MONA FOMA and the future of rock’n’roll

Two things were in my peripheral vision in January as I completed my book on the evolution of the Sydney Opera House as a living thing. One was Solange’s poetic stagings of performances of her A Seat at the Table album in response to late modern art and architecture … Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York … Donald Judd’s complex in Marfa, Texas … photographed in the Isamu Noguchi Museum … It’s an approach so much in line with Ben Marshall’s extraordinary responsiveness to the architecture of the Sydney Opera House in his programs as Director of Vivid LIVE and Graphic, that I wondered how she’d respond to the Opera House if she performed there.

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The other was the images appearing on the MONA FOMA instagram feed. I was paying particularly close attention as my friend Dana Gingras’s dance work Monumental, with live music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor was being performed in Launceston. But I was mesmerised by so much else. The photo on top is of violinist Anna McMichael improvising to the sound design of Damian Barbeler in an inflatable high tech cube in Launceston. The photo on the bottom of Eve, a mezzo-soprano singing opera while images transmitted from a laryngoscope inside her throat showed the workings of the human voice, staged in Hobart. While conceptually fascinating, the staging was also engaging, the clothing, the settings. And images of the Violent Femmes performing in pink and orange onesies (from a block party that had everyone dressed in onesies made on site for the occasion) were just damned charming. The Violent Femmes were performing with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. In fact bassist Brian Ritchie, the curator, as he’s billed, of MONA FOMA, has become embedded in the Australian musical community since moving to Tasmania, collaborating with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and members of the rock band Midnight Oil.

When Solange was announced as the first performer of the tenth anniversary of Vivid LIVE in 2018, it provided a definitive ending for my book. A cycle was complete. It’s not that this approach has nowhere else to go it’s that it’s reached a mainstream acceptance. The demand for Solange’s 4 performances (with possibly around 10,000 tickets available) was to be so great that only a ballot system could assign them with any degree of fairness. The “edge of the possible” catching at something that’s emerging, that was architect Jorn Utzon’s preferred vantage point, and is also within Vivid LIVE’s DNA, has shifted. Where it’s gone is perhaps back into the streets and the arts community within MONA FOMA. MONA FOMA’s Instagram feed seemed like a time-lapse of something developing, with an understanding of the elements both on their own and how they come together as the performance staged at the festival. Something Dana posted on her Instagram account after the performances of Monumental were over caught my attention. She was staying on to do workshops with local dancers on a show to be performed in her hometown of Montreal. “Sonya Stefan is in Montreal, group A are in Berlin and I am in the future in Tasmania at Tasdance. This is how work gets done in the age of the Internet,” she wrote, sharing a piece of video from the work in progress on Instagram.

Dana’s dance works mirror life itself. She collaborates with musicians, sometimes performing live with them, and brings the whole world into the performances she creates, with film, art and text. All of Monumental’s pieces retained their own identity: The Godspeed You! Black Emperor music exists as an album. The Jenny Holder epigrams are drawn from her existing work, William Morrison’s films. Even when artists create components specially for her works … science fiction writer William Gibson’s extended haiku for the dance piece Our Brief Eternity, for example, it relates to their own work … Persevering to find a human connection in a mechanistic world in the early tech days of the 1990s when that work was created was also a theme in Gibson’s books. He’d taken motifs from his world … nature shows filmed in ruined cities, into the text screened for the dance work … “Deer in the streets of Downtown Detroit”.

With the decimation of the critical apparatus in the legacy media and the online-only presence of special interest magazines, if they continue to exist at all, what we’ve lost is the big picture. It’s the loss of editors as much as writers as they were the ones able to stand back and see that big picture, and consider how all of the pieces related. And with magazines no longer on newsstands (the newsstands are disappearing too) the possibility of something breaking free of the confines of its genre by catching the eye of casual browsers is lost, and social media being so governed by unknowable algorithms we can’t even reliably encounter serendipity on the internet, as oxymoronic as that sounds.

While critical evaluations of performances remain important, one facet of rock writing has been re-invented by the musicians themselves. The feature article that was once needed to provide directness, a sense of the musician as a person in their own environment, has been superseded. It had become cliched. 15 minute conversations in hotel coffee shops or phone calls, or email exchanges didn’t provide any valuable details. But Patti Smith’s thinking-out-loud journal books, particularly M Train, Bruce Springsteen’s and Bob Dylan’s autobiographies, and Nick Cave’s remarkable movies speak directly to their audiences. As do the profiles of lesser known musicians on Bandcamp, these musicians succinctly sketching in the references and elements that make their music coherent to listeners who are in the process of discovering their music.

It’s the peripheral information that’s most interesting to me, not the confessional aspects. Patti Smith’s descriptions of her membership of the Continental Drift Society are fascinating but it’s hard to imagine a conversation with a journalist that might have brought them forth. Or Bob Dylan’s childhood reminiscences of the popular music of the 1940s and 1950s that prepared us for his recent albums of that music. Or Bruce Springsteen’s fascination with the punk rock era. Of all of these Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s use of their documentation of the recording of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away is the most fascinating. They turned it into an examination of Nick’s creative process crammed into one fictional day, his 20,000th on earth, that culminates in a performance at the Opera House.

And the most useful biographical work is the graphic novel Mercy on Me by Reinhard Kleist. It exists in a new world, somewhere between fact and song. In taking events from Nick’s life that are true enough in spirit if not entirely based in fact, and placing them within the worlds of the songs, both songs and life are powerfully illuminated. The graphic novel is able to impart so much more incidental detail and collapses so much more time into the pages than an equivalent written piece could. As I read the book I realised I was reading it in the same way I read novels, not the same way exactly, but a picture was forming of a world, and characters were coming alive. It wasn’t as if I were watching a movie. I was involved in the world in the way I’d be reading a novel.

And I realised I’d acquired that skill through the Graphic Festival. This is where the “edge of the possible” has shifted to at the Opera House. Ben Marshall’s portfolios of Contemporary Music, Vivid Live and Graphic are really interconnected, with rock’n’roll and mixed into the festival whose brief “is to give the premier storytellers in comics, animation, illustration and music the resources and context they need to premiere exciting new works, pursue collaborations with other artists, revisit their classic work in interesting ways or create and unveil ambitious new projects”.

Graphic novels, typography, and animation seem to be at the point where experimental multi-disciplinary rock’n’roll shows were when Vivid LIVE began ten years ago, on the cusp of moving from subcultures into the wider culture. Now that I’m looking for them, I see graphic novels everywhere, and while I try to keep up with new architecture publications, the monograph with photographs and dense chunks of text isn’t something I can engage with. Yet I keep returning to Bjarke Ingels’s comic book style manifesto-as-monograph. I re-read it for pleasure as much as information. As a child he was equally inspired by comic books and how Jorn Utzon exists in the Danish culture as a kind of storybook figure. His buildings defy both gravity and logic in the manner of comic books. And in his monograph there’s a version of the world and his buildings that’s similar to the effect in Reinhard Kleist’s Nick Cave biography. Historical information and crazy early stage design thinking exist side by side in a way that’s highly entertaining and is probably the only way to make sense of how he and his team came up with a colour scheme for a psychiatric hospital taken from Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers!

Graphic has already presented many figures who’ve been bringing animation, graphic novels and illustrations into the mainstream … Art Speigelman, whose graphic novel presented the victims of the Holocaust as cartoon mice was an unlikely hit. His wife Francoise Mouly, the art editor for the New Yorker, who chooses cover images that often hit a cultural nerve … a group of John Cleese as Monty Python businessmen silly-walking, lemming like, over a cliff when Britain voted to leave the European Union … and their magazine RAW, whose fine production qualities brought comic books to an audience beyond the sub-culture … Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons … and George Miller, whose Mad Max – Fury Road was like a version of the Odyssey starring Wile E. Coyote. But just as important is maintaining the integrity of the works for those who are deeply immersed within the graphic world, while opening them up to a wider audience. Free talks and movie screenings in the Northern foyer of the Concert Hall suit both fans reliving an experience and are a natural form of discovery for newcomers.

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