Hot Seat: Mona Foma curator Brian Ritchie
Brian Ritchie made a name for himself in Australia long before he and his scientist wife Varuni Kulasekera moved to Tasmania in 2007.
His Milwaukee-born punk-folk band Violent Femmes, who started busking on the streets, achieved greater success in Australia initially before the US, courtesy of triple j, as well as their support and exposure to Australian First Nation music.
But it was his radical and widely applauded work as curator of the Mona Foma (MOFO) festival which has seen him a finalist for Excellence by an Individual at next Monday’s (August 19) Art Music Awards in Sydney.
He’s up against Cat Hope who was nominated for leadership in the composition, performance and education of new music; Lyn Williams for contribution to choral music; and Michelle Leonard for championing Australian art music
Q: Of the many things said about Mona Foma – blasphemous! electrifying! on the edge! My favourite is “it’s the expression of outsider artists”. What’s your take on an ‘outsider’ artist and do you think it fits what you’ve tried to do?
BR: Mona Foma is a festival of unique creativity.
We seek out artists who are doing things in their own way and not riding trends.
We actively cultivate musicians and artists who are outside the mainstream.
A good example of this is our emphasis on female musicians in general and specifically from cultural backgrounds which usually suppress their voices.
We have also featured refugee artists.
We like musicians working with obsolete technologies or who are creating work from unusual materials like junk.
We try to find artists who create out of an inner drive that cannot be suppressed.
Frequently this means people who have unusual psychological profiles or who come from the fringes of society.
Q: Were Violent Femmes ‘outsider’ musicians? Or attracted to them?
BR: The Femmes started out playing on the street because we could not get gigs in normal venues like nightclubs due to our bizarre approach to playing rock music.
Meaning high energy but acoustic.
At the time people did not even consider us as real musicians.
We were considered weirdos. I guess they were right about that, come to think of it!
Q: Why do you think you’ve been named as a finalist for the individual achievement gong for at the Art Music Awards?
BR: Cat, Lyn and Michelle are formidable company and it’s an honour to be nominated alongside them.
Hopefully, I received a nomination for being able to forge a full, comprehensive and multi-faceted musical life in Australia.
I had a full career as a performer worldwide and in Australia before moving here 12 years ago.
But since relocating to Tasmania I have had the opportunity to create festivals and performances for many great Australian musicians from almost every part of the musical spectrum.
It has been enormously satisfying to give them a platform thanks to the support of Mona.
There is also a sense of artistic freedom in Australia that goes beyond what I experienced in the States.
People are given license to pursue a variety of musical directions without being pigeonholed.
As a result, I get to play with a dizzying array of collaborators and it’s fun.
Q: Is it also because Mona showed Tasmanians and Australians a different way of looking at themselves? You once famously said ”I don’t want to give [people] what they want. I want to give them what they don’t know they want yet.’’
BR: Coming from outside Australia and being innocent and naive gave me the opportunity to reshape the concept of what a festival or a venue can be.
Because I didn’t feel bound to the way things are usually or previously done. It was a clean slate.
This, in turn, gave the Tasmanians a new way of looking at their own place.
Q: When we were both judges for the Helpmann Awards, you made the comment that you were surprised that Mona Foma was being nominated in the same category as Bluesfest and Splendour. Why surprised?
BR: It’s really cool that a relatively small and boutique festival can go toe to toe in that framework with gigantic commercial juggernauts like Bluesfest and Splendour.
In some music awards, like the Grammys, it’s strictly based on money and sales.
Australia has an incredible festival ecology and we were surprised and pleased that we could receive acknowledgement for creating a new model.
Q: To what extent has moving Mona Foma to Launceston in 2018 allowed you to recreate its vision?
BR: We intentionally try to recreate Mona Foma every year and moving to Launceston is an example of that.
Many festivals have a strict format and the only thing that changes is the names on the poster and in the slots.
We aim to create an environment where [we get] return visitors, and we have a high percentage of them, get a different experience every year.
The move to Launceston was big and the city has not seen anything like Mona Foma before.
We try to showcase the variety of performance and exhibition spaces in a unique way that shows visitors the charms of Launceston and allows the locals to see familiar places used in new ways. It’s a balancing act.
Q: Next year what kind of new Launceston spaces will you be able to utilise?
BR: We haven’t announced the program yet so we have to maintain the element of surprise.
But we’ll be using the Inveresk site as our hub again, with satellite events in some of the same spots we’ve used in the last two years.
But we’ll also be branching out into some unlikely new venues and activities. Watch this space!
Q: Next time Varuni and you throw one of your legendary dinner parties and you have the choice of inviting six famous people (living or dead) whom would it be?
BR: It’s funny that our dinner parties are legendary! Let’s invite (philanthropist and businessperson) Janet Holmes á Court, (Sri Lankan cricket champion) Kumar Sangakkara, (Japanese contemporary artist) Yayoi Kusama, (Welsh-born composer, producer and Velvet Underground co-founder) John Cale, (youthful Nobel-prize winning Pakistani advocate for female education) Malala Yousafzai, and (pioneer of meditative approach to wellbeing) Jon Kabat-Zinn.
They are all alive, therefore can drink martinis, although some of them don’t.
Some of these people have been at our actual dinner parties but you’ll have to guess which ones.
Q: Does your house actually overlook Opossum Bay, and does living in Tasmania increase your affinity for the four elements?
BR: We bought some land overlooking Opossum Bay from Peter Garrett and worked with the architect Stuart Tanner to build a house which won an award from the Royal Institute of Architects in 2009, despite being the smallest house nominated. It’s a little gem.
We moved to Tasmania in search of nature and ended up with culture.
That is one of the greatest things about being in Tasmania, the way everything comes back to the natural beauty, eerie light and intoxicating fresh air.
The 2019 Art Music Awards will take place Monday, August 19 at Sydney University’s Great Hall.