Pop Up North Queensland (PUNQ) has announced its program for 2021. The biennial festival, established in 2017 to bring new life to the Townsville CBD by giving artists access to empty shopfronts, will this year expand its reach from Wulgurukaba and Bindal Country (Townsville) to include Yunbenun (Magnetic Island), Gudjal Country (Charters Towers) and Warrgamay, Nywaigi and  Bandjin Country (Hinchinbrook).

The 10-day regional festival, featuring visual and performing arts, will run from 30 July to 8 August and will feature a wide-range of events drawing inspiration from UFO sightings, natural disasters, quarantine history during 19th-century epidemics, and the plight of the Great Barrier Reef among other things. It will also debut new initiatives including a regional art trail and an emerging First Nations artist program.

This year’s PUNQ will take place in some extraordinarily beautiful locations from island beaches to sugar-cane fields, with a secret CBD location thrown in for Dancenorth’s new work World Interior. The festival’s Artistic Director Kate O’Hara spoke to Limelight about her first PUNQ festival and what audiences can expect.

Kate O'Hara

Kate O’Hara. Photograph courtesy of Pop Up North Queensland

Is this your first program as Artistic Director for PUNQ?

Yes it is. I am the relatively new Director of Umbrella Studio Contemporary Arts who produce the festival. The AD role is a perk of the job!

What was it about the festival that made you want to become involved?

I curated a festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia about ten years ago, which had a similar structure and a similar agenda driving its original conception. It has been really great to bring my experiences and learnings from that to this year’s PUNQ program.

The festival began in 2017 as a way to activate shops in the Townsville CBD. Why did you want to see it expand its reach to four centres?

We wanted to be true to its name Pop Up North Queensland and quite literally pop up all around North Queensland. We also wanted to use the diverse landscapes of our region to inspire both artists and audiences to engage more deeply with our stories and creative practices. This year we are pitching the festival to national audiences. What better way to entice them than celebrating the diverse and beautiful Countries we live and work on?

Pop Up North Queensland 2021

Pop Up North Queensland 2021 Photograph © Amber Haines

You are using a wide range of venues, including outdoor spaces. Why was this important to you? And can you explain how you are using some of those spaces?

We were conscious that spreading out across the region and into outdoor spaces, essentially decentralising our offering, enabled us to be a more COVID-safe festival. We commissioned 11 artists and organisations to create site-specific work for the festival. The provocation we made to them was to choose a site and engage with its histories, present or futures. It created some interesting responses. Jill Chism has conceived a work on the Pallarenda Beach overlooking Yunbenun (Magnetic Island). Through her daily ephemeral salt prints on the beach she will use text to engage with the environmental concerns for the Great Barrier Reef and the region’s fauna. David Rowe, a painter and sculpture, is creating a major crop circle installation in an actual cane field. It’s a playful work exploring the folklore of UFO landing and abductions in North Queensland.

The secret venue for the Dancenorth piece sounds fun. Will audiences only discover where it is on the night?

It’s classic Dancenorth style to play with the expectations of audiences and the element of surprise for the location removes any expectations prior to visiting the event so that you are intrigued. World Interior will be intimate (but COVID- safe) and unconventional. The actual location will be revealed to the ticket holders a few days before the festival. I can say that it is an iconic Queensland location but not in the way you would think. The experience will be unique for each audience member which we think will be so special for those who attend.

Can you tell us about some of the projects you are most excited about in this year’s festival?

Of course I am excited about them all! There are few projects that are really timely and important. One of those is Big Eye Arts & Culture Centre’s new mural, One Journey: Many Stories Many People Many Places, which will tell local history from an Indigenous perspective. It will share the experience of the pre-colonisation period moving to Captain Cook’s arrival and the little-known history of black-birded (slave) labour on cane plantations in the late 19th and early 20th century. It will also share the flora and fauna of Traditional Owners’ totems.

Pop Up North Queensland 2021

Preserve Conserve by Jill Chism. Pop Up North Queensland 2021

Our Billboard Exhibition, Both Ways, connects the festival’s mainland program from Warrgamay, Nywaigi & Bandjin Country (Hinchinbrook) through Wulgurukaba and Bindal Country (Townsville) to Gudjal Country (Charters Towers). It features contemporary art by Tony Albert, Gail Mabo and Libby Harward, as well as archival images of some challenging local First Nation’s histories that have been selected by Traditional Owners.

A 20-minute ferry away on Yunbenun (Magnetic Island), Jenny Mulcahy’s multi-disciplinary installation, The Mark, looks at the quarantine history of the island, which protected the mainland from foreign-borne epidemics in the late 19th century including Cholera and the Bubonic plague.

In every location of the festival there are quite spectacular commissions paired with a program of pop-ups by local North Queensland artists. For example, on Yunbenun you can visit art legend Rhonda Stevens’ home studio and learn monotype printing or witness a collagraph printing demonstration. Then you can cruise down to the Jungle Club, participate in the Glow Land project and see the Island Life exhibition. Next you can head to the Forts trail walk for Jan Hynes’ Drop Bears commission. Visitors are going to have dynamic and rich experiences whichever festival pathway they take.

Is the festival aimed mainly at local North Queensland inhabitants, or at a much broader audience, attracting people from interstate?

We are pitching a national program that will entice folk from across Australia. There is so much on offer, we have amazing artists and art organisations participating in the festival, and ways to participate and be creative as an audience member alongside the beauty of our region which is undeniable.

Amber Haines in a promotional image for Dancenorth’s World Interior. Photograph © Kyle Page

Why did you introduce the emerging First Nations program?

Originally we had had the idea for a First Nations Emerging Curators program to really support that critical act of framing and contextualising art practice from an Indigenous perspective. However, there was more appetite in the community for supported professional exhibitions by emerging artists so we pivoted the program in response to that. I think we will continue to grow this emerging First Nations art program in the future in areas of demand.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the festival?

I hope they learn more about our creatives, our Countries, our concerns and histories whether they are local or from outside our region. I hope it challenges perceptions and brings dialogue. I hope people feel like they have been ‘art-bathing’. Art is such an incredible medium for exploring who we are, where we have been, where we are going, and the human condition. It is good for the soul and the heart!

The 2021 Pop Up North Queensland festival runs 30 July – 8 August