Music by VICE

Dark Mofo Made Me Feel Good About Art and Awful About Australia

How can David Walsh's "subversive adult Disneyland" exist at the same time as a homelessness crisis?

by Sam West
29 June 2018, 7:36am

On my first night here I ran into Katie Pearson (who DJs as Whiskey Houston) at the Hadley’s Orient Hotel Artist Bar. Hadley’s was built in 1834. The carpets are the colour of orchard drippings and the chandeliers have been spiked with pink neon for Dark Mofo. A full-sized portrait of Queen Victoria greets you in the foyer. She’s wrapped in coronation robes and looks down her nose as if to remind everyone that, yes, Hobart was a penal colony and, yes, we should continue to keep up an outward appearance of dignity and restraint while our insides churn with impropriety.

Katie stood at the bar and told me how at the opening party––just across from where we were standing––a performer had fisted her own ass with handful of cake then poured beer down the open orifice. As a finale, a woman from the audience got up on stage and rimmed the performer’s beer-and-cake-filled anus. All the while, Katie got to watch on from a bed, which was also her DJ booth. She said it was one of the best gigs she’d ever been involved with. One of the best gigs ever. This is a woman who’s been DJing for well over a decade and is so committed to safe and thrilling party vibes that she, along with LISTEN activists, helped make changes to venue laws and best practice guides so sexual harassment at gigs gets dealt with properly.

I consider myself an advocate for good times too. But I’ve never changed the law in the name of partying. And I’ve never shoved cake down my anus then encouraged people to eat it. But I do enjoy my own, perhaps more modest, anal pleasures from time to time. In fact, only hours earlier, I had one of the most satisfying shits in recent memory. This is obviously something you don’t need or want to know about. But my point is, this happened at my Airbnb. It’s a great a place to stay. The hosts are lovely and the view is spectacular. In fact, the window from the bathroom looks out across West Hobart, right down over the bay. It’s a patchwork vista of corrugated iron and slate roofing atop tall brick and weatherboard terraces. The homes jut out from the hillside, stepping their jolly way down through gently swaying pines, eucalypts, and naked birch into town. The late afternoon sun was out and hills hoists were open, flapping their family-sized loads of washing into what remained of the winter warmth.

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Photo Credit: Dark Mofo/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

I relieved myself while sparrows twittered from chimney top to chimney top, and I thought ‘Jeez, Hobart really is perfect on a day like today.’ With my bowels finally empty I was ready to go out and enjoy what is, undoubtedly, one of the best music and arts festivals on Earth. I wiped my bum with Who Gives a Crap toilet paper and I felt even better because I know they donate their profits to clean water projects worldwide. After I was done I went to the sink and washed my hands with Thankyou Soap, feeling even more satisfied because the label says it donates 100% of its profits to fighting global poverty.

But then I remembered that any poverty I might be fighting is probably being counteracted by the fact I’m staying at an Airbnb. Because Airbnb has helped create situations where it’s more profitable for property owners and speculators to run mini-retreats than to offer affordable housing for renters. According to a recent UTAS study, the number of homes being offered on the short-stay site have risen 290% since 2016. Hundreds of homes have been taken off the property market, leases aren’t being renewed and people have erected tent cities in the Royal Hobart Showgrounds to survive the winter. So no matter how many times I wash my hands with Poverty Soap, I’m never going to rinse away the feeling that, by taking a comfortable––almost transcendent––shit at my Airbnb, I’m contributing to the homelessness crisis that’s risen in parallel with Dark Mofo's popularity.

Parallel doesn’t necessarily mean cause and effect. So I’m not blaming David Walsh, per se. He’s just a groovy math-head who operates MONA at a loss. And it’s not the fault of my Airbnb hosts either (they’re just a professional flautist and a forensic psychologist who want some their share of the tourist bonanza). And it’s not the Mofo organisers’ fault. This festival has apparently grown almost 40% on last year, but the operational budgets haven’t. And they still pulled off what had to be the biggest, loudest, gaudiest, most thought-provoking, and arguably wildest MOFO in its history. It’s such an ambitious, wowser-trolling logistical mindfuck that it’s no wonder the Lord Mayor doesn’t think it’s his “cup of tea” (But how about the 50 million dollars the festival brings to your city each year dude? Is that enough sugar for your tea?).

But it’s not just about the money. Since I first visited in 2014 it’s clear Mofo’s transformed from a strange, gothy interloper to a brash, haughty local. A neighbour who refuses to turn it down even after you’ve called the cops. So if it’s here to stay, then how do Mofo-goers and artists begin to grapple with the possibility that an event dedicated to music and art and human rights––a place embraced by people, like Katie Pearson, who are changing the social fabric of this country for the better––might be contributing to a homelessness crisis?

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Photo Credit: Dark Mofo/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 2018

I mean, it’s tempting to shake my fists and say this is the government’s fault (because it certainly does seem like most of those fuckers would sooner let us eat cake through our assholes than see some real wealth redistribution). Or I could keep blaming Airbnb because it’s an obvious symptom of sick globalised neoliberalism. But I was chatting to my mate Joe––a local artist who recently spent several months trying to secure a lease in West Hobart––and he reckons the Airbnb story is a bit of a beat-up; that you can’t blame a website for what is, essentially, a low density housing problem (i.e. all those darling little terraces I was admiring while I shat). He pointed out that the Greens want to protect heritage and the Libs want to protect property investment, so the city’s stuck in the middle while the homeless are freezing to death. What a complex mess. It’s like all the intertwining issues are lathered with poverty soap then, as soon as you tighten your grip on some solid understanding, the meaning just slips away.

I think maybe Blixa Bargeld unwittingly summed it up for me I finally worked up the courage to talk to him at the Hadley’s Artist Bar. This was on Friday night after his solo show at the Avalon. This performance was just an hour or so of the man humming and screeching through a loop pedal like a pterodactyl devouring an oompa-loompa, punctuated by stage banter about astrophysics and rhythmic drives on the autobahn. I still considered it a compelling time, because the man oozes onstage charisma. And once the show was over, I saw that the great industrial noise hero was relaxing with an Old Fashioned, slouched deep into a cane chair under some tropical-looking ferns (the houseplants at Hadley's appear to have been specifically chosen to give the place a real Passage to India vibe).

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Photo Credit: Dark Mofo/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

There he was in his sparkly suit, all conspicuously famous, obviously waiting for some restrained adoration and stimulating conversation from me. So I strode up and asked him point blank, “Has a publicist ever stolen money from you?” He looked up from his drink through those blue, poetry-ravaged eyes and said, “I beg your pardon?”

I immediately knew I was fucking up my only chance to be friends with Blixa. But I persevered anyway because I didn’t just ask my question on a drunken whim. I actually asked it for two, quite logical, reasons. First: I wanted to reach beyond the regular fan-boy chatter and come across as deep. And the best way I could think of to do that was to ask him something real about the music industry. And, second, I genuinely wanted to know if a publicist or manager had ever stolen money from him. Because I’d met a writer at Hadley’s the night before who’d complained how certain manager for a certain Mofo act (you know who you are) owed this writer 500 bucks. Basically, the writer had done an artist bio for the band and never been paid for it. Now, there’d been radio silence for so long that he was just sinking into resignation and defeat.

Just to be clear, I like this certain Mofo act (that shan’t be named because I can’t prove shit). I don’t like them enough to bother going to any of their shows. But they had the good sense to revive the Madchester sound when no one else was doing it and I think that’s pretty great. And I like this writer too. In fact I tried to formulate a plan with (or probably more like at) him to find out which room this band were staying in so we could steal their equipment and hold it hostage until this fucking publicist or manager (or whoever) paid the money he ( allegedly/almost definitely) owes the writer.

Unfortunately this plan didn’t pan out. So the rage just festered. And now I was back in Hadley’s getting all boozed and riled up about it again (seriously, if you don’t pay fucking writers properly you can take a long walk off Brook St Pier). And Blixa was just sitting there sparkling away in his cane chair under pink neon lights and I thought ‘There’s a guy who’s been in the music industry for a long time, surely some manager or label-person had to have stolen money from him at some point.

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Photo Credit: Dark Mofo/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

I started convincing myself that Blixa would have some useful advice on the topic. And by talking to me about it we’d open up a conversation about music, art, commerce and authenticity that would last all through the night (over many Old Fashioneds). Maybe, together, we’d crack this art-noise subversion plus gentrification plus homelessness crisis thing wide open once and for all. So I repeated my question: “Sorry if it’s a weird thing to ask, but I was just wondering if a publicist had ever stolen money from you?” Once he understood what I was asking he just furrowed his brow and said, “Publicist? I have no publicist. They are an American invention.” He said the word “American” just like Bond villain would. Then he slouched back into his chair and stared back into his drink.

So my attempt at wowing Blixa with my intellect had failed. But then my girlfriend, Kiloran, who knows I’m a fan, must’ve seen me floundering because she came to the rescue by simply asking Blixa, “How are you enjoying Hobart?”

Now, part of the reason I’d been spending so much time in Hadley’s is because Kiloran was working as a host at the Artist Bar. Her job was to greet people at the door, answer their queries and make them feel welcome. She’s good at it too. Blixa looked up from ignoring me and was instantly drawn into her charm. He told her how Hobart is wonderful. He thinks he can remember a time touring with the Bad Seeds when the place was the butt of jokes “like Western Vulgaria” but now, he said, “It is hip!”

“Now it is hip.” He’s right. I used to make Tassie jokes as mainlander kid, and now I’m here writing about it for Noisey. Like it or not, Hobart is cool as hell. Even a middle-aged dude from West Berlin can tell you that. But how do you quantify the socio-economic effects of cool? What metric do you use and how can figure you out how all this cultural capital translates into a homelessness crisis? I mean, I know for a fact I can’t answer those questions in any satisfying way. But I can adapt the ideas of smarter people to try map the conditions that have made these questions so slippery (and soapy).

Einstürzende Neubauten’s Lament is a good case study I reckon. It was Saturday night’s attempt by Blixa and his gang to work through WWI trauma using absurdist German humour, poetry and a giant meccano set/war machine (that they constructed in front of the audience while playing it like a noise weapon). One of the most powerful parts of the performance was when they built a great big percussive instrument from different sized bits of plastic piping. It was kind of like a steampunk marimba. Blixa told us how each pipe represented a warring nation from the First World War (the British Empire got two pipes, because it wasn’t long after good old Queen Victoria had finished ruling over the biggest empire the world had ever seen). Blixa explained that each bar of music represented a single day of the war. Three percussionists manned a section of the piping and beat out a song. It felt like each hit from a drumstick represented an entire day of unspeakable suffering. As time progressed Blixa would saunter up to the mic and explain that a new nation had joined the fray. After he announced it, new bits of piping would get bashed, which would add a new melodic element to the song. Time kept marching on and every time there was an armistice Blixa would announce it and the corresponding piping would stop being pounded. This went on, for a loooong time, until the Great War was over. It was such a simple and ruthless way to emphasise, as Blixa put it, “just how long that mess went for.”

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Photo Credit: Dark Mofo/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Using piping like that made aesthetic sense for a band who spent the early parts of their career salvaging scrap metal from broken down old war machines and discarded fragments of industry. This can be read as a political statement: that humans can reclaim anything, even the iron bones of atrocity and economy, and remake it into a sound that brings people together. So these industrial instruments really were the perfect marriage of form and function, brilliant German design through and through.

In the early days of the band the scrap metal would’ve also served as a practical drum solution too. Raw materials are, after all, much cheaper than classical instruments. But the weird thing is on Saturday night, looking at how elaborate the stage set up was for Einstürzende Neubauten, it was obvious the piping no longer functioned as an act of punk defiance. It looked like the most expensive rig the Odeon had ever staged. I was sitting in the fancy balcony seats (thanks Noisey) and, I shit you not, the woman in front of me spent the lead up the performance browsing new properties on realestate.com. Einstürzende Neubauten translates from German into ‘collapsing new buildings’. And here was a woman waiting for them to play, looking to buy a brand new building! It was a perfect distillation of how yesterday’s punk becomes tomorrow’s civilised night at the theatre. And that’s just what happens, right? Once anything, from German noise art to Soundcloud rap, becomes a recognisable product, it risks ending up as light entertainment for the original enemy. Which doesn’t de-legitimise the whole thing (it’s just what happens) but it can rob a piece of art of urgency. And really, for all the incredible clanging bombast and weird humour of Lament, at the end of the day, you can still file the whole thing under: Old White Guys Make a Grand Statement About War.

Contrast this to Lydia Lunch’s ‘Brutal Measures’ show. Like Blixa, Lydia invented her (much imitated) style back in the 80s when the Cold War was still happening. Like Blixa, she’s been committed to the atonal destruction of rock tropes for a long time. But unlike Blixa she didn’t spend Mofo presuming she could stand back and make a singular statement about the history or war (or even astrophysics). Instead she croaked and grunted out a spoken-word performance that, from time to time, got smashed apart by improvised drum and bass blasts. At one stage she did mention she was unlocking “the limitations of the failures of resistance.” But this wasn’t an act cool, detached German irony. It was an American invention. She’d reference pop culture just to spit at it. Then heave the rest of her thoughts through the diseased lung of romantic pain, longing, and gleeful self-destruction. She was “insomnia’s wet nurse” who’d been finding catharsis in murder, which she’d enact on anyone foolish enough to fall for her predatory ways. Towards the end she rasped out this one phrase: “The moment right before and immediately after whatever it is that’s almost absolutely fucking unbearable? That’s where I live”. Then repeated it again and again like a mantra. And walking back to Hadley’s with Kiloran after the show, she told me how she found this bit the most affecting. After reading about rape, murder, and domestic violence all week she was emotionally rinsed. I’d seen her in tears, and she’d had trouble sleeping. She said “Fuck, it was so good to see some female rage up there.”

So there’s that old binary: a woman makes a deeply personal poetry about anxiety while men band together to make a big statement about shattered humanity in the shadow of war. The men build metal noise machines while the women scream. Mind you, Lydia Lunch would probably reject that assessment. I interviewed her once and she told me how she had a dead male twin who’s inside her now. She said she feels as much male as female. I’ll never forget it because I asked her about identity politics and she grinned down the Skye camera and said “You see the top my half? They may look like tits honey, but I call them balls.” And, as Kiloran pointed out, as if she doesn’t get off on acting like a creep. Think about all the rock dudes she’s had to endure (over a career that’s spanned nearly forty years). Hers is an ongoing project that, she explained to me, was partly about dismantling Western sexual segregation.

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Photo Credit: Dark Mofo/Jesse Hunniford Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

But sadly she hasn’t achieved it yet. The next day I was in Hadley’s killing time, scanning the paper, when Kiloran flipped the page and pointed to an editorial piece set inside a news story about the vigil for Eurydice Dixon. She said, “Read this bullshit.” I squinted through the pink neon to read the headline: ‘Identity politics hijacks the tragic tale of woman’s death’. This was some new commentary from an old bald white guy named Chris Kenny. The gist of Kenny’s argument is that Western culture doesn’t accept violence against women, as feminists like to claim. The culture is neither complacent nor responsible. To infer all men need to actively get involved in the solution “hijacks” Eurydice’s death for virtual-signalling and political gain (the irony of a political commentator making that statement seems to be lost on the guy). In Kenny’s eyes, the violent rape and death of Eurydice has little to do with identity politics or hegemonic power. It is instead the isolated act of a “monster”. “Blaming all men” will do nothing but create rifts in the community (the irony of saying this about a candle-lit vigil attended by thousands seems to be lost on the guy too).

So Kenny doesn’t see the causal connection between Eurydice’s death and “rape culture” (which starts with the normalisation of rape jokes and ‘boys will be boys’ rhetoric that yes, #allmen, including myself have been guilty of perpetuating). But he didn’t just wake up with those ideas. The only way you can claim identity politics hijacks a discussion about rape and murder is if you’re really good at compartmentalising different streams of thought (in this case psychology, gender, power and violence). Some Marxists say this kind of thing is a function of capitalism. Despite all our cultural differences, the one thing that unites ‘Western civilisation’ is economic expansion through capitalism and war. Since the 80s (which is incidentally the time neoliberalism started heating up and Western art really sped up the rate at which it clangs against itself) there’s been a well-established Marxist argument that modern labour conditions fracture us. Capitalism doesn’t just work to privatise property and public assets, it works to privatise the mind. So psychology, ecology, politics, institutionalised knowledge, class, gender, race, art, property rights, economics, religion and power tend to get safely siphoned off into different realms of discussion (which could be why it’s so difficult to talk about a direct link between Airbnb, Dark Mofo and homelessness). Add info-tech to the equation (which, just as John Fiske predicted in 2000 has cast the self “as the smallest and most targeted market system yet devised”) and you have little choice but to form consciousness inside a system of power that’s constantly adapting to attempts at subversion. With each individual plugged into such an adaptable system, the structures that oppress become too obtuse to accurately define. Which makes them all the more difficult to overthrow. Because how are you supposed to galvanise behind a singular message or rise up if you can’t see the whole picture?

In this context, of course, Chris Kenny is going to say there’s no causal connection between toxic masculinity and violence against women. It goes against his conditioning. The fact his mind has been privatised means the Eurydice’s death is not a genuine collective concern or the sick symptom of his precious Western civilisation: instead, it’s a singular heinous act that’s locked inside the sick psychology of an individual. You might get him admit domestic violence is the leading cause of death for Australian women aged 18 to 44 (it’s one of the leading causes of homelessness too). Likewise you might push him to admit that Western civilisation has traditionally delineated a public sphere (controlled by ‘level-headed’ men) that’s separate from a private (more ‘emotional’) sphere controlled by women. But he’d say that’s just boys being boys, not an effect of capitalist fragmentation. To say capitalism––which rose from the ashes of feudalism as a means for men to control property through taxation and male inheritance––has anything to do with patriarchal power (which at its most extreme means rape and murder) is bunk. It’s enough to make you want to grab Kelly by the collar and scream: “Gender politics isn’t hijacking our pride in Western civilisation! Gender politics is Western civilisation you fucking asshole.” Then, while he’s still all flustered and confused, we can drag him to a Lydia Lunch show so she can set the wolves on him.

And at least that’s something this stupid system is good at. Despite all the evils of hyper-neoliberal, late-stage capitalism (or whatever its called), it has created conditions where art gets its own, as Walshy puts it, “subversive adult Disneyland”. Because if anyone is going to fix these stupidly complex problems, we’re going to need artists to keep disrupting our regular thinking patterns (and setting the wolves on dickheads). Which is what they’re good at. Especially at Dark Mofo.

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Photo Credit: Dark Mofo/Jesse Hunniford Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

This festival is full of people who somehow work through the information overload of modern existence and can find the productive potential in the fragmentation. The sheer scope of it is overwhelming. Over the course of my nine day here I’ve confronted by my mortality while floating down the Derwent River; I’ve been converted to the church of black metal; I’ve seen a liminal cult inject their subjectivity with machine DNA; I’ve heard a full orchestra swell, stumble and break apart while reconstructing (then deconstructing) the ambient spectre of 911; I’ve heard Tanya Tagaq’s voice float, dip and dive through the Odeon Theatre like a paper plane that then crashed into the ground, plugged it into the Earth’s and demanded retribution for colonial brutality; I’ve spent three nights in a row in a wharf shed being rumbled into submission by apocalyptic bass; I’ve heard Autechre set electronic music against in a battle to the death; I’ve seen dirt-smudged theatre-makers articulate domestic abuse using repetition and physicality; I’ve heard a Mambo-clad jazz legend bash an E sharp on a grand piano until the note dissolved time; I’ve gone back into credit card debt trying to live and dine like I can actually afford to be here for this long; I’ve waited in Night Mass queues until they evolved into their own social ecosystems; I’ve done the Melbourne shuffle in converted-theatre rave cave; I’ve heard Marlon Williams croon with one of those once-in-a-generation blues voices; I’ve witnessed High Tension scream away the casual listeners and enthral those who dared to stay; I’ve heard Electric Wizard play riffs so thick you could melt them into THC butter; I’ve wandered the halls of a convict-era penitentiary until I found an R&B loop stuck inside an old sound machine (that was put there by a man who I personally believe to be an audio genius); I’ve seen Ricky Manyard’s stark and tender response to Aboriginal deaths in custody; I’ve seen Sam Wallman illustrate the warped logic of privatised prisons; I’ve flown through labyrinthine chalk halls until I reached a Conga-line full of jesters; I’ve heard Rebecca Del Rio bring a gosh-darn house down; I’ve sunk my body into a beanbag and wept because it felt like the ghost of Lou Reed was hugging my tinnitus; and sometimes, every now and then, I’d stop to take a breath and remember Mike Parr was still trapped underneath the road alone with his high-minded thoughts (probably hoping another V8 wouldn’t park on his head to rev out a high-octane rejection of modern art).

That’s just some of the stuff I can remember. I tried to experience as much as my body and mind could take and I still didn’t even come close to getting through the whole program. It’s not possible. The organisers set out to create an immersive, discombobulating and astounding experience and they pulled it off. But if I had to choose one fragment that truly proved the beautiful potential of our suffocating cultural moment, it was seeing Nicole Kidman bunny-hop over the broken Catholic shell of Mel Gibson’s Road Warrior. This was my favourite scene from Soda Jerk’s Terror Nullius, a film that tore down our national identity and recut it into something better. They celebrated the beauty, embraced the fragmentation and connected tropes that spanned decades. The sampling credits were arranged in chronological order under the names of each successive Prime Minister (because ‘regular’ politics and identity politics aren’t two separate things, Chris). We might live in a country full of mutant-sized crocs. But there’s no such thing as monsters. If we’re going to test “the limitations of the failures of resistance”, maybe we can start there. And if an arts festival is contributing to a homelessness crisis, maybe we can follow Soda Jerk’s example: rip this fucking country apart and rebuild it from the best bits.

Sam West is a writer and editor from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter.