The Underbelly Arts organisation began six years ago, with the aim of bringing emerging and underground artists together so that they could show their work to a broader range of people, but also share ideas and resources amongst themselves. Since then, the organisation has expanded, to the point where they now run their own annual festival, with this year’s taking place this weekend on Sydney Harbour’s Cockatoo Island. “We’re all about finding the next generation of great Australian artists,” artistic director Eliza Sarlos explains. “There are emerging artists out there right now who are making really exciting work with real merit, so why not let people experience that right now if we can?”
Cockatoo Island is a unique setting for an arts festival, and gives the participants space to spread out and dream as big as they like. “We try to encourage a really broad range of interdisciplinary works,” Sarlos says, “and we have a lot of works that really engage with the site. For example, there’s a sound work called Ghost Ships, which is in the big turbine hall in the industrial precinct, and it looks at how sound is made in a space like that.” For the artists involved, Cockatoo Island is a veritable playground for new ideas. “A gallery can seem like a big space,” Sarlos says, “but when you’re on an island like this, a big space is hundreds of square metres. It’s been a real privilege to encourage artists to use that space, and to think about the possibilities of it.”
Many of the works draw on the history of Cockatoo Island itself. “There’s a smartphone app called Ghosts Of Biloela, that takes you back to the time when the island was a reformatory school for girls,” Sarlos explains. “It’s a collaboration between the playwright Anna Barnes and various programmers and sound artists.” The work takes the form of a geo-locative app, which triggers different parts of the island’s story based on where users stand. “It’s all underpinned by sound design,” Sarlos says. “You get to experience the story of this hellish 1800s reform school in a way that’s completely different from the way the person next to you might experience it. It’s great to see artists finding new ways to engage people in storytelling.”
The Underbelly Arts Festival’s program also includes elements aimed specifically at children and young people. “That’s something relatively new for us,” Sarlos says, “and it’s partly a product of being on the island. In previous years, we saw a lot of people coming with prams and with younger kids, and we realised we had a great opportunity to really get kids interested in the work and the great stuff that’s happening.” There will even be teenager-led tours, specifically for kids. “They’re a pretty keen bunch, so we’ve done some training with them to get them ready,” Sarlos laughs. “They’ve picked out some specific works to talk about,” Sarlos says. “When you’re a little kid, a 17 year old seems old but a 30 year old seems really old. It’s a great way to get kids interested in the art in a way that’s not intimidating.”
As for the festival’s other highlights, Sarlos is reluctant to narrow it down, but one that she’s particularly excited about is Kino Klinik, by a collective called the Mook Gwa Institute. “They’ll be sitting down to do therapy sessions with audience members using plots and story lines from films,” she explains. “It’s like working through the troubles in your life with Margaret and David! It’s playful, but it also has the potential to say something a bit more to audiences – like a lot of the works at the festival.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
Underbelly Arts Festival runs from August 3-4 on Cockatoo Island.