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New public art festival contour 556, launching in October, will transform Canberra's central landscape

Canberra may have long had a tense relationship with public art, but a new festival may change the way we think about art and our landscape.

Contour 556, which kicks off on October 21 and will run over four weekends, will feature the works of 50 local, national and international artists on display on the Lake Burley Griffin foreshore, the National Library of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia's Sculpture Garden.

A kind of Sculpture by the Sea that celebrates Canberra distinctive central landscape, the festival is such an obvious idea that it's remarkable it hasn't been done already.

So much so that when director and curator Neil Hobbs began approaching government and private bodies for funding, he barely needed to get beyond the first sentence of his pitch before everyone was on board.  

"I think it's going to be the first of a whole series of a new Canberra biennial, basically," he said.

"Lots of stars are aligning for all sorts of things, with Design Canberra and other arts-based events happening at that time of the year, and with the Kingston Arts Precinct getting a bit more of a wriggle-along in the next two years."

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The festival's name is in reference to the water level of Lake Burley Griffin, although in the original Griffin design, the level was planned at 1875 feet – a title far too evocative of the Victorian era.

Hobbs is one half of the prominent landscape architecture duo Harris Hobbs, and said he was approaching the festival as a landscape architect, rather than an art curator.

"I'm coming from a celebration as much of Canberra's landscape as it is of the art," he said.

"It's making use of the really wonderful central lake area, and the wonderful architecture of all the cultural institutions … and all those landscaped settings … It's really a broad-scale landscape curation in the landscape rather than curation in a building."

All of the artworks involved – more than 30 installations including steel, glass, ceramic and stone, as well as a series of performances – have been created with Lake Burley Griffin and Canberra's history as the premise.

One of the participants is local visual artist Katy Mutton, who will be transforming one of the lake's familiar fixtures – the MV Gull, Jim Patterson's small commercial cruise boat – into a "dazzle camouflage"-inspired moving artwork.

Entitled In Plain Sight, the work is a reference to a type of ship camouflage used in World War I, designed to distort rather than conceal a boat, to make it harder to estimate its speed or range when preparing to fire on it.

Mutton's works have often been informed by war and politics, and when considering a lake connection for the festival, she came up with the idea of a "camouflaged" boat.   

"It plays on idea of surveillance – the lake is flanked by ASIO and Parliament House and defence organisation we don't see into," she said. "They're in plain sight – they can see out but we can't see in. It's a little bit whimsical but it's got an undertone. Different artists respond differently to the lake. But because I'm interested in war and politics, that's the first thing I thought of."

She's creating the work using a combination of paint and vinyl, and has hired professional sign-writers to ensure the work is made to last at least a year – a bright, chugging legacy of Contour 556 that will cruise the lake throughout Floriade in the lead-up to the festival, and for the ensuing 12 months.

Mutton currently has the funds to adorn the outside of the boat, but plans to take the project further, and to the boat's interior.

She has launched a fundraising campaign for the "dazzle" boat through the Australian Cultural Fund. For more information, visit australianculturalfund.org.au/projects/in-plain-sight.  

Contour 556 will run over four weekends, from Friday, October 21 to Sunday, November 13.