The State Library of Victoria’s white dome stretches half way to the stars. Blue spots from a projector hit the glass and move like slow ripples on a lake. Converging for a second in the middle, the dome becomes an eye, gazing down at the many people scattered throughout the room.
People perch on desks – something that I suspect would be tutt-tutted by any on-duty librarian, but right now it’s 4am, and there is a choir standing at one end of the room. Young voices crescendo and swell to fill the massive space.
All night I have seen faces in phones, or phones mediating experience; everyone is hyper-connected, and demands for something to be happening. This is the first year of Melbourne’s ‘White Night’ all-night cultural festival, and the city has opened itself up as a spectacle. While it’s been encouraging to see so many curious, well-mannered people out, it’s also a bit vulgar.
In the Wheeler Centre, tables run either side of the performance space, and writers sit at them to put pen to paper. People who know what’s happening come in and sit, or visit writing friends to buoy spirits with ice-cream or coffee. People who don’t know what’s happening are immediately obvious. They walk in and pause in the doorway. Then they walk slowly down the aisle between desks, the way people walk through a gallery half-engaged, looking for a piece that grabs their attention. When they find that piece (writer), they forget that the writer lives. They stand too close, or try to see what’s being written. They take a photo: the writer as curio.
Because of this, the Domed Reading Room is out of space and time – it kicks against what the rest of the Melbourne city night is doing. These desks where great works have been researched, written, and read, stand like the well-preserved relics of some great, ancient city. Balconies with not-to-be-touched books seem impossibly far away, four stories up and as stoic as the building itself.
Exaudi Youth Choir don’t sing songs tonight, they sing prayers of ambiance. They spread themselves around the room’s perimeter and offer up haunting angel voices mixed with animal sounds. Somehow, this arrangement, which seems to be a dreamy homage to Australian landscape and wildlife, only serves to make this building feel even older.
People’s faces are down still, but this time in thought. Some inspect the floral stamp in the desks’ leather. Others close their eyes for a quick nap. Everyone is joined for a moment by this event – a choir, in the Domed Reading Room, at 4am. I suspect this hasn’t happened before in history.
The night marches steadily on til dawn. As always, it slows between 5 and 6am. Finally we reach 7am. In the city there is no dew, but McDonalds wrappers seem to take its place this morning. Bins overflow, and the footpath is covered in cardboard and plastic.
The sun is a red ember, winking at me in the gaps between houses.
“I stayed up all night too,” it says. “Somewhere.”