Maleny-Woodford Folk Festival

1994-5
Woodford

The Maleny Folk Festival has been an annual cultural event for the past nine years. It has increased in size, production, and popularity to the extent that it has out-grown its original home at Maleny in the sunshine coast hinterland and is now held at its own permanent site on two hundred and forty acres in the foothills of the State Forest outside Woodford. The most recent Festival, held over the last Christmas-New Year period, contained an interesting and expansive program (primarily of music, but also including arts workshops, community forums, theatre, and children 's activities). For the first time visual artists were invited to participate and they produced site-specific installation works in and around the Festival site.

I want here to consider the socio-political significance of a cultural phenomenon such as the Maleny-Woodford Folk Festival and the meanings it generates in the broader cultural sphere. There are both potentials and pitfalls involved in an undertaking like this and the on-site artworks manifested a type of cultural consciousness for audience and participants alike, reflecting collective aspirations and anxieties.

There is a very real movement and politics of resistance which manifests itself at this Festival and propels its existence. This deliberately avoids slogans, bandwagons, and grandstanding, acting as a locus for what has been termed "anti-systemic" movements: the democracy movements on all sides of the socialist divide, the ecology movements, indigenous peoples' movements, and the women's movements.1 Indeed, the Festival is a singular example of the "intersection" of these movements and their promising ability to think laterally across the essentialising boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and nation-state.2

The purchasing of a dedicated site is the practical realization of environmental concerns central to the Festival. The core team involved with the organisation, development, and management of Maleny (chiefly Bill Hauritz together with other members of the Queensland Folk Federation) have created a secular space which invites the various eco-movements and politics of place to meet without any over-arching creeds or totalising ideologies. In fact, the energy and activism of the enterprise testifies to the richly textured yet accessible nature of critical practices before and beyond any specialised (and intra-institutional) rhetorics.

The collective operation of Maleny goes some way towards setting up an alternative economy within which the cultural sphere may to operate. it (temporarily) frees music production from the all-powerful and collusive corporations of record companies and radio stations. It places primary emphasis on the live music event and the immediate experience of sound and song. Similarly, the incorporation of visual artworks frees them from the institutionalised and/or commercialized gallery environment, the white walls, the rectangular frame, and the passive spaces of (genteel) spectatorship.

Furthermore, the visual art installations at Woodford are designed to be permanent features of the Festival site, to be expanded upon in future years, offering an alternative to the ephemeral nature of most site-specific work.

Jeremy Hynes has produced two installations on the hills surrounding the valley in which the Festival is located. One work consists of a group of cut out profiles of grey kangaroos. From a distance, these two-dimensional shapes appear as very realistic silhouettes. Made from recycled corrugated iron found on the site, they make a striking and simple environmental statement. The kangaroos, in poses of relaxation, feeding and looking around, overlook the Festival as a constant reminder of the surrounding environment and its non-human presence. The second work is a cut out of the Glass House Mountains, also made from corrugated iron. Hynes has successfully drawn upon the popular, shared icons of the local landscape to speak to a broad audience. Richard Mansfield's work consisted of a huge felled tree, found on the site, which he placed in the heart of the Festival and transformed into a giant Frill-necked lizard (the gigantic root system becoming the lizard's face and frill). This work had enormous appeal especially for the children who climbed and played upon the trunk.

Partnering Maleny-Woodford's fundamental interest in a politics of place is a politics of time. Western capitalism's imperial global domination requires, as described in the writings of Paul Virilio, an aesthetics of speed: instant communication, distant reach, constant emergency, insecurity induced by mounting crisis.3 As Virilio demonstrates such an aesthetic is fundamentally linked with the militaristic prerogatives of the modern nation-state. The aesthetics of speed and violence have impacted upon every aspect of daily life. Functioning aesthetically, they co-opt sensibility, pleasure, and lateral reasoning. To this extent it is remarkable that the Folk Festival has managed to set a different pace. The lack of a foregrounded creed or commercialised "hype", the nonhierarchical nature of the program (especially the incorporation of a children's program), the inclusive embrace of different cultural and generic modes of performance, the co-operative nature of the organisation, all contribute to a culture of tolerance and a "free and easy" pace. The fact that the Festival happens over the New Year period (particularly New Year's Eve itself) with such large numbers of people and has had no record of violence is an achievement.

Dusan Bojic's installation, made in collaboration with Francis Guilfedder, focused on this slowing down of sped-up, hyped-up time. Their Soundial consisted of concentric arcs of bright flags and bamboo weathercock-like structures which moved and made delicate sounds in the breeze. The installation was placed on a gentle slope which overlooked the Festival site and at the top of which the artists had constructed a shelter, replete with cushions where people could (and did) relax and enjoy the sounds, the installation environment, and the view. This contemplative space echoed many similar spaces of relaxation in the Festival where people would sit and talk or play instruments of their own. In this way Soundial was an excellent example of how site-specific installation can accentuate and extend the already existing aesthetics of social space and time in the immediate environment in a simple and user-friendly way (as opposed to the most-often alienating impositions of monumental modernist sculpture).

Unfortunately, violence was not completely absent this year, as Bojic's and Guilfedder's Soundial was badly vandalised. Many of Hynes's kangaroos were also damaged and/or stolen. Perhaps the aestheticisation of the environment was perceived as a reification or an institutional bracketing of the "spontaneous" festival culture. Perhaps even the efforts of installation and site-specific public art cannot free the visual arts of value-laden notions of elitism. This leads me to discuss mainstream attitudes and perceptions of the Maleny-Woodford Festival and to consider how the Festival is discursively contained and restrained in the broader cultural sphere. The Festival has moved quite a way from its strictly "folk" origins (and hopefully will continue to broaden its scope). Perhaps the major apparent focus now is anything and everything "alternative". Anything from temporary tattooing, hair-braiding, hand-made sandals, and photographing your aura. The label "alternative" is a destructive one, acting as a "flipside" to the dominant or mainstream culture. Indeed the consumer mentality of the market stalls together with the cultural and political vacuousness of the New Age rhetorics makes the alternative style of the Festival a co-option, indeed a near celebration, of marginality. The homogenising of Maleny-Woodford into the label "alternative" creates an easy vehicle for the continuance of the mainstream and its domination. As an "underbelly", the gathered marginalia of Maleny-Woodford represents everything that is powerless. "Alternative" is a fine thing even for the "straight" (and powerful) mainstream to indulge in now and then for the centre is staked out and safe.

Exterior labels such as "alternative" which press upon Maleny-Woodford, are present during the Festival, "felt" as internal anxieties, and reflected in the artworks. Collectively, the artworks shared a naive quality and an apolitical neutrality. Many of the works were made from natural and recycled materials and while this was clearly intentioned as an ecopolitical statement, its aesthetic created a type of back-tonature primitivism or innocence which was disappointing and ineffectual. While the political machinations of consumer culture's imperial domination (which I have been describing) are decidedly postmodern phenomena shaping the Festival as a whole, the artworks were unable to answer at this level of political sophistication.

Craig Walsh's work was an exception. It consisted of the image of a face projected onto a tree at various sites in the Festival. Trees were thus transformed into ephemeral monumental sculptures whose ghostly presences emerged during the night time hours. Like the other artworks, these faces, entitled Human Nature, made a strong eco-political statement. The fusion of the human form with the tree was a simple visualisation of the need for harmony between humankind and the natural environment. However the work co-opted the discourses of surveillance and technology which are seminal to the (post)modern and (post)industrial eras. In this way, Walsh was able to effect a reversal of terms, engaging the discourses of the mainstream. These projections of "larger than life" human presence in the heart of the Festival also had quite sinister overtones as they clearly heralded the annual invasion of people in vast numbers to this quiet area of Woodford.

Therese Brown's and Stoph Van Wensveen's Earth Dances were three large raised circular structures which turned like wheels, made from recycled wood and corrugated iron, and were located at the Festival's entrance. They acted very much as motifs for the Festival as a whole. Some of them contained dancing figures and stood as icons for an atmosphere of celebration. In her artist's statement Therese Brown says her use of the circle refers to ancient forms of round dances, ancient temple structures which contained a central sacred circle , and the birth-death cycles of nature. These works with their spiritualist and universalist intentions, combined with a celebratory feeling , were the strongest example of contemporary political naivety, even though their symbol of inclusion is the ultimate political strength of the Festival.

The political resistance which informs the Festival attempts to generate a counter articulation of global capitalism's devastation of the planet, its seamless and ceaseless aesthetics of violence, its reductivist logic of essences, identities, its predatory gaze. The Festival does this principally through its heterogeneity. This pluralism, which pivots upon fundamental commitments to ecology and indigenous politics, sets up a micro-economy, or better still a micro-ecology, of socio-cultural events and meanings. To me, this is the only way forward from the present moment where separatist and/or nativist enterprises have become politically exhausted and even the politically correct "isms" are warring with one another. Hopefully, the Festival will continue to widen its cultural embrace and to push the program into more challenging areas. For example, rather than forums on national identity and the republican debate, it would be tar more interesting and relevant if the Festival were to host forums on postcolonial issues. This could possibly deconstruct the auratic presence of Nation and make visible the myriad of "other'' maps which are configured at this cross-cultural and international Festival. Hopefully, it will continue to tap into the art-educated world and artists will continue to produce works which are able to speak and to appeal to non-initiated arts audiences.

notes: 

1. Giovanni Arrighi, Terence K. Hopkins, and lmmanuel Wallerstein Anti-systemic Movements, Verso, London and New York, 1989.

2. For many of my comments on contemporary culture I am indebted to Edward Said Culture and Imperialism, Vintage London, 1993.

3. Paul Virilio, L 'lnsecurite du territoire, Stock, Paris, 1976.