Blood dark mofo
The Dark Mofo ad campaign (Image: Dark Mofo)

Given that David Walsh, founder of MONA and Dark Mofo, made his fortune off gambling, it might have been worth taking a bet on when his festival of transgression would eventually really land itself in it. The “we want your blood” controversy currently engulfing Dark Mofo would appear to be it.

The festival — which takes over Hobart for a couple of weeks, usually in the winter — advertised with a raw red poster and alert for Indigenous people to donate their blood so that it could be soaked into a Union Jack.

Artist Santiago Sierra described it as a comment on colonialism, presumably the horrors thereof. Indigenous and other artists disagreed, to put it mildly, and more than a hundred participants signed a petition demanding not only the artwork’s cancellation, but that Walsh’s MONA complex thoroughly reform its curatorial practices, have all staff and management undergo cultural awareness training, and various other reparations.

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Dark Mofo director Leigh Carmichael looked like he might tough it out for a while before he caved, as did Walsh, cancelling the work and adopting the language of anti-colonialism and trauma deployed by the protestors who had demanded that Dark Mofo be a “safe” space for artists.

And, well, that’s pretty much the end of Dark Mofo ain’t it? I mean, as a festival of transgression and edge. Perhaps that was only a matter of time.

There was always something bizarre about the festival’s wild success in the Apple Isle, whose public morality is split between Christianity and green-secularism.

As representatives of both clenched their teeth, Dark Mofo and MONA became major tourist drawcards and part of Tasmania’s global branding. Yet that drew the festival into a paradox.

Its identity and energy were drawn from a European avant-garde tradition of transgressing morality, at the same time as the progressive class and the cultural-producer elites have built new collective identities around the enforcement of ever more specific moral rules.

The confrontation was never going to come around Dark Mofo’s usually jejune attacks on western religion. Now they went and did something a little more interesting and it has all come apart.

You can see the point being made by the protestors about the in-your-faceness of Sierra’s work. It’s not a single event in a gallery you choose to go to, but widely disseminated by a festival; sort of Satan’s Moomba, now an arm of the state. It’s by a non-Indigenous artist, it’s kinda tiresome in its staginess, etc. But on the other hand, protesting artists — I mean, it’s all a little grimly funny. What is it that first alerted you to the “unsafe” qualities of a festival called “Dark Motherfucker”?

Was it the neon Satanic inverted crucifixes around town? The guy using the fresh remains of a slaughtered bull? Heh… The protest over “We want your blood” shows that the transgression of events like Dark Mofo has always been a packaged one, held within limits, which conformed to the secular-humanist values of the knowledge class.

Since these are now the dominant values of society — it’s been decades since they defeated a remnant religious-cultural order, what progressive value or statement could possibly be challenging or transgressive now? — Dark Mofo has had the challenge of declining energy for some time.

Recently, it added a “dangerous thought” mini festival. But since the dangerous thoughts of our time are all those adopted by the alt-right now (what if monocultures are better than multicultures? What if the triumph of gender over sex is a cultural disaster? What if war is necessary to the health of a society? What if global colonialism was a necessary precursor to full human liberation?) the progressive avant-garde’s claim to edge is permanently stymied.

“We want your blood” did have a bit of sizzle about it — whatever the artist tried to fix as the work’s meaning it had other, darker ones — but that’s not what Dark Mofo’s for. It’s for having a black vanilla ice cream, seeing a three-hour movie about sodomy and then going on a ferry ride. Kids get in free. It’s a theme park of a concluded artistic modernity.

Trouble is, so is the attitude deployed by the artists protesting the event. What the hell concern do artists have with MONA and Dark Mofo being “safe” — meaning not that loose scaffolding is secured but that nothing “traumatic” will be seen or heard? How can art even begin to work on this principle?

Both Walsh and Carmichael should have pushed back much harder against the implicit notion that there’s some sort of right to not encounter anything disturbing or upsetting. Art has to have a certain autonomy of creation and a right to come into being, as it were, as a necessary part of a wider right to free expression. How is it possible to defend someone’s right to call for Australia to “burn to the ground” at a rally and then apply collective censorship, on psychological “safety” grounds, to a piece of art?

The inevitable result will be that the “safety” motif is rolled over into political discourse to shut down protest. Such acts are the expression of grant-fed artistic networks which have become arms of the state, to produce a safe, authorised art of pseudo-dissent.

The eventual result is that artistic mediocrity, the production of a sameish avant-garde kitsch and disengagement as the pursuit of safety, and the avoidance of trauma become an ever-tightening circle. Such wars to shut down expression are acting as a substitute for real politics in any case.

Tasmania, after all, is the place where activist Michael Mansell started a sovereignty push with money part-provided by Colonel Gaddafi. How unsafe was that? The search for “safety” is nothing other than the consolidation of an elite order, to which a section of artistic elites have been admitted.

Those who want real change should have nothing to do with it. Art and politics and life are meant to have a bit of fate and chance about them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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