meIt’s quiet in Launceston after the rain. Fat, furry bumblebees flit among the wildflowers that grow along the banks of Kanamaluka (the Tamar River) that winds through the city. The surface of the river is still. Footsteps echo along the Royal Park boardwalk in the cool afternoon humidity. Another storm cloud is gathering overhead, but for the moment the valley is calm.
The instruments become audible before the ship becomes visible. At first, it’s just plucking and string scraping. Sounds glide through the water, meeting the cliff faces and steep river banks that mark the entrance to the Cataract Gorge, before retreating into the city center, a landscape in conversation with itself. Then: a thunderclap, followed by a thunder of drums. It intensifies when the boat carrying the musicians goes around the bend in the river. A foghorn sounds and the sound hits the listener with physical force.
This is Relay: Country remembers their names, an audio work by artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, with indigenous scholar Theresa Sainty. It marks the opening of Mona Foma, the annual summer festival of music and arts of Tasmania’s institution, the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona).
The work is immediately reminiscent of Siren Song, the ethereal, haunting, and extraordinary aural artwork of the festival’s midwinter companion Dark Mofo in 2017, when the city of Hobart was filled with eerie harmonies at sunrise and sunset. Siren Song was literally broadcast from the sky; However, we are now a couple hundred kilometers north, and Relay is a much more earthly tune. Sometimes it’s a cacophony of strings and percussion and the sound of horns; in others a single voice, speaking in palawa kani – the only Aboriginal language spoken in Lutruwita now (Tasmania), a collage of words and phrases recovered from up to 16 languages that were once spoken across the island.
Mona Foma is just one of the Australian art festivals that has embraced the concept of ‘hyperlocal’ since the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the industry. Tasmania hasn’t recorded a Covid-19 case for so long that it’s hard to remember when they last did it, and while you now need a permit to enter the state and flights are few, the borders are open to you as long as there aren’t any. been in a declared hotspot.
Still, it’s calm. Locals speak of how strange it has been to see each other alone on the streets, the eerie isolation of a tourist town without tourists. You would hardly know it was festival peak season if it weren’t for the flags flying on lamp posts. A Mona Foma spokesperson says that despite the contraction in interstate tourism, the demographics of ticket buyers are not much different from previous years – at least 40% of tickets sold this year were for the continentals, when it is usually around 50%, but the casual observer may wonder where they are all hiding.
One of the effects of the Covid era, and one that resonates in the art world, is a renewed awareness of physical proximity, of boundaries. In the “hyperlocal” festival, it intersects with one of the key functions of public art: drawing attention to the specificities of the space.
Consider Big HArt Acoustic life of sheds. It’s a spin-off of the acclaimed (though less specifically nautical) project from the social-change-driven production company, Acoustic Life of Sheds – a site-specific Tasmanian piece of art that’s gotten even more local to Launceston. Boatsheds are spread over four riverfront sites within walking distance of each other: a rowing club, a roundabout, a bridge, and an exploration room, as well as on the river itself, with the audience getting on a boat. and taking a short auditory walk. trip to Cataract Gorge.
Each site is home to sound artists and musicians who channel the history and function of the venue they perform in abstractly and literally, and often entirely improvised, from creating percussion by hammering parts into an old boat to wailing in harmony. with the deep-sea crunch of a double bass. It’s exceptional work, and all the artists are worth highlighting, but it’s hard not to make a special mention of the Kiribati Choir, an accidental singing group of 13 farm workers from the small Pacific island nation, who stayed behind. stranded in northern Tasmania due to the pandemic and began singing in the fields as they worked to cheer each other on. They end the show, arrive by boat to serenade the new audience from the water, and greet them on the bridge at the end of the play to sing once more.
“We really don’t want to give [audiences] what they want. We want to give them what they need, or what they should be on display, ”Mona Foma Artistic Director (and Violent Femmes bassist) Brian Ritchie. said last week.
Ritchie also said it doesn’t crowd the crowd, but Robin Fox’s Aqua Luma, a show of laser light filtered through 40-foot jets of water gushing out of the massive swimming hole in the spectacular First Basin of Cataract Gorge, is precisely that. It’s an eye-catching piece that looks good on an iPhone add-on, but feels a bit hollow. Still, it’s popular: walking into the gorge to see it on Friday night were young people, young families, older couples, groups of friends. (The audience for the Mofo concert sessions at Royal Park was equally balanced and enthusiastic, albeit small.)
The next day, there is the opportunity to ride the old ramshackle chairlift over the same spot and take part in a changing “symphony in the sky” as the cars cross each other and activate the sounds of an analog synthesizer, an experience some may love. I wish they weren’t, like your correspondent, finding the experience of being dragged slowly along a wire above the sharp rocks of the gorge as well site specific.
There are 352 artists involved during the two weekends the festival takes place in the two main towns of Tassie (its second weekend will take place in Hobart) and 90% of them are local. “Hyperlocal” may be a necessary risk management tactic in the uncertainty of a world plagued by Covid, but it also means that the group the festival is pulling acts from has shrunk considerably, even by Australian standards. Tasmania is a state of just 500,000 people, after all, and the Australian art scene already tends to create its own echo chamber.
So there is a distinct lack of advantage in the proceedings at Launceston, the inevitable consequence of starting from a tight field. At the same time, that narrowing can give marginalized artists the kind of platform that forces them to push their own limits. It is the kind of investment in the arts ecosystem, that “small to medium sector”, to use the tired language of the industry, that is neglected in the pursuit of “excellence” above all else. The consequence is that Mona Foma may be sowing seeds for the future, but she doesn’t really generate shock or amazement as usual. But of course, none of us got out of 2020 exactly the same as we did. Why should our art?
• Guardian Australia traveled to Tasmania as a guest of Mona Foma
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism