of critical, if not always popular, acclaim. But as the housing affordability belt moved north, so too did the artistic population dwindle. Crusty old Californian bungalows became replaced by townhouses with the aesthetic appeal of a busted arsehole; out went the artists, and in came the icons of gentrification – four-wheel drives, expensive cafés and middle-class pretension.
Yet the original Northcote artistic spirit lives on in events like Northern Exposure. Now into its eighth year, Northern Exposure provides an opportunity for artists to utilise the private and public spaces of Northcote to showcase their art. “The event began about eight years ago, as a Darebin City Council initiative,” explains this year’s event director Angela Bailey. “In those days there were a lot more galleries on High Street, and they curated their own exhibitions.”
With the High Street gallery population diminishing in the face of rising rents, the Northcote Business Association took over the event, seeing it as part of a broader initiative to raise both local and broader Melbourne awareness of High Street and its cultural and consumer attractions. “The event has definitely changed over the last five years,” Bailey says. “It’s now spread more evenly over the street. It’s got other people and shops involved, and gets more people onto the street.”
Northern Exposure is divided into both public and private dimensions. The private sphere involves local High Street businesses transforming their shopfronts into exhibition spaces; the public sphere allows artists to exhibit in generally under-utilised public spaces – from footpaths to public signage.
“We have the High View, which involves art being displayed in shop fronts – the artist is in the shopfront of the trader, with the artwork matching the shop,” Bailey says. “And then there’s the Small Works in Small Spaces, which has more street art style – cracks in footpaths, signage, paste ups. There you’ll get things like small figurines and yarn bombings.”
Bailey says approximately 50 local traders are involved in the ‘High View’ part of Northern Exposure. “Some of the artists put in a preference to exhibit in a particular shop, while other shops nominate their own artists to display in their shop. And in some cases, there are actually artists working in the shop who exhibit there,” Bailey explains.
The benefit to local traders is understandably predominantly commercial, with Bailey citing an increase in street traffic on the opening night of this year’s event. “A couple of business had a great turn over on Friday night,” she says. “The event promotes High Street as a place to come and visit and check out.”
Northern Exposure isn’t entirely unique – the Gertrude Street Projection Festival is run along similar lines, albeit on a nocturnal basis – though Bailey says the ‘small works, small spaces’ aspect of Northern Exposure differentiates it from similar events.
“It brings a conversation to the street,” Bailey says. “And it allows art to be shown in an atmosphere that’s completely different to the white cub gallery space. People are happy to walk along and look at something different while seeing art.”
This year’s Northern Exposure has broadened its participation slightly, with the inclusion of a couple of artists from Sydney. “We’ve also got some performance artists who are performing in the front of a hairdresser’s salon for a couple of hours a day,” Bailey says. On the opening night of the event a panel of judges – including renowned photographer and local resident Bill Henson – awarded prizes in the High View and Small Works categories. The winner of the latter category was Monique Barrett for her piece Glory to the Highest in a phone box adjacent to a supermarket; the winner of the former category, Gemma Horbury, took as her inspiration the regular discarding of television sets on local streets. “It features nine TV sets all playing videos that comment on the old TVs being abandoned on the streets of Darebin,” Bailey says. “She’s actually statistically documented the number of TVs that have been left on the streets.”
A few of the exhibiting artists at this year’s event have already been approached by local galleries to display their art at a later date. “I think the event appeals to artists to try and exhibit their art in a different setting,” Bailey says. Bailey is cautiously confidently that Northern Exposure could play a part in reviving and sustaining the Northcote arts culture – particularly in the face of the forces of gentrification and commoditisation. “Yes, potentially in this climate,” she says. “Darebin City Council has already recognised the need to express the community that lives in this area, including with ‘Active space in Darebin’, which is about reactivating vacant spaces as art spaces, even on a short-term basis,” Bailey says.
BY PATRICK EMERY
Northern Exposure is currently running in Northcote until Sunday July 1. For more information visit highstreetnorthcote.com.au