Portrait

A swim, au naturel, with associate creative director Hannah Fox. By Isabella Trimboli.

MONA FOMA and Dark Mofo’s Hannah Fox

“The issue,” says Hannah Fox as we weave our way through the crowd to join the prospective swimmers, “is to try and avoid seeing anyone you work with’s penis.”

It’s early Saturday morning and Hobart’s Long Beach is overwhelmed with shivering nude bodies. Fur coats are strewn across the promenade, and people are stretching red swimming caps, with “Grin and bear it” written in Gothic script, on their heads.

The winter solstice swim has become one of the defining rituals of Dark Mofo. Over the years, the festival has earned a reputation for provocative, hedonistic and often confronting programming – a friend calls it “goth schoolies”.

Fox has been part of Dark Mofo and its summer counterpart, MONA FOMA, for the past seven years. This year is her 10th festival, her first as associate creative director alongside creative director Leigh Carmichael.

By day 18, Fox is slightly bleary-eyed – running on two hours’ sleep, she tells me.

We take an Uber into town, and I ask her about the myriad controversies that have dogged the festival, not least the towering, inverted crosses that dotted the Hobart waterfront last year. Fox takes out her phone to show me a news article about an aggrieved local Baptist church, which retaliated with its own artist-commissioned work this year: Jesus hung on a wooden cross, creepily wrapped in what appeared to be a red body bag.

“You should have programmed that!” says Lucy Forge, Dark Mofo’s executive producer, laughing.

The first show Fox organised was an industrial noise night in her home town of Adelaide when she was 17. After high school, she moved to London, where she fell into a managerial role at Torture Garden, the infamous travelling fetish club. “I was completely unqualified, but I talked my way into it.”

Fox stayed in London for 10 years, forging a career in installation and events. She painted hundreds of sheep in shades of pastel for Latitude Festival, organised dancers for a Mötley Crüe tour and helped Jane’s Addiction co-ordinate a faux riot for one of its gigs, the show doubling as a decoy for Banksy to paint a nearby bridge. She even worked with the British International Motor Show, re-creating Romeo and Juliet using forklifts and stunt drivers.

When Fox returned to Australia, she moved to Melbourne and met her long-time creative partner, Tom Supple, and they formed creative agency Supple Fox. The pair pitched themselves to MONA and, in 2012, with producer Duckpond began programming the summer festival’s late-night party. Back then, Fox tells me, the festival was “a lot wilder, less polished”. That first year, thousands showed up to their 200-capacity party. The program was chaotic, discovery-based, and led to eager attendees misguidedly lining up outside a toilet.

Together, Fox and Supple also produced their own installation works for the festival, including an 18-metre Ferris wheel, accompanied by a robed choir. They collaborated with Byron Scullin to create Siren Song, a sonic artwork that projected multiple singers’ vocals via hundreds of speakers affixed to buildings.

We walk through the city to the festival’s headquarters in the old offices of Hobart’s Murdoch newspaper, The Mercury. Fox speaks with unwavering cool, but grows animated telling me about the festival coming together. There was A Forest, where a series of artists had taken over what was essentially a contemporary ruin, made up of a decommissioned bio-dome, semi-deconstructed office spaces and a heritage building. She assisted in placing Jimmy Cauty’s The Aftermath Dislocation Principle – a dystopian miniature world encased in a shipping container – in Risdon Prison.

There were also the performance works of Japanese artist Saeborg, involving latex pig suits and a Day-Glo, blow-up farmland that dissected the vicious, violent circle of life. “It’s one of the most ridiculous and beautiful things I’ve seen. I love it,” Fox says.

I tell Fox one of the things that most strikes me about Dark Mofo is the way in which the music and art program somehow feels both approachable and challenging. “It’s totally accurate of the kind of line we walk,” she says. “Not that everything has to be immediately accessible. We want to do work that people can immediately get something from, that also has some real depth and rigour.”

Dark Mofo broke attendance records this year, with more than 100,000 tickets sold. The festival’s escalating success adds weight to Fox’s belief that you don’t have to spoonfeed or dilute challenging art for the broader public.

We sit in an old pub with wood-panelled walls. German industrial music icon Blixa Bargeld, the festival’s “resident vampire”, drinks beer in a booth nearby. Fox tells me she’s been appointed the co-artistic director of an amalgamation of White Night and Melbourne International Arts Festival, which will run next year. The appointment is fresh, but she hopes to program “free public art that isn’t lightweight”.

“It’s been really good to work on something where you can see that proven,” she says. “I’ve always thought that, but the evidence is here.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "The fantastic Ms Fox". Subscribe here.

Isabella Trimboli
is a Melbourne-based culture writer.