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Online e-dition July 24, 2013

Big dreams on a small island

Gail Priest: Eliza Sarlos, artistic director, Underbelly Arts Festival

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Underbelly 2011, Turbine Hall Underbelly 2011, Turbine Hall
photo Prudence Upton
Underbelly (the arts festival not the television empire) was founded by Imogen Semmler in 2007 with the intention of bringing to the light underground creative activities that were going on in dark warehouses and shady loungerooms around Sydney (see interview RT103). The first event was a shoestring affair developed in partnership with the then newly opened Carriageworks (RT80). After a second year there the event moved to the streets of Chippendale and then the fourth iteration, in 2011, took over Cockatoo Island.

The last event was so successful it sold out, bringing 2,200 people across the harbour on a glorious winter’s day to take in experimental and emerging art nestled among the skeletons of heavy industry (RT104). With this success under her belt, Semmler decided that it was a good time to pass the baton and so the 2013 festival is headed by Eliza Sarlos as Artistic Director with Jain Moralee as Executive Director. (Sarlos has been incubating more than the festival program over the last nine months, so will in fact be on maternity leave as the event actually takes place.)

Cockatoo Island Cockatoo Island
photo Catherine McElhone
What sets Underbelly apart from other festivals for emerging artists is its focus on creative development. Built into the structure of the event from its inception has been an intensive lab (two to three weeks) in which the artists research and develop their work onsite, granting the public daily access to the process. The lab culminates in the festival day, expanded this year to two days, in which the close-to-final products are shown. Sarlos says of this change, “Obviously it’s more of an investment but ultimately one of the aims of Underbelly Arts is to introduce new audiences to work we think is great from the next generation of artists. After selling out in 2011, going to two days really made sense for us. It was an opportunity to grow the festival—to continue that trajectory of growth that had been established by Imogen.”

Sarlos came on board in 2012 with a background in a range of activities: Executive Director of Music NSW; co-director of Sound Summit one of the then This Is Not Art Festivals; radio broadcaster on both 2SER and FBi (at the latter introducing the first talk-based program); and manager of various alternative bands. When she was invited to apply for the Underbelly position she realised that she’d “never taken pause to reflect and see how the very different things that I’d been involved in all had that one same link—working with artists to make things that I think are pretty incredible happen.”

I asked how she has approached being the first director after the founding mother had moved on. “Imogen had done such an amazing job at building Underbelly that there was so much I didn’t want to change at all. Although it had grown organically at every step of the way I felt like it had been a really considered process.” The main shift Sarlos has introduced is to give artists more preparation time by introducing earlier application rounds. “I think the process of doing that this year means that those artists have had maybe seven or eight months [preparation]. I think for 2015 we’ll try and do that even earlier. It’s worked really well. It has a lot of potential in growing what the works can be and making it easier to realise really ambitious ideas.”

The 2013 program really does offer very large scale dreaming with 30 projects by over 100 artists, many of them quite new names to the art scene. Sarlos refused to play favourites so here’s my sampling.

My Nourooz, Kink Studio My Nourooz, Kink Studio
Mammoth: The Anti-Artifact Project will hopefully live up to its name as a team of young architects, The Lot, use Cockatoo Island’s graveyard of old machines as a creative playground in an “open-source conversation about urban decline and architectural mystery” (website). Taking a completely opposite approach, the young designers of Kink Studio will use their state-of-the-art fabrication technology to build clean geometric shapes that will be suspended in their work, titled My Nourooz, in one of the mammoth warehouses The collaborative team Ess.E.Kai will be picking up everyone else’s refuse created during the lab to make Assemblage, a kind of archive of discarded creativity.

I Met You In A City That Isn’t On The Map, We Do Not Unhappen I Met You In A City That Isn’t On The Map, We Do Not Unhappen
photo Lucy Parakhina
On the performance front, Nick Keys, writer and raconteur, will attempt a filibuster (planned way ahead of recent events in Texas). Underbelly regulars Applespiel will recreate the Stations of the Southern Cross, a roving performance “wrestling with notions of time and space like Dr Who in an Akubra” (website). A dance work, 10,000 Small Deaths, by Mischa Baka, Martyn Coutts, Kelly Ryall and Paula Lay combines live performance, looped footage and live video streams to explore “impermanence, immediacy and our relationship to the past, present and imagined futures” (website). Also a favourite from the 2011 festival, the collective now named We Do Not Unhappen (previously Fetish Frequency) will further develop their adventures in immersive game play around the island with their task-based interactive performance I Met You In A City That Isn’t On The Map.

While Sarlos maintains that the open call for applications democratises the curatorial process, her own interest in media art-based integrations gives a slightly more teched-up angle to this year’s festival. In Forms of Thought, media artist Warren Armstrong will use local environmental sensors and weather feeds to generate 3D take-home models of participants’ thoughts. In her future world fight club, Game On, Michaela Davies will be wiring up performers with her electro-muscle stimulation system and handing the controls over to the audience! Mobile Projection Unit will create a multiplayer game experience that turns real bricks into interactive pixels. In an artistic Big Brother format, Greg Pritchard and the husband and wife team The Ronalds will allow viewers on the island to interfere, in realtime, with the creative routines of four artists in distant locations in their project Virtual Reality.

Sarlos’ musical background accounts for some interesting sonic programming as well, such as the Macrophonics team exploring the island’s shipping history in the audiovisual performance Ghost Ships; Soundland by Super Critical Mass who mobilise large ensembles playing the same instrument to create epic, analogue drones; and the Electronic Resonance Korps (ERK), an all laptop orchestra for the ultra-surround sound experience.

Looking at the scope and ambition of these projects I suggested to Sarlos that maybe there’s a new generation of artists who are really not afraid of large scale dreaming. Sarlos says, “I think the applications we received were thinking big and were thinking about how to engage with a space like Cockatoo Island which instantly gives you opportunities that you wouldn’t have if you were in a gallery or a theatre. I think what Underbelly tries to do is create a really supportive environment for artists to take risks…Some of those risks may not pay off. The ones that do I think will be spectacular.”

Underbelly Art, artistic director Eliza Sarlos, executive director Jain Moralee, festival manager Michelle O’Brien, program manager Kate Britton; Lab 24 July-2 Aug; festival days 3-4 Aug;

Disclaimer: Gail Priest is a card-carrying member of the Electronic Resonance Korps (ERK).

Related articles
In the belly of the beast
Gail Priest, Teik-Kim Pok, Sarah Miller: Underbelly Arts Festival

From the ground up
Keith Gallasch: Imogen Semmler, director, Underbelly Festival

The Underground's Big Day Out
Adam Jasper inside Underbelly at Carriageworks

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. web

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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