On a perfect spring Saturday in Sydney, around 3,000 people lined up for a festival that most of the city knew nothing about.
Encased in the heritage grandeur of Cockatoo Island and accessible only by private ferry, the first-ever Mode Festival sold out on its lineup of ‘elevated dance music’ and an ‘expansive visual arts experience’. Produced by Sydney-based promoters Bizarro, who until now have largely hosted club and warehouse parties, the festival promised a rare gamble in a typically risk-averse city.
Bachelors and brothers gathered to board party boats at King Street Wharf in Darling Harbour. In a clash of scenes, the road to Mode was marked by bucket hats, Hackers-meets-The Matrix rave looks, plumes of vape smoke and – this being Sydney – police sniffer dogs weaving through the streets. waiting line. On board the ferry, with afternoon sun blazing on black leather, the mood oscillated between bubbly excitement and nagging unease familiar to anyone who has attended a dance festival in New South Wales. .
In many ways, Mode Festival symbolized the promise and pitfalls of staging a new electronic music festival in Sydney. Bizarro convinced the Sydney Harbor Trust to endorse the festival on the merits of its focus on the visual arts, particularly after the Biennale of Sydney ended its 14-year anniversary on Cockatoo Island in 2021. With the theme ‘Speculative Futures the festival invited submissions. of emerging Australian installation artists, with 10 chosen to appear.
But Mode has also been flagged as a “subject festival” under new government regulations introduced in 2019, following several drug-related deaths at festivals in New South Wales. (The term “subject festival” replaced “high risk” in 2021.) The categorization presented new logistical challenges and costs, especially on an island. Even with sky-high $200 tickets, including the ferry pass, the break-even point was not guaranteed.
Once there, the crowd – mostly in their twenties, with a few older heads – could relax. Cockatoo Island, a former penal colony and shipyard at the junction of the Lane Cove and Parramatta rivers, has been the sandstone and steel backdrop for art exhibitions, reunion concerts and festivals such as All Tomorrow’s Parties – but nothing like Mode. In the main Turbine Hall, loudspeakers hung from the high ceiling, framing exposed steel beams and concrete. In smaller Convict Workshops, bass from the Void sound system rocked the glass in arched windows, while the even more intimate Naval Store DJ streaming platform hosted Boiler Room. Between the art installations, a mix of food stalls fit the boutique festival bill and provided my very first witlof salad at a dance party. Beyond the fence that kept the ravers inside, families were playing tug of war and lounging healthily on a sunny lawn. (Organizers hope to expand in coming years to use the island’s “eastern apron”.)
Musically, the Mode festival has made no concessions to traditional tastes. Without a clear headliner, the lineup included niche names in techno, bass music, and other rave-ready amalgams. While the steely influence of Berlin’s techno temple Berghain was ubiquitous, the exultant house music of its sister Panorama Bar was less so, with barely a voice to be heard all day. Notably, the genre mix of the lineup reflected the crowd much better than most festivals.
My highlights came early, when the decors felt more intoxicating and the no-frills spaces were filled with natural light. While Japanese DJ-producer Wata Igarashi greeted Turbine Hall with deep, textured techno, British duo Adam Pits & Lisene had the Convict Workshops singing along to trancey breakbeats in one of many nods to the 1960s. 90. Later, New York-based Aurora Halal played a tense hour-long live set of enveloping techno in the darkened Turbine Hall. A long, thin strip of sunlight between the doors behind her was as effective as any video screen.
During the Halal set, I was struck by the unique thrill of experiencing this music in the awe-inspiring setting of Cockatoo Island, and not in a warehouse or pub-turned-club, as is often the case in a post- lockouts with few dedicated spaces for ‘underground music’. In the Naval Store, the Boiler Room show featured largely Australian artists, including a closing set of the crescendoll by the Gamilaraay woman. Earlier in the evening, Anuraag used the end of her set to talk about past reviews of the Boiler Room, urging viewers to stay aware of dance music’s roots in queer, black and working-class communities.
For most in attendance, the evening really took off in Turbine Hall with KI/KI, one of the next generation DJs reclaiming decades-old hard dance and trance (much of which had never been never considered “cool”) for new ears. With red lasers dancing on hard kicks, his set was easily the least subtle of the day and just what people needed. After suspecting that the visual arts component was losing out to more immediate highs, I stumbled upon a striking neon-draped performance by multidisciplinary artist MaggZ, watched by an elated crowd and a few curious police officers. After the KI/KI pump, the evening ended with two competing versions of Etapp Kyle and Djrum’s techno.
As with any new festival, Mode had problems getting started, including bars running out of booze and long queues for toilets and the boiler room. Logistics aside, the heavy and ubiquitous police presence was hard to ignore in a decidedly non-aggressive crowd. More heartening was the presence of DanceWize crowd safety volunteers and the candid advice on the festival website regarding drug use – a marked improvement on festivals preaching zero tolerance.
From returning on the ferry past the waterfront Balmain mansions to the dressed-up crowds finishing dinner and cocktails in Darling Harbour, the party on the water seemed a world apart. In a city of sometimes shocking contrasts, the first Fashion Festival was a breath of fresh air.