When Hobart’s Mona Foma festival (aka Mofo) moved north to Launceston two years ago, it faced an interesting challenge: how do you transplant a festival known for avant-garde performance and a subversive streak into a regional city half the size, where musical theatre and sports are the biggest ticket sellers?
The answer so far has involved careful outreach to — and partnership with — local artists, organisations, community groups and businesses, to create a festival where Launnie pride is front and centre at everything from the free and family-friendly outdoor theatre event King Ubu to the hedonistic all-night party Faux Mo.
The second Mona Foma in Launceston, which closed on Sunday, drew an audience of more than 50,000 (compared to the city’s population of roughly 100,000) across a range of free and ticketed events at 25 different venues and locations — including iconic local sites such as the Cataract Gorge, and treasured community hubs like the Elphin Sports Centre.
In trademark Mofo style, idiosyncratic local venues were paired with surprising artists and performances: the French-gothic-style Baptist church on Frederick Street hosted a noon performance by Czech organist Pavel Kohout; the iconic Victorian-era Albert Hall was the site of a late-night listening party celebrating pioneering electronic music composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, with audiences sitting amongst musicians on the carpet of the darkened concert hall.
Whether they were from out of town, interstate or overseas, attendees of the festival would have left with distinctively “Launceston experience”.
But Mona Foma’s artistic team have also trusted that local audiences will go for the ride — and by and large, that seems to be working: 39 per cent of festival attendees in 2019 were from northern Tasmania.
Mona Foma’s new iteration bears the hallmarks of its Hobart predecessor, starting with a genre-agnostic line-up that reflects the eclectic tastes of founding artistic director Brian Ritchie.
The 2020 music line-up mixed Slovenian industrial pop outfit Laibach with queer country-music crooner Orville Peck, didjeridu virtuoso William Barton, classically trained artists like Canadian tenor Jeremy Dutcher and pianist Ludovico Einaudi, and Japanese pop rockers Chai.
Ritchie, best known as the bassist of the Violent Femmes, is also a master of the Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and the co-owner with his wife of a Hobart tea shop.
He says that when David Walsh invited him to draw up a proposal for a festival — more than 12 years ago, and before Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art had even opened — he created something he would want to attend.
This extends not only to the acts programmed, but the spirit in which they are engaged.
“Our philosophy is to take creative people from any genre of music … or people who are working across different mediums and put them together not in a room but on a site, and letting them interact with each other and do different things …[and] use them in different ways,” Ritchie told the ABC in December 2017.
Mofo’s success with audiences has hinged from the get-go on the ability of Ritchie and his team to persuade the general public to follow where they lead.
“We knew that there was not enough of a population base [in Hobart] to drive cult followers of various different little genres or artists to fill up the venues, so we needed to make it appealing to everybody,” Ritchie told the ABC ahead of the first Launceston Mona Foma.
The result is that Mona Foma has one of the most variegated audiences you’ll find at an Australian arts festival: from queer club kids and cyberpunks to rockers, parents with children and “boomers” — every event, from family-friendly theatre to late-night party to outdoor concert, was characterised by its diverse audience.
Three of this year’s highlights showcased Mofo’s successful melding of its idiosyncratic vision with its idiosyncratic new hometown and audience.
Faux Mo: A queer party for everyone
Faux Mo has over the years acquired an almost legendary reputation as Mofo’s hedonistic late-night party, and this year’s edition was billed as nothing less: a Dolly-Parton-inspired all-nighter titled Working 9 to 5, taking place at Launceston Workers Club.
None of this prepared me for the sense of community, connection and local culture I experienced at the event, which brought a characteristically diverse Mofo audience into joyous, sweaty communion with artists and performers and DJs from Launceston and beyond.
The night opened with a mini-show called The Dollyverse, written and directed by Faux Mo curators (and partners-in-life) Willoh S. Weiland and James Brennan, and starring local community groups — including a swing dancing troupe, a body-building club and a pipe band.
“We were interested in the politics of what happens when a big contemporary art festival comes to a working-class country town,” Weiland tells me later, over the phone.
“And the Dolly icon became a way to speak those kinds of ideas through a very inclusive prism. Everyone loves Dolly!”
In front of a packed house on Saturday night, blonde drag queens shimmied alongside 60-something local ladies in Dolly-inspired costumes, to the sounds of a 25-piece brass band of musicians from Launceston and Hobart; Barkindji country artist Bobby Wilson, who moved to Tasmania in the 80s, sung a song; and an emcee in a sparkling onesie held forth on the climate crisis while flanked by two glittering silver koalas (Melbourne performers and costume designers Will and Garrett Huxley).
The Dollyverse was designed to set the tone for the party as a whole, but also to create a safe space for joy and grief and contemplation — with the bushfires very much front of mind.
“The sense of urgency is palpable, and I guess we felt like Faux Mo could be a place where people could be mournful and be sad, and be uplifted by something as simple as being together. Because even though that sense of urgency is so vivid, we need to be considered [in our behaviour] and considerate, and find a pathway through this left/right divide,” says Weiland.
She and Brennan have individual arts practices with roots in performance and theatre, and often work with non-artists.
“Our interest is always about how the party can be intergenerational; we want people to bring their nannas.”
“We want it to be safe and queer and to also be a platform for diverse artists who would not normally be coming to northern Tasmania.”
For Brooklyn’s Tygapaw, Lisbon’s DJ Marfox and Ugandan DJ Kampire, it was their first time playing in Australia.
“It’s great for a country town to be getting the best of the banging clubs from around the world — but also have their own community there,” says Weiland.
King Ubu: theatre by and for Launceston
Launnie loves musical theatre; it even got its own musical theatre festival in 2019.
With a local audience in mind, Ritchie decided to make a ‘Mofo’ version of musical theatre the centrepiece of his 2020 program.
King Ubu was an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s 19th-century comedy that featured live music and puppets, and was performed alfresco and poolside in Launceston’s Cataract Gorge.
Across three nights, roughly 7,500 locals and visitors came to see King Ubu, made by Tasmania’s Terrapin Puppet Theatre and starring senior students from Launceston College, members of community musical-theatre group Encore Theatre Company, the Allstar Cheer and Dance squad, and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre youth group.
Local musicians, including brass players from the City of Launceston RSL Band, provided the live music — led by Ritchie.
On the night I attended, the sunset-lit Gorge was a knockout backdrop for the performance, and the voices of actors and music from the band intermixed with the fainter sounds of children playing in the pool and at the fringes of the crowd.
Jarry’s original Ubu Roi is a proto-absurdist satire of the French middle class, in which the ruthless but ignoble husband-and-wife team Pere Ubu and Mere Ubu (cyphers for everything ugly and wrong about contemporary society) slaughter the King of Poland and then exploit the population.
In Mofo’s 70-minute adaptation, by writer (and Faux Mo curator) Willoh S. Weiland, Pa and Ma Ubu arrive in Tasmania with colonisation in mind, and kill the “King of Tasmania” (played by an inflatable swan) — before making an alliance with mainland property developers to exploit their new land.
The language is contemporary, playful and laced with gross-out humour, designed to appeal to families, from children through to grandparents.
Local references include outgoing Premier Will Hodgman, senator Jacqui Lambie, Tassie’s dairy industry — and of course, property developers. (Over the weekend I met several older Launcestonians at the festival who urged me to consider moving to Tasmania while in the same breath decrying rising real estate prices and over-development — ironically, things that are often attributed at least in part to ‘the MONA effect’).
Near the end of the show, the young prince Boggolas, returned from exile, declares victory against the Ubus “on behalf of the rightful kings and queens of Tasmania, the people of the Palawa/Pakana nation, who never ceded sovereignty over this island Lutruwita” and “in the name of the children who will inherit this island, who will inherit the poisoned soil, the burning atmosphere, the acid rain”.
Local Pakana woman Denni Proctor performed an acknowledgement of country and a song in palawa kani (local Aboriginal language) at the beginning of the performance.
Cataract Gorge is — like any Australian site with a natural water source — a place of historical significance for the local Indigenous community. These days it has a public swimming pool (adjacent to the basin lagoon) and a children’s playground, and is beloved by the entire local community — particularly in summer.
In the 70s and 80s, crowds flocked to concerts there — but in recent decades these have been more sporadic. Mona Foma reinvigorated the site with a public art installation during the 2019 festival (a massive, cross-legged inflatable figure) and the popularity of that ‘activation’ inspired Ritchie to bring performance back to the Gorge.
He picked Jarry’s play, which he discovered as a young man, partly because it is broad enough to appeal to all ages and demographics.
Ubu Roi also has a long association with puppet performance — and was an obvious fit with local company Terrapin.
Terrapin’s artistic director, Sam Routledge, says the collaboration with Mona Foma has been groundbreaking.
“We are a small company, and the ability to create a work of this scale is a huge achievement for us — and we can only do it in partnership with other organisations … It’s been a significant investment from Mona Foma and by the Federal Government (through the Festivals Australia funding program).”
He also points out the significance of funding a work made by an almost entirely Tasmanian creative team and cast: “That’s a really big achievement for here, because a lot of work is imported,” says Routledge.
“Projects like this, I feel, are part of the next step that Tasmania needs to take to become a true cultural powerhouse.”
“The world has its eyes on Tasmania — for its produce, for its clean air, and for MONA and its festivals. The next step is for the state to be a great producer of cultural product.”
Kipli Paywuta Lumi: Celebrating local Indigenous culture
Tasmania has a specific, horrific history of genocide of its Indigenous Palawa/Pakana population by British colonists, and within recent history, it was normal in the state’s classrooms for students to be told that Palawa/Pakana people no longer existed.
This makes projects like Kipli Paywuta Lumi, which invited audiences to experience Palawa/Pakana culture and food, particularly important.
A massive, labour-intensive collaboration between Mona Foma curators, Indigenous artists and the local Palawa/Pakana community, Kipli Paywuta Lumi (meaning “food across time/food to sustain us”) saw Indigenous architects reconstruct a traditional lina (a dome-shaped bush hut) in the Trevallyn Recreation Reserve (about 15 minutes from the city centre).
Painted by local artists with symbols drawn from local petroglyphs, and dressed with emu feathers (which would have been traditional for these shelters, before colonisation wiped the species out on the island) and kangaroo furs, the lina became a contemplative space where audience members could listen to a soundscape of native bird calls and palawa kani.
This free, publicly accessible installation also hosted a series of ticketed experiences in which small groups of 35 were greeted by a representative of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and led in silence through the bush to the site, before enjoying a traditionally prepared meal from native ingredients, including oysters, flathead, kangaroo, mutton-bird and possum.
Sitting on the floor of the lina in small clusters of five or six, we received the dishes one at a time on single bark servers — digging in with our fingers.
During the meal, a soundscape playing within the lina reflected on the elemental forces at the heart of Palawa/Pakana culture: fire, earth, water and wind.
It was an experience that foregrounded both a sense of community and of individual contemplation.
Palawa chef Tim Sculthorpe, founder of the Aboriginal food company Palawa Kipli, is in many ways the star of the show: not only did he design the menu, but he helped cook the food on the night and talked to the audience about the culture underpinning it — while holding his baby son Nico on one hip.
But curators Zoe Rimmer (Pakana), Emma Pike, Pippa Mott and James Tylor (Kaurna) told me that getting every single element of the installation and experience absolutely right was essential.
“It was really important that we talked to a lot of community [members] and followed community and cultural protocol in everything that was done with the project,” Rimmer says.
Where possible, the project looked for local Palawa/Pakana artists and creatives to collaborate with, and then to the broader Tasmanian Indigenous population, and finally to the mainland: Wiradjuri architect Samantha Rich worked with Trawlwoolway cultural consultant David mangenner Gough to conceive, design and engineer the lina; Koorie artist Anna Liebzeit designed the soundscape.
Kipli Paywuta Lumi is the first project of its kind for the local Palawa community and for Mona Foma, in terms of drawing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous curators, artists, community and creatives in collective and collaborative project, and in conveying the local language and culture to a broad — largely non-Indigenous — audience.
Rimmer, who works as a curator at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, says art has a unique power to communicate Indigenous history and culture to non-Indigenous audiences.
“Museums really play an educational role, and old museums particularly have such an important role now to help communities break the myths that the museums themselves actually invented in the first place!”
“But I think the exciting thing about contemporary art and art festivals is that artists are so good at bringing these issues together in a really engaging and visual way.”
Mona Foma ran from January 11-20.
The writer travelled to Launceston as a guest of the festival.
Topics: arts-and-entertainment, theatre, opera-and-musical-theatre, contemporary-art, design, architecture, events, carnivals-and-festivals, music, world, rock, performance-art, cabaret, visual-art, indigenous-music, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, indigenous-culture, launceston-7250, hobart-7000, tas
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