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Reflections on Dark Mofo: Allie Jonscher returns with a case for embracing the subversive

June 30, 2022

Arrival in Hobart is cold, dark and wet, but Dark Mofo slowly warms you with the glow of red lights. The top floor of a high-rise tower in the Hobart CBD is illuminated in red. There’s another red light atop a clocktower, some illuminating a shop front, and another in a front yard. The lights form a trail of Easter eggs guiding you into the unknown making you wonder how to get there and what you will find.

These whimsical light interventions signify what Dark Mofo has become to Hobart. Like Christmas or New Years, it is its own cultural moment. It gives the community a sense of place and identity, an exchange of culture, and it’s creating a legacy.

Dark Mofo is the birth child of DarkLab, a creative agency founded by David Walsh and Creative Director Leigh Carmichael as a subsidiary to MONA. DarkLab produce festivals and public art projects that activate the public domain, as well as run venues that enliven it. Dark Mofo draws on the Winter Solstice and Pagan influences. Situated in Tasmania’s dense landscape and dark histories, Dark Mofo is wild, strange, absurd, and off-kilter. Sex, violence, life, and death are the guiding themes.

Bill Viola: Inverted Birth, Dark Mofo 2022. Photo credit: Rémi Chauvin, 2022. Image courtesy of Dark Mofo 2022.

Dark Mofo is provocative, challenging and daring. You might love it, you might hate it, but you will remember it. A point of difference for this festival is the way it embraces subcultures. It caters to arts communities and fringe music cultures like industrial techno, heavy metal, alt rock, and experimental electronic. The festival is designed to sit at the edge, quite literally, of Australia. It is alternative and controversial. Nothing is off limits.  Swearing is allowed. Nudity is allowed. Open flames are allowed. It is a destination as an escape from the status quo. This contrast between trying to keep people content within the mainstream, or challenging people to be uncomfortable with divergent ideas relates to a timeless question about what art should be.

Ogoh Ogoh: The Burning, Dark Mofo, 2022. Photo credit: Rémi Chauvin, 2022. Image courtesy of Dark Mofo 2022

What makes Dark Mofo captivating for so many people is that it’s doing something that a lot of festivals don’t do – it takes risks. Sometimes this is taken too far. In 2021 the festival announced a work by Santiago Sierra requesting blood donations from First Nations people to soak on a Union Jack. Although Tasmanian Indigenous communities had been consulted, the outcry from Australia’s broader First Nations community denounced this kind of spectacle as a showcase of our violent colonial history that made little comment on the nuances of the social injustices faced by contemporary First Nations people. It was all show and no talk. It’s important to point out that risk taking should by no means be synonymous with exploiting historically oppressed groups. The festival learned its lesson. Provocation for the sake of it can be dangerous and ultimately lead to bad art.

However, the underlying ethos of the festival is that art should be subversive. It should ask hard questions. It should embrace the beautiful and ugly parts of humanity. It should relinquish the shackles of our day-to-day lives and get deep into questions that we often are too uncomfortable to confront ourselves

Night Mass, Dark Mofo 2022. Photo credit: Rosie Hastie, 2022. Image courtesy of Dark Mofo 2022.

Dark Mofo and by extension the cultural legacy of its founders, is to be commended for its comfort in non-conformity. There is little concern with not being liked by everyone, because you never will anyway. Ultimately that takes real courage to accept. There is an incredible amount of perseverance and strength of vision required to be okay with not giving a f*ck if people don’t ‘like’ it. By not giving into censorship, homogenisation, or conservativism the festival provides a space for what art should really be about: thinking about life with a different perspective.

Other Australian cities could learn a lot from Dark Mofo. The economic benefits to Hobart’s community have proven that being unpopular can be lucrative. There can be real success when you decide to be comfortable not fitting in. Creating spaces for audiences to open their minds can have real positive social impacts. It can open dialogues and break down prejudices. This can be done by harnessing all the diverse subcultures that make us the multicultural community that we are, embracing the subversive, challenging the status quo, taking risks and being authentic while you do it.

Sometimes you won’t be popular if you want to do something truly unique and impactful, but after all if art isn’t the place to take risks, where else do we do it?

– Alexandra Jonscher, Associate Curator


Airport, Dark Mofo 2022. Photo credit: Rosie Hastie, 2022. Image courtesy of Dark Mofo 2022