When I was four, we stayed at a Launceston attraction called Penny Royal. We caught an old-world tram to a nearby windmill and men dressed in convict-era uniforms set off canons. We went on a boat ride through a tunnel where mannequins re-enacted scenes from the life of an escaped convict. I half thought it was a place my child mind had dreamt up, or perhaps a mishmash of a bunch of places from that Tasmanian holiday. As it turns out, I remembered perfectly. Twenty-five years later, I was about to board the same barge and float into the same tunnel. This time, though, the amusement had been given a Mona Foma makeover.
Melbourne’s Mess (Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio) and Launceston’s Soma Lumia video team took over the tunnel at Penny Royal for a few days for the summer edition of Mona Foma, an ambitious Hobart-bred, Launceston-emigrated festival that ran from January 11 to 20. They installed holograms, lasers, video screens and speakers for a psychedelic fever dream of an amusement-park ride. There was a skeleton fishing for inflatable eyeballs, a mannequin shooting lasers out of a rifle and lights and colours projected everywhere. It was an assault on the senses, and only added to my already warped childhood memories.
This “adventure” park takeover wasn’t the only time Mona Foma succeeded at repurposing pre-existing venues for its own motives. Take the local sports centre. It was eerily quiet as we walked through the vast carpark, where there were just a handful of cars. Inside, there were no whistles, bouncing balls or shouting kids to be heard. Instead, its spaces – which didn’t seem to have changed much since the centre opened 50 years ago – were transformed into locations for video installations. The huge basketball courts were illuminated only by static scoreboards and screens. Bodybuilding, a work by Turkish video artist Ali Kazma, was displayed in a men’s change room, right next to the showers. (It depicts bodybuilders flexing and contorting their muscles as sweat coloured by fake tan runs down their bodies like blood.) Other installations were set up in a table-tennis court and alongside trophies and shuttlecocks in what seemed to be the badminton headquarters.
The huge Saturday-night party Faux Mo, meanwhile, had more lines than any other Mona Foma event. It was held at the local workers’ club, but rather than finding locals knocking back VBs and spinning yarns around the pool table, we found an assortment of drag Dolly Partons performing on stage. Yuzu and vodka Love Cans were being served, and the laneway next door played host to performance artists, musicians and DJs until 5am.
Even the plane we took to the festival had been taken over by Mona. It was chartered for a fellow named Tim, who won a competition to bring 149 of his best mates down to Launceston for the festival. He managed to rustle up a solid 129 people, leaving room for some tag-alongs to enjoy the ride – including Broadsheet. We got headphones for the seat-back entertainment, but they weren’t really necessary: we began the flight with a drag queen spraying a refreshing spritz in our faces, and it continued in that vein. A performer sang I Will Survive (appropriate when you’re 30,000 feet in the air) over the plane’s PA, and later performance artists The Huxleys dashed around the cabin in feathered costumes, holding oxygen masks to their faces. The soundtrack? Take My Breath Away from Top Gun.
At the festival hub, things were surprisingly civilised. People wandered around with cocktails made with local spirits and reusable tumblers of craft beer. (The booze options were possibly the best I’ve ever encountered at a festival.) Food vendors served dishes on camp plates with real stainless-steel cutlery, and guests were given scraps of material (that were washed and reused) instead of disposable napkins. Even leftovers were turned into art – costumed artists presided over huge mirrored discs, where they arranged watermelon rinds and toothpicks into something more aesthetically pleasing than compost.
As expected, the musical line-up was diverse. Perhaps one of the most anticipated acts was gimp-masked queer country crooner Orville Peck. The cowboy-hatted, tattooed muso won over the crowd on Saturday night with sultry tunes about desserts, Johnny Cash and boys. All-female Arnhem Land band Ripple Effect uplifted and charmed the audience that same day with rock, reggae and grunge covers in five different languages.
But the surprise hit of the weekend was Laibach. The first Western band to tour North Korea, the Slovenian outfit is known for the harsh, clipped vocals of their lead singer, fascist imagery and … for playing songs from The Sound of Music. They performed their rendition of My Favorite Things (along with several other artists) on Friday night, but on the Saturday night it was all about their originals, which, along with their costumes and performance, parody and challenge fascism and communism – fitting given their origins in 1980s Yugoslavia.
Chai is another band determined to make people think. This Japanese girl group, which dresses exclusively in pink, injects a bit of punk into kawaii (cute). While the majority of the audience probably didn’t understand the lyrics, the group’s excitement on Saturday night was infectious, leading many to go hear them a second time the following day.
Probably the most anticipated performer of the weekend though was LA DJ Flying Lotus, who’d be considered the headliner at any other regular festival. Before his Sunday night show, guests were encouraged to collect 3D glasses from the merch tent. As he played his psychedelic party tunes, 3D projections flashed – wormholes, inverse fireworks and lasers included.
Another Sunday standout was Ludovico Einaudi, a celebrated Italian composer who’s known for playing a grand piano while floating between icebergs in the Arctic. Einaudi – who’s considered a superstar of the classical world – played his latest work Seven Days Walking in Launceston’s pretty Princess Theatre. Accompanied by only a cellist and a violinist, his performance, based around his time walking the frigid Bavarian alps, was haunting and captivating. A highlight was an improvisational section, in which the three played along to the outlines of mountains being drawn on the screen in real time.
In the taxi on the way back to the airport, our driver told us the festival hadn’t generated any extra business for him. An organiser confessed they’d had a rough time trying to convince local hospitality venues to stay open longer to serve visitors – evident when we found it impossible to find a coffee after 2.30pm on a Sunday, and were forced to eat kebabs stone-cold sober at 9.15pm. Mainlanders seem pretty convinced by Mona Foma – hopefully more of the locals get on board next year.