It’s just 12 minutes from Flinders Street, but in many ways Footscray – the proud working-class, rough-around-the-edges jewel of the city’s west – feels like a world away from many of its more gentrified inner-city cousins.
Like most Melbourne suburbs, property prices continue to soar, and a faint whiff of almond lattes is on the breeze. But true to its blue-collar roots and its reputation as the home of some of the most real-deal Asian and African food Melbourne has to offer, Footscray still retains its unique character.
The area is well-known for its multicultural influences (its residents hail from over 100 countries), industrial history and dynamic arts community – not to mention its jam doughnuts. And I’m here for a guided tour – courtesy of a recently released augmented reality experience.
64 Ways of Being Footscray is the latest addition to a growing series of artist-curated urban adventure experiences across Melbourne. A CBD route has been active since April 2021, and one for Collingwood is in the works. The interactive excursions are designed to offer both visitors and locals new ways to understand and interact with some of the city’s most culturally and historically rich neighbourhoods though innovative guided expeditions through space and time.
A set of headphones, a free app and an ability to safely cross the road is all you need to take part. Then it’s simply a matter of tuning in and giving yourself over to the experience.
In Nicholson Street Mall, near Footscray Station, the adventure begins with a brief and chaotic interaction with a musical, public-art activated augmentation, before moving to a nearby arcade, past money exchanges, clothing alteration shops and cafes.
“Take your time, take it in, there’s no rush – the time is yours,” a soothing voice urges as traditional African melodies and sound bites of locals describing the space overlap on the soundtrack, activating the senses and imbuing the stroll with atmosphere and insight.
Emerging from the rear of the arcade, the app took me around corners and down laneways. It had me peering through gaps in fences and hauled up behind a busy barber shop playing a game of repeat-after-me with an interactive lightbox installation placed high on the wall of an old theatre. All the while I’m listening to an ethereal sonic collage of local knowledge, personal histories and original music by Melbourne creators.
The site of an old forge, a busy grocer and a long-since-repurposed dance hall all hold the community’s history, which is told in snippets, as if overheard in one of the spaces themselves. Exploring the alleys and back streets, with the soundtrack guiding the way, a rich picture of a neighbourhood that has long been in flux emerges – as do the occasionally freakish augmentations.
By the end of the tour, nearly an hour later, I found myself back where I had started with little sense of orientation or how I had got there, sitting on a large boulder and listening to primordial native birdsong. Through my phone screen, a kaleidoscope of delicate wildflowers blanketed the mall as visions of the landscapes and ceremonies of the traditional owners told by elders danced in my ears.