We chat to Jacob Tolo ahead of Gertrude Street Projection Festival

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We chat to Jacob Tolo ahead of Gertrude Street Projection Festival


“In terms of hours, it’s over a period of about three months,” Tolo explains of the process. “Thinking about it, going back to the drawing board, reworking ideas. Because all my work is digitally based, there’s a lot of time in front of the computer. I work full-time as well during the day, so when I’m not working on the computer at work, I’m at home sitting there dabbling.”

A participant last year, Tolo’s response to 2017’s opportunity was a resounding “hell yeah”. A prominent figure in Melbourne’s arts community, he’s attended most years, knowing and appreciating his fellow creators’ efforts. The daily surrounds of Fitzroy come alive with vibrant colour and forms over the course of the event, and this time around, he’ll be at 110 Gertrude Street in the foyer of an apartment building.

“It looks out to Gertrude Street itself, through the window,” Tolo says. “I’ve been playing with the idea of creating spaces within a space – creating digital spaces, which fascinates me – and the idea that you can put digital spaces basically anywhere. The original premise of the work was going to be a wall, and maybe opening up a space on a wall, and having people think, ‘Maybe there is a space in that’. I’ve just created rooms to play in, digitally.”

Born on the Pacific Island of Samoa and raised in Auckland, Tolo has been drawn to art for most of his life. He’s since become an experienced authority in graphic and exhibition design, co-founding Indigenous-run arts space Blak Dot Gallery and becoming Senior Communications Designer for Museums Victoria.

“As a kid, I’ve always been interested in art,” Tolo says. “I think that was my skill, and when I first moved to New Zealand, I couldn’t speak a word of English. I think drawing is what I used to communicate. I remember first starting school, I couldn’t speak to anybody in the class. The teacher put me aside in the corner with some pen and paper and made me draw. I think I did that for a whole year.”

Design is both Tolo’s passion and day job, wielding a host of skills and the inventive essence that drives the artists behind the Gertrude Street Projection Festival. Some of his most recent work consists of constructing immersive spaces for both young children and teenagers at Scienceworks over the last year, and was co-creator of the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival – an experience that he considers one of his most inspiring creative memories.

“I think as artists, we tend to look from the outside-in a lot of the time,” Tolo says. “A lot of the time sitting on the fringes of things. That’s my personal experience. I think being an observer, I’ve never really felt that I fit in. I think that art is one way of expressing that.”

Tolo’s unique story is one of many to discover and engage with as Fitzroy awakens into hypnotic visual charm each night. What he loves most about the Gertrude Street Projection Festival is its integrity and scale – it’s a celebration for all that doesn’t alienate. They champion the bold and the innovative in their program and allow that all-important room for experimentation.

“It’s in the public sphere, and I like public art, so it’s a way to get your work out there,” Tolo says. “Gertrude Street is great. I’ve hung around Fitzroy for the last few decades. I’ve basically grown up around here [since] I first moved, and I’ve seen the changes that have happened in Fitzroy. Gertrude is where I used to get drunk and hang out – it’s a creative community.”

Tolo appreciates the event’s community focus, working with the local artists and giving observers the opportunity to absorb both the surroundings and fellow members of their world. There’s a lot to discover, and every year’s a pleasant surprise for him. With approximately 30 projection sites and artists alongside the Festival Hub with bands and DJs, a virtual reality cinema sprawling across the streets and enormous amounts of dedicated volunteers, there’s much to explore.

“I’ve said this before, but I reckon there’s something really primal about projection art,” Tolo says. “We congregate around spires and we tell stories. Projection art is the flame in the night that we congregate around and hear someone else’s story.”