It’s quiet in Launceston after the rain. Fat, furry bumblebees flit between the wildflowers growing along the banks of Kanamaluka (the Tamar River) that winds its way through town. The surface of the river is still. Footsteps echo along the boardwalk by Royal Park in the cool, late-afternoon humidity. Another storm cloud is gathering moodily overhead, but for the moment the valley is calm.
The instruments become audible before the boat becomes visible. At first, it is just the plucking and scraping of strings. The sounds skitter across the water, meeting the cliff faces and steep river banks that mark the entrance to Cataract Gorge, before folding back towards the centre of town – a landscape in conversation with itself. Then: a crack of thunder, followed by a crash of drums. It crescendos as the boat carrying the musicians rounds the bend in the river. A foghorn blasts, and the sound hits the listener with physical force.
This is Relay: Country Remembers Her Names, an audio work from artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, with Indigenous scholar Theresa Sainty. It marks the opening of Mona Foma, the annual summer music and art festival of Tasmanian institution, the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona).
The work immediately calls to mind Siren Song, the ethereal, haunting and extraordinary aural artwork from the festival’s midwinter companion, Dark Mofo, back in 2017, when the city of Hobart was filled with eerie harmonies at dawn and dusk. Siren Song was broadcast literally from the sky; we’re a couple of hundred kilometres north now, however, and Relay is a much more earthly tune. At times it’s a cacophony of strings and percussion and the blast of horns; at others a single voice, speaking in Palawa Kani – the only Aboriginal language now spoken on Lutruwita (Tasmania), a collage of words and phrases retrieved from the up to 16 languages that were once spoken all over the island.
Mona Foma is just one of the Australian arts festivals that has embraced the concept of the “hyperlocal” since coronavirus wreaked havoc on the industry. Tasmania hasn’t recorded a Covid-19 case for so long it’s hard to remember when they last did, and while you now need a permit to enter the state and flights are few, the borders are open to you provided you haven’t been in a declared hotspot.
Still, it’s quiet. The locals talk about how strange it has been to only see each other in the streets – the eerie isolation of a tourist town with no tourists. You would hardly know it was peak festival season but for the flags flapping atop light poles. A spokesperson for Mona Foma says despite the contraction in interstate tourism, ticket-buyer demographics aren’t hugely different from previous years – at least 40% of the tickets sold this year were to mainlanders, when it usually hovers around 50% – but the casual observer may wonder where they are all hiding.
One of the effects of the Covid era, and one that is reverberating through the art world, is a renewed consciousness of physical proximity, of boundaries. It intersects in the “hyperlocal” festival with one of the key functions of public art: to draw your attention to the specificities of space.
Consider Big hArt’s the Acoustic Life of Boatsheds. It’s a spin-off from the social change-driven production company’s acclaimed (though less specifically nautical) project, the Acoustic Life of Sheds: a site-specific Tasmanian artwork that has become even more local in Launceston. Boatsheds is spread over four riverside sites that are walking distance from one another – a rowing club, a rotunda, a bridge and a scout hall – as well as on the river itself, with the audience boarding a boat and taking a short, aurally augmented ride to Cataract Gorge.
Each site hosts sound artists and musicians channeling the history and function of the place in which they’re performing in the abstract and the literal, and often entirely improvised – from creating percussion by hammering parts into an old dinghy, to keening in harmony with the deep-water creaks of a double bass. It’s an exceptional work, and all the performers are all worth singling out, but it’s hard not to make special mention of the Kiribati Choir – an accidental singing group of 13 farm workers from the tiny Pacific Island nation, who became stranded in northern Tasmania due to the pandemic and started singing in the fields as they worked to cheer each other up. They bookend the show, arriving by boat to serenade the new audience from the water, and greeting them on the bridge at the end of the work to sing once more.
“We don’t really want to give [audiences] what they want. We want to give them what they need, or what they should be exposed to,” Mona Foma’s artistic director (and Violent Femmes bassist) Brian Ritchie said last week.
Ritchie also said he doesn’t do crowd-pleasers, but Robin Fox’s Aqua Luma – a laser light show filtered through 12m jets of water pulsing from the huge swimming hole in spectacular Cataract Gorge’s First Basin – is precisely that. It’s a flashy piece that looks good in an iPhone snap but feels a bit hollow. Still, it’s popular – traipsing into the gorge to view it on Friday night were youths, young families, older couples, groups of friends. (The audiences for the Mofo concert sessions in Royal Park were similarly well-rounded and enthusiastic, albeit small.)
The following day, there’s the opportunity to ride the rickety old chairlift over the same location and take part in a shifting “symphony in the sky” as the carriages pass each other and set off the sounds of an analogue synthesiser – an experience that some may find pleasant if they weren’t, as your correspondent was, finding the whole experience of being slowly wheeled along a wire above the sharp rocks of the gorge rather too site-specific.
There are 352 artists involved over the two weekends the festival is running in Tassie’s two major towns (its second weekend will be held in Hobart) and 90% of them are locals. “Hyperlocal” may be a necessary risk management tactic in the uncertainty of a Covid-riddled world, but it also means the pool from which the festival is drawing acts has shrunk considerably, even by Australian standards. Tasmania is a state of only 500,000 residents, after all, and the Australian arts scene already has the tendency to create its own echo chamber.
So there’s a distinct lack of edge to the proceedings in Launceston – the inevitable consequence of plucking from a narrowed field. At the same time, that narrowing can give artists on the fringe the kind of platform that forces them to push their own boundaries. It’s the kind of investment in the arts ecosystem – that “small to medium sector”, to use tired industry parlance – that gets neglected in the pursuit of “excellence” above all else. The consequence is Mona Foma may be sowing seeds for the future, but it doesn’t really deliver business-as-usual shock and awe. But then, none of us came out of 2020 quite the same as we went in. Why should our art?
• Mona Foma continues in Hobart from 22–24 January
• Guardian Australia travelled to Tasmania as a guest of Mona Foma