It’s hard to find a week in the calendar that doesn’t mark some kind of arts festival. During the past half century, they’ve come to dominate how Australians perceive and consume culture.
For years, the major city arts festivals – Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney – have represented a certain kind of big-ticket, spectacle high culture. Studded with international acts, they’ve also been the occasion for some notable local premieres, from Richard Meale’s Voss in Adelaide in 1986 to Cloudstreet in Sydney in 1998.
But during the past decade, the challenges posed by climate change and economic inequity have led many people to suggest that this model of arts festival, with its expensive touring acts and high-priced tickets, is over. This week, the opening of Rising in Melbourne offers a radical reimagining of what a major Australian arts festival can be.
Under the co-artistic directorship of choreographer Gideon Obarzanek and sound artist Hannah Fox, Rising combines the former Melbourne International Arts Festival, which was held in October, with the popular White Night winter festival. Its inaugural program – which is now heavily impacted by another Covid-19 outbreak – is an inventive example of a festival embedded in, and inspired by, its own locale.
This is a huge shift from the international arts festivals that evolved through the second half of the 20th century. The European history of the continent was, as historian Geoffrey Blainey argued, shaped by “the tyranny of distance” – and so was its anxiously colonial culture. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, culture was commonly thought of as something that happened elsewhere.
Australian arts festivals were originally driven by a perception of lack, emerging from an often fraught and paradoxical mixture of cultural cringe and budding nationalism. A. D. Hope summed up this mentality in his 1963 poem Australia: “Without songs, architecture, history /… Where second-hand Europeans pullulate / Timidly on the edge of alien shores…”
Australia’s oldest arts festivals – Perth, established in 1953, and Adelaide, which launched in 1960 – were directly inspired by the Edinburgh International Festival, which was established in 1947, in the wake of the trauma of World War II, to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. In 1951 Professor Fred Alexander, director of adult education at the University of Western Australia, visited Edinburgh and returned home galvanised. Two years later, UWA hosted the first Perth Festival, with the aim of offering “the best cultural events that are available from British, European, American, Asian and Australian sources”.
This was the blueprint that most city-based arts festivals followed for the next 50 years. After Adelaide, the Sydney Festival – designed to bring Sydneysiders into the city centre during the lacklustre commercial month of January – followed in 1977. Melbourne Festival launched belatedly, in 1986, an offshoot of composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s Spoleto Festivals.
Rising differs from these arts festivals in ways that aren’t visible. Rather than a top-down, “high culture” approach, the artistic directors sought to create radically open processes. This is underwritten by some explicit ambitions – a commitment to creating sustainable art, with the aim of building zero waste into production processes, and a strong policy of community outreach, including collaborations with First Nations artists and companies.
These policies reflect an evolution that’s been gathering force over the past two decades, and was accelerated by the pandemic’s devastating impact on travel. In 2018, for example, the Perth Festival appointed its first Perth-born artistic director, Iain Grandage, whose inaugural 2020 festival – which featured a strong First Nations program – just scraped through before the pandemic closed everything. In 2021, the program was by necessity local.
After its postponement last year, Rising invested $2 million into a commissioning program, with an open callout for proposals. As Fox said at the time, “One of the upsides we see emerging from this difficult time is the hard proof that radical change on a monumental scale is in fact possible.” Reviewing the program – 133 events and projects that feature more than 750 Victorian artists, with 36 premiere commissions – it’s clear the extra year has been put to good use.
The result is fascinatingly various, a mixture of music, public art, performance and ceremony designed to immerse audiences in Melbourne’s manifold cultures and geographies.
Events are – or were to be – spread across four major precincts around the city. Some of the more intriguing offers include a midnight ferry trip to Herring Island for a solitary bath in which patrons listen to soundscapes (Flow State, with tickets pegged at $10 and distributed by raffle); a queer erotic film festival, Deep Throat Drive-In, at Dromana; and the refashioning of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl as a bamboo forest, skating rink and pop-up David Moyle restaurant for The Wilds. (Moyle is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.)
Other highlights include percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott and choreographer Lucy Guerin’s collaboration Pendulum at the National Gallery of Victoria; The Rivers Sing, a large-scale sonic artwork from Deborah Cheetham that travels along the Birrarung and Maribyrnong rivers to the city; and a major retrospective of groundbreaking Geelong theatre company Back to Back.
Rising’s program draws from many antecedents, from the intensely local focus of festivals such as Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island to the multivenue production model of the biennial dance festival Dance Massive. It also recalls aspects of Emily Sexton’s psychogeographic Next Wave festivals of the early 2010s, when patrons could buy a day ticket to several events and spend it pleasurably exploring the city with a festival tour guide.
This immersion in the cityscape is a far cry from conventional programming that sees the festival primarily as a production house, buying in acts to fill venues. It demonstrates a welcome swing back to artist-led planning, after many years in which festivals have been dominated by producers. After the debacle of Peter Sellars’ artistic directorship of the 2002 Adelaide Festival, boards and politicians became cautious of putting artists in charge of anything. Initially rapturously received, Sellars resigned in a cloud of controversy over financial and managerial mismanagement four months before the festival was due to open.
Sellars’ artist-led approach was seen as “self-indulgent”. At the time, producer Brett Sheehy, then Sydney Festival director, told ABC Radio National: “One has a better bet with a producer who is seeing the work through the eyes of an audience member. The eyes of an artist … can at times be kind of, a little bit, kind of, you know, singularly focused and perhaps a little bit blinkered.”
Reviewing Sellars’ tenure in The Journal of Arts Management, Law and Society in 2004, Jo Caust sums up some of the contradictions that afflict big city festivals in Australia. “Some viewed it as a business opportunity and a way of bringing prestige to the city; others saw it as an opportunity to showcase new artistic work,” she wrote. “These mixed expectations naturally led to conflict from the start.”
Sellars’ unhappy tenure is, however, probably the earliest model of a festival such as Rising. He rejected the “shopping trolley” model of arts festival programming, in which “exotic tidbits are brought to the table of an overstuffed population”. Instead, he chose to implement a model of community outreach and consultation that has since become much more standard – seen in Rising, but also in Dark Mofo’s hasty appointment of an Indigenous board after the recent controversy over Santiago Sierra’s Union Flag.
After his resignation Sellars said he was disturbed by “the tone and darker implications of some of the reaction to the Festival program”. One of the radical hallmarks of Sellars’ festival was his First Nations and participatory programming.
At the time, Sellars said: “One of the things I’m sticking by is that this will be a festival of seeds and not trees ... you will see the trees in 2010.” His proposed themes – “Right to Cultural Diversity”, “Truth and Reconciliation” and “Ecological Sustainability” – seem markedly uncontroversial now, which appears to bear out Sellars’ claim, although his time frame was perhaps a tad optimistic.
Maybe after the successive shocks of 2020, with its fires, floods and plague, Australian audiences will be more receptive to these ideas than they were in 2002. Or maybe it’s simply that their time has finally come.
CINEMA Central Victorian Indigenous Film Festival
Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, until June 3
VISUAL ART Ramsay Art Prize
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until August 22
EXHIBITION Queensland Aboriginal Creations: Agency and Legacy
University of Queensland Anthropology Museum, Brisbane, until June 18
VISUAL ART A link, a loop, a circle
Granville Centre Art Gallery, Sydney, until July 4
EXHIBITION Pulse Perspectives
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until August 30
VISUAL ART James McGrath: Luscus
Olsen Gallery, Sydney, until May 29
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "A flowering, human spirit".
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