“You can definitely tell who’s going to Mofo.”
We’re in the boondocks of Melbourne airport, trying to avoid the dreaded carry-on baggage weigh as we shuffle onto our plane to Launceston.
Brightly coloured hair, avant-garde shoes and no shoes at all puncture the otherwise khaki and capri passengers, the former some of the 50,000-odd punters who descended on the Northern Tasmanian city for the summer iteration of the Museum of Old and New Art’s two annual festivals.
One thing you have to understand about Tasmania, if you’re not from Apple Isle, is there is an actual line halfway through the state that cuts it in two: the north, and the south.
The north is Launceston and Boag’s beer and winding rivers and a slower pace. The south is Hobart and Mona and Cascade and rugged coastlines and a growing momentum.
So two years ago, when David Walsh (Mona founder) and Brian Ritchie (festival artistic director) shifted Mona Foma from its birthplace of Hobart, and transplanted it in the comparatively sleepy Launceston, it was a bold operation.
While from afar, it’s plain to see Walsh’s eccentric child has transformed the state and pulled it out of the doldrums, there’s still a homegrown undercurrent of distaste for the museum and its two festivals.
Related story: A local's guide to visiting Tasmania
Even Hobart’s former mayor isn’t a huge fan – in 2018 Ron Christie was publicly hounded when he said Dark Mofo (the hedonistic winter festival) had become “too controversial”, and wanted to reassess the festival’s funding. Unsurprisingly, he was not re-elected later that year.
Said with all the love of two former Launceston girls, that sort of attitude is even more prevalent in the northern capital – it’s a long look down the nose to the arty pursuits of the southern city. A Hobart-based politician once told me the 200 kilometre drive from Hobart to Launceston is “two hours to go 20 years back in time”.
So we were excited and intrigued to drop in on the old girl, and see how she was handling her second Mona Foma.
Less rambling, more easily digested content ahead.
First impressions count
Christ, it’s cold. I forgot how cold it gets here.
Does Launceston have Uber yet?
We’ve got 20 minutes until the bottle shop shuts, we’d better hurry. (It’s 8.30pm.)
Helpful first thoughts: It doesn’t look like there’s a festival on. Granted, it’s a Thursday night and Launceston has never really been known for its mid-week nightlife.
But to the uninformed eye, you wouldn’t know the city was hosting an extra few thousand people.
As day breaks on the Friday, signs of life begin to appear.
Do it for the ’Gram: Architects of Air is open daily until Monday 20 January. When you get inside, listen out for music created by Jim Moginie from Midnight Oil. Tickets on the door or via the website: https://t.co/AUTGgEGL9Z pic.twitter.com/Ki7gOuV1Uq— MONA FOMA (@MONAFOMA) January 13, 2020
It’s a juxtaposition that’s prevalent throughout the festival; this cutting-edge festival that draws crowds from all over the country (and indeed overseas), existing alongside the unrippled Launceston lifestyle.
Get to the art and stuff
There’s three big hitters at Mona Foma this year: the aforementioned Luminarium, MESS + Soma Lumia’s Hypnos Cave, and King Ubu.
That’s what everyone’s talking about.
The Hypnos Cave transformed an already existing underground boat ride into some semblance of 4am at a Euro dance club.
Normally, the ride (think that ‘I am the lizard queen!’ episode of The Simpsons) tells the story of Tasmania’s convict roots with the help of animatronic characters. But for Mofo, there’s a German shepherd wearing sunglasses, lots of lasers, a few taxidermy critters, and lots of doof.
When we emerge from the cavern into the harsh light of a Launceston afternoon, there’s that weird juxtaposition again – this is a beige tourist attraction and we’re in the background of a family’s snap looking dazed, dressed like cowgirls (it makes sense later).
It’s hard to tell if Launcestonians actually like Mona Foma. The people we chat to – business owners, or people around our age that we start talking to in beer queues – are happy. It’s good for raising the profile of Northern Tassie. It’s something to do. It’s something to be proud of.
At the Luminarium we lined up behind the city’s mayor, Albert van Zetten, so it looks like he’s a fan of the festival (unlike his former southern counterpart).
What Launceston definitely likes is King Ubu: a collaborative puppet performance that takes over the city’s natural jewel, The Gorge, at dusk for three nights.
It's nothing new – Launceston loves a good puppet show, and has been putting on performances in the Gorge on and off for 30-plus years.
Thousands flock with picnic rugs and chairs and blow-up swans to sprawl on the undulating lawns and watch the tale of King Ubu played out before them, presented with a Tasmanian twist.
It’s a tale Launceston (and Tasmania) knows well – the evil Ubus are real estate investors seeking to buy up the state, kill the king of Tasmania, and take over the land. It’s all very topical without being toffy.
Party time, excellent
Sure, the Mona team bring together some of the most amazing, innovative and impressive art from around the world – but what Mona also knows how to do is throw a party.
The festival hub is pulsing with energy. There’s two outdoor stages, more bars than you can poke a stick at, a mini-market and interactive art performances.
The line-up is as diverse as they come. One minute we’re bopping to Japanese cutesy band Chai, the next we’re transported to Eurovision with Slovenian industrial outfit Laibach. On Sunday night, the crowd dons lime green 3D glasses for Flying Lotus.
As the night drips away, it’s time for the ultimate showdown: Faux Mo, Mona Foma’s signature all-night party. Present at both Mona Foma and Dark Mofo, Faux Mos have a reputation for the wild, the unpredictable, the downright weird.
This year’s Faux Mo is in the city’s Worker’s Club and the theme is Workin’ 9 to 5. We’re welcomed to the Dollyverse by a cabaret drag performance that would please Ms Parton beyond words. (The cowgirl stuff makes sense now, yeah?)
The party spills out into alleyways behind the building, each little cranny a different performance space. You always follow Faux Mo where it takes you, and it’s never until days later that you discovered how much you missed because there’s just that much happening.
For example, we missed bodybuilding dance performances, and people playing table tennis on their heads.
By the time 4am rolls around we’re being sent home with complementary croissants and cups of peppermint tea, as if they’ll undo the previous seven hours of damage.
On the journey back across the Strait, there’s time for reflection.
Between us, we’ve lived a good bulk of our lives in Launceston and now, having some distance from the place, it’s interesting to be able to view it from an outsider’s perspective.
We wondered how Mona Foma would change the city, and how the city would accept it.
Given the fierce divide between the north and the south, how can you take something that is so intrinsically Hobart, and slam it right up in Launceston’s face?
Veterans of the festival when it was in Hobart, we couldn’t help comparing the two city’s versions. In Hobart, it feels like the whole city is the festival.
In Launceston, it felt like the festival was saying, “Pardon me is it OK if I sit here?” – edging politely into pockets without too much fanfare.
But you can’t compare the two versions, just like you can’t compare the two cities. Launceston’s Mona Foma was built into the city, whereas Hobart’s helped the city to rebuild around it.
We caught up with a friend we went to school with in Launceston, who was visiting from Hobart.
"I remember thinking nothing will come to this hole of a place. I remember hanging out in the Gorge, thinking 'Wouldn't it be cool if they had a festival here, but who would ever do that?'," she said.
"So I loved when they moved Mofo up here."
But forget all these navel-gazing analysis – you just want to know if you should book tickets to next year’s event, right? Damn straight you should.
Mona Foma ran from January 11 to 20. Find out more about Mona here.