Mode festival review – ‘elevated’ dance music brings new life to Sydney’s Cockatoo Island

The former penal colony has been the sandstone-and-steel backdrop for art shows, concerts and festivals – but nothing quite like Mode

On a perfect spring Saturday in Sydney, roughly 3,000 people headed for a festival that most of the city knew nothing about.

Siloed in the heritage grandeur of Cockatoo Island and accessible only by private ferry, the first-ever Mode festival was sold on its lineup of “elevated dance music” and an “expansive visual arts experience”. Produced by Sydney-based promoters Bizarro, who until now have largely thrown parties in clubs and warehouses, the festival promised a rare gamble in a typically risk-averse city.

Bachelorettes and bros gathered to board party boats at Darling Harbour’s King Street Wharf. In a clash of scenes, the road to Mode was marked by bucket hats, Hackers-meets-The Matrix rave looks, plumes of vape smoke and – this being Sydney – police sniffer dogs threading through the queue. Aboard the ferry, with brilliant afternoon sun beating down on black leather, the mood oscillated between fizzy excitement and the niggling unease familiar to anyone who has attended a dance festival in New South Wales.

Mode Festival ‘typified the promise and the pitfalls’ of staging music events in Sydney.
Mode festival ‘typified the promise and the pitfalls’ of staging music events in Sydney. Photograph: Amar Gera

In several ways, Mode Festival typified the promise and the pitfalls of staging a new electronic music festival in Sydney. Bizarro convinced the Sydney Harbour Trust to approve the festival on the merits of its visual arts focus, especially after the Biennale of Sydney ended its 14-year run on Cockatoo Island in 2021. With the theme of “Speculative futures”, the festival invited submissions from emerging Australian installation artists, with 10 chosen to appear.

But Mode was also flagged as a “subject festival” under new government regulations introduced in 2019, following several drug-related deaths at festivals in NSW. (The term “subject festival” replaced “high-risk” in 2021.) The categorisation presented new logistical challenges and costs, especially on an island. Even with tickets at an eye-watering $200 including the ferry pass, breaking even was no guarantee.

Once on site, the crowd – mostly in their 20s, with a smattering of older heads – could relax. Cockatoo Island, a former penal colony and naval shipyard at the junction of the Lane Cove and Parramatta rivers, has been the sandstone-and-steel backdrop for art shows, reunion concerts and festivals such as All Tomorrow’s Parties – but nothing quite like Mode. In the main Turbine Hall, speaker rigs hung from the soaring ceiling, framing exposed steel beams and concrete. In the smaller Convict Workshops, bass from the Void sound system shook the glass in the arched windows, while the even more intimate Naval Store hosted DJ streaming platform Boiler Room. In between art installations, a mix of food stalls fit the boutique festival bill and provided my first-ever witlof salad at a dance party. Beyond the fence keeping the ravers in, families played tug-o-war and lounged wholesomely on a sunlit lawn. (The organisers hope to expand in future years to make use of the island’s “eastern apron”.)

Mode festival
With niche names in techno, bass music and rave, no concessions were made to mainstream tastes. Photograph: Amar Gera

Musically, Mode festival made no concessions to mainstream tastes. Without a clear headliner, the lineup featured niche names in techno, bass music and other rave-ready amalgams. While the steely influence of Berlin’s techno temple Berghain was ever-present, the exultant house music of its sister Panorama Bar was less so, with barely a vocal to be heard all day. Notably, the lineup’s gender mix reflected the crowd far better than most festivals.

My highlights came early, when the sets felt headier and the unadorned spaces were filled with natural light. While Japanese DJ-producer Wata Igarashi greeted the Turbine Hall with deep, textured techno, UK duo Adam Pits & Lisene had the Convict Workshops whooping along to trancey breakbeats in one of many nods to the 90s. Later, New York-based Aurora Halal played a taut hour-long live set of enveloping techno in the darkening Turbine Hall. A long, thin strip of sunlight between the doors behind her was as effective as any video screen.

During Halal’s set, I was struck by the unique thrill of experiencing this music in the grand setting of Cockatoo Island, not a warehouse or pub-turned-club, as is often the case in a post-lockouts city with few dedicated spaces for “underground” music. Over in the Naval Store, the Boiler Room broadcast featured largely Australian artists, including a closing set from Gamilaraay woman crescendoll. Earlier in the evening, Anuraag used the end of their set to speak about past criticisms of the Boiler Room, urging viewers to stay conscious of dance music’s roots in queer, black and working-class communities.

For most in attendance, the night achieved true liftoff in the Turbine Hall with KI/KI, one of a new generation of DJs reclaiming decades-old hard dance and trance (much of it never before considered “cool”) for fresh ears. With red lasers dancing overheard to the hard kicks, her set was easily the least subtle of the day and exactly what the people needed. After suspecting the visual arts component was losing out to more immediate highs, I happened upon a striking neon-draped performance piece by multidisciplinary artist MaggZ, watched by a rapt crowd and a few curious police officers. Following the pump of KI/KI, the night ended with two competing takes on techno from Etapp Kyle and Djrum.

Mode festival
With a theme of ‘Speculative futures’, the Mode festival invited submissions from emerging Australian installation artists. Photograph: Amar Gera

As with any new festival, Mode had teething issues, including bars running out of booze and long queues for toilets and the Boiler Room. Outside of logistics, the heavy and pervasive police presence was hard to ignore in a decidedly not-aggro crowd. More heartening was the presence of DanceWize crowd safety volunteers and the frank guidance on the festival website around drug use – a marked improvement on festivals preaching zero tolerance.

Travelling back on the ferry past waterfront Balmain mansions to the dressy crowds finishing dinner and cocktails at Darling Harbour, the party across the water felt a world away. In a city of sometimes jarring contrasts, the first Mode festival was a breath of fresh air.

Jack Tregoning

The GuardianTramp

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