Blame it on Errol Flynn. You may not know this, but the actor famous for swashbuckling films and his playboy lifestyle may just be to blame for MONA FOMA. If it wasn’t for Flynn’s star turns in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, Brian Ricthie, he of Violent Femmes fame and more recently the curator of MONA FOMA, may have never moved to Tasmania.
During a 1992 tour with the Violent Femmes, Ritchie couldn’t help but notice that Flynn’s birthplace – Hobart – was conspicuously absent from the itinerary. Describing himself as a ‘very big Errol Flynn fan’, Ritchie credits the old movie star for piquing his curiosity about Tasmania. ‘I asked the promoter to set up a gig here,’ he laughs. ‘They were highly sceptical, but when we did… it was sold out, completely packed, absolutely insane. It was the first international band that had come to Tasmania in a while – this was the dark days of expensive flights, so people never really came.’
That’s not a problem that Hobart experiences these days. With the opening of MONA last year the Tasmanian capital has seen an influx of visitors, both interstate and overseas, all drawn to the iconic museum like a groupie to a rock star. In January each year the pilgrimage intensifies as the MONA faithful flock south for the annual MONA FOMA, the music and arts festival that actually predates the museum itself. When MONA officially opened in January 2011, MONA FOMA was already in its third incarnation. In that time the innovative celebration of the arts has hosted musicians Nick Dave & The Bad Seeds, PJ Harvey, Grandmaster Flash and Amanda Palmer, while also presenting works from Philip Adams’ BalletLab, IHOS, Christian Boltanski, and Timeart.
After that 1992 Violent Femmes tour, Ritchie and his wife, Veruni periodically returned before settling. Now, aside from programming all of MONA’s music, Ritchie also runs Chado – The Way of Tea with Veruni. ‘For some reason we felt the draw of Tasmania,’ he chuckles again, as if still surprised with his decision. ‘It turned out to be a good move though, so our instincts must have been good.’
Instinct is important to Ritchie. It doesn’t only guide his personal decisions, but informs how he programs MONA FOMA. ‘I guess a lot of festivals are run by some sort of committee with a framework, or they’re looking for a quota of this, that or another thing, they think they have to tick some boxes,’ he explains. ‘I don’t do any of that. I just stay open, keep the antenna up, try to find things, see what comes to us and then digest it. In the end you just get some sort of nagging suspicion that you should do something – similar to moving to Tasmania – we did it because we felt like it and that’s the way we chose the artists as well.’
Though he’s managed to secure big names for the festival, that’s also of no real import to Ritchie. ‘I don’t care if they’re completely unknown, they can still get into the program,’ he says. ‘They can be extremely famous and I’ll reject them because I think they’re not suitable. It’s more based on feeling than any kind of a plan.’
With so much sentiment involved, you might think MONA FOMA runs the gambit of turning out populated by Brian Ritchie’s esoteric interests – like shakuhachi, the Japanese flute he’s commonly found playing at Chado – with little appreciation for the common punter.
But if that were the case, it’s unlikely that MONA FOMA would have taken out the Helpmann Award for Best Contemporary Music Festival in only its fourth year, which it did just last month. Ritchie is particularly proud of the Helpmann win because it wasn’t profit margins and tickets sold that decided the outcome. ‘I think this was based on the fairly deep aesthetic of the festival, not sensationalism or commercialism.’
When considering his curatorial approach to the festival, Ritchie acknowledges camaraderie with another member of team MONA – Theatre of the World curator, Jean-Hubert Martin. After learning about Martin’s strategy when displaying art, juxtaposing seemingly disparate objects and artworks together, Ritchie ‘realised that’s exactly the same thing that [he had] been doing in programming, except using music and art related to music.’ Just consider last year’s opening night, which saw Chinese throat-singers Hanggai performing on the same stage as New Orleans band Tuba Skinny and German banjo-plucker The Dad Horse Experience. ‘I didn’t realise we were working from a similar conceptual base,’ Ritchie says. ‘That’s probably why David [Walsh] has trust in me.’
There are many similarities between the ethos of MONA and MONA FOMA. As Ritchie oft notes, the two tend to feed on each other. For the two years before the museum opened, MONA FOMA served as a taster of sorts, offering audience members a sense of what was about to happen through MONA itself. ‘In some ways, I’m sure the MONA FOMA ideas seeped into the museum as it was developing its concept as well,’ he explains. ‘We used it as a sketchpad, or maybe a guinea pig, for things that end up in the museum eventually.’
And like MONA, and like it’s founder, Brian Ritchie doesn’t particularly care if you get it or not. Explaining that while ‘there are subtle themes and underlying concepts’ apparent in his programming of the festival, Ritchie is explicit that he doesn’t want to be didactic about what people should take from the festival. ‘I don’t want them to understand it,’ he reveals. ‘There’s an emphasis on understanding in the West… people don’t want to approach something or even attempt something unless they’re going to understand it.’
Such notions mirror the spirit of MONA. For everyone confused by Wym Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional or appalled by Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Great Deeds Against the Dead, you’ll find that Ritchie, much like David Walsh, thinks you’re missing the point. Requiring a conceptual understanding or concrete answer misses the intention entirely.
‘I think that’s super counterproductive in the arts. Art is about exploration and improvising, it’s about being at the current moment and its about finding new linkages, if its predictable or you have to understand it before you witness, I think it going to be pretty boring.’
Though unable to reveal much about this year’s program for contractual reasons, it seems doubtful that MONA FOMA will be boring. Already announced as headliners are Talking Head’s founder, David Bryne along with indie chartreuse, St. Vincent. ‘I can tell you that we’re going to have musicians from India, Siberia and the United States,’ Ritchie says. ‘We’ll be premiering a new opera; we’ll be having a number of world premieres, mostly in the field of classical music and contemporary art music.
‘The other days besides the day that David Bryne is playing is going to be really mixed fields of exceptional music, but the nights are not themed according to a musical genre or anything, it’s flowing from one thing to another in an unpredictable fashion.’
Considering this cavalier, devil-may-care attitude, Ritchie’s admiration of Errol Flynn comes as no surprise. What is sure to be surprising it just what he has planned for MONA FOMA 2013.
A version of this article originally appeared on artsHub.com.au