My flight landed at five in the morning and it was still dark when the airport bus pulled out onto the highway. Soon however the sun was rising over a skyline I’d never seen before. I’m arriving into Melbourne to be ‘in residence’ at the Next Wave Festival of contemporary art. I’ve got two weeks and something like 20 shows to begin to understand how this place works.
What it means to learn a city is based largely on what you think of a city to be. If you imagine a city to be the lattice of tarmac and concrete and glass then learning that city is simply a case of finding your bearings. But I want to believe that cities are not defined by their architecture or their geography. I want to believe that cities are about people; that they are about communities and conflicts, shared secrets and sacred grounds, memories and histories and romance and love. I want to believe that a city is just the best name we have for all the accumulated mess of modern life.
To think of a city in those terms makes it a harder thing to learn. I’d lived in London for two years before I felt like I’d even really grown acquainted it and I don’t think that’s particularly unusual. Are there any ways of accelerating that process, of slipping yourself under the skin of a city? And is one potential way for that to happen is through immersing yourself in a major festival?
Experiencing Next Wave feels like a resoundingly affirmative answer to that question. To navigate your way through the festival is to feel the city unfolding itself in front of you; to encounter its quietest secrets, to witness its antagonisms and its disappointments, to understand how the city plays and how it remembers. To immerse yourself in the festival is to listen to Melbourne’s rhythms as intimately as a lover’s heartbeat.
Perhaps part of the Next Wave’s success in this is because it is a biennial festival that gives young artists valuable time to create work specifically for it. Perhaps part of it is the fact that the programme is framed by a daily Breakfast Club that brings together artists and audiences to talk about everything from poverty to protest to the problematic redevelopment of Melbourne’s Docklands. For me however the most important thing is the work of the artists involved. Whilst the majority of festivals now encourage you to move through the city discovering all kinds of art in unusual places, the work in Next Wave felt responsive not simply to a location but to a more complicated and elusive understanding of what constitutes the city.
And so in Dan Koop’s The Stream / The Boat / The Shore / The Bridge I moved gently back and forth across Melbourne’s river, The Yarra, delicately unpicking its influence on the city as a place of fluidity and change; of endings and beginnings. In Laura Delaney and Danae Valenza’s exquisite installation Hull (5), I’m guided around a history-clogged seafarer’s mission, grasping at memories and longings in the half-dark of this nearly-forgotten building. Elsewhere Elizabeth Dunn leads us on a migratory route from city to sea, Liesel Zink unpicks the politics and proxemics of a rush hour subway station and Team Mess create their own gleefully accurate police procedural drama in car parks and office blocks around the city, with the public invited to play all the best roles.
All these pieces, and many others, invite you not simply to see the city but to feel it, maybe even to start to learn to speak it. To become a meaningful part of the network of actions and interactions that make it what it is. They give you a way to learn Melbourne from the inside out.