On a beautiful spring Saturday in Sydney, around 3,000 people attend a festival unknown to most cities.
Set in the glittering heritage of Kakadu Island and accessible only by private boat, the first fashion festival is billed as an "invigorating dance music experience" and a "comprehensive visual arts experience". Organized by Sydney promoters Bizarro, who have previously held parties in clubs and warehouses, the festival promises to be an unusual venture in the traditionally disaster-prone city.
Bachelorettes and siblings gather to board party boats at Darling Harbour's King Street Wharf. In a crash scene, the road to Mod is lined with beanies, matrix-matrix looks, steamy couples and - this being Sydney - police dogs. On the boat, as the afternoon sunlight burns the black skin, the mood swings between fun and dread, familiar to anyone who has been to a dance festival in New South Wales.
In many ways, Mod Festival demonstrates the promise and pitfalls of hosting a new electronic music festival in Sydney. Bizarro persuaded the Sydney Harbor Trust to back the festival because of its focus on the visual arts, especially after Biennale Sydney ends its 14-year run on Cockatoo Island in 2021. The theme of the festival is "Assumed Futures". 10 emerging Australian installation artists have been selected for the show.
But the fad has been labeled a "themed festival" under new government rules introduced in 2019 in the wake of drug-related deaths at New South Wales festivals. (In 2021, the term "theme festival" replaced "high risk".) The classification brought new logistical challenges and costs, especially on the island. With a ticket of a whopping $200 including ferry fare the draw was no guarantee.
Once there, the crowd - most of whom are over 20 years old - can relax. Cockatoo Island, a former prison at the confluence of the Lane Cove and Parramatta Rivers, is a sandstone and iron house that hosts art exhibitions, concerts and festivals such as All Tomorrow's Party, but it's less modern. high-ceilinged turbine hall with steel and concrete beams. At Small Crime Workshops, Voids Soundsystem's bass vibrated through the glass through the arched windows, while the more intimate Navy Store DJ took the Boiler Room's streaming stage. Between the art installations, a mix of festival-worthy food stalls and me serving my first Willof's salad at the dance party. Behind a fence that kept the ravers out, families played tug-of-war and relaxed on the sun-soaked lawns. (The organizers hope to expand to take advantage of the "eastern side" of the island in the coming years).
Musically, the Mode festival made no concessions to the mainstream. The obviously unnamed lineup includes top names from techno, bass and other rave-ready alma maters. The influence of Berlin's techno temple Berghain Steele was pervasive, and the upbeat house music of sister bar Panorama was the only sound heard all day. Notably, the parade's gender mix reflected the crowd better than most festivals.
My highlights came early when the sets were spectacular and the unadorned rooms were filled with natural light. While Japanese DJ-producer Wata Igarashi graces the Turbine Hall with deep, structured techno, British duo Adam Pitts and Lisene Criminal Workshops attempt to capture moments of calm in one of the many 90s minds. Later, New York's Aurora Halal played an hour of live techno in the darkened Turbine Hall. The long, thin sunlight between the rear doors was as effective as any video screen.
At the Halal event, I was pleasantly surprised to see this music in a beautiful setting on Kokoto Island, and not in a warehouse or pub-turned-club, as is often the case in the post-lockdown "underground" city. - Music is a business. Australian artists, including earlier in the evening, Anurag used the end of his set to address earlier criticism of Boiler Room and urged the audience to recognize dance music in queer, black and working-class communities.
For most of the participants, the evening was saved by K / K in the Turbine Hall, a representative of the new generation of DJs who have found new ears in the dance and hard scenes (many of which were not considered "cool" before). Dancing to heavy beats in red leather, her set was the least subtle of the day and just what the crowd needed. After suspecting that art education was gaining ground quickly, I came across a stunning neon-lit exhibition by multi-disciplinary artist MaggZ. After the ki/kin pump, the evening ended with two competitive techno experiments by Etap Kyle and Jerome.
As with any new festival, the mod ran into problems, including bars running out of drinks and long queues for toilets and boilers. Beyond the logistics, the massive and ubiquitous police presence among the undecided population was to be ignored. Even more encouraging was the presence of DanceWize crowd safety volunteers and clear drug use guidelines on the festival's website, a marked improvement over zero-tolerance festivals.
The party on the water felt like another world as they cruised past the Balmain couture residences, ending with dinner and cocktails in Darling Harbour. In a city full of contradictions, the first Mod Festival was a breath of fresh air.