The Melbourne Festival
Political activism and art are two sides of the same coin. While each epoch in time tells its own story, art personifies the periodic themes by giving a voice to those who make history, rather than to time itself. With the recent uprising of desperate citizens in the Middle East attempting to overthrow their repressive regimes in the name of freedom and individual rights, come a slew of artistic creations supportive of the people's movement. Meanwhile blatant acknowledgements of the power of art have emerged, like the fear shown by the Chinese authorities when they arrested their native artist Al Weiwei for his controversial artworks which dabbled in a similar message to that of the Arab Spring.
The liberal society of Melbourne has shown no such fear. Waving the green flag for individual power is the coming annual Melbourne Festival. Appropriately reflective, this year's theme is politics, revolution and power to the people.
Tom Supple and Hannah Fox, producers of the Contemporary Music Program for the festival, agree that there is a correlation between this year's chosen theme and the global, political environment. "Obviously with a festival like this - which is an arts festival - we look towards themes that have currency the world over," says Supple. "There's been a lot of political unrest in the Middle East and some quite interesting things happening on a global scale, in relation to not just directly political things but also global warming and a growing undercurrent of people taking action."
The artists included in the music program come from many countries suffering political unrest - from Syria, to Iraq to the Democratic Republic of Congo. But Fox says that it wasn't only the political angle of the theme that guided their talent scouting, but also "looking at stuff that relates to power to the people in a more literal sense." She continues, "We started looking at stuff that relates to music-making en masse and on collaboration and this kind of idea that music can be made out of anything, anywhere, anytime which relates to Melbourne's current obsession with this DIY handmade aesthetic in the music scene."
Fox particularly points to the ensemble that she is most excited about performing this year - Konono No.1 - a Congolese outfit who have been creating what has been called "junkyard grooves" since the 1960s, playing on instruments made from car batteries, magnets and recycled materials. "They're an artist that we've been talking to for a number of years trying to get them out here and finally managed to this year," says Supple. "The music really speaks for itself with Konono. So I think once people start listening to it, it's gonna really strike a chord with the local audience."
Supple then reiterates that they didn't only seek out musicians from politically repressed countries "for the sake of it." In previous interviews, Fox has mentioned that festivals weren't made for commercially successful bands but rather to accommodate those who were previously undiscovered or under the radar.
"We definitely feel that for the Melbourne International Arts Festival, it's important to look beyond Northern America and Europe," says Fox. Indeed this year's program, according to festival's artistic director Brett Sheehy, is the most pan-cultural that he has directed since his 2009 debut. "We are looking to bring out acts from areas that maybe aren't featured so much in the mainstream. We try to couple them with artists that do have a really strong following here to give them that level of exposure," says Fox.
On the festival's bill, Konono No.1, are coupled with New Zealand's Bachelorette, a performer who has been described as a female Syd Barrett. Another under-the-radar band that will undoubtedly be better known after their October performances will be Australia's Wintercoats - paired together with the headline act that Fox and Supple believe will be the quickest to sell out, Mono. "They're a Japanese post-rock band who have been recording with string arrangements for a really long time. This particular piece they're performing is calling Holy Ground which is a show that they originally performed in New York City and then recorded and released as an album and they're recreating that for the Melbourne Festival with a Victorian Orchestra," says Fox.
Supple points to the macro of Mono coupled with the micro of the Wintercoats, as a perfect example of the conversation to be had between the performers and their individual set. "It's a festival context after all and the program is to work as a whole as well as the individual shows."
The Melbourne International Arts Festival will run from October 6 to 22 and feature 52 shows, events and projects. The music program will also include USA's Black Dice, Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson (supported by Iraq/Syria's the Narcicyst and Omar Offendum), China's Sulumi and Australia's Tom Tom Crew. Ticket prices vary from $25 for the Toff in Town shows to Forum shows starting at $35. You can receive 20% off your price if you buy three or more tickets - deal that ends on 31 August. Check out melbournefestival.com.au for more info on the festival and how to get tickets.