She describes it as “the grandest experiment I have ever been involved in”, and Hannah Fox, Co-Artistic Director of RISING, Melbourne’s newest major cultural event, has been involved in a few. This time, she’s referring to the winter of 2017, on the cold Hobart waterfront, when she waited nervously with project collaborators Byron Scullin and Tom Supple, as a helicopter flew overhead projecting the operatic voice of Yorta Yorta composer and soprano Deborah Cheetham. Speakers strapped to building tops across the city sang back in chorus, all of it triggered by a single iPhone.
“We’d made some educated guesses but we really didn’t know if it would work,” recalls Fox of the launch of the Dark Mofo-commissioned sonic artwork called Siren Song, which has since been re-mounted in Perth, the UK and soon, in Düsseldorf, Germany. For 10 days, at sunrise and sunset, the voices were heard even by those burrowing deep in hotel room beds, not long returned from the festival’s notorious late-night parties.
Back then, Fox was Associate Creative Director of Dark Mofo, Tasmania’s winter arts festival held mainly at night. In 2012 Director Leigh Carmichael had asked her and Supple to suggest what a winter festival in Tasmania could be; one of those gloriously open-ended questions budding curators dream of. “At that time winter festivals in Australia weren’t a thing so it was a real leap of faith,” she says.
Siren Song was too. “Our reputations, money and professional relationships were on the line if it was a fail,” she says. It wasn’t. The work raised awe (and goosebumps) city-wide while Guardian critic Brigid Delaney wrote: “Twice a day, 450 speakers around Hobart are broadcasting a soundscape that is eerie, dark and beautiful. Would Melbourne or Sydney get away with that?”
For years, knowing the answer was “no”, mainland Australians have swarmed to both the summer and winter festivals of the unconventional Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) to enjoy how long the rope extends in Tasmania when it comes to weird and wonderful cultural happenings. “Mona was an incredibly freeing context to work in and I think audiences felt that too,” says Fox.
In 2019 she left to co-direct RISING with Gideon Obarzanek – the new high-profile replacement for Melbourne International Arts and White Night festivals. “I’d become interested in events with a legacy; not just where you make a thing and throw it in the bin and start again, over and over and over,” she says. “I’ve been looking at ways to have a lasting impact.”
Or, more accurately, for artists to have one. Fox rejects the idea of a singular vision and described RISING to Nick Miller at The Age as a “something akin to an artistic Trojan horse” for a range of brilliant minds. “I see my job as quite a humble role,” she says. “There’s not much truth in the idea of a singular vision to how a good festival actually happens. There’s a whole lot of voices involved and a huge amount of negotiation and a multiplicity of vision that forms this one big, beautiful messy thing.”
RISING wants to depart from models of how major arts festivals have historically looked in Australia. “A key assumption I’m trying to move away from is ‘the best of the world coming to Australia’ and this culture of irrelevance we haven’t successfully shaken off yet. It strikes me how over-represented Australian contemporary art is abroad, in Europe particularly, but how neglected it is here. I’d love to see a shift in this thinking, or we risk a slow fade into a breakdown of the arts ecology. No artwork is an island.”
RISING is also a festival of place, she says. “We want something absolutely unique to Melbourne and to our region. You can’t do that authentically without including First Peoples’ voices at every level from governance, to curation and production. We have a group called Mob Rules made up of First Peoples board members and staff to have the labour of cultural guidance acknowledged and remunerated.”
The festival opens on the lunar eclipse in May but already it bears Fox’s signature dedication to ceremony, spontaneity and community: “We want it to be experienced like a genuine festival – as opposed to a collection of events – where people happen upon things they didn’t plan for. In this COVID world that’s the thing I’m missing most; that element of chance.”
Magicking up events such as this has been Fox’s path from a young age. As a kid growing up in Adelaide, watching the Fringe Festival parades “completely shifted her imagination” of what performance was. She delved into dress-ups and, as a teenager, became “quite an expressive goth”. At 17-years old, Fox put on an industrial noise night where she wore a home-made Joy Division singlet and did her first DJ set, she recalls: “I wanted to create a world I was interested in because it was a pretty bland landscape in Adelaide [at the time]. I got the bug, I think, to keep creating other worlds.”
While Fox got ample opportunity to do that at Dark Mofo, her current (more public) role is challenging her natural inclination to stay behind the scenes. “I have accepted I have to get more comfortable with being in the public realm but I’m not naturally the person at the front,” she says. “I’m usually the person in sunglasses smoking a cigarette behind the person at the front!”