For a precious few days in January, Launceston will become the art capital of Australia again as Mona Foma kicks off for another year. The 2020 program is a wildly varied odyssey into the strange and the sublime, traversing dance music, puppets, punk rock, installation art, musical theatre, metal and a musical theatre-metal hybrid.
Now in its 12th year, Mona Foma has grown from humble Hobart roots to a globally renowned festival. And in its current (even more humble) Launceston home, the ambition of the program continues to grow. This year there are more genre-defying collaborations, more immersive installations, and more obscure art and performances from around the world.
Already announced is headliner Flying Lotus, whose jazz- and hip-hop-infused tunes have featured Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, David Lynch, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, and Herbie Hancock. His live show, Flying Lotus 3D, will have audiences donning 3D glasses for a psychedelic audiovisual spectacular.
Mona Foma curator Brian Ritchie is particularly enthusiastic about Canadian ambient electronic composer Tim Hecker, who’ll collaborate with the Konoyo Ensemble, drawing on the group’s traditional Japanese instrumentation to perform the music of the Japanese royal court.
“It’s the most well preserved music in the world,” Ritchie tells me. “The same as it was 1000 years ago – weird instruments, like a kind of bamboo harmonica that creates these thick, reedy chords. And a kind of oboe that’s shrill and obnoxious. But it sounds like modern music.”
Australian folk hero Paul Kelly returns to the festival with his new show Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds, which features contemporary classical composers James Ledger and Alice Keath and chamber group Seraphim Trio. Kelly will perform works based on poems from across the centuries, including those of John Keats, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson and Gwen Harwood.
But some of the most fun is to be had seeing the lesser-known acts, and this year brings a number of interesting crossovers. Classically trained Canadian Indigenous tenor Jeremy Dutcher sings in his native Wolastoqiyik language, merging First Nations traditions with Western music. The result is haunting, theatrical and unlike anything else in the festival.
Chai is an all-woman DIY rock band from Japan that merges Kawaii culture with a punk aesthetic. They’ll be preforming on the same bill as Slovenian industrial music pioneers Laibach (Laibach is playing multiple standalone sets too, and taking part in an artist talk), who’ve inspired bands such as industrial-metal band Rammstein, and is known for being the first rock group to perform in North Korea. But the project they’ll take to Launceston is a dark, foreboding take on classic musical The Sound of Music, which is just about the most Mona Foma thing they could be doing.
American songwriter and cabaret rocker Amanda Palmer will return to Mona Foma with Confessional, which is part songwriting project and part performance. Palmer will spend a week leading up to the festival gathering stories from women in the local community and crafting songs based on what she’s learned.
But some of the most exciting parts of the festival are the engagements with locals. Kipli Paywuta Lumi is an evening of food and music from the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. Hosted in a specially designed hut, expect stories, sound art and a menu of traditional Palawa food.
A number of Launceston landmarks will be transformed for the festival. The city’s glorious swimming spot Cataract Gorge will become an amphitheatre for a giant puppet spectacular. Absurdist play Ubu Roi by 19th-century French proto-surrealist Alfred Jarry is being reimagined as a family-friendly show by a team of musicians led by Ritchie himself, and the Terrapin Puppet Theatre.
Royal Park will host an inflatable labyrinth, Daedalum Luminarium, a 19-room multi-sensory installation of light and colour designed by UK design studio Architects of Air.
And a little-known kitschy theme park ride at popular tourist destination Penny Royal will be given a psychedelic overhaul with the help of the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (MESS), art collective Soma Lumia and laser artist Robin Fox, who’ve turned it into Hypnos Cave, a Greek mythology-inspired meditation on death.
At the Albert Hall, there’ll be a tribute show to pioneering German electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, commemorating the show he played at the same venue 50 years ago. Ritchie tells me he was surprised to find that this esteemed and groundbreaking European composer played a show in regional Tasmania in the ’70s.
“I just heard randomly on the internet about it,” he says. “We don’t know how many people were there. I still haven’t found anybody who actually saw it, but we know it happened.” The show, Stockhausen / Launceston / 50, will see a team of electronic musicians attempt to reconstruct the original performance based on the little information to hand.
And there’s plenty more. I haven’t mentioned the sports centre-turned-gallery for sports-related art, or American sound artist Holly Herndon’s AI-driven vocal performance, or the Launceston metal band Zeolite.
Book your flights for another week and a bit of the provocative, the fun and the stimulating in Launceston, the experimental art capital of the world.
Mona Foma runs from January 11 to 20, 2020 in Launceston, Tasmania. Tickets are available from 10am Monday October 21.