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Is Launceston the New Berlin?

No. But this year’s Mona Foma left Hobart for the first time, and the result was inspiring.

by Katherine Gillespie
16 January 2018, 1:11am

The Princess Theatre, Launceston. All photography by Jesse Hunniford, courtesy MONA

Did you grow up in a shithole Australian town? Sometimes, on my more unforgiving days, I feel like I did. Perth was a picturesque and boring place with little in the way of an arts scene. But in my late teens, at the height of the boom, all that mining money came good. Events like the Perth International Arts Festival became more diverse and more spectacular. You could feel the city shifting in its ambitions. Suddenly and without warning, people developed a palpable sense of West Australian pride.

It’s an experience you can compare, I think, to that of many Tasmanians in the years since MONA was founded. Whatever you make of the fact he generated his vast fortune through gambling, David Walsh has donated many of those millions to the honourable cause of making Hobart cool for the first time in the state’s dark, weird history. Not only did he found Australia’s most elaborate private art gallery in Hobart, but he founded it on the city’s working class northern edge. A few kilometres away from the council housing he grew up in.

This year, having made MONA a success in the state capital, Walsh and Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie have transported half of the gallery’s famous summer festival, Mofo, to what is effectively the working class northern edge of Tasmania: Launceston, population 106,000. There’s a heated rivalry between the two cities, by the way—fuelled by an inferiority complex that has gained strength in recent years as international tourists flocked to Hobart.

Mofo curator Brian Ritchie

What does Mofo mean for Tasmania’s less-famous city? Many valid points have been made about MONA and the gentrification of one of our most economically disadvantaged states, but I’m definitely inclined to think it brings more good than bad. In a town built on stolen and massacred land, where several cutesy homewares shops on the main strip have golliwog dolls prominently displayed in their windows, Indigenous trio Dispossessed headline a free street party attended by thousands of local families spanning multiple generations.

Rather than playing his own hits, Australian musician Gotye also introduced a mostly clueless (we all admitted to it via a show of hands) crowd to the music of French electronic music pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey. A Canadian dance ensemble performs to a live set from Godspeed! You Black Emperor, with accompanying text from Jenny Holzer. Multiple signs ask the crowd to ensure that Mofo is a “safe space for people of all identities”, directing punters to a dedicated hotline set up to handle any incidents of harassment.

Sunday's free Launceston Block Party

The first 1000 people to enter Sunday’s huge free street party event received a custom onesie sewn by artist Adele Varcoe and an army of sewing machine volunteers. Some people, cynical Melburnian writers from youth media publications included, chose to sleep in and missed out. But locals were loving it—people from every walk of life happily donning bright pink spotted onesies and cradling craft beers as they listened to sound art. If you live in Melbourne, this shit happens all the time. If you live in a smaller and less hyped up city, these events are precious, even life-changing. Especially for wide-eyed kids and teenagers. Launceston’s probably not the next Berlin or even the next Hobart. But that’s not the point.

Gotye's tribute to Jean-Jacques Perrey

The grand plan is to move the entire summer Mofo festival to Launceston, keeping its winter counterpart Dark Mofo in the capital. Wandering the quiet streets of the smaller city, I did feel a little worried about the magnitude of the task ahead for Walsh, Ritchie, and their team of dedicated staff. Especially as MONA runs at a millions of dollars loss. Despite receiving support from the Tasmanian Government to run Mofo in Launceston, the gallery must surely have lost even more money in the process.

The Holy Body Tattoo perform 'Monumental', accompanied by Godspeed! You Black Emperor

Still, there are many reasons to be optimistic for Mofo’s future. Unlike in Hobart, you can traverse the entirety of Launnie on foot—perfect conditions for an arts festival that’s split across venues. And locals overwhelmingly seemed stoked for Mofo to be there, with some local businesses even displaying “Thank you David Walsh!” signs.

Australia is a lot of good things, but it isn’t always weird or experimental or ambitious—especially when it comes to the arts. We confine the good stuff to our capital cities, and we repeatedly fall into the trap of thinking Melbourne and Sydney are the only places to live if you’re a creative person. After a few years wondering whether all Mona’s headline-chasing controversies were a bit overwrought, I’m converted to the museum’s unconventional way of thinking.

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