For the uninitiated, Dark Mofo’s legendary late party nights – currently going under the Night Mass moniker – are wild, exploratory and at times confronting experiences. In years past you could be surrounded by a balaclava-d Mexican brass band augmented with synthesisers and lasers, and the next confronted by a naked, glittering choir with matted black wigs in place of pubic hair.
But last year’s event was plagued by logistical hiccups. A move to spread the party over a clutch of venues led to hour-long queues, and for the first time it felt like someone had failed to keep the fire going underneath the cauldron. Night Mass felt closer to a run-of-the-mill festival experience than it ever had before.
Changes this year, though, brought the party back from the brink. The queues were mostly gone, and on opening weekend the music programming at Night Mass was nothing short of astounding. That’s in large part down to the party’s new bookers – or “Night Mayors” – Brisbane-based promoters UXS and the team behind Sydney’s experimental techno festival Soft Centre. Last year’s queues made the party in part inaccessible in a literal sense, but thematically the first shows at Night Mass this year embraced diverse cultures, genders and sexualities. This has always been the parties’ strength, but out of the four years I’ve attended, this one felt like a high watermark.
And it’s the diverse backgrounds of UXS and Soft Centre that have fed into this year’s programming. UXS founders Sullivan Patten and Uda Widanapathirana have both spent time in bands. Patten was a drummer in indie band I Heart Hiroshima, and Widanapathirana has played in Brisbane’s punk and hardcore scene and worked at metal label Monolith Records.
The pair met at the end of 2016 at a gig by queer New York City rapper Le1f. Widanapathirana had just begun booking gigs for Brisbane venues and Patten had recently returned from six years living in Berlin. The co-mingling of cultures at that show encouraged them to start throwing parties, filling a void in a Brisbane scene they say catered predominantly to cis, white and gay-male events.
“There’s an absolute saturation of parties [in Berlin],” says Patten. “I’ve seen some crazy shit. I saw an art performance where people birthed eggs out of their vaginas. But those party spaces felt so free and so safe and enclosed. A little utopia in one building, and then people would go back to their jobs the next day. [Those parties showed] the possibility of what a safe space can provide for people in terms of freedom, expression and catharsis in the club.”
And the diverse line-up over two weekends of Night Mass certainly went to great lengths to represent people who are rarely catered for so strongly on festival line-ups. Walking into Hobart’s Odeon Theatre you might meet the projected head of a giant hovering nun delivering cyber-feminist sermons like a zealous queer Wizard of Oz. And members of House Of Slé – a group of mostly trans people and people of colour at the forefront of Sydney’s underground voguing scene. Or the visual and performance artists of FAKA’s wild expression of their lives as black queer South Africans navigating postcolonial Africa.
Across town last Friday the final session of the Laterne experimental electronic music nights had just finished. A performer had just been stripped of an array of virtual-reality sensors down to his birthday suit, and then performed an earnest spoken-word piece before covering himself in black paint – wild stuff. But all of this felt overwrought and a bit silly compared to what was happening back at Night Mass, where UXS had made the subversive decision to put 12- and 13-year-old Melbourne rappers Girl Zone on stage at the Odeon, upstaging the night’s headline acts Junglepussy and Empress Of. Girl Zone rapped about burgers and slushies before throwing packets of Burger Rings into the audience. When the signal on one performer’s wireless mic dropped out, a look of fear came over her young face. But the crowd howled encouragement. In that moment, boundaries between age, gender and race were eviscerated. “These girls are on fleek,” goes one Girl Zone lyric. It’s true.
For UXS, providing a gateway to the more esoteric artists on the bill is vital to engage the broad crowds at Night Mass, so artists you’ll regularly find on Triple J, such as Mallrat and Sampa the Great, also made it onto the bill.
“Most people don’t have access to the high-brow concepts of intersectionality or identity politics, [so] accessing these spaces from an intellectual or cultural level seems a bit daunting,” says Widanapathirana. “You can continue to push the edges of art, but what use is that if you’re just doing it to a particular clique or a particular circle. I think there is a revolutionary aspect in being culturally accessible.”
Finding creativity and revolution in the grip of oppression is also at the heart of Soft Centre’s practice; the festival and collective is known for combining experimental club music and immersive light installations. Soft Centre is made up of Jemma Cole and Thorsten Hertog, who take care of the music and performance programming, and Sam Whiteside, who handles the visual art and lighting. The trio came together in Sydney’s warehouse party scene, which has ironically only become stronger under the city’s stifling lockout laws.
“Obviously the lockouts are a bad thing, but in some ways it invigorated the Sydney community. There’s so much respect and effort that people put into parties because it’s that much harder, and that kind of elevated the scale and changed the landscape,” says Cole.
Soft Centre’s Night Mass contributions are at the challenging end of the dance music scale, and they’re confronting. Primarily found over two levels – a third level of artworks uses lasers and movement by Japanese artist Shohei Fujimoto – these dance floors move to a soundtrack of relatively accessible electro, but also minimal IDM, or hyper-fast BPM gabber techno from Indonesia.
“It might not be very visible, and it might be pretty experimental, but I think the whole ethos of Soft Centre is to promote stuff that’s a little left-field and challenging … but within that there’s a soft centre and there’s something really beautiful, cathartic and emotional about that,” says Hertog.
“I always try to book stuff that’s going to fuck me up a bit. I’m sadistic in that way,” says Hertog. “But I went to the Odeon and went to these spaces that I wouldn’t normally go to outside of Night Mass. I was losing my shit to Sampa the Great – maybe that’s what was challenging for me: this stuff I would never otherwise engage with was great, and if the performance has passion then it’s infectious.”
And that’s what makes Night Mass so special. Whether you’re an underground techno head or a disco-loving Melbourne hipster (me) you will be challenged and encouraged to explore your own identity.
Dark Mofo’s iconography – religious symbolism, plumes of fire and smoke, lasers and endless electronic drones – means commentators jump on terms such as “post-apocalyptic” and “dystopic” to describe the festival. But Night Mass this year could more accurately be described as “pre-utopic”. The world is still filled with oppression and segregation, but the programming presented what’s possible when we create room for self-expression and embrace the diverse world around us. Through exposure to the artists booked by UXS and Soft Centre you get to step into someone else’s world, and for a moment become part of it – and if you’re willing, maybe you never have to leave.