I didn’t plan to sing in a choir at Nicolas Jaar’s Dark Mofo gig. But when I heard the Chilean-American producer was looking, I made myself available. This is a good rule for finding fun – just be where it’s happening. The day prior to Jaar’s sold-out show under his Against All Logic moniker, it was not happening.
My original Friday afternoon schedule had me looking forward to cheese, booze and beats at Natty Waves, a boat cruise on the Derwent River. Instead I was sat in a dowdy hotel conference room with 40 or so singers of all ages, nibbling on biscuits while Jaar and a local choirmaster tried to hash out a concept.
The producer’s original idea had been to arrange four bleachers of singers to surround Jaar in an in-the-round configuration. But a long afternoon of arranging phrases found us stuck on the opening song.
“The foundations,” we kept singing, “Of the world. Are being broken.”
Jaar listened, looking severe behind his laptop. He fiddled with the score – now the female voices would come in before the male voices. An elderly man grew impatient: “You haven’t yet told us the structure.”
Jaar, welcoming and gracious so far, held firm. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll know it when I hear it.”
My seventh year at Dark Mofo began not with Nicolas Jaar, but with his dad. Who nearly singed my head. Now in his sixties, Alfredo Jaar is an artist, architect and filmmaker, and a favourite of Mona - his excellent installation The Sound of Silence stood out at the 2017 iteration of the festival. He’s also behind The Divine Comedy, a gobsmacking new three-part experience in Siloam, the just-opened $27 million extension of Mona which also houses work from Ai Weiwei, Oliver Beer and Christopher Townend.
The Divine Comedy is so unlikely, I don’t think describing it spoils the mood. Having signed a waiver and chained harnesses to our waists, we roll four at a time into “hell” – a bleak industrial room featuring a grilled metal floor above bubbling black water. The shape-shifting liquid appears to rise as the heated roof descends to just centimetres above us. Sweating, we peer into roiling black water that distressingly seems to be lurching up and then far, far down into the floor before it all suddenly blinks to pitch black.
A door opens and we wheel into “purgatory”: a film of ageing and death, until the entire room silently cleaves off its walls and ascends. True. Then “paradise”, where our guide claims the sky-blue room is built to deaden sound and results in one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen happen with smoke.
Mona’s had a real run of these intense personal-funhouse experiences lately (see the stunning Unseen Seen and Event Horizon that opened last year). As remarkable as each piece is, every time I’m in one I get distracted thinking about the insane effort to build and present (and pay for) this stuff. It leaves you wondering if it’s the art that lingers or the work to put it there.
That night a chilly ferry into the city delivered the rare “nice” gig at Mofo: the soulful, loved-up quasi-spirituality of American musician Lonnie Holley. Playing at new venue Altar – a now-permanent addition to the Hobart CBD, following its debut as the Twin Peaks-themed Bang Bang Bar at last year’s festival – the 69-year-old outsider artist with a soft, bruised voice came across as if Prince never got successful and really into psychedelics. “I ran away from love,” he sang. (He has 15 children.) “Y’all been running from love. I love you. For the reason you dream.” He asked we put our “thumbs up for love”, so we did.
A few quiet days at Mofo before the debauchery sets in is paramount. The following afternoon in the same room, drummer Jem Moloney of Castlemaine metal band Dead paused furious action to blow up a pink balloon, then solemnly let it fart out over the microphone. After passing a couple out to the front row, half a dozen dudes instinctively blew them up and chorused in solidarity. Lovely.
Such dissonance carried into Thursday evening’s viewing of The Irresistible, an excellent two-person play at Salamanca Arts Centre that was one of my favourite things at Mofo. Billed as “a reckless, intoxicating love letter to the subconscious; an exploration of the invisible and insidious nature of unconscious bias … told through multiple parallel narratives that intersect through mystery and sci-fi,” it was also funny, moving and a staging marvel. Co-leads Adriane Daff and Tim Watts deftly used voice-pitch-altering technology to play numerous characters at breakneck speed, and when it slowed enough to let the actors dwell – such as when Daff alternated between a spritely stripper and the lewd bro falling for her – turned quietly devastating. Not even my reliable tonic of three hours of traditional Tibetan throat singing from underground Moscow collective Phurpa later that night could dislodge its spell. That’s when you really know.
Seven years in, Dark Mofo is still as great as mainlanders say it is. That’s largely down to organisers constantly renegotiating its popularity. Recent years saw the Dark Park precinct on the industrial waterfront cede its once essential art installations to families swamping the area to look at lasers and chomp tacos. This year's pivot was to split the variables.
The adults-only attractions shifted to A Forest, housed in the wonderful, spooky old Forestry Tasmania building. Featuring two levels of in-situ performances, sound art, truly disturbing VR experiences and a work featuring imploding steel drums called Bunghole, it encouraged multiple visits. Planned or not. On opening night, soon after a curator overseeing Marco Fusinato’s brutal sound artwork Aetheric Plexus (The Field) told me, “He’s saying less fog when there should be more,” a fire alarm went off. Cue a few minutes genuinely wondering if the shrill siren was an artwork, before being evacuated. “Wonder if the inflatable pig stuff is still on?,” suggested someone helpfully.
Inextinguishable Fire by Cassil at A Forest
The all-ages element drifted to Dark Path, a four-kilometre trek from the Regatta Grounds on the city’s outskirts to the Botanical Gardens. An actual slog – the night I went it took half an hour to navigate the path, people and off-road prams just to make it to the food truck preamble at the entrance to the thing – its popularity took even organisers by surprise. “I don’t think any of us expected 15,000 people to walk that path at night when we promoted it as a four-kilometre walk up through the Domain,” festival director Leigh Carmichael told the ABC. "We may need to look at putting even more effort into that walk."
A similar rethink of the festival’s after-party, Night Mass, paid dividends in mitigating the eternal queues of 2018. A huge new cathedral-like roofed performance space at The Hanging Garden towered over what was a muddy drinking lot last year, instantly creating a hub outside the ever-packed Odeon Theatre and multi-roomed labyrinth of Altar, which managed to squeeze several thumping club spaces into its upper level. A central food and drink precinct also meant not having to battle pizza lines outside the perimeter – cunning. One Mofo fan at the bar was so on-brand he wore horns, feathers and a patch on his jacket featuring the festival’s logo flashing on and off. At Mofo, Mofo is the main draw.
Still, more than any other Dark Mofo in recent memory, it was the big-ticket musical performances that stood out – as if each conspired to bring their A game. On Friday FKA Twigs began alone on stage wearing a black-and-white jester outfit (the first of multiple ornate costumes across her set) and the swag of someone who can open a show with a steely-eyed tap dance. This kind of dissonant intimacy created a through line: Twigs singing songs of submission and decayed love while flexing across every inch of scenery – whether alone fronting a backdrop of clouds and smoke, or rippling through four fit dancers in her own Nike tights, wielding a sword, recreating her stupefying pole dance from the Cellophane video, or wiping away real tears at the crowd’s show of love at set’s end. Twigs' actual music ends up being in service to all this, but the show is so successful at delivering her grand vision it works.
The following evening Jónsi Birgisson from Sigur Rós and partner Alex Somers embedded themselves in the centre of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and eked out a scratched, lilting version of their 2009 debut Riceboy Sleeps. The collision of orchestral percussion and power with Somers’s erratic repurposed kids’ toys and samples and Jonsi’s iconic bowed guitar was beautiful and reliably Sigur Rós-like. But it paled next to their moving Sunday performance at Liminal Soundbath. In the cavernous Mac2, 450 people lay down under blankets, spectral lighting and 360-degree surround sound to have every dust-scratched speck of memory gently pried from their unconscious and unspooled into the ether. People cried. Partners clung to each other. Yes, the incredible sound design touched a deep nerve, but there’s also nothing like being 20 feet away from Jónsi letting his otherworldly voice just fucking rip.
“We started world music in ’93 with nothing but beige speed and a car boot full of crap,” claimed the Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis back on earth. Playing an afternoon slot at the Odeon, Ellis’s equally supernatural instrumental band rummaged through the same emotional terrain as Jónsi and Sigur Rós. But where the latter conjures some spectral glimpse of the great unknown, the Dirty Three dredge up our own ragged imperfect tapestries: regrets, love, mates, death, life – if there’s a pub band for the afterlife, the Dirty Three are it. They play their 1995 debut and stuff from Horse Stories, but it’s all the same – a soup of wonky violin, guitar and drums that feels as elemental as blood. Ellis narrates throughout, and at set’s end when he says, as always, “With the Dirty Three you’ll never be alone,” nothing feels more true. Or necessary.
The Dirty Three
I spent only six days at Dark Mofo this year. Maybe that’s why I feel like the de rigueur controversy traditionally trailing the event cooled off. Paul Yore’s penis-laden shrine to celebrity erected inside an old Congregational Church maybe came closest, or Jordan Wolfson’s brutal VR experience, Real Violence, which featured simply a man being bashed with a baseball bat (and isn’t real). But there was no being entombed under a busy main road, no media-furore at the liberal use of slaughtered animals, no cancelling of the nude swim by Tasmanian police for being “too obscene.” There were no “parents subjecting their children to a demonic and satanic culture that existed in the Dark Ages”, no angry letters about upside-down crosses, and nothing at all about being handcuffed, abducted and photographed in a compromising position without permission. With visitation this year hitting over 100,000, a staggering 25 percent increase on 2018 numbers, perhaps it's the draw of Dark Mofo’s very darkness that's finally caused a critical mass to see the light?
In the end Nicolas Jaar decided to have his ad hoc choir on one tiered bleacher facing the stage to open his show. Dressed uniformly in white shirts, we stood waiting for our sonic cue: a ticking clock. First the high voices came in, then the low. When the beat finally dropped, we pulled up wide-eyed crowd members as instructed to dance alongside us. At the end of the night we reunited to file in behind the barrier around Jaar to dance out his thudding, delirious techno to a close and sing him off a cappella: “This old house is all I have.” The elderly gent from rehearsal spent a fair bit of time happily waving his hands over the stage lights. Can you call a gig you participated in gig of the year? Afterwards I asked Vera, the woman singing next to me – in her seventies and carrying a walking stick – how she went. “It was great,” she said happily. “I thought my heart was about to go boom!” In the end we were there and it was fun.