THOMASIN SLEIGH returns from a busy couple of weeks at Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival.

NEXT WAVE 2008, Melbourne’s emerging artists/ performers/writers festival, was an elaborate affair. I only just managed to get my plane back to New Zealand after the last ‘Nightclub Project’ the night before, one of the events where performers and artists intervened in dubious nightclub environments. I ran into the airport and was suddenly struck by the thought I might have forgotten to put on my pants. Thankfully, this was not the case. Needless to say, it was a good night.

I’m probably going to have to use a number of backslashes in this article because the mantra of the festival was ‘genre-busting’ and genres were indeed busted. Tired of using terms such as ‘interdisciplinary’, ‘multimedia’, and ‘inter-media’ the Next Wave communications team came up with ‘genre-busting’ at the last minute as a punchy, aggressive (?) alternative. Poor old Clement Greenberg would have been turning in his grave at the intermingling of installation/performance/social services/theatre/video art/documentation/text/sculpture/happenings/sound art/billboard work and dance that took place.

The works in Next Wave 2008 bled out around and through Melbourne. There was just as much work to be found in back alleys, individual homes, and subways as in gallery spaces. There was so much to see, I was struck like a rabbit in the headlights on the first couple of days – crippled by the amount of choice. Then I realised that I wasn’t going to see everything so shouldn’t even try and headed off to the closest artist-run initiative.

The most interesting works I saw in the festival were the performance/art hybrids. Six Minute Soul Mate took place in an old hotel in central Melbourne. Ten audience members were chaperoned through three small rooms where they were privy to three singleton’s attempts at speed dating presentations. The monologues were repeated and became progressively more awkward and gratuitous in their efforts for human affection. Six Minute Soul Mate had the perfect balance of confrontation, humour and pathos and, like many of the works in Next Wave, did not allow for an apathetic viewing but unashamedly implicated the audience.

Another work, Please Hold, required a single audience member to walk into a small room, pick up a telephone and listen to an incredibly personal narrative, relayed seemingly from far away. The dialogue was carefully written and delivered so intimately that I wasn’t aware that the light was slowing changing in the tiny room. I got a huge shock when I realised that the speaker was only sitting about two metres away from me through a perforated panel. All distance between myself and speaker was shatteringly collapsed and those distinctions were suddenly rendered hopelessly inadequate.

There were so many works in Next Wave 2008 that it seems almost derisory to try and describe a small number of them here. The ones I mention are only a few of many which I managed to get to and enjoyed. However, to make some bold claims and perhaps too general observations: a lot of the work dealt with environmental concerns. Ash Keating’s 2020? was huge logistical operation. Sourcing large amounts of industrial building material from landfills and dump sites, Keating and a group of other artists set up assembling and reassembling the timber, plastic and numerous other ‘junk’ into precarious sculptures. In doing so, this group created some impressive monuments which functioned in a way as subversive idols to the use and abuse of out natural resources.

Interventions in both civic and gallery space were also points of focus. Membrane invited artists from artist-run spaces around Australia to create works specifically to intervene with Melbourne’s central public arena, Federation Square. Fed Square is an intimidating collection of postmodern buildings; theatres, cafes and galleries, centred around an open space for the citizens of Melbourne to mingle in and absorb some community spirit. It is a big space, and the architecture is tricky to compete with. Consequently, many of the works in Membrane fell a bit flat for me. They didn’t change the way in which I engaged with the space and seemed adrift in the corners and shifting enclosures of Federation Square.

I was at Next Wave 2008 specifically as a participant in Text Camp; a programme designed as a support structure for young art writers. Much discussion in our workshops was around the tiredness of ‘art speak’ and we debated the common language and structures which describe art. This conversation was framed by recent scholarly articles which have claimed that art criticism is in a crisis and is struggling to find its position in a contemporary art world where critique is integral to most artists’ practice. I felt this keenly when wandering around Melbourne looking at the work in Next Wave, and I feel it again after writing up this article. There was a lot of art that I found it hard to find the appropriate words for – or words that weren’t clunky hybrids of other words. I felt the need to assume a new vocabulary for art writing, before there are more backslashes than language in my writing. I’ll let you know how I get on.