MONA FOMA 2013: The festival that’s changing a city

DARREN LEVIN reports from Hobart’s MONA FOMA, a music and visual arts festival that’s changing a city. Photos courtesy MONA/RÉMI CHAUVIN.

Hobartians call the rest of Australia “The Mainland”, sometimes “The Big Smoke”, but never “interstate”. There’s an isolated island mentality here that’s deeply ingrained, which is kinda funny because you can reach Tassie in an hour from Melbourne by plane.

A few years ago I spent three days in Hobart as a delegate of Amplified, a three-day industry conference peppered by a bunch of gigs concluding with an awards event. I returned this month for a festival of visual arts and music called MONA FOMA, and I can’t believe how much the place has changed.

Much of it (OK, maybe all of it) has to do with MONA, the “subversive adult Disneyland” (aka contemporary art museum) built into a cliff face by local visionary David Walsh. Everyone in Hobart seems to have an opinion about him. Eccentric millionaire. Philanthropist. Professional gambler. Weirdo. Sexual deviant. Savant. Or my personal favourite, nutty mathematician, which is how a couple middle-aged mainlanders described him on the plane. Most, however, are unanimous in their support of Walsh. And why the hell not? He’s poured millions of his own dollars back into his hometown (he grew up in the poor suburb of Glenorchy), almost single-handedly transforming Hobart from a destination for baby boomer food tours into a cultural hub in just over two years. Ask any taxi driver or concierge where to go in Hobart, and MONA is invariably at the top of their list.

It seems the central problem with Hobart – the kind discussed by important people in boardrooms – is not only getting visitors to the city, but attracting those under the age of 50. And that’s particularly problematic when your main attractions include expensive fine dining, some waterside markets and a picturesque, but otherwise average mountain. But MONA is already shifting that paradigm, and its offshoot festival underscores that point empathically.

I know this from the time I arrive in Hobart, two days after the festival begins, to a city full of people in wayfarers, Rockabilly haircuts and tight jeans. People don’t dress like that here, and the statistics confirm it: More than 55 percent of pre-paid tickets to MONA FOMA come from interstate; a significant rise on the 21 percent that came last year. Word is obviously getting out about this one-of-a-kind festival, and from the moment I enter the Princes Wharf 1, or PW1 precinct, I can understand why.

Princes Wharf 1: The hub

The festival’s hub is a historic shed on steroids with a forecourt boasting food stalls and installations including a giant Theremin created by Melbourne audio-visual artist Robin Fox. Once you walk past ushers in hazmat suits (one of the few times I feel the festival is trying too hard), you enter the first of two spaces. I come in just as larger-than-life Hobart writer and artist Andrew Harper is yelling “louder!” into a microphone as six mates in a noise ensemble called, ironically, No Mates, use all manner of machinery – including power tools and whitegoods – to create all manner of noise. They build to a deafening crescendo with help from the crowd who’ve been provided with egg shakers and whistles. Meanwhile, the poor souls at the bar are using sign language to place orders for espresso martinis served in blood bags and vodka-citrus concoctions in urine cups. You read that correctly. Urine cups.

Curiously, the hall is packed with children, which I later discover is part of curator Brian Ritchie’s plan to create a legacy for the festival. Kids under 12 are admitted free, while their parents are offered concession rates for merely bringing them along. Outside on a sprawling deck overlooking the Derwent, there’s play equipment and ping-pong tables spread out among the craft beer stalls, long communal benches and umbrellas. While most festivals are confined to a very specific five to 10 year age range, MOFO’s is much harder to pin down. At a guestimate, there’s people aged between two and 80 here, making for a very diverse, and at times unruly crowd.

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