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Next Wave Festival

15 March – 2 April 2006

Reviewed by Aparna Sharma
The Film Academy
University of Glamorgan


Third world and feminist scholarship have been key in articulating discontent with the essentialising, totalizing, and tokenistic gesture that multiculturalism as a wider public discourse in Europe and America has turned to be. In the Asia-Pacific range, one gathers the sense of a circuitous lose conglomerate of practitioners, theorists, and analysts for whom this critique has been imperative. However, curiously within the institutional frameworks there is a polarity——a rather colonial, on occasions, patronizing stance towards ethnic subjectivities, be they tribal communities in the remote hinterlands of India endangered with displacement due to rampant "development" or the stream of migrants, particularly from East and South-East Asia to Australia. Responding to this absent-mindedly benevolent and inadvertently marginalizing drift, the Next Wave Festival of youth art in Melbourne that coincided with the Commonwealth Games 2006 elicited participation of young artists from the Commonwealth and across continents providing a worthy platform where besides critique issues surrounding form and its unsettled links with cultural definition received focus.

Provoked by the concurrent Commonwealth Games, the theme of this biennale festival, which has now been running for over 20 years, was "Empire Games:" examining empires of all sorts——familial, national, ideological, neo-colonial——and how they continue amongst us. Mindfully curated, the festival was not gathering a plethora of oppositional voices alone. The question of form and aesthetics was crucial. This year, the festival deliberately sought to engage with how Melbourne’s landscape got altered, dressed for display to the Commonwealth. Contrasting in scale with the exaggerated magnitude of all aspects linked to the games, itself a pronouncement of how Australia debates and grapples with its own specifics and "national" identity, Next Wave literally superimposed a mapping of hundreds of minute public art installations across Melbourne.

Innocuous in location yet audaciously choreographed, each installation drew upon scale. As one navigated the dim and dingy back and by-lanes of Melbourne’s city centre, its river-fronts or the containers at its docks, a disparity surfaced between occupations and expressions of artists from within the Anglo-American-Japanese triad and of those from outside. A clearly anti-establishment stance and on some occasions an obvious spiritual preoccupation marked much expression from the former. While artists from the Pacific islands, central and east Asia, and Africa submitted more complex formulations that are anthropologically provocative as they at once evoke and muddy multiple positionalities. The imperative for some sort of spiritual utterance, while evident, appeared so deliberately obscured and enmeshed with more urgent issues surrounding postcolonial identity. Further, a variegated sense of temporality both literally in quantifiable terms as well as an experience or sensation, surfaced. And while there were some platforms for exchange between artists and audience, the festival would have hugely benefited by articulating some of these instances of disjuncture and dialogue more rigorously.

In a context such as the games, Next Wave’s play with scale becomes a very aggressive and stimulating strategy for instituting reflection upon the issues that the festival aligns itself with, namely questions of marginality on any account. The contrast between its visibility vis à vis the wider milieu becomes a formal take by which the festival reinforces its critical stance towards established and institutionalised discourses. However, it is this aspect itself that in a sense tends to shroud the intervention that Next Wave can claim and inject. Next Wave is not purely a fringe festival that celebrates under-economies or under-cultures. Neither is it solely antithetical towards the mainstream. This was so evident in the works selected for display. A strain emerged comprising works that set up the possibility of conversation between cultural impetuses. The works selected from Asia and Africa were integral to some of the formal interrogations at the festival. They were not works that were militantly nativist exalting "timeless" aesthetic traditions that lend themselves for amalgamation within the "nationalist" context. Neither were there any works whose ahistoricism and minimalism play with scale accounts for their liberal and "exotic" appeal within the international circuit that remains nevertheless devoid of criticism. Next Wave has defined a territory by focussing on artists who can reflect critically yet converse cross-culturally. And in this, form is not merely formulation, rather a mechanism that embodies the dynamics and dialogues underpinning the work. It would be useful for future events to explore the scope for wider discussion not only among artists and audience but also by evoking the vital nexus of practitioners, critics, and audience. For this the festival might need to resuscitate or at least complicate its image in the popular imaginary as being more than merely marginal.



Updated 1st May 2006

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