Fire in the belly: Laura Kroetsch on Dark Mofo’s Dark and Dangerous Thoughts program
Former Adelaide Writers’ Week director Laura Kroetsch’s move into a new role as the curator of Dark Mofo’s Dark and Dangerous Thoughts symposium has seen her programming with a ‘more philosophical approach’. She talks to Books+Publishing about transitioning to a multi-arts festival, the ‘younger audiences’ question and what she’s reading now that she’s no longer ‘programming to new release lists’.
What has the transition been like from Adelaide Writers Week to a festival of ‘dark and dangerous thoughts’?
The transition has been great—a bit challenging, but very exciting. For many many years now I’ve been programming literary festivals with a real emphasis on literally fiction and poetry. In Adelaide we covered current events but only featured writers with books—book sales are an integral part of that event.
Here at Dark and Dangerous Thoughts (DDT), the focus is completely different as the emphasis is on ideas that have relevance for both the Dark Mofo program and Mona (Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art) as a cultural institution. It is a much more philosophical approach to the arts, which has been fascinating and a new way of programming for me.
Dark Mofo is a multi-arts festival, and it has a huge visual arts component, and that is really exciting for me, as I have never had the opportunity to work with artists/visual arts. It is fair to say that my knowledge of contemporary music is woeful, so I am busy learning new things.
What kind of skills from your literary programming days have you had to draw on for this new venture and what new skills has this role required of you?
I bring my sense of what will be interesting to the audience, what issues and/or trends—political, social or cultural—are engaging potential audience members. I have a good sense of how to put together a conversation and who will make a good speaker. I read a lot and I read widely, so I also have a fairly wide range of potential speakers to pull from. And most of all, I have a passion for making live events exciting—you can never guarantee what will happen and you can’t edit it out.
What’s new is that I am not programming to new release lists, I’m programming to an abstraction. For instance this program started with questions like: what does it mean to be a soldier? What does it mean to be incarcerated? (Incarceration is the overall theme for the festival.) We wanted to come at these questions from differing points of view; it was important that the guests didn’t necessarily agree. Perhaps most importantly we wanted speakers speaking from lived experience—not just commentators.
What did you have in mind while programming for DDT? What were some of your priorities in putting this program together?
From the onset I wanted to talk about challenging ideas from the point of view of the people involved. While I was programming literary festivals, I observed that it is harder to ignore someone you disagree with when they are speaking from experience. You may have ideas about civil wars or immigrants or hunters, but it is harder to disagree when you are faced with a human telling their very human story.
I also really wanted to ask questions that I didn’t know the answers to, but that I suspect many people think they know the answer to. I’ve been debating the ethics of eating animals with myself since I was about 14, and still don’t know really know the answer; not for myself, and certainly not for others.
Finally, we really wanted to put opposing views on stage. I think there is a tendency to see literary festivals and festivals in general as bastions of left-wing thought and that is now the world we live in, so we wanted to make a space for the other side. We wanted to strive for balance and a bit argument too.
What trends or emerging ideas are you excited to see in live events? Are there any standout events that have inspired you recently?
I adore Adelaide Writers’ Week because it has refused to be seduced by scale and because it is free. AWW for me is the perfect literary event: it is about books, anyone can come, and it privileges selling books, which is the only way to make this industry work. I wish the other literary festivals in this country would take bookselling more seriously—and I mean that. It would be a great innovation
That said, DDT and Dark Mofo have been a real eye-opener for me. Dark Mofo attracts such a young audience; it so willing to take risks and is very much a place willing to take chances. They are also outside the traditional festival model I’ve known for much of my career. It is collaborative, it makes amazing use of abandoned spaces and it has great enthusiasm for fire—so much fire.
If I am honest, some of the best events I have seen have, in terms of infrastructure—a fascination of mine—have been sport. I have no interest in sport, but I admire the ease of the venue, the sense of community, the diversity of ages and audiences, and on the local level, reasonable ticket prices. We in the arts could learn a lot.
How do you think festivals can be more engaging to the general public? What do you think about the focus to draw in younger audiences or non-traditional festival goers?
Ah, the younger audience question. I think in terms of the literary festivals, it is a pipe dream. Literary festivals, like bookshops, cater to an older audience—[people who spend] less time at the pub and more time on a play date or the golf course—and that is simply reality. People come back to books, and when people lament the age of the audience, I say, don’t worry. Old age has a great waiting list; it’s just about endless.
That said, I do think that longer formats festivals provide are important and we need to be using them to ask interesting questions and make a space for different sides of an issue. It is very easy to preach to the converted, the real challenge is finding a way to get all sides involved. If you assume the event isn’t for you or people who think like you, you aren’t going to go. And maybe that’s okay. Not everyone goes to concerts or galleries and maybe, in the literary/book world, we need to accept that we are a niche industry.
Finally, younger and diverse audiences do not necessarily have the cash that aging white people do and most events are expensive. Price is a barrier and that is simply the truth. I suspect we need to consider other funding models as the ticket model is not great, especially not for writers as the marketing spend is going on the event and not the book sale. Don’t get me started on that.
What are you reading now?
I am reading a mix of new releases as well as writers who are long dead—for a long time I have shied away from the dead since there’s no way to program them. Books I’ve really enjoyed lately include West by Carys Davies (Text), Kevin Powers’ A Shout in the Ruins (Hachette) and Weeping Waters (Europa Editions), a fascinating crime novel by the South African novelist Karin Brynard—it’s worth seeking out. I’ve also been spending a bit of time with Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight (Penguin Modern Classics) and Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent (Virago).
Dark Mofo’s Dark and Dangerous Thoughts program will run 9-10 June in Hobart, ahead of the full Dark Mofo festival from 15-24 June. For the complete line-up and program, click here.