Mona Foma’s absurd display of indulgence and playfulness is the secret to its success

Get the latest from Beat


Mona Foma’s absurd display of indulgence and playfulness is the secret to its success

Mona Foma
Words by Jacob McCormack

Launceston, the far-too-often forgotten Tasmanian city, is around two and half hours’ drive from nipaluna/Hobart, the capital of lutruwita.

Thanks to Mona, Launceston hosts a leg of the Mona Foma festival every year despite its regular lack of national recognition, and we all get a chance to see just how wonderful this city really is.

Our journey began winding along the openness of the midlands highway that connect nipaluna and Launceston, an important piece of country for Tasmanian First Peoples, once utilised for hunting and seasonal migration during the shifting of seasons.

Stay up to date with what’s happening in and around Melbourne here.

The midlands is now host to degraded pastoral land and countless roadworks that seem to have no end date, in years past the festival has transformed this stretch of road that harbours such a unique collision of history into various exhibition and performance spaces – an action that seems to make Mona Foma what it is.

The festival is renowned for converting significant locations, sites or unconventional architecture into performance spaces, all the while maintaining respect for Tasmanian First Peoples culture. 2024 followed this thread.

This year involved the takeover of an operational gym that played host to an 18+ circus/dance performance event as well as the Gorge (a special meeting place for Tasmanian First Peoples where the three rivers laykila [North Esk River], plipatumila [South Esk River] and kanamaluka [River Tamar] connect) being converted into a large concert space.

Launceston is rich in history, but it is also a culinary hot pot for produce grown all around the north of the state. The restaurant and wine bar Havilah is no exception, and it was under the dimly lit ambiance of this establishment that a weekend of celebration, festivity and outlandish theatrics commenced.

In good measure, wine glasses clinked and dishes consisting of local and sustainable produce were handed around a troop of media persons, Mona Foma staff and their partners as the hum of Havilah acted as a warm-up for Dekoor – the highly anticipated circus/dance performance in a gym.

Mona Foma’s description of the event outlined it as being a theatre/dance/circus performance in a multi-story working gym. It sounded like a quintessential Mona Foma show, equal parts performative and bizarre.

However, it was the ‘late night experience’ warnings and outlined consensual element that was the topic of discussion. What could an audience possibly be made to participate in, if each member that chose to consent would need to wear a token.

The mystery began to reveal itself upon entry as orange sweatbands were handed out, clearly marking out those who had chosen to experience the show in its entirety. I applied mine with curiosity and trepidation, its firm grip on my wrist ushering me into the brutalist complex.

We amassed into a group, a collective interloper entirely out of place. Radiohead’s Idioteque blared through the speakers of the space as two performers occupied the attention of the crowd, one showcasing a routine of immense athleticism on a set of ropes/rings and the other with a collection of hula hoops.

In between moments of perfect skill execution, the many tropes assigned to the world of fitness were enacted in an exaggerated way. Performers assumed positions and poses recognised with self-glorification and obsession whilst oranges were handed out or eaten by performers in seductive ways.

As each of the performers ebbed and flowed between gentleness and hardness, gender norms were being blurred by the immense display of fitness and sardonic theatrics.

The performance concluded abruptly, and a pre-recorded intercom moved our group of people onto the next performance as mutterings of disbelief and intrigue carried the crowd. Upstairs now, and it became apparent that the music being played was on a loop. Radiohead, Gil Scott-Heron, Rage Against The Machine and Pussy Riot soundtracking the bizarre and mesmerising display of provocation in the gym.

The remainder of the performance showcased awesome displays of hula-hoop work of all different sizes, one of which involved a performer moving inside the hoop itself. The show becoming equal parts theatrical and piquing.

And then the third and what was to be the final performance commenced with Thom Yorke singing a singular performer out of a jump-rope warmup into a contortionist dance routine. As other artists joined the dancer a bunch of grapes, carried in a basket lit up by a soft light were added to the performance.

The motif of fruit again played a vital role, but the fruit fight that ensued was hugely unexpected. Grapes being shoved into the mouths of performers, as audience members received a similar fate, or more playfully being teased and taunted by dancers.

It was this absurd display of indulgence and playfulness that bled into a breakout of dancing, jello shots and orange wedges being passed around. Nipples were freed, and expressions of strength revealed in the form of chin-ups, hanging upside down and lifting weights took over the crowd.

Pandemonium mixed with sheer elation as equal parts of the crowd moved with freedom and stood on the periphery of the dance floor unsure whether they were allowed to participate or not.

Whispers of an afterparty at the renowned Royal Oak soon diffused the crowd, as participants dispersed from the mutterings of confusion about what had been witnessed. The invitation presented as a choose-your-own adventure pursuit. Although, for me the mystifying aspect of a non-descript afterparty was overruled by an intrigue in exploring the multiple levels of what could only be described as a babel.

The top floor boasted a collision of pink and purple neon lights, a popcorn vendor, a bar stocked with the usual moo brew suspects (and the new zero alcohol sparkling hop soda – notto blotto). It was here party-goers of all walks congregated to the curated sounds of DJs adorned in sequins as the party bled into the early hours of the morning.

In a technicolour haze the following day came around slowly, and then all at once the gorge was brimming with eager audience members. Yet two sections separated the paying patrons and the clusters of others that had chosen to attend for free.

FFLORA – the famed improvisation band revealed their latest collaborative endeavour with Tasmania’s finest emerging rapper Grace Chia. They took the audience by storm with their tracks Passion and Support For Palestine, the latter featuring a stirring poem recited by a guest performer on stage, acting as a call to action with a clear message.

Next came the celebration of country and a call to the importance of the Gorge’s location, alongside a recognition of lutruwita’s history. Mulga Bore Rock followed with their unique take on classic rock ‘n’ roll. The band having just supported KISS on their recent Australian tour stepped onto stage adorned in face paint with various shapes stitched onto their outfits black, white and gold.

It was time for Cash Savage and The Last Drinks to don the stage next, bringing their distinct blend of folk, ballad and rock that swirls in a sonic storm of social activism and lyricism encompassing existentialism. Cash delivered a powerful display of her spoken word and singing hybridization as themes of fragility, struggle and resistance were propped up by the contemplative sounds of violin.

The finale featured TISM, which started with a TISM talk (a tongue-in-cheek take on TED talks), so purposefully executed that an audience gathered on stage to watch on with intent. Next came the prolonged and sardonic poetic introduction that bled into their signature electro-pop and humorous style of music. They performed all their classics including Greg! The Stop Sign! (He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River and I Drive A Truck. As with any TISM performance, the crowd was left bewildered, aching from excessive laughter and trying to piece together what they just witnessed.

And suddenly Mona Foma 2024 was over, the streets of Launceston filled with festival attendees, the usual denizens of Saturday night carrying around a giant red T reminding us all that TISM had played.

Find out more about the stunning Gorge concert here and the broader Mona Foma program here.