It was -2C when I got on a flight in London last Thursday. When I landed in Perth 17 hours later, it was 38. Non-stop from winter to high summer by way of shedloads of aviation fuel and a graceful eastward arc through the lower stratosphere in a climate controlled Qantas cabin.
I’m here as a FIFO worker. That’s Festival In, Festival Out.
I stand bewildered in the blazing sun, in a cone of sensory overwhelm. The ground beneath radiates light and heat. The sandy paths of Kings Park click and crack with insect life and tinder-dry twists of bark crunch underfoot.
My role here is festival 'navigator'. Artistic director Wendy Martin conceived of it in 2016 because she recognised that a festival is much more than a concentrated array of cultural events in a particular place. It's a living, evolving entity; an assemblage of interdependent parts, each enriching, challenging and refracting our view of all the others. The Perth Festival is a hotspot in what anthropologist Wade Davis calls the 'ethnosphere': the sum of humanity's imaginative contributions to the planet. Each festival has its own terrain, its own ecology; and year by year the thought-roots of its individual events spread and fuse below the surface and in the minds of its audiences. Individual buddings and flourishings become connected by common themes and questions burning in the ethnosphere.
Over the coming 3 weeks I’m tasked with foraging for those themes and questions in this rich territory of making and engaging. There are artists and projects arriving here now from over 50 countries, including Vietnam, South Africa, China, India, Canada and the US, Estonia, Japan, Britain, Ireland, Spain, Greece, and Aboriginal and diaspora communities throughout Australia. How on this good earth will I find a way through so many encounters and utterances? Shall I run to the ship's bridge and send a universal signal of uncertainty - five short blasts announcing my fear of a possible collision?
Navigation, though, has never been a solo activity. It's a collaborative, and optimistic, act of reckoning and working with circumstances in the face of uncertainty. At any level, participation in the festival brings us into a communal context. We may not be aware of it in our daily lives, but as on a boat, our movement through space and time is a continual and relational process of navigation, and is understood through multiple forms of perspective which connect moving bodies with their changing environment. Pilots needs charts and, in troubled waters, a lookout on the bow. They need satnav or stars, sextant or triangulated landmarks, local knowledge of currents and winds and historical narratives of the sea bed. To find our bearings we need a feel for conditions and the spirit of place, a full sensory participation in our surroundings and their multiple voices. We can only find our way forward, in Walt Whitman's words, by 'consulting ensemble'.
This is the subject of Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey's Five Short Blasts, a maritime meditation on uncertainty and collaboration. It's the wellspring too of the intercultural partnership that led to Kwongkan, a dream of ceremony and sand on an injured planet, and it lies at the heart of the festival's great and profound opening event, Boorna Waanginy. The fragmentation and loss of the known, remembered, held and spoken, is the loss of our maps and modes of connection to place. The world we thought we knew, thought we had charted entirely, is once again becoming strange to us; the maps showing gaps and lacunae, new features, new tendencies. Despite our best (and worst) intentions, plants and animals will not be told what to do, their needs driving them out of the places they had occupied in our lives and leaving us unaccompanied, unencompassed.
I’m on Whadjuk country, here in King's Park, one of the Noongar names for which is Geenunginy Bo, the place for looking a long way. The festival too is a place for looking a long way, both out across the astonishing beauty and ecological fragility of the South West of Western Australia to the world beyond, and inwards to the unmapped territory of our own natures, our common humanity at its worst and best. To find our way to one another and home again to our planet - the journey of our lives, distilled here in festival form - is a process of communal navigation towards an unknown future which must begin and end with the long view; with Kaartdijin Noongar, Noongar knowledge.
In Aboriginal navigation, culture is the compass. Noongar songlines on earth and in the sky, wrought, renewed and remembered through music, song, dance and art, record and enable long-distance wayfinding, and have maintained constellations of relationship with other humans, non-human species and the places they inhabit for tens of thousands of years. In indigenous cultures, navigation is a cultural process, a collective carrying forward into the unknown of essential knowledges as a means of sustenance. It's a nurturing, as Roy Scranton puts it, of the 'roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life…a practice…of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. It must be worked.'
A place is the stories it gathers and gives new detail to. It's all of us together, custodians, visitors, migrant bodies and the yet-to-be-born. It's how we move through its locales and how our senses meet it. For the next few weeks, Perth and its surrounds will be a place whose story is expanded and intensified by ancient narratives and new myths from over 50 countries, by tales from its tap roots and from distant cultures. Narration is a navigational tool, helping us to find our way through changing environments, to meet and trade and exchange our knowledge and experience, to give meaning to our passing. Indigenous cultures hold the matrix of the universe together with story, song, dance and visual imagery. The self-in-the-world is reconnected via ritual and the sharing of myth, movement and food to community and country, and contributes to the maintenance and sustenance of both.
The word 'festival' has its origins in the Latin words for feast and ritual. A festival, too, is a performance of community and a replenishing of the human aquifer of knowledge and imagination. This is where Perth Festival begins; here on Noongar boodja, in this place for looking a long way. In this singing, this dancing, this storytelling, this dreaming together into being and belonging.