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There’s an alternative Biennale festival coming to Sydney

Written by
Dee Jefferson

Imagine if the Biennale of Sydney was in one venue, and you got to meet and hang out with the artists as they were making their artworks? Imagine if it was also a two-day festival in which you got to be part of interactive artworks, immerse yourself in installations and performances, and party with some of your favourite local musicians and performers?

Enter Underbelly Arts 2017 Lab & Festival: a weekend featuring 21 art installations, performance and interactive works Underbelly Arts Festival – preceded by a two-week Underbelly Arts Lab in which the artists create their work – and you get to watch them doing it.

The sixth edition of Underbelly Arts, curated by incoming festival director (and Underbelly alumnus) Roslyn Helper, features 21 brand-new works that have been commissioned and funded, and will be site-specific. There will be a new performance by musician Marcus Whale (Collarbones) and artist Eugene Choi, featuring a 30-piece choir; there will be an interactive inflatable work created by Amrita Hepi, Honey Long and Prue Stent; there will be a six-hour queer, contemporary remix of traditional Peking Opera, by dancer/choreographer Shian Law; and there will be an interactive ‘Netflix-style’ show, by theatre-maker and filmmaker Laurence Rosier-Staines.

Roslyn Helper performing 'The Human Google Project' at Underbelly Arts Festival 2015
Photograph: Ash Berdebes


It’s this kind of ambitious programming that has established Underbelly – over ten years and 5 editions – as a sort of ‘alt-Biennale’ for Sydney: smaller, more local, but consistently facilitating artists with large visions, and presenting art as an immersive and interactive experience.

But the thing that truly sets Underbelly apart from its peers (such as This is Not Art, Next Wave and Sydney Fringe – or indeed, the Biennale of Sydney) is its ‘public lab’ component: in the weeks leading up to the Festival, members of the public are able to drop in and see the artists creating their works – ask questions, be guinea pigs in the experiment, or watch rehearsals.

Whereas the move to Cockatoo Island for the 2011-2015 iterations saw a reduction in public access and involvement in the Lab (getting to the Island mid-week is, ah, hard), in 2017 the festival returns to the inner city – the National Art School campus, off Taylor Square – and is hoping to get audiences far more involved in the Lab stage of development. In fact, you can only take part in the Lab if you have bought a ticket to the Festival weekend. “We’re really trying to build a community vibe that we couldn’t on Cockatoo Island,” says Helper.

Kicking off September 25, Underbelly Arts Lab will run guided tours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 6pm, over the two weeks prior to the festival (September 25-October 5). Each tour will be followed by a Late at the Lab event: a talk, performance or interactive response to the art, run by a different organisation each night (including Runway Experimental Art and the now NOW). Yes, there’s a bar on site.

No tour will be the same, with different artworks on view (between 5-10 works) each night. In other words, you can come every night, and end up seeing a greater spectrum of works.

“It’s incredibly rare for audiences to be given the chance to meet artists and have a behind-the-scenes look at experimental and contemporary art practices,” says Helper. “For us, the point of doing the Lab is breaking down barriers of access, and saying to audiences: ‘Yes, you can be involved in this; this art is for you.’ We’re opening our doors and welcoming people in, and trying to start a conversation about contemporary art and ideas – and we want everyone to be a part of that. That’s really at the heart of Underbelly Arts.”

Underbelly Arts Festival & Lab runs Sep 25-Oct 8 at the National Art School in Darlinghurst. There is an Opening Night Party on Fri Oct 6. Tickets are on sale now: a regular tickets gets you access to the Lab and Festival; for $16 more you can also go to the Opening Night Party (this is the ticket you need if you like your art with bands + DJs + dancefloor). Under-25s get in cheap; under-12s get in free.

See the full line-up of artists for Underbelly Arts 2017 Festival & Lab.

Read our interview with Underbelly Arts director Roslyn Helper for her project (with Harriet Gillies) The Internet is Where Innocence Goes To Die and You Can Come Too.

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