Festival Review: Sugar Mountain delivers warped sweetness in Melbourne for another year

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you look like or where you are from…never be too scared to express yourself. “ A woman in her late thirties had planted herself down next to me, as I sat resting my feet. She told my friend and I that today was her day off from the kids and there was no place she’d rather be then at Sugar Mountain. “Live the life you want to live!” she proclaimed, before skipping off into the crowd, “I’m off to make out with my husband in the Boiler Room”.

Advertised as, ‘a place for creativity to be absorbed and celebrated,’ this woman perfectly summed up the running theme of Sugar Mountain- don’t be afraid to express yourself. Determined to create an environment that is welcoming and interactive, the curators have succeed in generating a lasting experience by developing a music and arts festival like none I have been to before.

From inspirational panels, thought-provoking art installations, a delicious selection of food and an electric line up of international and local artists there was almost too much to see and do! Situated once again at the Victorian College of The Arts, this year the festival spread its wings, expanding the site to include the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and a Grant Street takeover.

Because there was so much to cover, the best way to unravel the day is to split it into three sections:

Photo: Lisa Businovski

ART and FOOD (aka Pleasure for your eyes, ears and tastebuds)

As soon as you walk in, the site is exploding with eccentric excitement for your sensors! The first pit stop is the Crtl Alt hub, offering a range of free new soft drinks that you can get your face printed on. But the real highlight of the tent is the massive pink water bed, partnered with an interactive digital ceiling. After an intense boogie in the Boiler Room there’s nothing like planting your ass down on a communal bed and watching a distorted version of yourself float on the ceiling.

On the other side of the Crtl Alt hub is the ‘food court,’ offering a range of foods from all over the place, a beer garden accompanied with a DJ set from DJ Prequel, a mural from Japanese artist Hiroyasu Tsuri x Jun Inoue and a painting station created by Adelaide artist Billie Justice Thompson (an opportunity for you to be sent right back to primary school where you had to match the colour to the numbers).

Elsewhere, VIA ALICE offered an immersive virtual reality experience that represents the strength and diversity of contemporary Indigenous Australian culture. Unfortunately, every time I tried to access this performance I never got in, as it worked on a first in based dress bases and I wasn’t keen on lining up for half an hour! I did however make it to the ACCAUnfinished Business’ exhibition, which paid tribute to the diverse scope of feminism.

The main spectacle however was Future Culture, a collaboration with BE, curated by GiDi Creative Director, Grace Dlabik. Centred on culture, expression, curiosity and feminism; the works showcased celebrated women, femmes, queer and Trans people. A panel, featuring the likes of Australia hip hop artist Miss Blanks and writer Nayuka Gorrie, delivered an empowering discussion honouring cultural expression and the importance of healing through community.

Photo: Brian Purnell.

BOILER ROOM (aka Dance Hub)

With so much art and political expression swirling around, your head can feel a little heavy. Enter the Boiler Room.

To relieve you of all tension and stress, the boiler room is a place to unwind and allow yourself to be swallowed by the music. Honey Dijon, Gerd Janson, Project Pablo and Fantastic Man, were just some of the DJs swirling dance beats in what can only be described as literally a pit full of people. Squished in a very small area, with a DJ booth at the centre – not actually visible due to its lack of elevation – and a never ending crowd of sweaty individuals, the boiler room was the place to visit in between sets.  No matter what time of day you visited, the boiler room was always pumping and echoing an unofficial disco/dance vibe, offering a party within a party.

Photo: Lisa Businovski

THE MAIN ATTRACTION (aka ‘Oh yeah, there’s music here too’)

Despite the array of art and food on display, the music remained the true lure and with a set list this diverse, punters were spoiled for choice!

Over at the Merlyn Theatre, experimental producers Laurel Halo and Actress gave unique performances filled with strange sounds, and Sevdaliza captivated with her atmospheric songs. The Iranian-Dutch singer proved to be the talk of the town, with many punters eager to check her glitchy trip hop beats.

Over on the Dodds Street stage, Melbourne local Stella Donnelly kicked things off with a beautiful set and was followed by fellow Aussie talents Body Type, Beaches and AB Original– who brought Dan Sultan on stage to help deliver empowering ballads. Towards the end of the night Chicago act Jamila Woods joined the stage, inserting some soul into the day. Her set was good, but hindered by distorted sounds- almost like the bass was turned up way too loud, drowning out her voice. Joey Bada$$ brought the crowds, delving into his new stuff and touching on old material, appeasing fans. But the real highlight of the day for me was Cut Copy. No matter how many times I see these guys, they always bring the heat! They are so much fun to see live and are guaranteed to make you dance. Lead singer Dan Whitford has this awkward but commanding stage presence that reaps you into the bands electronic bubble, sucking you in, chewing you up, and spitting you back out like a caterpillar-turned-butterfly.

I told you there was a lot going. My only criticisms: 1) the line ups for VIA ALICE and the minimal space at Future Culture meant it was easy to miss out on some cool performances. 2) the Boiler Room could be in a more easily navigated space.

In all in, Sugar Mountain lives up to its name, bringing an avalanche of sweetness to Melbourne and perfectly encompassing everything outsiders love about the city: culture, music, art, food and expression! As my new friend said, “live the life you want to live.”

The reviewer attended this event on January 20th.

Lead image by Brian Purnell.