27 November 2015

The Case For a Boggo Road Cultural Hub

With the Boggo Road redevelopment process now taking another step forward with the release of the draft application details, I’d like to gradually present a few articles on this website outlining my own ideas, beginning – as we always should – with the Big Picture.

What kind of a place do I want Boggo Road to become?

I’ve been continually involved in this planning process as long as anyone, and like to think I have a decent grasp of what is possible for Boggo Road. Unfortunately what is possible is the framework we have to work within, and so my ‘perfect world’ ideas for the prison are irrelevant.

If we have learned anything from the last four Queensland premiers - Beattie, Bligh, Newman and Palaczszuk - it is that there is no government magic pudding to fund the eternal upkeep of Boggo Road. This was an ideological decision taken way back when, and nine-figure legally-binding contracts were signed with the private sector years ago so there will be no u-turns. We have to make the best of what we have now, which is a private development company leasing Boggo Road from the state government and trying to create significant revenue from reusing the site (with retail and licensed dining facilities) while providing for a decent heritage/arts precinct within the walls.     

This is not ideal (from my perspective) but the plans I’ve seen are largely palatable and the people behind them seem genuinely keen on making the heritage aspects work. This makes sense as the success of the licensed dining facilities would be partially dependent upon the rest of the site being a quality drawcard for the public.

My overall philosophy is that it would be a worthwhile achievement to take Boggo Road - an old prison ingrained with decades of negativity and pain - and transform it into a place of positive creativity and community life. In effect, to ‘rehabilitate’ the buildings themselves.
It is a place in need of healing, a scar in the psyche of the landscape. Some people recoil from it. There are some former officers and inmates who suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and have psychological and physical reactions to even being near the prison. I know of one old screw who had to quit his job after he couldn’t walk through the main gates anymore, and afterwards he would urinate in his pants if he was accidentally driven past the place.

This is not a happy place, and it can’t be healed by simply filling it with diners and artists and tourists and schoolkids. We must never forget or whitewash or diminish what happened there. That would be unfair on all those who experienced it when it was a prison, and unfair on those who can still learn the important lessons of that history.

What we need to do next is use the history as inspiration for telling stories of the old prison through live performance, visual arts, oral history, exhibitions and the written word. Boggo Road should become a centre for encouraging debate and research about Boggo Road itself. A place where we invite the community in to talk about what happened there, through (as I always say) ‘many stories, through many voices, in many ways’.

Not every artistic event that takes place there needs to address that history, but it is one of those places that inevitably adds deeper layers of meaning to any performance or installation. I would like to see a binding managerial commitment to encourage an ongoing creative discourse about Boggo Road through the arts.

In this way, Boggo Road will become a truly living cultural hub, a place whose own meaning and significance is being positively transformed and challenged through an ongoing process of creative engagement with its own history.

We now have an opportunity to create something great and unique at Boggo Road. Not just another by-the-book prison museum or yuppie/hipster dining Quarter, but an award-winning, living centre of culture that draws inspiration from and engages with the profound history that is soaked into the buildings themselves. And offers some pretty fantastic dining options along the way…

Putting the philosophical aspects of a Boggo Road creative hub aside, there is also a solid commercial argument that a dynamic and varied programme of artistic and History-related events is the best way to bring in repeat customers. It has been acknowledged by both the government and the developers that the potential of Boggo Road has not been realised. The prison has been underused in recent years, and although the buildings are the main drawcard and promote themselves (so even Bill Shorten could sell tours there[i]), it is currently dead space for most of the time. People do one tour and don’t come back.

A varied menu of quality arts and heritage events will get people coming back regularly to see something new. And take in a meal while they’re there. The Boggo Arts & Heritage Alliance has the ideas, talent and connections to make this concept work.

It makes financial sense, but the idea of a thriving, living cultural hub at Boggo Road also seems like a natural fit for the old prison. Let's hope the decision-makers have the vision and energy to make this happen.

[i] This was quite obvious one Sunday in 2011 when the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society volunteers started monthly clean-ups of the prison. The place had been closed for six years, was completely unadvertised, and yet we had about 20 curious visitors walk in that day, even though it was strictly members-only. We tried to keep people OUT and they kept coming in!

26 November 2015

'Unauthorised Activities' in Brisbane Cemeteries?

Here we go again...

On page 7 of today’s City South News, local ‘ghost tour’ operator Cameron ‘Jack’ Sim again attacks a local history group, this time for having the audacity to run a single one-off cemetery tour raising money for cemetery heritage projects.

The cause of this episode was a not-for-profit ‘Halloween Tour’ organised and run by Moonlight Tour volunteer guides Tracey Olivieri and Liam Baker at the South Brisbane Cemetery a few weeks back. Mr Sim’s claims that the tours were unlicensed and that the Brisbane City Council should be ‘throwing the book’ at the volunteers. As the article reads, ‘Mr Sim… said Council had always required operators to have a current license’. In other words, he sees the tours as being unauthorised.

First of all, the truth is that the Moonlight Tour organisers had written permission from the Brisbane City Council to run this one-off special fundraising event. I did not organise or attend this tour (I'm not a Halloween fan) but I did behave like a pain in the backside ensuring that they had permission for it, and I have seen that written permission. Also, discussions are still underway between the council and the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery about a whole new licensing system for these kinds of activities in cemeteries. So, no big deal.

As for the claim that such tours having ‘always required’ a license, this is false. The license system for night tours only came into effect circa 2010, thanks to the efforts of the FOSBC. Prior to that time, the cemeteries department had little idea what business Mr Sim was carrying out in their cemeteries, and he didn’t pay a cent for it. This included birthday parties, dress-up Halloween tours, pseudo-occult rituals as part of the tours, and ‘ghost hunts’. All without any form of license.

The FOSBC are unaware if Mr Sim had permission for these activities - we doubt it - but it is worth noting that after the license system was introduced and Mr Sim had to start paying to use the cemeteries, the Brisbane City Council banned those birthday parties, fancy-dress tours, pseudo-occult rituals and ‘ghost hunts’, and any other ‘disrespectful’ activities.  Even after the license system supposedly banned much of these activities, Mr Sim started advertising ‘hen’s night’ tours in the cemetery. 

Remember, this is in a cemetery that the Brisbane City Council still uses and charges people thousands of dollars to provide a special resting place for their loved ones.

In my opinion, the council should have a duty of care to ensure that after you have paid a lot of money to lay a loved one to rest in one of the cemeteries, the grave won’t be overrun with party-goers, ghost hunters or occult ritual performances - especially when conducted in pursuit of private profit. To their credit, in recent years the BCC have tried to stop such activities in their cemeteries. Unfortunately, it seems that the occult rituals of holding hands in a circle and chanting to summon the ’Angel of Death’ still happen on the Toowong Cemetery Ghost Tour, despite several warnings from the city council not to do it.

It is also worth noting that this was the only Moonlight Tour run by the volunteers in about 18 months, and there were no immediate plans for any more any time soon. Mr Sim, on the other hand, has had access to the cemetery for tours just about every week during that time. So what’s the problem?

The wider context of this complaint is that Mr Sim resents community groups who he feels form any kind of ‘competition’ to his small business. He has a long history of attacking local history groups and volunteers who he perceives to be threat, and unfortunately it seems that it doesn’t take much for Mr Sim to feel threatened. As far as South Brisbane Cemetery goes, his aggressive harassment of volunteers wanting to organise not-for-profit cemetery tours or publish not-for-profit cemetery booklets only stopped with the intervention of magistrate courts and police warnings.

In fact, when the Moonlight Tours first started in 2010 he did what he could to stop them, even though these tours are run solely to raise money for cemetery heritage projects.

Why? Well, as he is quoted as saying in the article, ‘It’s ridiculous there would be multiple ghost tour operators in Brisbane’. In other words, he is demanding a business monopoly for himself. How many other businesspeople would like that? The truth is, there is no reason there can’t be multiple ghost tour operators in town, especially as Mr Sim’s own product leaves a lot to be desired.  

The only ridiculous thing here is Mr Sim’s false sense of entitlement. How many small businesses get to demand a monopoly? I’d hope his business was solid enough to withstand a volunteer group conducting a one-off tour every 18 months. 

This whole storm-in-a-teacup only provides yet more evidence of Mr Sim’s antagonism towards local history groups carrying out the normal business of local history groups. In this case, a one-off not-for-profit guided tour that raised money for community heritage projects.

The outcome of all this is that after a quiet year, the FOSBC are now sitting down making new plans for 2016. 

Oh, and if the council need to be 'throwing the book' at anyone, maybe they could start by looking at those supposedly-banned occult rituals in the Toowong Cemetery tour. I'm sure they don't want to be that one city council that keeps turning a blind eye to occult rituals taking place in their municipal cemeteries.