Some 140 years ago, a cataclysm occurred at the mouth of the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River).

The Irish engineer C.Y. O’Connor blasted away a sandstone land bridge, disrupting an ancient equilibrium that Aboriginal people had carefully managed over tens of thousands of years. It was to enable early development of Fremantle Port, laying the industrial foundations for Fremantle’s present-day identity at the expense of sacred lands and waters.

These events are the motivation behind the third Fremantle Biennale, themed “Crossing”, which will take place this November around the same site: the old Fremantle Traffic Bridge.

“That whole geographical displacement of the original sandbar was a turning point,” says the festival’s co-founder and artistic director Tom Mùller, who is also a Swiss-born Western Australian contemporary artist known for his site-specific work. “Our histories have been enabled by shifting First Nations histories. That doesn't mean we have to be nostalgic or necessarily reconciliatory about this, but [we have to acknowledge] that by blasting away safe passage and a crossing point for Wadjuk men, the deep sea port was enabled and our history took hold.”

The Fremantle Biennale was founded in 2017 by Mùller, Corine Van Hall and Pete Stone as a site-responsive contemporary art festival seeking to reinvigorate cultural programming in the Fremantle area. In its first two iterations – High Tide and Undercurrents – the Biennale brought such recognisable works as world-renowned Swiss artist Felice Varini’s Arcs d’Éllipses, the much-photographed optical illusion of cascading yellow semicircles down Fremantle’s High Street, and Dutch social design lab Studio Roosegaarde’s Waterlicht, which sent a wave of blue light through Esplanade Park.

But this year, Mùller says, the focus has shifted away from blockbuster European commissions. Instead, he’s undertaken an inclusive creative conciliation process to create the mostly-free Crossings 21 program, prioritising genuine cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural relationships.

“We wanted to truly surrender our expectations,” Mùller says. “We're kind of starting afresh, unpacking everything. Before, if we liked someone's practice, we'd commission that person for their practice to respond to sites. It was a superficial way of doing it. This time around, we started with no expectations.”

By “no expectations”, Mùller means he and his team started by listening. They gathered stories of the site through interviews with historians and heritage consultants, and in working with the festival’s key cultural advisors, Whadjuk Noongar woman Sandra Harben and Noongar artist Rohin Kickett, as well as Wadandi Noongar/Yamatji woman, renowned curator and board member Clothilde Bullen. Commissioned artists then participated in creative sessions led by Harben and Kickett, which facilitated space for artists to collectively explore how to engage with the site in a culturally responsive and environmentally-sound way.

One of the results is Andrew Sunley Smith’s Overload, in which the artist will partially submerge a small white boat, overloaded with limestone rock spall, in the waters beneath the Fremantle Traffic Bridge. Programming at the site, Mùller says, came to be defined as much by its limitations as its possibilities. The Fremantle Traffic Bridge and the Stirling Bridge sit at the intersection of a number of government agencies, including the Public Transport Authority, the Port Authorities, the City of Fremantle and the City of Melville. The Traffic Bridge has been at the centre of multi-year negotiations for the much-contested Swan River Crossings project, which will see the replacement of the old timber bridge with new infrastructure, to the dismay of many community members and the delight of others.

“We chose the hardest site,” Mùller laughs. “With the two bridges, it’s very complex, there are so many layers. I was astounded, thinking: how can we engage with a site that we can’t touch? All that’s actually left is this three-dimensional space in between.”

This thinking became a critical jumping off point for the festival’s flagship event: Moombaki, a choreographed lightshow using 160 drones to recreate the first stories of Whadjuk Noongar Country, with artwork by Ilona McGuire and a narrative guided by the storytelling of Whadjuk Traditional Owners. Moombaki will take place in the skies above the river across eight nights and three locations – between the two bridges in Fremantle, as well as in Melville and Cockburn.

There's also a multi-course dinner, hosted by Fervor with native food expert and cook Dale Tilbrook, celebrating the foods of the Walyalup waterways and WA. Expect quandong, bloodroot, marron and wattle to take centre stage.

The rest of the program contends with notions of rhythm, movement, time and space. Performance and multimedia artist Amrita Hepi will produce a continuous audio and dance work – Outside In – paying tribute to loved ones separated due to confinement. Hepi is currently collecting voice messages and songs for inclusion in the work on a hotline (call 0474 855 765 to leave your dedication).

In Vespers, a collaboration between composer Rachael Dease and sound designer Tim Collins that runs for three nights, a small chorus of couta sailing boats will drift downstream at sunset playing music heard from the shore. And in Tightness Times Toughness, artist Bruno Booth invites audiences to navigate an installation of two narrow and intersecting corridors that echo the proportions of the two bridges and the deepest channel of the river.

“It is still about presenting a work that is first and foremost connected to beauty, allowing you to enter into that world,” Mùller says. “Once you start peeling back the layers, you may see the process [we’ve gone through], but we're not working in a direct way where we want to push that idea across.”

It’s a lengthy and nuanced process that’s taken real creative grit, but one Mùller hopes has yielded work that people will find both “enchanting for a moment” and resonant into the future. It’s also an example of how the arts can have real cultural impact on a place; a legacy captured in Crossings Bilya Bidi, a monograph containing a collection of essays, reflections, poetry and correspondences from artists, writers, community leaders and Whadjuk Noongar Traditional Owners, available now for pre-order.

Speaking as an artist, Mùller says the new approach to Crossings 21 has also shifted the way he thinks about the kind of work artists should be making more generally.

“We’ve been very narrow, contemporary art, very self-serving, for so many years. It’s one of the most self-indulgent practices,” he says. “As artists, we’ve become frustrated with this. How can we attempt to be more meaningful in how we use public funding, how we work with community? Is there another way that might actually bring about some sort of change?”

“I think the work I'm doing now, I'm trying to do with a very light touch. Very little material, working more with ephemeral languages, and hoping that the memory of the experience will be the lasting legacy, but not the material impact or a big financial impact.”

Crossing 21 runs from November 5 to 21.