Underbelly Arts Lab & Festival
Local arts with guts and glamour
IMAGINE THE BIENNALE of Sydney crossed with Laneway Festival and you’ll begin to understand Underbelly Arts Festival – essentially, it’s a two-day musical festival except that the line-up features art installations, performance and interactive works.
The sixth edition of Underbelly Arts, curated by incoming festival director (and Underbelly Arts alumna) Roslyn Helper, features 21 brand new works that have been commissioned and funded, and will be site-specific. There will be a new performance work by musician Marcus Whale (Collarbones) with installation and performance artist Eugene Choi, featuring a 30-piece choir; there will be an interactive inflatable work created by Amrita Hepi, Honey Long and Prue Stent; there will be a six-hour queer, contemporary remix of traditional Peking Opera by dancerchoreographer Shian Law; and there will be an interactive ‘Netflix-style’ show, by theatremaker and filmmaker Laurence Rosier-Staines. It’s this kind of ambitious programming that has established Underbelly Arts – over ten years and five editions – as a sort of ‘alt-Biennale’ for Sydney: smaller, more local, but consistently facilitating artists with large visions, and presenting art as an immersive and interactive experience.
But the thing that truly sets Underbelly Arts apart from its peers (such as This Is Not Art, Next Wave and Sydney Fringe – or indeed, the Biennale of Sydney) is its ‘public lab’ component. In the two weeks leading up to the festival, ticket holders are able to drop in and see the artists creating their works, ask questions, be guinea pigs in the experiment, or watch rehearsals. Whereas the move to Cockatoo Island for the 2011-2015 iterations saw a reduction in public access and involvement in the Lab (getting to the Island mid-week is, ah, hard), in 2017 the festival returns to the inner city – the National Art School campus, off Taylor Square – and is hoping to get audiences far more involved in the Lab stage of development. In fact, you can only take part in the Lab if you have bought a ticket to the festival weekend. “We’re really trying to build a community vibe that we couldn’t on Cockatoo Island,” says Helper. “That single ticket is like an ‘all access’ pass that means you can
come whenever you want and be part of Underbelly Arts.” Kicking off on September 25, Underbelly Arts Lab will run guided tours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 6pm, over the two weeks prior to the festival (September 25-October 5). Each tour will be followed by a Late at the Lab event: a talk, performance or interactive response to the art, run by a different organisation each night.
No tour will be the same, with different artworks on view (five to ten works) each night. In other words, you can come every night and end up seeing a greater spectrum of works. “It’s incredibly rare for audiences to be given the chance to meet artists and have a behindthe-scenes look at experimental and contemporary art practices,” says Helper. “For us, the point of doing the Lab is breaking down barriers of access, and saying to audiences: ‘Yes, you can be involved in this; this art is for you.’”
The interaction with an audience is also beneficial for artists – as Helper knows from her participation in past Underbelly Arts festivals. “A lot of the work that I do as an artist involves audience interaction in some way, so I find the Lab very useful – to have audiences come through and pick holes in my work, for example, so that I can go back and rework it and make it stronger.” Helper notes that many of the works in this year’s Underbelly Arts line-up are interactive performances, or involve an element of audience participation. “I think artists are increasingly trying to find a way to have an immediate response and connection with audiences – and inserting yourself into your work is a way to do that.”