Soft Centre: Beyond the Walls of Sound

A venture beyond the walls of Casula Powerhouse proved to be a very illuminating experience for a first-time Soft Centre patron. Having taken place a few weeks ago in September, the one-day music festival has become a metaphysically-charged electronic force for Sydney’s art and electronic music scene. Since its debut in 2017, it has showcased a unique range of emerging and established performance artists, DJ’s and producers from Sydney and around the globe. With its mainstay in the heartland of one of South-West Sydney’s most important and iconic artistic spaces, it has brought new life to the formally abandoned power station in one of the city’s most undermined parts: Suburbia.

And to the producers and curators credit, this year’s event did not disappoint. For this reason among many, the 2018 festival has placed greater emphasis on celebrating and showcasing local talent from the Greater Western Sydney area as reflected throughout parts of the production and organisation of the Saturday event. “A lack of Western Sydney communities was a strong critique after the first Soft Centre, so that’s also what motivated us to get involved with organising,” said Del Lumanta.

Image: Charl Anfield.

Lumanta, a Sydney based artist, musician, DJ and educator, co-curated the event with local Western Sydney artist Leila El Rayes and emerging electronic musician Liana Molina, better known by her stage name, Milkkfish. According to Lumanta, developing a ‘community’ feel was pertinent in featuring the cultural, social and geographical landscape of Soft Centre on an ethical level. “I think for any cultural event you should be including people in the community where it is taking place. How could you call it culture if you are leaving the most obvious people out? Australia in general has a big problem with this,” stated Lumanta.

In challenging the cultural eye ‘blinded-ness’ of the Australian music scene and industry, the team produced the Georges River stage—one of the four stages for this year’s event. According to one of Soft Centre’s founders, Jemma Cole, the stage placed homage to local Western Sydney musicians and artists in an effort to provide a platform that these artists so greatly deserve. “The Georges River stage celebrated DJs and producers from the Greater Western Sydney region. None of the other stages work within specific perimeters,” said Cole. On a foundational level, the stage’s organically-cladded presence sought to prioritise female and gender non-conforming artists, and artists of colour, who may never have had the chance to perform at festivals of this scale.

Image: Jordan Munns.

This was again evident through what Cole explains as the importance of showcasing diversity amongst the contrast of stages and sounds featured throughout the event. “We think it’s more interesting to offset different feelings, tempos and intensities throughout the day. For instance, this year on the Turbine Hall we moved from a solo a cappella performance by Sonya Holowell into a anti-power violence death metal performance by Arafura, in collaboration with pole dance extraordinaire Onyx. Often these non-conventional leaps force you to reflect on the relationship between both extremes,” stated Cole.

To the enlightened spectator’s eyes, the George’s River Stage was a vital step in achieving the goals set out by the organisers and, most importantly, the curators. Bordered by the glistening and serene Georges’ River, it became a metaphor for the blooming home-grown talent that occupies the often neglected parts of Western Sydney’s arts and culture scene. And it indeed kept to its word. It showcased electronic music sound wizard and artist Nicola Morton and up-in-coming electronic musicians from the area such as Information and Culture Exchanges’ All Girl Electronic (AGE) from Parramatta, which included the entrancing musical stylings of Alisa Liu, Stone Fruit and Under A.

Image: Charl Anfield.

Milkffish was also another of these performers. A participant of the AGE program, the emerging sound artist not only developed the conceptual nature of the stage, but had the chance to perform on it. “It was scary, meditative and life affirming,” she said.

The inclusivity present in a festival like this demonstrated to me the rarity of such events. And while much hasn’t been mentioned about the sonic artistry occurring inside the walls of the powerhouse in this article (though a number of reviews do exist), this writer felt it was important to capture the power of a little stage that could—and did. It was a stage with so much meaning, power and socio-cultural importance behind it. Milkffish succinctly summed my pent-up sentiment perfectly. “It’s definitely not Laneway or Defqon, and it’s great because it gives those who also appreciate stuff that doesn’t quite fit within the mainstream music industry an enjoyable festival experience too, with performance art and light installations celebrated in there as well,” she said.

Image: Paigge

It’s no wonder then why this year’s event was sold out. It showed variety through open-mindedness, courage and diversity. With a subtle focus on the power of collaboration between local and interstate artists, musicians, and those who fell in between, the team was able to achieve success perhaps in part due to their mindful motivations to bring to light the very nature of what local talent has to offer. In addition, the festival challenged the idea of the fringes of sound, giving a palatable energy among the crowd on the day. It was an effective contrast to the level of sonic intensity that the big names present, which was gathered amongst the tranquil sounds of the emerging talent—those who in turn may aspire to meet the more ‘established’ artists on such a level.

Image: Jordan Munns.

“A lot of changes have happened since the first year, but I think that they are all for the better. Naturally we’ve gotten bigger. We’ve done this by not only expanding the capacity to 1400 but by expanding our curatorial team to include more voices from different communities contributing to programming,” Cole said.

With the conscious effort made to provide a platform for the diversity of local and international performers and artists, Soft Centre’s future is inevitably a bright one. “Where do we start? There’s a lot. Ultimately we want to continue to grow at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, but also have plans to take things overseas. But all that stuff is very much in its early stages so that’s all I’ll say on that matter for now,” Cole sums up.

Soft Centre
22 September 2018
Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre

Top photo by Jordan Munns.

Stephanie Barahona is writer, illustrator with an interest in the arts, foreign affairs, film, music and performance.  Her works have featured in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times and Honi Soit. Her instagram handle is @estefanabanana


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