The allure of art in the dark: why we love winter festivals

Recent years have seen rapid growth in the number of winter arts festivals, but is there more to their popularity than just a push to boost tourism in the off-season?

Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin. Image Courtesy of Mona (Museum of Old and New Art).

From the dazzling lights, rich conversations and surging crowds of Vivid Sydney to the provocations and performance art of Dark Mofo, it’s clear that winter festivals have become significant generators of economic activity in the darker months.

Nor are such festivals restricted to our capital cities, with arts festivals such as WinterWild Apollo Bay (now in its second year) and the newly established Low Light Queenscliff springing up along the Victorian coast.

But what is it about celebrating the arts in the bleak midwinter that so fascinates us? Are audiences just jumping on the bandwagon, as local councils see a way of generating tourism revenue in what is traditionally considered the off-season, or do winter festivals awaken something atavistic within us – an ancient, long-buried need to come together and drive away the dark with noise and fire?

A celebration of choral singing, Hobart’s Festival of Voices is one of the country’s older winter arts festivals, and was specifically established in order to activate the Tasmanian capital in the winter months.

‘The Festival of Voices was really a pioneer of that, 14 years ago now,’ said Festival Director Peter Choraziak.

‘It was born out of the idea of, okay, how can we get local people more activated in the broader economy in a traditional off-season, and how might we, in the process, attract other visitors from interstate, and even overseas, to non-traditional non-peak periods of tourism?

‘But the broader issue and I think the more exciting issue, is that I think slowly but surely legislators and governments, both local and federal, are starting to see the benefits of regional festivals as a means to celebrate local community – and that’s certainly what we do at the Festival of Voices. We’re all about celebrating local community,’ Choraziak said.

Established in the same year as the Festival of Voices but with a focus on baroque music, the Woodend Winter Arts Festival also celebrates its 14th anniversary this year.

Artistic Director and founder Jacqueline Ogeil said she decided to establish a winter festival for the simple reason that the calendar was less crowded at that time of year.

‘We were absolutely the only festival I could find that was happening over this time period, and the reason I chose winter was because Woodend was completely dead – shops would close at four o’clock and it was just pouring with rain and nothing was going on,’ she said.

‘And the cultures that really adore the arts, especially the old arts, are ones that have to stay inside over long winters and so enjoy fuel-fired ambiences with poetry readings and glasses of red wine – that’s why I didn’t just make it a baroque music festival, I also added in literary events close to the very beginning of it all, because in winter people want to stay inside, they want to be entertained in warmth and comfort.

‘So why a winter festival? The answer to that question is that there was absolutely nothing else going on at that time of year, whereas I always saw spring as being overwrought with festivals, especially in Melbourne,’ Ogeil laughed.

Dark magic

First staged in 2013, Dark Mofo has rapidly becomes Australia’s pre-eminent winter festival, with its cleverly marketed mix of avant-garde performances, provocative installations and live music seizing the imagination of cultural tourists.

Creative Director of Dark Mofo, Leigh Carmichael, explains that while the festival began with winter cultural tourism in mind, its programming has increasing focused on artistic quality – and also a sense of midwinter ritual.

‘It’s quite obvious from here that people are seeing that Dark Mofo has worked, and Vivid has worked, and yeah, so other councils are trying to tap into that tourist dollar. And interestingly that’s kind of how we got our festival started, in terms of getting government funding, or getting the government to fund us, but then we quickly – as we always do – focused on the art,’ Carmichael said.

‘If the tourists come that’s great, but it’s not really our primary focus. It’s important for us to keep holding the festival but of all the things we’re doing it’s the least interesting.’

Dark Mofo 2018 Waterfront Crosses. Photo Credit: Mona/Dark Mofo/Rémi Chauvin. Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Walking around the streets of Hobart during Dark Mofo, Carmichael said, feels special. It’s not just the festival itself – there’s a deeper connection between the people who attend Dark Mofo and the time of year at which the festival is held.

‘There’s two things that are going on with Dark Mofo – there’s the actual exploration of winter and what winter represents, which is that kind of stillness and beauty and quiet, and then we’re also fascinated by darkness and night. Both of those things come together at Dark Mofo, and that’s a pretty potent combination,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘I think we’re very consciously looking at ritual; the connection with the turning points and the time of the year.’

New kids on the block

First held in 2017, WinterWild Apollo Bay – a seaside village on Victoria’s great Ocean Road – is one of the nation’s newest winter arts festivals.

‘They do seem to be popping up all over the place, it’s true,’ said Festival Director Roderick Poole, who founded arts company Strange Fruit before making a tree-change in later life.

‘In the case of WinterWild there was a desire to re-invigorate the local economy in the wake of the 2015 Christmas Day bushfires. It was then a secondary decision to hold it in winter, traditionally the off-season.

‘Once this framework was set up, it then came to decisions around themes and context. The festival team jumped very quickly over to the “dark side” and things got interesting from there. I think this was a great example of the happy wrangling of what could have been conflicting visions, economic and artistic,’ he said.

The second iteration of WinterWild, taking place next month, has the theme of death and rebirth, which Poole said emerged organically from the same fires which spawned the festival in the first place.

‘Right from the start we went with strong, stark, elemental themes. The festival could be seen to be born out of fire. We could have done something that soothed or mitigated against the trauma of the fire, but instead we decided to take it on, face it down, fight fire with fire – literally. We started with a large bonfire at the centre of it all and worked outwards from there,’ he explained.

‘The themes of death and birth have led us down all sorts of interesting paths. We kept coming back to the fact that they are inseparable. You can’t have birth without death and even placing them in that order, with death first, resonated much more strongly than the other way around. The festival begins with a procession and sacrifice, with all sorts of pagan and local imagery in a tussle with Death and ends with a feast featuring various beasts cooked over open fires. That’s death and birth for you, right there,’ Poole said.

Vivid Sydney 2018 The Rocks, MCA Virtual Vibration. Photo credit: Destination NSW.

East of Apollo Bay, on the Bellarine Peninsula, cultural tourists this year can also attend the inaugural Low Light Festival in picturesque Queenscliff.

Bonnie Dalton, the Artistic Director of Low Light, said there’s certainly an element of homage driving the growth of winter arts festivals across Australia.

‘Certainly the model that’s been shown by some of those older festivals, and certainly the likes of Dark Mofo, have shown that people have a real appetite for getting out of the cold and warming up with some culture. But also I think it’s a reflection too, of the organic activity that’s already happening,’ she explained.

‘With Low Light for instance, we’ve reshuffled some dates, but we’re incorporating festivals and events such as the Bellarine Literary Festival and the Bellarine Lighthouse Films that were already going on, so it’s all about consolidating some of the things that are organically already happening in these places, and just kind of giving a call to action to people from further away, saying, “There’s quite a lot going on; you actually might want to come down and make a weekend of it.”’

A winter festival like Low Light also offers people a chance to truly engage with the seasons, rather than hiding away indoors, Dalton said.

‘The thing that I’ve really enjoyed about programming this festival is thinking about that experience of getting really cold and then getting warm again, so that’s been part of what’s driven what we’ve done – effectively saying to people “Experience winter a bit more.”

‘It’s kind of easy to let the seasons pass by – everybody’s busy and you’re generally spending a lot of time inside, so we’ve got things like this beautiful projection from Iceland with a Sigur Rós soundtrack that we’re going to be projecting onto the walls of Fort Queenscliff. You’ll want to have a scarf that night and afterwards go inside and grab a glass of wine and warm up with some food and music, but something about that I think is really special too, particularly in these regional destinations where the elements are kind of unavoidable,’ she said.

Connecting and letting go

Reconnecting with the elements and the natural world is central to the cultural significance of festivals at any time of year, not just in winter, according to Associate Professor Adrian H. Hearn, an anthropologist at the University of Melbourne and leader of the world music band Suns of Mercury.

‘It goes to the digital connection, the kind of online connections of the 21st century that have diminished our human connections with one another, and with nature. And so festivals, I think, are helping to fill a certain need that people have to experience those connections, with each other and with nature,’ he said.

It’s a view echoed by Dark Mofo’s Leigh Carmichael, who notes: ‘Winter is a time of stillness, beauty and reflection. To my knowledge, Dark Mofo is the first Australian festival to look at the deep and emotional connection humans have with the changing seasons and the rhythm of the universe. It feels like we’ve stumbled upon something that matters.’

Festivals are also important because they act as a kind of safety valve for the pressures of modern life, Hearn explained.

Referencing British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner’s influential book, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Hearn said festivals broadly consist of three phases, separation (where people are removed from daily experience) transformation and reintegration.

The separation phase can be as simple as passing through a gateway into the festival zone, he explained, but it’s the transformation phase which is perhaps most important to a festival’s success – a phase which can easily be identified in winter festivals like Dark Mofo and Festival of Voices, and which may perhaps account for their popularity and success.

The Festival of Voices’ signature event, the City of Hobart Big Sing Bonfire. Image supplied.

‘The transformation phase really has to do with leaving your daily identity behind. And what’s really critical in that phase – which is a temporary phase – are things like costumes and dress. So in festivals, that varies from something as simple as a wristband that marks you as a participant, to all the way through to the wild costumes and clothes that people wear at … Carnival in Brazil, the feathers and the sequins. What that does is put people’s identity on hold for a minute, and plays with their senses as part of that – and fireworks and fire and drumming are all part of that sensory stimulation,’ Hearn said.

‘The alcohol, the music, the dance – all of this plays with people’s identities, and I think in the more intense festivals – at raves and the big music festivals – I think what they’re aiming for is turning the world upside down temporarily.

‘And the critical thing about this as, as an anthropologist, is that there’s a kind of social bonding that happens when the world turns upside down. What we do is we connect with ourselves and with each other in unusual and sometimes pretty intense ways. So that’s the transformation, right? So that’s the central point.’

Afterwards comes the final phase of reintegration; the painful return to daily life. But importantly, ‘you bring some memories with you,’ Hearn said.

‘And I think those memories, what they do for us is they give us a sense that life has wider experiences than the daily office or picking up the kids from school. And also, those memories tell us that this can happen again. So one theory about this, about all of this memory that you carry with you from [a festival], is that it forms a kind of safety valve or pressure valve that eases the frustrations of daily life.’

People and place

While the size and number of winter arts festivals continues to grow, the most successful events on the winter calendar are deeply rooted to a specific place, and speak to a particular community.

‘Festivals should be first and foremost all about facilitation of local communities and a celebration of the region that they come from. An opportunity to tell those stories of a region and celebrate the differences and quirks of a region,’ said Peter Choraziak.

In the case of the Festival of Voices, ‘we’re all about celebrating song, and in particular group singing. Our aim is to bring people together to sing along as one. It feels good and it’s actually what communities used to do all the time,’ he continued.

‘As far as our festival goes, it’s all about singing around the campfire – that’s the notion. And as soon as you say “singing around a campfire,” you get the notion of what we’re about, of family and good times and kicking back. Staring at the embers of a fire is the most soothing thing in the world, even more soothing than looking at waves crashing against the shore.

‘And it’s also a chance to laugh at the cold, like our ancestors did. Once you’ve got a fire, once you’ve got community and song and stories, then it’s hard to ignore to those basic pleasures, if you like – and that’s what our festival is all about,’ Choraziak said.  

A still from Icelandic artist Gabríela Friðriksdóttir’s short film Dies Irae, screening at Low Light Queenscliff. Image supplied.

Dark Mofo, too, is keenly aware of the importance of place and has been since the first festival took place in 2013.

‘Our pitch to government was around celebrating the longest night, and the reason we hooked onto that was because Hobart has the longest night of any capital city in Australia. So we thought, that’s a unique attribute that this city has that no other city has … and we thought that was something kind of Tasmanian that we would grasp onto,’ said Carmichael.

‘So that was there right from the beginning – but the power of it and the strength of it and the way that people have embraced it, that became quickly apparent – almost in the first year, actually. It just felt special.’

Read: The waning shadow of the Tasmanian Gothic

WinterWild’s Roderick Poole also emphasises the value of specificity when establishing a new arts festival on the calendar.

‘During my Strange Fruit touring days I was lucky enough to perform in over 300 festivals in about 30 countries. It was a great perspective from which to see how festivals work. I learnt that the best festivals are a celebration of the place in which they take place. If they don’t do this well, they can be seen through pretty easily and merely look like a marketing exercise,’ he said.

‘Those that celebrate their place then need to reflect that place’s people, environment and history. When we embraced this in Apollo Bay, we unearthed all sorts of dark stories and themes – enough to fuel many years of programming.

‘A good test of a festival program is to imagine shipping the entire program elsewhere. Would it work? No? Good, it only belongs here, so let’s put it on here – and have some fun,’ he concluded.

Dark Mofo: 8-24 June 2018
Festival of Voices: 29 June –  15 July 2018
Low Light Festival Queenscliff: 22 June – 15 July 2018
Vivid Sydney: 25 May – 16 June 2018
WinterWild: 10-12 and 24-26 August 2018
Woodend Winter Arts Festival: 8-11 June 2018

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts