As creative director of Hobart's Dark Mofo, Leigh Carmichael has both the best and the scariest job in the world
The overarching effect of Dark Mofo is of being a child again. At every turn, this winter festival – held June 12-22 this year – offers something over-stimulating or thrillingly gross; almost always something you've never seen. An initiative of the Museum of Old and New Art with help from Tasmania's State Government, it’s the vision of MONA’s founder David Walsh and creative director Leigh Carmichael. As with MONA itself, which opened in 2011 at the cost of $100 million from Walsh, the Bacchanalian brief is the link between sex, death and beauty.
As befits a museum built on gambling and intelligent risk, the festival plays hard. Carmichael is backed by three full-time programmers who work out of the old Mercury building and six collaborators, both local and interstate – all committed to unearthing the weirdest, darkest art the world has to offer. Last year the inaugural festival attracted 128,000 visitors, around 35% of them from interstate.
Time Out talked to Carmichael about this year's plans, with a bill that includes Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: 'Articulated Intersect'; Diamanda Galás; SUNN O))) + Earth + Veil of Darkness; David Lynch presents Chrysta Bell; Yo Gabba Gabba! Live!; Yin Xiuzhen (尹秀珍): 'Washing River 2014'; Future Hobart 2014: Vito Acconci; In Praise of Darkness with the TSO; Dark Mofo Films; It’s Dark Outside; Afterlife: Total Control + Kirin J Callinan + HTRK + MORE; The Bronx + High Tension; The Gin Club + Jeff Lang + Mick Thomas; Dean Stevenson and the Arco Set Orchestra: Tim Passes; Dark Faux Mo; The Red Death Ball at Hobart Town Hall; City of Hobart Winter Feast; Nude Solstice Swim; Nick Tsiavos; Ross Manning: 'Different Rhythms'; Marco Fusinato: 'Spectral Arrows'; Pat Brassington: 'À Rebours'; Motel Dreaming; Grimoire at The Brisbane Hotel; A Night at the Museum (TMAG); Mykki Blanco; Amelia Rowe Memoriam; Ningher Canoe; The Twilight Girls and Mark Shorter: '50 Ways to Kill Renny Kodgers'; Huon Valley Midwinter Festival; MONA till Midnight; Michael Goldberg: 'An Inn for Phantoms'; Ferris Wheel of Death; Snowtown: Live – and a headliner to be announced in May.
Leigh, Hobart has a very dark history, but not in the Bacchanalian, pagan nature of Dark Mofo. Are you almost reframing the darkness into something more positive?
Hopefully. Without wanting to be an amateur philosopher, they do say that to appreciate the light you need to understand the dark. I think that Tasmania is the perfect place for this celebratory type of festival. We have the longest nights of any other state in Australia, being further south, and also that dark, violent history.
There’s a long tradition of the youth leaving Tassie, but you broke that trend, opting to stay put as a young graphic designer. You wound up working on a small project for David Walsh, and from that were promoted into branding his new venture, MONA.
When we were three or four years away from opening the museum, I spent six weeks on pitch and he slammed it, so it was back to the drawing board! It made realise that working for David, I wasn’t there to do wallpaper designs. I needed to actually learn and understand what at the core of what it is that we’re branding. It was a really great process for me, and now I start every project getting to the core first – I avoid decoration like the plague. It’s one of the reasons MONA is so successful, because David deeply understands what it is that he’s doing, even though he doesn't always elaborate.
And Dark Mofo was initially your idea, but you had a smaller scale winter exhibition in mind…
I went to David and said, “Why don’t we launch our major exhibition in the middle of winter, given that that’s our quiet period; we’ll build some sort of festival around it.” He then pushed it into some much bigger, and sent me off to research appropriate events and festivals.
You’re turning some disused Hobart buildings into venues for Dark Mofo; regenerating the old city. One artist’s installations will be both in the hitherto-unseen sandstone rooms under Hobart Town Hall and an old tunnel under Princes Park where gunpowder used to be stored.
What we’ve always liked to do, starting with MONA FOMA seven years ago, is look at spaces that don’t normally get used for events, and Dark Mofo is at its core a public art project, so it’s important to find those spaces that the community doesn’t get into. It aligns with what the Hobart City Council are also trying to do. They just released a cultural strategy for the city, wanting to utilise the unused spaces that they’re in control of, so it works well.
Let’s talk about a few artists on the bill. Chrysta Bell is a protégé of David Lynch, with a very haunting set.
She’s a personal indulgence for me. I absolutely love David Lynch, and he’s written all the lyrics and music to the album that she performs. He performed on the album as well, but he’s not part of the show. It’s suitably dark, and I love the exploration of those ideas that he’s interpreting.
The Rafael Lozano-Hemmer light installation will be expected to rival the incredible ones you had last year.
It’s pretty daunting having to follow up Ryoji Ikeda's Spectra with something and I imagine comparisons will be drawn. This American artist is using a very different idea. It’s a project that’s activated by the community using levers and searchlights, which will create a kind of canopy over the waterfront.
It seems the White Night Melbourne team were paying close attention to last year’s light installations.
I won't make any comment (laughs). They have to deal with over 500,000 people, which, thank god we don’t, because I think that would kill it. I like the scale of Hobart – I think it works beautifully for a festival like Dark Mofo, because it has the ability to capture the whole city, but not in the same way that maybe White Night seemed to, where it was just complete madness and chaos. Not that I’ve got anything against that, because I think that’s kind of fun as well. The point of different is something I’m quite happy about, in terms of scale.
An absolute highlight last year was Zee – an installation that triggered mass hallucinations and also a couple of epileptic fits. What's thrilling about the whole program is there are endless possibilities for things to go awry.
Well, that stuff’s pretty scary for an event organiser. The thing that makes MONA great is that it’s built on risk. David Walsh made the money through risk –calculated risk, intelligent risk – and managing it. We certainly need to go through all the same permit and health and safety procedures that every other event does, and we do spend an awful amount of time going through that process, but it’s playing on the edge that makes you know you’re alive. So it’s hair-raising for an event organiser, but it’s certainly deliberate that we push things as hard as we can.
Do you have the support of the Tasmanian media?
Yeah, pretty much, which makes our job very rewarding. I mean we’re over three years old now; I guess it can't last forever. One thing we do have is really high expectations now. I mean, to go up against what we did last year, which exceeded all our expectations, and still deliver… you feel the pressure.
Your intention to extend the festival to Launceston this year fell through, due to not being likely “to deliver the economic and social outcomes that an investment of public money of this size should expect”. Are there any plans to extend it beyond Tassie?
I’m not sure about extending Dark Mofo. I’m not sure that would work, because I think Dark Mofo is deeply connected and rooted in Tasmania. But I think pop-up festivals, other MONA events, are in the mix for the future. Certainly we’re trying to work on a cultural exchange program with China. Our approach to marketing is to do things as opposed to just saying things, so we would like to take a pop-up Mofo into China and we’d love to bring the best Chinese contemporary artists here. We’re bringing one down for Dark Mofo this year as a kind of starting point, but we’d like to take our time and do it slowly and do it well. We’ve done one research trip there and made connections with art institutions, so we’re in it for the long haul. So yes –it’s not out of the question that we would do pop-up events.
These favourites from 2013 are back again
1. The film program
Occasionally a Dark Mofo experiences verges on being an interesting ordeal. “We’ve got a number of dark Australia films, including Nick Cave’s new doco, 20,000 Days on Earth, and Snowtown, live,” says Carmichael. “It’s the film about the bodies-in-barrels murders, and we’ll show it at the 900-seat Odeon with a live score from the Mess Hall’s Jed Kurzel; brother of the director, Justin."
2. The Nude Solstice Swim
Carmichael says the festival is much darker in tone than last year (as traumatising as Snowtown? “Maybe”), which means you’ll need to purge yourself with a very bracing dip. In 2013 the Mayor of Hobart was one of those stripping off and running into the minus-12 waters of the River Derwent as robed monks set up drumming around fires.
“The whole thing’s built around ceremony and ritual and celebration, “ says Carmichael, “and I thought it was a beautiful thing. I did it, although I’d had no intention of doing so. I think that kind of moment – doing something that’s outside of your comfort zone – is really important and epitomises what the whole event is about. It was totally exhilarating, and you kind of burn rather than freeze. I knew I was alive for a few days. I hope we do it every year for, forever.”
3. The Winter Feast
Held in the vast Princes Wharf 1 shed, this celebrates local food producers with Dark Mofo’s inimitable style – last time it was something of a Baroque-meets-Saturnalia ball – with music, fire and lightshows thrown in.
Hobart Jun 12-22. TICKETS on sale 10am Monday April 14.