I went back to my hometown the weekend before last, but it was a little different to the usual visit with the folks. I saw people in hospital scrubs performing on a kind of flesh theremin; I saw a drag Cruella De Vil lead leather-masked gimps through a night club; and I had one of the most transcendent gig experiences of my life courtesy of Julia Holter. (And I still fit in fish and chips with mum and dad.)
It began at the airport.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we know you’re very excited,” the flight attendant said over the PA, “but we’d appreciate you paying attention to our safety demonstration.”
I’d never seen people so excited to be going to Launceston.
But it was the weekend of Tasmania’s globally-renowned bacchanal and festival of art and music, Mona Foma, and I was hitching a ride on Air Mofo – a chartered party plane staffed by performance artists. One, dressed as a kitschy, retro air hostess, serenaded us with a bit of Bizet’s Carmen, while another in a silver jumpsuit pulled someone’s bag from an overhead locker and humped it. By the time we landed in Launceston, everyone was a few drinks deep. The festival was on.
The crowd at the airport was a sea of blue, with many wearing self-made jumpsuits courtesy of Adele Varcoe + Self-Assembly. Limited-edition Launnie Longneck Lagers were everywhere too, thanks to Tasmania’s Moo Brew.
Acting Lord Mayor Danny Gibson seemed genuinely thrilled to welcome us mainland heathens to his north-Tasmanian city, and he offered each of us a Launceston City Council pin. “Have fun, spend money, and visit the monkeys!” he said. “And go home and tell everyone that this place is happening!”
Something was certainly happening. This year, for the first time ever, Mona Foma – Mona’s summer festival and lighter counterpart to the museum’s winter blowout, Dark Mofo – was hosted entirely in Launceston.
I moved away from Launceston when I was 18. Most of my friends followed. Pretty as it is, it’s a sleepy town, and I don’t think it’s a place that’s particularly tantalising for young people.
When I return these days, I find plenty unchanged in the 13 years since I left. The streets are empty. Construction work discussed when I was a teenager is ongoing. Even with the festival on, nothing seems to be open. But the good bits remain too. The parks are pretty. On weekends, everyone converges on the Cataract Gorge, a huge swimming hole at the end of the South Esk River.
When I visited during the festival, the calm, dark water was dominated by Parer Studio’s Man, a stark-white, 12-metre-high inflatable sculpture of an overweight guy deep in thought, sitting on a pontoon. The piece is a sardonic, contemporary take on Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. He was really concentrating, the Man, with his fingers to his temples, his gut doubled over. I swam out to him. The booming, god-like voice of a lifeguard reminded people not to climb on the ropes, the pontoon, or the Man. I understood. I left him to his contemplation. I’ve been there.
I can imagine a singer like Courtney Barnett (who performed at Foma on the Sunday night) coming here even if the festival wasn’t the pull. Or Swedish icon Neneh Cherry, who played on Saturday, with a push from an enterprising promoter. But it’s hard to imagine Group A – industrial noise sliced up with violent atonal violin, from Tokyo via Berlin – or the ecstatic queer gospel of South Africa’s Nakhane coming to town if not for the festival. I can’t think of any other circumstances in which the Albert Hall, where my high-school orchestra played, would be taken over by a late-night laser installation by Australian artist Robin Fox, or followed by a rapturous performance by Japanese percussion virtuoso Kuniko Kato.
Mona and its assorted festivals have fallen into a groove with Hobart. Visitors used to be “fuckin’ mainlanders” – a bunch of Johnny-come-lately wankers taking over the town, bringing their outfits and their glitter and their queues. But as the city has changed, Mona Foma and its winter sibling Dark Mofo have become part of the Hobart landscape. That familiarity was thrown out the window this year with the move north.
The summer festival has always been a bit more low-key, a bit friendlier. But it has a renewed sense of vigour and surprise in its new home, with unexpected art in unexpected places (like the burning, screaming clown in a wood heater at the Workers Club, courtesy of artist Heath Franco) and a musical line-up full of the unknown and the outré.
The musical highlights were many and diverse. American singer Julia Holter was my favourite, bringing the huge sound of her latest album Aviary to the stage with just a five-piece band, leading us down sonic caverns of rich frailty, and not always leading us back. Two older guys behind me chatted throughout the show, processing their reactions: “It’s avant-garde, but I like it!”
Following Holter’s set with the web 1.0 electronica of American act Oneohtrix Point Never was a masterstroke of curation, switching Holter’s organic beauty for a sprawling, symphonic sound of skin and metal. Faux Mo, the nightly afterparty hosted in Launceston’s seediest night club (Dicky Whites Lane), was dominated by blistering sets from Sydneysiders Party Dozen, Belgium’s Wwwater and Launceston’s own Slag Queens.
I snuck out for a portion of Saturday evening to have fish and chips with mum and dad, who didn’t come to the festival. They conceded they didn’t know anyone else who went either. “Too square,” said my mum. It seems Mona Foma’s reputation might have become conflated with Dark Mofo’s.
But the idea that this is a weekend full of weird shit isn’t quite true.
Despite the festival’s reputation, the enormous portly white thinker was the only nudity I saw that weekend. “I heard there was a naked guy with a sausage dog,” said an old friend I ran into. Where? She’d pointed vaguely east. “Is it true there’s an orgy room?” asked a cab driver. I said there could be, but I hadn’t been invited to it. It seemed like something salacious or excessive was perpetually around the corner, but it never arrived.
On Sunday, as drifting smoke from the fires on the Central Plateau turned the sky a burnt orange, the headline acts performed. Courtney Barnett’s Ellen-friendly rock-and-roll almost seemed like an anti-climax after some of the weekend’s more jagged edges. And Pnau, already up against it simply for not being late-cancelling Underworld, didn’t provide the closure I was looking for. Even the program, printed before they were announced as replacements, billed them as ‘Not Underworld’.
Nevertheless, Mona Foma is on safe ground, and with more vitality than it’s had in years. I returned home lightly marinated in Tasmanian gin, prodigiously sunburnt, clutching the Launceston City Council pin badge the mayor gave me. This place is happening.