Brisbane’s Art Boat is a floating art experience linking the Brisbane Festival 2021 precincts at South Bank and Northshore, Hamilton. A 75-minute open-air cruise on the Brisbane River, Brisbane’s Art Boat offers an art installation, a bar and pop-up performances from a range of genres and performers; the Northshore Loop cruise on 10 September featured beatboxer Tom Thum as the guest artist.

ENESS Airship Orchestra

ENESS Airship Orchestra. Photo © Ben Weinstein

Departing from the Brisbane Festival precinct at Northshore, Hamilton, Brisbane’s Art Boat – Northshore Loop travelled downriver towards Hawthorne before returning to its point of departure. A South Bank Loop, Northshore to South Bank cruise, and South Bank to Northshore cruise are also on offer, with times including daylight, sunset and night cruises. Light food and drinks were available for purchase from the onboard bar but seating was limited, especially with portions of the boat roped off for a private function. Patrons were otherwise free to move around for the duration of the cruise, viewing the art installation from all angles and moving to the front of the boat for Tom Thum’s performance.

Airship Orchestra, an installation by Melbourne-based art and technology studio ENESS, dominated the space, featuring towering inflatable figures that changed colour and emitted music. These friendly, colourful characters included LED eyes that seemed to follow patrons as they moved in and around the installation, and were enthusiastically embraced by the children on board. The inflatables produced a soothing symphony of sound, a score written character-by-character to form a melodic choir, which added to the pleasant atmosphere as the barge floated downriver.

For the latter half of Brisbane Festival, this installation will be exchanged with ENESS’ Sky Castle, a series of inflatable arches which, like Airship Orchestra, change colours and emit music. Brisbane Festival 2021 marks the Queensland premiere for both installations, which have previously been installed at national and international locations including Melbourne, Adelaide, Washington DC, Shanghai, Hong Kon, and Shenzhen. The installation not currently showcased onboard will be grounded at the Northshore precinct for visitors to explore.

Partway through the cruise, the ENESS score faded and was replaced by a soundscape from Tribal Experiences Managing Director and Yuggera and Turrbal man, Shannon Ruska. Ruska’s voice welcomed patrons and pointed out local landmarks, providing historical information and speaking about his familial ties to the area. Ruska’s narration of the landscape and its history pulled no punches, commenting on the development of Hamilton from a riverside rainforest to an industrial district and describing the murder and displacement of Aboriginal people underlying the Brisbane landmarks that floated past, including the Breakfast Creek Hotel, Mercedes Benz dealership and Newstead House.

Brisbane’s Art Boat included a small corner stage and, following a brief silence as Ruska’s soundscape concluded, beatboxer Tom Thum commenced a pop-up performance in this space. Thum brought an impressive energy, charisma and humour to the stage as well as his signature sounds, especially given the small audience and unusual setting. In a short set, he established a good rapport and used vocal percussion and imitation, as well as live sampling of the audience, to create sounds akin to a jazz band, techno music, DJ and more.

Other pop-up performances will vary across genres from music, song, and dance to circus, burlesque and fashion, with guest artists including William Barton, Sahara Beck, House of Alexander, Briefs Factory, Opera Queensland, Emma Dean, Jaguar Jonze, Hannah Maxx, Gail Sorronda, Michelle Xen and Véronique Serret.

Although the individual facets of Brisbane’s Art Boat – the serene sunset cruise, the pop-up performance, the ENESS art installation, and Shannon Ruska’s informative soundscape – were each interesting and enjoyable in their own right, there was little to no transition between them, and this sudden change of pace and energy was jarring.

On a clear night with good weather, it was perfectly pleasant to watch the sun set from the deck of the 6pm cruise, and to see the moon and stars emerge above the pastel-lit characters of Airship Orchestra. This Brisbane Festival experience could easily be dovetailed to a performance at either the Northshore, Hamilton or South Bank festival precincts, and would be an enjoyable way to move between them.

Brisbane’s Art Boat will be cruising the Brisbane River until 25 September as part of Brisbane Festival.