Festivals, News & Commentary

From warehouse to Powerhouse: Soft Centre is hard-wired for shaking up festivals format

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The creation of co-directors Jemma Cole, Sam Whiteside and Thorsten Hertog, Soft Centre is an experimental electronic music and multidisciplinary arts festival held annually at Sydney’s Casula Powerhouse.

An amalgamation of the various warehouse party communities that have marked Sydney’s underground movement in recent years, the one-day event seeks to redefine the festival experience via discovery through programming, along with exhibiting various disciplinary practices for one big, multi-room extravaganza.

Now in its third year, the festival is doubling down on its driving ethos, putting forth its most daring lineup yet for this Saturday’s event at Sydney’s Casula Powerhouse.

Sasha Geyer spoke with Jemma Cole and Thorsten Hertog about Soft Centre’s history and what to expect from this year’s program.

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Daily Review: How was Soft Centre conceived, and what was the initial goal behind it?

Thorsten Hertog: We started out throwing warehouse parties in Sydney’s inner-west. We both had strong communities around our parties and wanted to take some of those ideas to a more legitimate space with less risk and legality issues. Both our parties had a strong focus on design, especially lighting design and incorporating elements of performance and art, so it wasn’t just a straight night of music – we were always interested in this collision of different art forms. We wanted to create a festival experience that brought together lots of different subcultures from around Australia – and from around the world – for one supercharged day.

Jemma Cole: With these warehouse communities, they exist in silos because of the legality around it. What interested us around Soft Centre is, by bringing all these different communities together and maybe drawing them in for one act, that maybe, in turn, they would attend the festival and be exposed to new genres that had a similar thread but weren’t what they would normally be exposed to. I’m really passionate about that element of discovery through festival programming and curation; that’s a really strong focus for what we do.

“I’m really passionate about that element of discovery through festival programming and curation; that’s a really strong focus for what we do.”

DR: Was Casula Powerhouse always the intended location for Soft centre?

Cole: A part of Thorsten’s, Sam [Whiteside’s] and my practice is that we’re really inspired by unconventional spaces, so we were looking at car parks and basements and also a Portugese club. There was a lot of possible incarnations of what Soft Centre could be. We’d all been familiar with Casula Powerhouse as a magnificent arts centre, but when we first approached the venue we thought there was absolutely no chance that such a space would accept three young aspiring curators. But they’d just appointed a new creative director, Craig Donarski, and he loved the proposal.

DR: How does the venue serve the overarching purpose and feel of the festival?

Hertog: It’s a pretty ideal location for a festival of our nature because we have access to six gallery spaces and it’s located right next to the river. The ‘Georges River Stage’, which is a space curated by Krishtie Mofazzal that’s dedicated to DJs and producers from the Greater Western Sydney region, is right on the river bank. So, in a one-day festival, you can have a river-stage experience, you can go inside and have a club experience, you can go have a chill ambient noise room experience  – it has really become this absurd playground to explore.

DR: It’s really cool to see how unapologetically experimental the bookings are. How are the lineups curated and organised?

Hertog: I guess, across all the acts, there’s a through line of unbound experimentation and confrontation. There’s a dark edge. You’re gonna be confronted at Soft Centre. We decided that what excites us most is harder strains of club music and a dance floor that isn’t just passive and an easy floor 4/4 beat that you can latch onto and sink some beers to. The most memorable nights we had at warehouse parties was when it was in your face and political; that’s stuff we really wanted to program. That was a huge challenge for the first year. We didn’t have any household headline names. We just programmed according to that ethos.

Also, in terms of how we program set times for the day, it isn’t some crescendo from the least-known local artists to the biggest international headliners. You could have SOTE, this Iranian noise legend who’s playing at 3pm this year – because that makes more sense with the set times – and then you could have some unknown local act playing the main-stage closing set because that’s how we want the day to flow.

Soft Centre JM

DJ Gemma and Leila El Rayes at Soft Centre 2018. Photo by Jordan Munns

DR: There’s a lot of ongoing talk about the challenges Sydney communities faced with the former lock-out laws and recent warehouse raids. How does the existence and success of an event like Soft Centre inform possibilities for the city’s scene?

Cole: Thorsten and I started throwing our warehouse parties when the lockouts came into force, and even though it was a horrible thing that killed a lot of our late-night economy, there was a flipside – this amazing community that was formed in the wake of that. People started pushing themselves to greater limits to create these really amazing events and in some elements, especially within the scene we exist in, it flourished under that.

Hertog: I’d say that Soft Centre proves that you can work with a council and a government institution and put on great events. It’s not this narrative that we keep hearing in the media where it’s us versus them. There is potential to put on great stuff and not compromise our artistic integrity, while working with councils. It’s harder in the inner city because of the huge regulations around noise control and the urban density. That’s what makes Casula so great as well. There’s no residential stuff around here; there’s a train station right next to the building and it’s dedicated to this building. It’s pretty crazy what you can get away with here.

DR: In a similar vein, what have been the biggest obstacles in organising the festival?

Hertog: I think, mostly, in creating a festival experience led by discovery and not having these staple names driving ticket sales. The first year was about making that first statement, saying this is what it’s going to be and people are not necessarily going to be familiar with the lineup. Given the experience of the community that exists around here, that was a real challenge and we relied on the pre-existing communities we had from our warehouse parties to convince people to take the leap. This year, we’ve expanded to two new spaces. We have the theatre space and we have this new huge outdoor installation with Holly Childs and J.G. Biberkopf – the production costs are a lot bigger and something that we’re grappling with is trying to secure funding for the festival and convince funding bodies that this is a legitimate event that deserves government money, because it’s creating a platform for so many young artists to present new works.

“Thorsten and I started throwing our warehouse parties when the lockouts came into force, and even though it was a horrible thing that killed a lot of our late-night economy, there was a flipside – this amazing community that was formed in the wake of that.”

Cole: Another thing that is not necessarily an obstacle but [from the beginning] we really wanted to subvert the idea of the traditional festival experience. That is challenging in itself, to get people on board with that, but it’s also part of the fun and why we’re so passionate about putting on Soft Centre every year, challenging and pushing back on what is expected in Australia’s festival landscape.

DR: What have been some highlights from the past two years that best demonstrate what makes Soft Centre so special?

Cole: From the outset, one of the things we wanted to do was encourage one-off cross-disciplinary collaborations, and that’s produced some really exciting and memorable moments from previous programs. For example, for the first year we had Divide and Dissolve and Phile do this one-off collaboration curated by Alice Joel, and off the back of that they produced their own LP.

Hertog: Last year, Ella Barclay, this amazing live install artist, worked with [performance artist] Brian Fuata and [noise vocalist] Kusum Normoyle. Emma made this huge pool in one of the galleries and projection mapped it from above and Kusum and Brian did this bizarre vocal duologue inside the pool where the audience was crowded around peering into the pool and also from the balcony above. Creating a context where there’s a noise duet happening in a pool inside a giant industrial gallery – that produces moments where I’m pinching myself.

Cole: That was another interesting thing where we tried to challenge the format of traditional festivals, where we experiment in set times and programming. For that performance, we stopped everything in the entire festival so people would gravitate to that. It was a huge risk because it’s random to turn off the music and sound and the different elements of the festival that were going on, but it worked. Things like that is what we love to challenge ourselves with each year, and you have no idea whether it’s going to work or whether people are going to absolutely hate it – but it’s exciting to try.

DR: Finally, what can we expect from Round Three, and how do you think it’ll reflect the festival’s growth and evolution?

Hertog: It’s definitely our most expansive one to date. We’ve got the 300-capacity theatre that will hold SIGHT, which is a collaboration between Jannah Quill and the House of Vnholy from Melbourne using solar panels and light fixtures to convert into sound. We’ve also got 110%, who are doing this insane thing called ‘the Dough Pit’. It’s this giant scaffold octagon thing where two members are going to be inside kneading dough and making bread ornaments for people to wear throughout the festival. There’s really kookie stuff like that. We’ve got the world premiere of Gabber Modus Operandi’s Trance Against The Machine which is a new piece they’ve developed exclusively for Soft Centre, and we’ve got our first international light installation artist, Shohei Fujimoto from Japan. I feel like we’ve bitten off a lot this year and I’m confident that it’s going to come together.

Soft Centre 2019 takes place on September 14 at Casula Powerhouse, Sydney.

Feature pic: Meagan Streader’s work ‘RESPONSE VII (PARTITION III)’ at Soft Centre 2018, photo by Paigge Frankie

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