Part of the problem in responding to the Next Wave Festival 2012 is knowing where to start. After much dithering, I'm going to begin by talking about the festival itself: I'll be posting about the individual performances I saw over the next couple of days. Perhaps the most important aspect of a festival is the least tangible: a good festival is much more than the sum of its parts. It necessarily consists of programmed events but, if the magic happens, those events will become part of a dynamic phenomenon that generates its own energy. It's the kind of second order process that happens with a neural network, in which the material synaptic connections create that miracle called consciousness.
|Art in the city: The Stream / The Boat / The Shore / The Bridge|
For Next Wave, artistic director Emily Sexton has radically rethought the question of what a festival is. The result was an extraordinarily seductive event that generated an almost irresistible gravity. I saw six performances, and altogether attended nine events, a small percentage of the work on offer. Keeping my attendance down only to those (which was personally necessary) required an active exertion of will: as soon as the festival started, I wanted to get to everything. Even on the outskirts of the vortex, the pull was palpable: attending one event made you want to see three more. I met two people at a table at one of the daily Breakfast Club talks - "ordinary punters", if you like - who were there because they had attended the previous day, and enjoyed it so much that they came again. Strangers felt moved to discuss what they had experienced. Everybody was swapping notes on what they had seen and what they wanted to see.
The last time I felt this sense of excitement in Melbourne was during Kristy Edmunds's Melbourne International Arts Festivals. Those were events on quite a different scale, and with different ambitions: but they also plugged into Melburnians' endless appetite for debate. (I also felt it at a visual arts festival directed by Ivan Durrant in Benalla back in 1995 - it needn't be a city thing). The sales pitch for MIAF one year was "Be Curious": I was fascinated how generously GP audiences responded. Events were packed out, even some that you didn't expect to appeal beyond a niche audience. And everybody, whether they liked what was happening or not, was talking. Likewise with Next Wave, a much smaller - but no less ambitious - festival geared towards those interested in new artists. Such a focus will attract a particular audience: but the invitation was open and, as far as I could see, was taken up with gusto. Be curious. What do you think?
What creates this mysterious allure is hard to pin down, and in any case it's different for each festival. In Next Wave 2012's case, a primary factor was the program of carefully nurtured events. Participating artists were mentored over many months, which meant we saw very little scrappiness in the work that was presented, and much that was downright exciting. The range of work was broad - live art, dance, free events, installations, food, happenings, exhibitions, talks - and artists came from all over Australia and from across the globe. But equally, it was about the context in which that work was then placed.
Each day began with the Breakfast Club at the Wheeler Centre, in which a series of speakers talked around a "provocation". On the day I went, the provocation was "Can art be both beautiful and effective?" and the speakers were an extremely diverse bunch. The talk was chaired by the joint artistic director of Birmingham's Fierce Festival, Harun Morrison, and included Next Wave artists Laura Delaney, Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris and Marcel Cooper. Guest speakers included Inza Lim from the Seoul Marginal Theatre Festival, Chinese visual artist Ma Yongfen and the artistic director of the PACT centre for emerging artists, Cat Jones. This sketches the scope of the conversation: it was international, political, thoughtful and engaged.
Each speaker talked for five minutes, and then we were asked to discuss what we had heard at our table for five minutes before we heard from the next speaker. This format meant that nobody was passively listening to a bunch of experts, before casting some desultory questions at the end: we were provoked towards conversation and, not unimportantly, introduced ourselves to the other people on the table. Two hours passed by in five minutes, and the conversation really could have gone on for another hour. My only criticism is the mortal sin of providing instant coffee. On a Sunday morning. In Melbourne.
That Sunday I did the Day Pass program, another Next Wave innovation. There was one for every day of the festival, each with a different program of events. The idea was an immersive, loosely guided tour of the festival which lasted all day, from morning until late night. Participants are given a schedule, a Myki card and guides in white shoes to point you in the right direction and answer questions. One aspect of access that isn't often enough remarked is price: I was hugely impressed by the cheapness of the Day Pass tickets, which averaged out to something like $5 an event. But a side effect was the way in which I found myself enjoying the city. Getting from one event to the other was part of the whole experience: walking from one end of the CBD to the other, down streets I seldom go to, catching the train to Footscray, and then to North Melbourne, I realised I was visiting my own city as if I was a tourist.
It was certainly a way to fall in love with Melbourne. But maybe what I felt at work in this festival most, an electricity that vitalised the whole, was a sense of democracy. This was beautifully poised against the equally palpable sense of careful curation. The invitation to be there - as an audience, as a participant, even just as someone innocently made curious by a work of public art - was posed openly, generously and without compulsion. The invitation, always, was to think, to respond, to be more alive to where we are. This was culture that inhabits a city as part of its lived experience, not just something that is grafted on as an afterthought. It's a festival that is absolutely grounded in our times and in its place, with tendrils snaking out everywhere. Way to go, Next Wave. I wish I had seen more of it, and I can't wait to see what happens next.