Hannah Fox has a bird's-eye view of Melbourne's coolest new arts festival, RISING.
My window looks out on to one of Melbourne's classic heritage laneways, with winches attached to the side of the building that were used to bring textiles up to what was once a textile factory and is now the RISING festival's office space. Across the road is Mitchell House, this really beautiful art-deco building where I used to have my artist studio, so I'm back in my old neighbourhood.
This is one of my favourite pockets of the inner city, just off Little Bourke St and close to Chinatown, and one of the most residential parts. I can actually see our neighbours on their rooftop having coffee right now.
Early in the year, it was still a tumbleweed zone but the city is starting to pick up again now, for sure. The comedy festival and the start of the football season has been a real shot in the arm. It'll be interesting to temperature-check people's stamina; I've noticed the 3am club scene isn't as busy as it used to be.
We moved in here at the beginning of last year, a few weeks before Victoria went into lockdown. The festival had to be postponed and we ended up working from home for the rest of the year. Now we're running around staring down the barrel of our maiden voyage. It's absolutely seat-of-the-pants and everything is urgent all the time.
In 2019, [RISING co-artistic director] Gideon Obarzanek and I were appointed by the state government to conceive a new winter arts festival for Melbourne. The first challenge was thinking about what we could do that isn't already happening year-round, pre-Covid and to some extent now, on the city's extremely busy cultural calendar.
Gideon and I hadn't worked together before, so it was a huge risk, but I'm pleased to report it's going really well. We have a good shared sensibility, I think. My background is more in contemporary music, sound art and outdoor visual artwork; his is much more tied to performance work, contemporary dance and theatre.
We struck upon the night and the night sky as this culturally universal source of stories — of mythology and wonder, of science and theory. Each year, the festival will open on a new moon or a full moon; this year, it's a total lunar eclipse. That's where the name RISING came from, thinking about a connection to the natural cycle of the moon and the sun, but also political uprising, and the idea of the festival emerging out of Melbourne, rather than being imposed upon it. As Covid struck, it became unbelievably fitting.
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There have been moments where it felt like nothing would ever be possible ever again, and other moments where it felt all bets were off and anything was possible. For six months, it was like writing directly into a shredder, because things were changing constantly and you couldn't get a grip on any plan.
There's an incredible layer of operational plans for a million scenarios, but eventually, we decided to focus on the kind of festival we wanted to make, then scale back from there if we have to, rather than retro-fit ourselves to some imaginary future. It's also given us freedom to do things we otherwise wouldn't have. We repurposed the 2020 budget directly to artists, putting out a call for them to come to us with their most ambitious ideas. There are 36 brand-new commissions in the festival, which is unheard of in one year.
Artists have so little safety net — I watched the majority of my colleagues and friends lose 100 per cent of their income for the year in the space of two weeks. And a lot of them didn't get any Government support due to the nature of their work, going from gig to gig. Even harder was the lack of purpose they felt. An artist's work is so closely entwined with their sense of self, and the whole point of things.
I find it hard to answer the question of why art matters without sounding completely over the top, but it's absolutely fundamental to being human. This idea that it's elitist in some way is just ridiculous. It's been part of the fabric of society from day-dot of civilisation and that will continue forever. It's an irrepressible part of humanity to understand ourselves by telling stories. Imagine a world without music or art or performance. No, thank you. I don't want to live in a world without that.
As told to Joanna Wane.
Hannah Fox is co-artistic director of Melbourne's new winter arts festival, RISING, a "celebration of the night" from May 26 to June 6 (rising.melbourne). The programme features more than 130 events spanning five central-city precincts, from large-scale projections and art installations in Chinatown's Golden Square to a 200m-long glowing eel made from lanterns winding its way along the Birrurung (Yarra River) telling stories of early migration under the night sky. Kiwi musicians Marlon Williams, Connan Mockasin and Vanessa Worm are among a handful of international artists who'll be performing at venues across Midtown, where the Town Hall will host a series of food events, including a Late Night Yum Cha.