Customs House Gets 21st Century Makeover

What were you doing 155 years ago? Me, I’m not exactly sure.Oh this is awkward, isn’t it?

And since I haven’t heard an answer from you,  I’m just going to continue on with the article, icebreaker spilt open.

What I can tell you, however, was what a Melbourne man called W G Cornish was doing.

He was designing a famous Geelong building, what the National Trust describes as the  “finest mid nineteenth century public building in western Victoria” called Customs House.

Customs House? Do you know it? It’s wedged right between two busy Geelong eateries, the Edge and Sailors’ Rest.

Maybe you’ve been like me and have walked past it countless times; having seen it but never really considered it? Just walked past it, naturally compartmentalising it into the “imposing but grandiose, definitely-out-of-my-price-range” old building.

Last Friday night – Friday the 22nd of August at probably about 6.35pm  – I purposely strode towards Customs House.

This time I wasn’t just going to notice it as I passed it by on the way to nearby pizza places and coffee hangouts: no, this time I was going to see Customs House, my 155 year old (new) friend.

Well, that’s actually not the whole truth, if there’s such a thing as the half-truth anyway but that’s a question for my philosophical and theological buddies to unpack, cups of Nescafe noir and turtlenecks perfect for this weather on display.

The truth is this: I was going to see a whole lot of artworks and words projected up on Customs House for an innovative event called  Illumination

Held during the month of July as part of the LIGHT UP GEELONG (under the Please Welcome) banner and Courthouse ARTS, this was a unique event.

As I walked down those sharp stairs on the corner of Brougham and Moorabool St I saw a tent spilling out people; people standing around in the nippy air on the green grass (now black under the night fold) watching a gigantic screen.

Or what looked like a screen anyway, actually  the front facade of Customs House. By day, the building resembles a respectable dollhouse but now, now that Illuminate had come, suddenly Customs House had vanished, kindly given way to a 21st century makeover. For an hour, anyway.

In the dark, I found a friend I was meeting there. It was cold and I couldn’t resist making a lame joke – or share my sudden profiteering ambition: I was selling out!

“I could make a fortune selling hot chocolates outside here,” I declared to my friend, who was busy watching the Illuminate screen. She nodded in a way like mothers would nod to their child’s intention to don a Superman costume to the supermarket.

The screen was slowly dancing with a myriad of pieces: poetry, images, digital  and deliberately flickering cartoons.

What timing! As I was chatting to local poet Mitch Cunningham his piece came on, a provocative poem about Autumn. He explained to me that this piece was so personal that, when interviewed about it, he preferred to withhold his thoughts and encourage his interviewers instead.

My own piece came on, which gave me a heck of a shock.

Writers willingly accept aching hands and awkward “So what do you do?” small talk conversations at parties, aspiring to be one day published in A6 sized little books and Ipads which will inevitably die after 6 hours battery but is there something bigger to strive for? Something literally bigger, made of stone and granite and firmly fixed to the ground.

For this project, the collaboration aspect would have been interesting: illustrators hunched over Mac computers, creating images to go with the piece and not coincidentally writers banging out their prose on keyboards, curious to what visual facelift their words might get.

As the Illumination pieces splashed on the building, the animation mesmerizing, the night  interactive.

Do you remember the joy of doodling? That’s right, doodling – scribbling with pens and creating mini-masterpieces of Biro.

Once when you were little you used textas and crayons before you “growing” out that habit, morphing your expressiveness into a sneaky habit saved for phone calls.

There, as you chatted, one hand absently winding the curly telephone cord (in the days before technology swept away these phones in favour of cord free devices) you would bring out your secret love of doodling.

With no such telephone cords necessary, Illumination provided the opportunity for the ultimate doodling competition.

Step right up folks, press a button, pick up a stick-feeling thing and begin your doodling: this concept was playing out before my eyes.

There I saw people wait in line for their turn to draw, freestyle draw. Then step back and take in their doodling on screen.

It was remarkable. Circles, squiggles, genius masterpieces done in 1.37 minutes, scrawls saying “Hi Mum” (that was me) and even a “Jesus loves you” could be seen, broadcast on this historic building as illuminators got their 15 seconds of artistic fame.

As it neared 7.30pm, the building began to morph from a mammoth screen impressive enough to make some commercial cinemas jealous to Customs House.

While some guests began to head to the Nash for the musical counterpart on that night for Light Up Geelong, I walked back up the stairs I had descended down just an hour(ish) ago.

As I turned around and gazed behind me, I saw that the historic building, used when Geelong was a booming port town two centuries ago, was still aglow: literally still projecting ideas and projected digital images.

There was also a kind of glow which came from the Illuminate tent set up and – dare this writer who admittedly sometimes wears rosy glasses say  – from cold-cheeked, creative people who still stood around talking about things like Che Guevera quotes, beat poetry, Geelong and only what a fly on the wall would know.

I probably won’t be at the next Illumination night, wearing a fancy chef’s hat and ladling chaud de chocolat but the final night will be wonderful.

It’s worth coming along, Friday the 30th of August. Details here.


2 thoughts on “Customs House Gets 21st Century Makeover

  1. I don’t see your new post after July, any reason?
    I will move to Geelong this December 2011, I am glad to see that there are attempts to make this city livable.
    want to read more about Geelong.

    1. I am so sorry we took so long to get back to you. There is a reason for the lack of activity on the page lately. I, Mari, have been overseas for two months and Anna has been superbusy with other writing projects. However, we plan to get cracking again now. Exciting to hear you are coming to live in Geelong. Keep in touch and let us know if you have any ideas and suggestions for our page. Welcome to Geelong!

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