Underbelly Arts has nothing to do with the TV show. It won’t confront you with guns or nudity – frankly, it’s too cold. It’s an arts festival. An arts festival which dares to ask two key questions:

“What would happen if you brought up to 150 artists together under the one roof for ten days to develop new work?

What would happen if you then opened this process to the public, allowing them behind the scenes of art in the making?”

Saturday. A blue-sky winter’s day, it’s cold and I’m grateful for my coat and sunglasses in equal measure. I have reserved the day to be a cultural tourist, adventuring to an island in the middle of Sydney. Accompanying me is a retired magician, who happens to be a fascinating conversationalist and an irrepressible artist in his own right. Though I am not overly familiar with this style of performance (hybrid/dance/devised/visual/installation/alternative etc…) I have been put in charge of our adventure to Cockatoo Island. It’s a caffeinated whirlwind. I’m not certain of all the details – but I figure that with all the buzz around the festival, if I get lost/stuck/confused someone will help me.

I am completely uncertain of what I’m doing. Firstly of the ferries – I had a schedule – it flew out the window as soon as I was swayed into a veggie burger lunch with James Waites post Tim Andrew’s Art talk in The Rocks…

And like all good adventures, uncertainty is part of the fun. It’s the extra zesty something that keeps us living, I believe, It keeps us gripped to the seats of our own lives as we wonder “how on earth did I get here, and how is this going to pan out?” I live so much of my week strictly scheduled and tightly wound – sometimes uncertainty creeps in… but mainly it is scheduled. So today – an alternative art consumption philosophy – “Be aware, be prepared and surrender your plan.”

This blog post will be full of names… I’m warning you… this is not because I am deliberately trying to be annoying (that’s a surreptitious motivation) … you’ll see my point at the end…

The aim was to head to the island, but before long I certainly found myself running and frolicking about to catch the 3.10pm ferry from circular quay with Clare Grant… on the ferry there was Pip Smith, TK Pok, Talya Rubin, Larry Heath, Rosie Fisher, Brad Syke… to name a few- media, artists, producers, punters, academics all squashed together on a boat as we dipped into the crannies of the harbour. Balmain. Woolwich. Cockatoo Island.

We escape into a sprawling fan onto the island in direct hunt of our tickets.

Bumping into Nerida Woods.. I even spy Alice Osborne – I don’t say hello – It’s just nice to see her there…

When we arrive the security and festival volunteers including Rowan McDonald are yelling that the island is at capacity and we have to wait. I can’t wait. I’m on a mission to see 100 years of Lizards! We are let in, we head to registration, Julia Lenton publicist extraordinaire has wrist bands at the ready – we are banded like artistic doves and race off to witness art.

Patrick Lenton has a bizarre brain and I love it. Prolific and passionate and wildly imaginative, Lenton’s gift is for winding stories up into a tight ball of yarn and threading through it bizarre and brilliant unexpected figurines and puns that curl up into tendrils of circumlocution. “Scientists, a ranger and an ancient race of Lizards live and love on an island”… if you think of Jurassic Park. Then you stop thinking about Jurassic Park and you start thinking about Margaret Thatcher and what she would look like dancing to the Bee Gees… and then you force some mildly cheesy flashbacks – you get close to what this piece is like. Still in it’s infant stages, but with inventive costumes hand mastered ( or collected, and curated) by Bridget Lutherborrow, 100 YEARS OF LIZARDS was perhaps the most traditional of the performances, drawing on a rich tradition of vaudeville and revue comedy.

then.. bumping into the director of 100 YEARS OF LIZARDS, Scott Selkirk… we were off to have a look at an installation –

XUAN (Spring)
A vietnamese soup kitchen hemmed by a moat of yellow cherry blossom trees and purple decorative people made soup and handed it out to the patient or the stubborn.. a Vietnamese spring flower festival, on an Australian Island in winter… wha? “Wha” indeed. That’s the whole point… the unexpected displacement…

Then racing to –

OK. I was uncertain with this one. which I think we missed or perhaps I lead us to the wrong place… a large white inflatable art work twisted in the space – video art projected on the wall – I felt small and wanted to touch it.

walking past

Domestic objects frozen on pedestals, re-contextualised with sound and video smashing around them.

A quick hello to Chris Ryan and Clare Britton…

Then in the street I bumped into Jess Bellamy and Chris Summers (playwrights) we babbled and bantered – they recommended a show by Jimmy Dalton. I scheduled it in… but not before a refreshment stop in 124… Little Creature Pale Ale.. more chatting in line (the horrendous queues are wonderful for chatting)…

In a long room had a large and brightly coloured video art installation. A coloured flickering quad sectioned display of colour – an installation as an ode to digital photography – claiming to be about memory – I think it’s also about mind-clutter. It seemed fun – and too much.

In the opposite room – something was happening. Bits of story pinned to the wall. Written in texta. There’s a narrative i don’t have time to read. Clearly I should have spent more time preparing for this. There are people standing around a mannequin, there’s gaffa tape, black plastic bags, junk. Men in hoods and dark masks – interchangeable. There’s photography happening but I’m uncertain if it is a part of the piece or greedy voyeurism. It’s dark and intense. there is throbbing sounds – electro-static hum. I’m not sure where I’m supposed to stand – or what to do. So I lean up against a wall and watch. It feels as claustrophobic as fight club. A blonde woman half screaming, half singing forces sound out of pain clenched mouth. It’s intense. there are dolphin torches. And then there is an explosive moment in a vase with red liquid. I walk out wishing I had known more before I’d walked in the room. My mind races – what did I just witness? A ritual, a death? Abuse? I’m uncertain.

Leaving there I nod at James Beach, say a quiet hello to Alice Cooper and make my way to see something up and around the hill…

A hike up the hill with Cat Jones, we banter and chatter and share the things we’ve done and seen at the festival – it’s clear I’ve not scheduled very well – somehow I’ve missed Julie Vulcan’s SPOTLIGHT BUNNY – the car’s battery was flat – and anyway, it was for an exclusive audience of 4. So I missed it.

There’s a large and grateful preamble by Jeff Stein listing all the contributing artists to this performance. There’s a huge video projection – video art. A being in a large chicken/rabbit suit made of white bin liners – feels like Donny Darko, that is, if Donny Darko’s dad was a chicken. There’s a book with a V on the cover. Chanting. Pulsing, hypnotic – an aria? Latin? pages are torn from the book of V… puffs of smoke hiss out of a sandstone building. It’s beautiful, mesmerizing and spectaular – and to me a comment on doctrine and history – but then again I’m not certain that’s the intention.

by this time the sky is the type of dark navy blue that often is mistaken for black… we walk down the hill… it’s time for beer and a bite to eat… and more art. I wait in line for food and beer say g’day to James Winter… say hello to Emily Morrison and Max Rapley… it’s light conversation until:


It’s the fun and cool Applespiel folk as they dance a dance of books – as thick, trashy tomes hang above us like the knotted ropes that hang off walls of a boot camp. They dance. They confess. They question. They explain. They’re patient when the drunk old guy starts singing into a microphone unexpectedly. They read erotic sections from trashy novels. They’re cool. I’m not. That’s ok. It’s something I am certain about.

There’s a wolf whistle and there on an inflatable couch is Caleb Lewis and Melissa Mathiesion. Sitting there, Scott Selkirk takes a photo of us sitting on the black inflatable couch – Michal Imielski, Melissa Mathison, Caleb Lewis and me… there’s an interesting chat about the failures of theatre brewing… but it’s time to see more art…

We run to the bathrooms – I bump into Jana Taylor and Skye Kunstelj in the bathrooms then run over and give Tom Hogan a kiss on the cheek we’re late – no time for recommendations… but there’s always time for a quick congratulations…



And there it is…
A woman in a long white dress moves as the heavy machinery melts and warps behind her… a square of light… she wrestles with her own hypnosis. I’m breathless twice over. I find a seat, I settle down. On the seat. I settle in myself. It’s soothing. To watch her is to feel love for your own ability to see. Two artists from two very different islands – David Kirkpatrick (Australia) and Anna Kuroda (Japan) – create a visual expression about feeling home… sleep, restlessness, ritual, energetic boundlessness. The minute and lyrical detail of her hands -beautiful. The sound washes and hold us. We are alive in this moment as this figure glows and spins and weave… it feels… it feels.. it feels like pre-sleep thinking. She picks a posie of flowers light with LED lights and we watch. Dance and sound perfectly matched and married.

Afterwards congratulating David and Anna, chatting to Howard Matthew (Shopfront’s new co-Artistic Director), Saskia Vromans…

Then to Patrick Nolan, Jimmy Dalton, Grant Moxom… not sure what we talked about… uncertain what it was that I had to say…

And soon it’s time for us to race into the night – the ferry is nearly at the dock and the water is black. I’m uncertain if we’ll make it. When we arrive we are questioned about yellow stickers. I don’t have yellow stickers. I wasn’t certain if they’d let us on the boat. But they did. Uncertain we’d get on. Uncertain how long it would take to get home…

At home.

Marveling at the attendance – all the people I saw and spoke with, listened to, was helped or guided by, entertained by, exposed to… what an incredible community. What a breathtaking event… what a festival! What a celebration of art and expression and ideas and love and bravery and silliness and opportunity!

There is a feeling of uncertainty still washing over me… had my strategy been silly? What was it I just experienced? What did I think? What did I feel? What did I like? What does it mean? What is it for? Why do we do this, we humans? Who stand around standing and talking and pretending and making?

You know, I’m not completely certain about that either.

But there is one thing I am certain of – regardless of the reasons for and against, and the lines of enquiry, we (the arts community – punters and makers alike) are bound to each other through common experience of exaltation, joy, visual delight and also uncertainty.

And that is one of the most beautiful things I have come to realise.

No matter how tenuous and uncertain, life, art, career, love, friendship, stability is – art happens. And you’ll deal with it.