“We like messing with what a festival looks like and how a festival can behave,” says Emily Sexton, artistic director of the Next Wave Festival.

Sexton spent two-years planning Next Wave’s 2014 program. The theme is New Grand Narrative, and an inspired program invites on an interactive adventure through public and private spaces across Melbourne. Over four weeks, Next Wave will make its presence well and truly felt via exhibitions, performances and discussions. There’s a book launch, plenty of food and drink and a customised app which, thanks to several ingenious artworks, makes sure “interactive” is more than just an empty buzzword used to describe this festival.

New Grand Narrative incorporates emerging and established artists and offers a valuable platform from which they can showcase their work. A biennial festival, 2014 is Next Wave’s 30th anniversary.

Sexton says that two years ago her ideas for the festival centred on, “asking questions about what changes in technology meant for how we imagine things, and how this manifests in artistic life.” It’s this attitude that sees the Next Wave program packed full of surprising, moving works.

The festival kicked off last week with the launch of BLAK WAVE, an initiative that focuses on the future of indigenous art. There are 35 artists within Blak Wave, seven creative projects, a talk series and a book documenting discussions between new and experienced artists about how they inform each other’s practice. “If you are a young, experimental, indigenous artist who wants to be contemporary, where do you go in Australia?” asks Sexton. “I think we could be that place.”

Steaphan Paton’s My Bullock Modified examines the conflict between Aboriginal landowners and European settlers in colonial Australia through an interactive 3D app. Paton allows audience members, via their phones, to experience an augmented reality at sites such as the Carlton Gardens, where cows wander through the park, available for wannabe hunters to “spear” with their iPhones and iPads. Sexton describes Paton’s interactive work as “a nice gap between the serious and playful.”

Each year around half of the Next Wave audience comes to it for the first time. For this reason, Sexton says she can’t assume a level of knowledge on the audience’s behalf. She sees this as a positive; it means the festival must carefully introduce and present its art. And with 40 world premieres and 239 local and international artists, a lack of the new is the last thing the festival needs to worry about.

Highlights include Georgie Mattingley’s We(Heart)Abattoir, a record of the 18 months the vegetarian artist spent working in an abattoir, photographing her co-workers. While not exactly glamour shots, Mattingley’s portraits have the same glossy patina of retro Pixie photos. There are many stories behind these people’s faces, and Mattingley’s portraits, blown up to a large scale and installed in various public spaces around the CBD (Queen Vic Market, Melbourne Town Hall), humanise them, and put the grisly work they do into context.

Visitors can use the Next Wave app to hear interviews with the abbatoir workers who appear in the photographs, and a discussion with ethicist Peter Singer about the project.

Elsewhere, audiences can experience olfactory sensations as they visit different festival sites in Smell You Later, an entire exhibition based on scent. Unusual smells will waft from behind staircases and from the walls via Bill Noonan’s “hacked aroma diffusers”. Noonan has even concocted a unique Next Wave fragrance. Needless to say, its origins are top secret. Collaborators Grace Gamage and Olivia O’Donnell have chosen bathrooms around town where visitors can discover aromatic balms and potions, and sample them if they wish.

A panel discussion on April 29 at The Wheeler Centre, Rebellion and Tomorrow, sees six speakers including The Saturday Paper’s editor, Erik Jenson, and Lauren Bates, who started The Everyday Sexism Project. Other opportunities to enter analytical territory will be offered at informal breakfast clubs on weekends during the festival, with different panellists discussing major issues. Rather than sitting on stage, speakers will settle among audience members, creating a convivial atmosphere that welcomes friendly debate.

With so many events, it’s fortunate that Next Wave's New Grand Narrative runs for four weeks. Sexton says the festival is a slow art experience, “which is why we take two years to build it.” The ideal approach is one of open-mindedness and a willingness to step out of your comfort zone. “It takes a lot not to be cynical these days, and to be idealistic and hopeful,” Sexton says. This year’s Next Wave Festival might just be the right time to try.

Next Wave Festival 2014: New Grand Narrative runs from 16 April to 11 May 2014 at various locations around Melbourne.

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