City Songs: A symphony of experiences

CoM City Songs A symphony of experiences - photos by Zoe AliCelebrating the voices and faces of people who live, work and play in the streets and alleys of a single Melbourne CBD block, City Songs: A symphony of experiences is a new exhibition on display at City Gallery until 19 April 2017.

Curated by long-term collaborators award-winning author Christos Tsiolkas and photographer Zoe Ali used their six month City of Melbourne Arts Residency to document the land designated at the foundation of Melbourne as the 11th Block, exploring questions of identity, longing and urban life through image and text. Both Melburnians, this is their sixth collaboration.

Christos Tsiolkas is a writer. His novels include The Slap and Barracuda and he is also a playwright, scriptwriter and essayist. Zoe Ali began studying photography under John Cato and has since had work exhibited nationally and internationally.

City Songs is a collection of more than 50 black and white portraits and stories of people going about their business in the block bordered by Swanston, Bourke, Russell and Collins Streets. Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said it provides an insight into the lives of modern Melburnians as well as reflecting on the city’s history during the 175th anniversary of the formation of Council.

City Songs has captured the essence of what makes Melbourne so special: people from diverse backgrounds and different worlds who share a pride in and love for our great city,” said the Lord Mayor. “As we mark this milestone of the Town of Melbourne’s incorporation in 1842, City Songs prompts us to consider the lives and histories that have shaped the world’s most liveable city.”

Christos and Zoe worked alongside social historian Professor Andrew May and his team from the Melbourne History Workshop in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne which provided a historical context for the exhibition.

In addition to traversing the block’s streets, alleys and staircases to meet city characters, they also used historic material from Council’s Art and Heritage Collection including an extraordinary volume of photographic portraits from 1892 of the City’s surviving first councillors of 1842, numerous colour and black and white photographs of the block and a 19th century reproduction of a sketch of Collins Street.

Christos and Zoe described City Songs as “one mix-tape” – a compilation of what they heard when they travelled through the block and through the city. “The buildings and spaces of Melbourne and this block fascinates us but it is within the faces of those we photographed that the real vitality of our city comes alive,” said Zoe.

“We thought this was a block that we knew and understood, after walking through the streets and laneways a thousand times,” said Christos. “But one of the great joys of our exploration was discovering lives and histories that deepened our knowledge of the city.”

“As artists and historians we encounter objects, people and institutions in the library and the archive, in the city streets, and in the stories people tell – and from these fragments we build a history of place,” added Prof May. “In this exhibition we take the map drawn by Robert Russell in 1837 and used by Robert Hoddle to outline the city’s grid plan, as our creative and historical departure point.”

City Songs: A symphony of experiences
City Gallery – Melbourne Town Hall, 90 – 120 Swanston Street, Melbourne
Exhibition continues to 19 April 2017
Free admission

For more information, visit: for details.

Image: A selection of images from City Songs: A symphony of experiences – photos by Zoe Ali