Next Wave began as a youth arts festival but given that the shelf life of artists is considerably longer than that of sports people and models, the remit eventually expanded to “emerging”.
These days the festival can feature alumni whose average age is 39 and who are festival regulars, so it's tempting to adapt St Augustine's quip about time to describe what makes a Next Wave work: I know what it is as long as no one asks me to define it.
The cutting edge has itself come under the knife in recent years.
Or you could just look at the label. Next Wave showcases artists who might have their own show in the NGV or Melbourne Festival in 10 years, and the biennial festival is always a useful barometer for the national cultural climate.
There are a few similar events – Sydney's Unberbelly Arts, or ACCA's regular NEW series, but the cutting edge has itself come under the knife in recent years.
Next Wave was one of the bodies hit hardest by the decimation of the Australia Council in 2016, losing $150,000 per year in “emerging key organisation” funding, on top of an earlier gouging of $500,000 to run the JUMP mentorship program for promising new talent.
Under those circumstances many organisations would have folded, but last weekend saw the end of the first festival since all that bloodletting took place, and you wouldn't know that a drop had been spilled.
Rather than shrinking the festival, director Georgie Meagher and her team have rallied the support of other like-minded organisations such as Darebin Arts in the north and The Substation in the west. They're stronger together.
So what's on the minds of the next next wave of artists? They're looking backwards as often as they are to the future. This festival saw a heavy emphasis on rituals and traditions, reckoning with real histories and forging new myths.
Sancintya Mohini Simpson's Bloodlines offered a series of quiet devastations: deceptively simple depictions of the ordeals suffered by South Indian women forcibly indentured to South African plantations in the 1800s and 1900s.
Amelia Winata's Wayfind turned a former maternal health service over to artists, who responded to the politics embodied by its depersonalised modernist architecture.
Athena Thebus' video work Deep Water Dream Girl was a meditative, occasionally uncomfortable portrait of Filipina family life, mingling Catholicism and queerness, tropical tides and wince-worthy beauty routines.
Next Wave 2018 was the most rewardingly diverse the festival has ever been.
Meagher's two Next Wave festivals have tended towards visual and live art, and the performance components here largely abandoned the structural conventions of theatre and dance in favour of the durational or entropic.
The comedy Lifestyle of the Richard and Family was in part written by predictive text program SwiftKey; the result was a kind of Ionescu via autocorrect, not exactly pleasant but with an absurd internal logic of its own.
Apokalypsis was another performance built around a non-narrative challenge – here, to present 100 historical disasters in 60 minutes. That premise proved a MacGuffin, however. While a sur-text did name-check several billion years worth of calamities, the action that played out on stage took these as metaphorical jumping-off points for a frequently hilarious tale of a Melbourne sharehouse squabbling in the face of the world's ending.
It's telling that both of these works devolved into giddy chaos: the futures imagined in this festival avoided the lure of utopianism. The closest might have been Future City Inflatable, a three-hour dance installation that riffed on the comic dystopias of Piero Frassinelli's 1971 text 12 Cautionary Tales for Christmas. A subtext here, as elsewhere in the festival, seemed to suggest that before an attempt to dream a future is possible, we'll have to figure out where the dreams of past generations failed us.
The arts scene in Australia might paint itself as progressive, but it's just as rife as the next industry when it comes to biases, both unconscious and otherwise. Next Wave 2018 was the most rewardingly diverse the festival has ever been; a sharp rebuke to the top-down culture that attempts to divide the arts into two categories of “excellence” and “accessibility”.
It may be that these artists simply don't have the time to imagine a bright and shiny future, since they're too busy trying to make one. Imagine what they could do with some of that funding restored.
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