Eye-catching debut for the futuristic festival aiming to transform the city

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Over the past three weekends, Melbourne/Naarm’s major new arts festival Now or Never made its dizzying debut. With a focus on the future of technology, it sits in a crowded field of high-concept, brand-intensive, publicly-funded festivals including RISING, Vivid and Dark Mofo (which is privately owned but receives public funds). So, where does it land?

Now or Never is a consolidation of Melbourne Music Week and Melbourne Knowledge Week and continues MMW’s tradition of reinvigorating under-utilised civic spaces. For its marquee venue, Now or Never staged major contemporary music performances in the Royal Exhibition Building for the first time in more than 20 years.

The inaugural Now or Never festival featured contemporary music performances staged in the Royal Exhibition Building for the first time in more than 20 years.Credit: Now or Never

Inside, a dazzling, 16-metre-high semi-transparent LED screen (inspired by a similar, social media famous installation in the London super-club Printworks) was the backdrop for highlights including Orchestra Victoria’s hypnotic rendition of minimalist composer Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians; anarchic modular techno by the Bristol duo Giant Swan; and a community-affirming celebration of Queer artistry headlined by the pre-eminent experimental US R&B artist, Kelela. Concerns around the building’s hard, reflective surfaces proved unwarranted – the room sounds fantastic.

Now or Never’s series of talks from scientists, artists and designers underpinned its performances. In a keynote speech, the London-based social entrepreneur and architect, Indy Johar, proposed a complete reorganisation of governance, the economy and our relationship to the land we live on to ensure humanity’s survival. If we do as Johar says, how should a city’s publicly-funded festivals reflect that change? What’s their purpose, and who should they serve?

RISING opted to empower artists with its bold programming and initially chose a smaller number of thematically more complex free public artworks than White Night, the increasingly unmanageable festival it replaced. But arguably, RISING alienated the broad audience White Night amassed in the process. Now or Never took note and presented a free 1.2-kilometre Docklands Art Trail; a thematically accessible 360-degree full-dome cinema presentation in its Neversphere; and SACRA – an epic, monochromatic animation which transformed the Shrine of Remembrance’s facade.

Now or Never’s NONSTOP WKND (formerly MMW’s Live Music Safari) was a crucial social leveller. Affordable day passes (reduced in price at the eleventh hour) gave audiences access to 70 artists performing at 13 shows, in six Melbourne venues. In shadowy rooms vibrating with bass, attendees let loose without hyper-specialised knowledge of a medium’s in-jokes or conventions.

As part of Now or Never, SACRA transformed the facade of the Shrine of Remembrance.Credit: Now or Never

Walking into one of the city’s beloved band rooms one could find singer Georgie Darvidis belting out John Farnham’s You’re the Voice in the style of Björk; the performance artist Mara Gallagher, spotlit on a milk crate podium being buffeted by leaf blowers; the DJ Adriana supporting Pontic Greek folk dancers; and the Honduran DJ Low Jack upending a club with Britney Spears edits and Central American dance genres, including electro Latino and zouk bass.

Now or Never’s opening party at Max Watts featured exclusively First Peoples DJs, and the festival opened its events with a message supporting the Voice to parliament. But those overtures ring hollow when First Peoples performers are only given opening, interstitial or back-up slots at the festival’s flagship Royal Exhibition Building venue; just two First Peoples artists in its Docklands Art Trail; and one film in the Neversphere.

As confirmed to The Age by the festival, NONSTOP WKND included international and local performers with Nigerian, Serbian, Indonesian, Japanese, Colombian, Chilean, Hong Kong, Angolan, Black American and Mauritian heritages – but none of the 70 acts at NONSTOP WKND were from First Peoples communities.

The festival included some First Peoples representation in smaller events and talks, but the absence was felt at Now or Never’s mass-attendance program pieces. Representation matters in what context it happens as well as how often.

Professor Angie Abdilla (left) speaks as part of the inaugural Now or Never festival.Credit: Now or Never

In a flicker of hope, Now or Never has already presented a template to help it fix the imbalance in subsequent years at Never Permanent, its day-long conference co-presented with Semi-Permanent. The day’s sole First Peoples speaker (the speakers in general came from a wide range of backgrounds), the AI researcher, designer and entrepreneur Professor Angie Abdilla, a Palawa woman, presented her Country-centred Design philosophy.

Abdilla’s concept places care for Country and community at the heart of decision-making: When it comes to the consultation process, who is asking the questions? Is the work interrupting an important cultural practice or enhancing it? Does the work holistically benefit the community in which it’s taking place? Many of these concepts sync with Johar’s thoughts, too.

Now or Never’s futurist thematic undertaking is both a challenge and opportunity. The City of Melbourne, the festival and its directors are on the cusp of creating something extraordinary that caters to academics and aesthetes, while engaging and challenging a broad audience, too – but only if it practises what it preaches year-on-year. If Now or Never can look to the future, while meaningfully incorporating the practical knowledge systems that have existed here for tens of thousands of years, it will have something truly unique within its grasp.

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