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Curiouser and curiouser: brilliant Brisbane set to delight


The world’s largest acoustic guitar and an ability to time travel are just some of the things visitors can explore when the city is transformed into a clever playground with Curiocity Brisbane.

The streets of New Farm are busy. People chat as they stock up on food at Garnet’s Grocery Store, laughing as they swat away the greedy hands of children. Below their feet, under the floorboards, rats swarm. It is 1907, and the Black Death was terrifying Brisbane. Soon, parts of the city would be in lockdown, infected patients treated in isolation, houses fumigated and – in some cases – burned to the ground, the dead taken to Gibson Island.

Artist Nicola Hooper has long been fascinated with zoonosis – diseases that jump from animals to humans – and it was while researching the outbreak of the bubonic plague in Queensland between 1900 and 1907 that she came across the story of the New Farm cluster.

“A whole lot of kids got infected, as well as adults – there were 16 cases in total,” she says. “In other outbreaks, they’d always found dead rats – but in this one there were none. But when they lifted the floorboards they found skeletonised rats which made me think of a rat king.”

So the idea for James the Rat King was born; one of more than 60 interactive exhibitions that will pop up across four Brisbane precincts this March as part of Curiocity Brisbane, in one of the first major events to return to the city after 2020’s restrictions. 

Dr Hooper worked with animator Dr Zeynep Ackay to bring the story of the Black Death to life – through an immersive multimedia experience and animated film, told in parts by scanning QR codes along the “Rat Route” from the Queensland Maritime Museum to the State Library of Queensland.

“We sat together and brought together Nicola’s research, the archival footage and her illustrations and to tell it in a fun way,” says Dr Ackay. “We wanted to tell it in small parts, like a fairy tale, so we used rhymes. By seeing what people have gone through in the past, it can give us hope for the future.”

All the works that will be on display have one thing in common – they all tap into one or more Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) elements, but through artistic expression.

“We have a very strong STEM focus in our society – and that’s great – but STEM can’t exist without art,” says Curiocity Brisbane executive producer Theresa Famularo. “Without the creative thinker, how do you know what to invent next? How do you know what problem to tackle next? Art is so important.”

An example she gives is of the world’s largest acoustic guitar – more than 13 times the size of a regular one – made from Australian timber by the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre. Visitors can walk inside The Immersive Guitar to strum it and hear music from inside an instrument.

“They are exploring sound, which is a mathematical conversation, within the realms of engineering,” Ms Famularo says. “You walk inside and play it and it becomes really interesting. It’s art that allows the creative thinker to tackle a theory from a different perspective and allows us to make advancements in the world of STEM.”

Those visiting the 6.5km circuit of installations – which weaves through four major precincts – the City Botanic Gardens, South Bank, South Brisbane’s Cultural Precinct and the CBD – will also be personally challenged.

“Someone might think they’re not good at maths so can’t participate, but by touching and interacting with the pieces in public spaces it will hopefully break down those barriers,” Ms Famularo says. “I also hope that we’re inspiring visitors – I hope we unlock a door somewhere in their mind to think about something a bit differently.

She says that by making Brisbane’s public spaces playable, regardless of age, you can journey through the city and engage with it digitally. “If that’s not a future, forward-thinking city I don’t know what is,” she says. “I can now walk my city and engage with it in real life – what an invitation.”

The 60+ works will appear in public places, so they are easily accessible, but also in places that locals may have stopped appreciating. In the City Botanic Gardens, a spot many Brisbanites may rush through as part of their daily commute, technology will allow people to travel through time.

“Maiwar AR uses geo-location and through a QR code you’re taken back to Brisbane to the day prior to European settlement,” Ms Famularo explains. “You start to see what was happening in Maiwar (the name for the Brisbane River in local Indigenous language) at the time – you can see what the flora and fauna looked like and you start to see the journey of a day for the locals who would’ve been living in the City Botanic Gardens at that time. Brisbane is a city that is acknowledging its past but through new technologies and that’s a beautiful thing.”

Curiocity Brisbane is on 12-28 March, daily from 8am-8pm; free; (free tickets to Curious Conversations, hosted by Benjamin Law, need to be pre-booked)

Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

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