Over four days in Adelaide, we saw and heard the kinds of things we’d only ever dreamt of.
Returning to Kaurna/Adelaide for its third edition, the Illuminate festival stunned us from the moment we entered. First on our itinerary was Resonate, a deeply immersive installation by Moment Factory (the team behind last year’s sell-out sensation Light Cycles) that transformed the Adelaide Botanic Garden into a dreamlike landscape of shimmery wonder and natural beauty.
At face value, the event echoes Lightscape, a similar concept we’ve seen take over gardens in Eora/Sydney and Naarm/Melbourne; but Resonate mad it look like child’s play, as trees morphed into pseudo-galactic portals of mesmerising pastels, lakes into playgrounds for beams of light to frolic in harmony, and hazy skies into the kinds of psychedelic sights that not even drugs could manifest.
At one point along the walk (spanning some 1.7km), we became transfixed by a giant diamond of light looming above us, twinkling with colours that danced off the plants foregrounding it. At another, we stepped through an entrancing trickle of lasers that felt like a scene plucked straight from Avatar. Backed by an atmospheric soundtrack that oscillated from serene to cerebral and at times almost spooky, it all felt very ethereal and otherworldly. But the core of Resonate was still the Adelaide Botanic Garden – stunning in its own right – with every installation celebrating the natural flora that flourished the journey.
The walk back to our hotel was slow, as the streets of Adelaide were littered with art pieces that simply demanded fixation. One standout of the self-guided City Lights tour, perched right next to the entry to Resonate, was a giant beaming sphere that took the form of a spinning moon, projected onto from the inside to appear seamless. Other highlights included structures of glowing beams and balls that people could walk through, trees dressed up in draping neon lights and giant inflatables that shone with piercing white.
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Day two began with Mirror Mirror, another immersive Moment Factory setup that took a similar concept to Resonate – “walk through and be amazed by a trippy suite of lasers and projections” – but swapped its earthy setting and ethos for a focus on the industrial and futuristic. We walked through rooms lined with laser beams, posed in mirrors that obscured our faces with emoji-esque shapes, and danced on a floor where the graphics projected onto it responded to our movement – it felt like VR without the “V”; a transcendent reminder of just how far technology has come in recent years.
Interactivity was baked into Mirror Mirror at every turn; one of its installations even utilised artificial intelligence to generate poems out of words fed into it through an accompanying iPhone app. Our program suggested we spend 45 minutes in Mirror Mirror, but we barely made it halfway through in as much time, as most installations offered endless ways to reinvent and reinterpret the experience. It’s not exclusive to Illuminate – Adelaide is the second city to host the event, following its premiere in Montreal, Canada – so here’s hoping Moment Factory take it on a national tour.
Next up is Unsound, a showcase of sound art performances that utilised music and visuals in tandem to create a series of unique – and uniquely engaging – concert experiences. The first act we caught was an ethereal display by composer Sofie Birch and singer Antonina Nowacka, the former of whom played gently on synthesisers while the latter sung birdcalls and soothing vocal harmonies. The appeal admittedly wore off after five minutes, and became rather grating as it neared 45 – but Robin Fox’s dizzying TRIPTYCH show (aptly sold as an “audio-visual space-time carving”) more than made up for it.
Time melted by as Fox’s hour unfurled, with a kaleidoscope of lasers pulsing in time to a sharp and spirited performance of experimental noise-pop. Kode9’s conceptual Escapology show started similarly strong – marrying adrenalised trance music with a narrated sci-fi narrative and visuals inspired by Grand Theft Auto à la Halo – but it meandered on for way too long, visuals recycled thrice over and songs blurring into static noise for the last 20 or so minutes of the hourlong presentation.
Performances rolled on until 4am at the official kick-ons event, Unsound Club, but with an early start on the cards for day three, we called it early. We’re glad we did, too, because Arborialis – the latest creation from Architects Of Air, a UK-based collective using inflatable structures for art pieces meant to be explored from the inside – was very bright and very loud (the latter thanks in no short part to the piercing hollers of giddy children; adults-only sessions would be greatly appreciated in the future).
The installation was sold to us as “a labyrinthine wonderland that recalls the light-dappled canopies and awe-inspiring trunks of forests around the world”. That might be a bit of a stretch – it felt a little more like an oversized bounce house segmented into colour-coordinated “rooms” – but the experience was nevertheless very fun; we wandered aimlessly through the maze as we lost ourselves in the scene-washing hues of blue, red and green… And then literally lost ourselves when it took us about 15 minutes to find a way out. If nothing else, Arborialis certainly was labyrinthine.
The rest of day three was relatively chill: a bougie lunch with the Illuminate team, a casual tour of Adelaide outside the festival’s program (we ended up at a quirky record store-slash-café called Wolfie’s, where we copped a 12” pressing of sound effect recordings from the BBC archives) and a visit to a studio space called The Light Room, where we were stunned by a series of artworks from acclaimed multi-hyphenate Poh Ling Yeow (who alongside her role as a brilliant painter, triples as a TV star and world-class cook).
We prepped for another Unsound showcase with a trip to the cutely named Base Camp, a coalition of food trucks and bars lined with campfires that punters could convene around. We scored some of the best bao we’ve ever eaten from Tokyo Diner, sipped warming oak and malt spirit from Full Circle, and came scarily close to tripping over multiple unaccompanied toddler (parents, please rein in your tiny, demonic hurricanes of cotton candy-fuelled chaos, they are legitimate safety hazards with all these fires around!!!) – all in all, a solid evening.
Within minutes of our return to Unsound, any calm we’d felt before was torn to shreds, set alight and pissed on by the searing viscerality of instrumental doom metallers Divide And Dissolve. Enhanced by the wicked acoustics of the Dom Polski Centre, their performance was beautifully brooding and surging with authentic, impassioned energy. Space Afrika served as the perfect yang to their yin, with their slow-burning runs of atmospheric, string-tinged electronica warming our souls and winding us back to that fluid state of serenity.
Mabe Fratti followed with a striking performance of cinematic cello playing, but alas, we had to tap out around ten minutes in when a colleague caught us dozing off in the back of the hall – no diss on Fratti, her playing was undeniably phenomenal, it just turns out a day full of lowkey fun can still wear you right the heck out. But we heard through the grapevine that Kode9 played another DJ set for Unsound Club, shedding the Escapology concept for a more straightforward mix of trance and house bangers. For 3am on a Saturday, there’s no doubt that would have been one hell of a show to experience.
Our last day at Illuminate started with some cultural learnings at the The Art Gallery of South Australia, where an exhibition called Love & Revolution explored the enchanting art and incendiary politics of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, two of the most iconic figures from Mexico’s post-revolution avant-garde art scene (circa 1920-1950). Over at The Mill, the Make/Shift installation offered cinematic projections from local artists like Sarah Neville, Liam Somerville and Inneke Taal. While not as timeless or emotionally impactful as the former exhibit, Make/Shift was nevertheless engaging and plenty of fun to explore – and it’s always great to see some local talent get their (virtual) flowers.
The grand finale (for us at least) came courtesy of genre-bending MIDI wizard OneohTrix Point Never, who filled the stately Hindley Street Music Hall with his prismatic swells of quasi-orchestral electronica. Ebbing and flowing from the minimalistic and ambient to the colourful and dancey, the set covered an impressively broad chunk of Daniel Lopatin’s sprawling musical palette, all backed visually by a trippy mashup of retro cartoons and geometric pendulums. It became instantly clear why everyone in modern music, from The Weeknd to Soccer Mommy, has flocked to Lopatin’s heels – whether modulating silky violins or numbing throbs of sub-bass, he devotes himself entirely to the music, riding every peak and valley with dazzling aplomb.
So ends our time at the epic third instalment of Illuminate. Though some might see the festival as Adelaide’s answer to VIVID (Sydney) or Dark Mofo (nipaluna/Hobart), it has all the creative strength to be its own national attraction. Light, art, technology and sound were all celebrated equally, often all at once, and always mind-blowing in all different ways. We spent just four days immersed in the program, but we left with memories that’ll last a lifetime – bring on 2024’s edition!