The Gold Coast has always wilfully blurred the line between reality and fantasy. The city, whose traditional custodians are the Kombumerri people within the Yugambeh language group, follows a highway that unfurls along the Pacific Ocean. Here breezeblock apartments and candy-coloured motels line suburbs with names such as Miami and Mermaid Beach. This string of resort towns has been shaped and reshaped by a range of interests from Brisbane hoteliers and American soldiers to European colonists who once sought cedar from the nearby hinterlands. It’s a place without a clear centre, where – at least on the surface – the myths of endless leisure remain intact.
BLEACH*, the Gold Coast’s flagship contemporary arts festival, was conceived in 2012 to coincide with – what else? – a Quiksilver World Surf League event. This image of sun, surf and sand is a still-too-common metonym for Australian identity. But it no longer entirely represents the country’s sixth-largest city, where 28 per cent of the population is overseas-born and regional migration is fast turning ideas of centre and periphery on its head. How to create an arts festival in a city where the cultural value of art dovetails with the economic imperatives of tourism? One that reflects a place when that place is itself, in many ways, a reflection?
This year’s edition of BLEACH* features 233 artists, 94 performances and 36 events over 11 days. It’s the first full festival delivered by artistic director Rosie Dennis, who is respected for her work with Western Sydney’s Urban Theatre Projects, after two years of pandemic-enforced cancellations. It attempts to answers these questions while challenging their very terms. BLEACH* isn’t confined to theatres, galleries or recital halls. Artists turn shipping containers into open studios. Musicians perform in rural sheds. A brewery is the canvas for Back to Back Theatre’s Radial, an experimental filmmaking project that features Tralala Blip, a mixed-abilities electronic music ensemble from the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. An empty lot on a suburban industrial estate played host to demi-DEMO, in which members of Branch Nebula – a company that has long worked at the intersection of street sports and performance – cut elegant lines through space on skateboards before leading a workshop. A festival highlight for me was watching a ponytailed girl glide between ramps with steely grace, buoyed by the performers’ energy.
To present art in unusual spaces is to subscribe to a growing trope of the modern arts festival. At BLEACH*, this serves a desire to ask the audience to consider not just what art is, but where it might live. On the Gold Coast, the hinterland lingers in your field of vision. But then, the division between nature and culture is a colonial construct.
In an August interview with ABC Radio National, the acclaimed Yalanji singer Deline Briscoe, who has worked with Archie Roach and the Black Arm Band, remembers a conversation with her cousin in which he believed as a child that his grandmother was a magician. She would sing in language to wake the sun.
First Light, the performance that opened the festival, cast song as a summons, an invitation to listen to Country. Backed by six singers, Briscoe joined the Yugambeh Youth Choir and Yugambeh Aboriginal Dancers. As dawn lit the sky, they conjured the sun, moon and stars in boats made from stringybark amid the eternal pull of Jellurgal, the Yugambeh name for Burleigh Heads. Bleary-eyed, I watched beanie-clad families huddled around the open fires that dotted the dunes and weathered men moved by the sound of high tide. A sense of private reverie ignited a deep sense of communal intimacy, a feeling that bigger festivals promise but so often fail to arrive at.
Over the past few years, arts festivals have drawn on dinner as a metaphor for communal spirit. The act of dining, as seen at the likes of Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast, is laden with theatre. But this context can also overlook food itself as a mode of cultural expression and can mirror extractive power dynamics.
It’s a problem that Kieron Anderson addresses at Feast. On a stormy Friday, the renowned Quandamooka chef and emerging artist presented food as a form of story. Along with a team of First Nations cooks, he served exquisitely plated dishes such as quampi, a pearl oyster shellfish that has been gathered for thousands of years on the mudflats of Quandamooka Country. We ate on tables made from camphor laurel, a noxious weed, under the glow of Light Flowers, an installation by Kaurereg and Meriam architect Kevin O’Brien that celebrates the wallum banksia, which is native to this region.
It matters who gets to tell their story. But what counts, just as much, is how those stories are gathered, framed and translated. In Home Grown Opera, one of 16 works commissioned for the festival, members of the Gold Coast community, from new migrants to long-time residents, “gifted” significant songs to artists from Opera Queensland. They in turn learned 10 different languages to create original arrangements.
Home Grown Opera, composed by John Rotar and co-created by Katherine Lyall-Watson, unfolded deep in the Gold Coast Regional Botanic Gardens. The cast, including rising lyric soprano Emma Nightingale and baritone Daniel Smerdon, sang a Bolivian ode to female friendship. They danced joyfully to “Jeenah W Jeenah”, the soundtrack to a Lebanese wedding. The performance imbued ordinary lives with a sense of grandeur and democratised a medium often considered exclusive. Part of me wanted to see the performers and song-owners unite on stage, taking the intention of the work to its highest conclusion.
On the Gold Coast, borders feel porous. The sacred merges with the profane. In a shipping container near the sea, theatremaker and writer Lisa Smith – one of the festival’s resident artists along with Lawrence English, Emily Grace Taylor and Liesel Zink – re-creates a miniature bingo hall. She recently lost her father and has been cast adrift by grief. She invites audience members to play bingo – a game of chance associated with seniors, with getting older and yearning for community. Through this work, conceived onsite in the weeks leading up to the festival, she hopes to engage viewers in a dialogue about the arbitrary nature of numbers, markers of months and years, of missed birthdays and anniversaries.
On my last evening at BLEACH*, I visited a weatherboard RSL club. A woman beckoned our group inside to The Nightline, a collaboration between Roslyn Oades and Bob Scott. Around me were rows of rotary telephones and identical plastic tables. I picked up a receiver, changing channels on the switchboard. I toggled between different voices, crackling and breaking, confessing to spells of loneliness in the night, stories of ailing parents, estranged loved ones. These are confessions of shiftworkers and insomniacs, all different but threaded together by the same fears, anxieties and doubts. The electricity flickers, the lights go off and it’s as if we’ve dissolved the line between truth and performance. We’ve scratched beneath the city’s surfaces and glimpsed, if just for a moment, what they might still conceal.
BLEACH* runs until August 21.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "Stripping back the layers".
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