My friends (most of whom I met for the first time about an hour ago) are huddled in a circle near Hobart’s 24-hour bakery with their laps covered in pastry crumbs. They’re giggling at a joke I can’t quite hear and that they probably don’t fully comprehend themselves. The performances are over. It’s one night before the winter solstice, and it’s the kind of cold that finds its way through your beanie and gnaws at tops of your ears. No one has papers. The girls are depositing pinches of weed into an emptied-out cigarette then packing those pinches down with a bobby pin. It’s a tried and true system but way too inefficient for this weather.
I walk towards the bakery and hear ‘Hey Ya’ thudding from nightclub nearby. I’m going to ask someone inside for papers and emerge the hero to my new friends. It’s too bright inside the shop, and tables full of club-deserters are desperately scoffing pie warmth. I approach a table of four guys.
‘Sorry, do any of you guys have papers, by any chance?’
They all look at me at once. Their arm and chest muscles are too big for their Friday-night shirts.
‘What?’ one asks. It feels like they’re glaring at me now.
‘Do any of you have ciggie papers, by any chance?’
‘Papers?’ Their features are getting that greasy LSD melt to them now. I want to leave.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I say. I turn to leave.
‘Wait, I’ve got paper.’ One of the more melty ones picks up his empty pie bag and flicks crumbs at me, they bounce off my jacket and I watch them scatter on the bright tiles. All the surfaces are getting slithery. It’s time to go. I’m not welcome here.
The surly scene inside the pie shop was pretty much the only negative experience I had at Dark MOFO. But it got me thinking: when he opened it in 2011, David Walsh famously described his Museum of Old and New Art as a ‘subversive adult Disneyland’, and for ten days and nights during Dark MOFO, the museum beams this vibe out of its cave and into the capital city: the banks of the River Derwent are fenced off for ‘Bacchanalian banquets’; the hotels are packed with revelers getting away from their regular lives (some even stay at ‘Motel Dreaming’, a 1950s motel near MONA specifically converted for weirdness by performance artists calling themselves the ‘Unconscious Collective’); you’ve got doom drone headliners Sunn O))) opening the gates of hell in the Odeon Theatre, then half an hour later, classically trained musicians silencing a cathedral full of drunk people with high-concept jazz, modern minimalism, and ancient Greek poetry about death. All the while bat-signal-sized lights from Rafeal Lozano-Hemmer’s ‘Articulated Intersect’ dart across the night sky, penetrating the abyss, announcing that it’s festival time, that this is not like regular life, that you’re in a ‘subversive adult Disneyland’. But the pie shop guys weren’t in Disneyland; it was just Friday night for them. Stray too far from the aura and you’re just a drug-addled out-of-towner who doesn’t even know where to buy papers.
But what is this aura that draws us to things like MOFO in the first place? Premier Will Hodgman boasts from the second page of the festival program that 85,000 people visited last year, and a quarter of them were from interstate. What were we looking for? Of course, for Disney fans, Disneyland’s appeal is self-explanatory: ‘it’s just magic’, they might say. It’s the same for Sunn O))) fans: the appeal doesn’t really warrant unpacking beyond grabbing your friend’s shoulders after the show and yelling ‘that was so fucking sick! I could feel my ribs shaking from that bass!’ We just love these things because we do. Try thinking too much about it and we might kill the magic.
But some of the greatest minds of the 20th century weren’t satisfied with the explanation that Disneyland is popular because we can ‘escape’ to it, and if we try understanding why we uproot ourselves from our regular lives in search of magic, we might get less freaked out by bullies in pie shops who don’t ‘get it’ the same way we do (or at least I might anyway). In 1981 French thinker Jean Baudrillard saw magic in the challenge of defining why we buy into the idea of Disneyland in the first place. For him, America had reached the point where it needed Disneyland, because it exalts the USA’s values ‘in miniature and comic-strip form. Embalmed and pacified… [it is a] digest of the American way of life, panegyric to American values, an idealised transposition of a contradictory reality.’
This idea that Disneyland masks the contradictory reality of America (and, by extension, its cultural colonies) isn’t too much of a stretch. Most of us know the appeal of the Disney happy ending versus the reality of small victories. But the Frenchman didn’t think this idea went far enough. He thought Disneyland doesn’t just conceal the contradictory reality of capitalist societies, it exists to help us stomach idea that the reality of the whole system is real. He says, ‘Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in all its banal omnipresence that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real.’
So he thought Disneyland exists, at least in part, to keep us law-abiding and tax-paying, just like a prison. It’s so obvious that Disneyland is a constructed fantasy land that it distracts us from the fact that if we all collectively just decided that ‘good manners’, capitalism, and politics were just constructs too (and who’s to say they aren’t? They’re just words you’re reading on a screen right now), we could ignore systems of power that uphold the status quo. But Baudrillard came up with these ideas in the 80s and 90s before the internet and global warming and a few more cruel, drawn-out wars, back when thinkers were still bothering to try and define the ‘postmodern condition’.
So in 2014, where does a festival of a ‘subversive adult Disneyland’ fit into this? Technically, to ‘subvert’ something is to undermine the power and authority of an established system or institution. MONA may have an art installation that manufactures poo (and in a sense it succeeds in subverting the ‘established system’ of the state-sponsored museum) but it’s definitely not trying to overthrow anything. After all, the Premier, the most politically powerful man in Tasmania is beaming from the second page of the Dark MOFO program declaring ‘it’s sure to be a highlight of winter’. So does this make Dark MOFO just another kind of non-subversive Disneyland? Another carceral lie we tell ourselves to convince ourselves the rest is real? A lie that just incidentally happens to be full of fascinating art and great for Tasmania’s economy?
That’s pretty bleak. Baudrillard was a radical student protestor in the late 60s; he clearly cared about change and wasn’t necessarily trying to steer us into postmodern brick wall, he was trying to light the way so we could climb over. That said, thinking too hard about reality of the real can be a real dead end, just like how art about art can be really boring. The best theory I’ve read about how art actually effects change comes from a Shakespeare scholar named Steven Greenblatt. His ideas are the ones that, for me, explain why people descend a spiral staircase in Hobart to smell a poo machine, risk permanent ear damage for a doom drone band, risk hypothermia for a nude solstice swim, or take acid and ask the wrong people for papers, then spend the next day standing in awe in front of a binary code installation the size of a building. In short, why they search for meaning in the surprising, unsettling, and maybe even ‘subversive’ experiences of a festival.
A couple of years after Baudrillard claimed America was actually Disneyland, Greenblatt saw a way to reconcile the two opposing theories of postmodernism that were taking shape. On the one hand, you had American Marxists like Fred Jameson blaming capitalism for separating our lives from modes of production to the point where only art that cuts and pastes surfaces can begin to help us understand our fragmented state. On the other hand, you had post-structualists like Jean-Francois Lyotard (another French dude) celebrating this postmodernism fragmentation, claiming capitalism actually tries to fit everything and everyone into one controllable, taxable narrative (he uses the existence of surnames as a starting point for this argument). For Lyotard, things like postmodern pastiche are not an effort to solve the problems of late-capitalist fragmentation, but an attempt to create a ‘sublime’ space where difference is celebrated and we can be at ease with the fact that understanding everything is impossible.
Greenblatt’s genius was seeing that Lyotard and Jameson were both right but were too wrapped up in exposing the evils of capitalism to see it not as a ‘malign philosophical principle’ but as a ‘complex social and economic development’. Greenblatt argued that art and literature (if it’s good enough) could serve the purposes Jameson and Lyotard were describing at almost the same time. Decades later, I think this idea is more relevant than ever. A really good piece of art can fuse the noise and fragmentation of our iPhone-glued lives into understandable (sometimes even life-changing) meaning, then almost instantly put us in that cathartic, ‘sublime’ space where you’re thinking nothing, everything is ok and you’re hugging a stranger for no particular reason. Greenblatt claims this is possible because ‘capitalism has produced a powerful and effective oscillation between the establishment of distinct discursive domains [in the case of Dark MOFO and Disneyland these ‘domains’ are the ‘aesthetic’ and the ‘real’] and the collapse of those domains into one another.’
So you go to the festival, get drunk with your mates and end up pointing those ‘Articulated Intersect’ beams into the empty night sky. You know the sky is natural thing and the light is an artificial thing, but for a beautiful moment the opposition between the natural and the artificial doesn’t matter, it’s completely meaningless, it’s just pure sensory experience, but a moment later, the opposition is back. This ‘oscillation’ is happening all the time, it’s on every billboard and screen, it’s on your phone when you sit on the toilet. But when you’re at Dark MOFO, it’s like you get a candid glimpse into how it works.
The best bit is, you can often turn to your friend and talk about what just happened to help make it real and meaningful. That’s what I like most about Greenblatt’s ideas: they don’t see postmodernism as a dead end, something that just plays with surfaces. Artworks are instead ‘fields of force, places of dissension and shifting interests, occasions for the jostling of orthodox and subversive impulses.’ The act of reading, listening to music, and seeing good art releases the ‘social energies’—joy, pain, anxiety and countless other emotions—encoded in the works. But it’s not a one-way process; we also bring our own subjective meanings to the symbolically loaded realm of art and send them back out into the world. And that’s how cultural change can start to happen.
MONA might not be as subversive a structure as Walsh claims, and I kind of hated those big signs ironically claiming they were building a ‘Southdale Shopping Centre’ at the museum—they were like self-conscious little winks, hopelessly trying to distance the museum from commerce and ‘bad taste’. I reckon that’s exactly the kind of thing that alienates pie shop bullies and prevents them getting their minds blown. But whatever, at the Salamanca Markets, I overheard a kid of maybe 15 telling his friend he was going to MONA for the first time. He said ‘I don’t know if I’ll like it, I’m not very smart.’ His friend said, ‘It doesn’t matter! It’s cool in there. Read the iPods they give you if you wanna sound smart.’ And I bet you that kid had some serious social energy to impart to his friend when they met up again.
Sam West is a fiction writer and Three Thousand Associate Editor. Can also make cocktails and play (most of) Under the Bridge on guitar.