Barcelona’s Sónar doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for a festival that, in its 21st year, most effectively taps into the cultural moment being lived by its permanently switched-on attendees. But more than any other, with its fluid interfaces, multi-disciplinary focus (on music, arts and technology presented via performances, screenings, workshops and conferences) and interconnectivity, it embodied the particularly 2014 feeling of existing on more than one plane.
The daytime venue houses live music, workshops, talks, screenings and miniature exhibitions, and encasing it in a vast complex of theatres and spaces meant that it was able to bring all of these things under one roof, with a strangely massive capacity for each event. Turf was laid out for the outdoor events to give the illusion of a grassy festival, the plastic spikes of which came unbidden into my mind while watching Warp producer Oneohtrix Point Never’s live performance with his longtime visual collaborator Nate Boyce, for their uncanny performance. Daniel Lopatin and Boyce worked together so fluidly you’d forget the music was ever supposed to exist in isolation, a connection only accentuated by the environment of the dark, seated theatre.
More fluid and kinetic than in their previous collaborations, Boyce’s virtual forms oscillated between metallic stiffness and mellifluous bodies, minutely following the ebb and flow of R Plus Seven’s hi-def structures from Lopatin’s laptop, leading to a sensory experience that was totally absorbing and excluding at the same time. In this space where the artificial interfaced with the organic, it was impossible to look away, while just as hard to know what exactly you were looking at. One moment we were seeing a disembodied bronze hand, the next it seemed we were in an actual bedroom surrounded by slightly morphed, dreamlike Ikea furniture; until, at the end, there was one tremor of light keeping perfect time with a single drone, a sole anchor to hold on to in an unfamiliar space.
Sónar 2014 benefitted from the use of a new daytime venue (for only the second year) which was capable of housing workshops and exhibitions of technological and artistic developments alongside and among the musical performances; with all of it happening in one area, the attendees were able to piece together the links between the various disciplines as easily as they were able to stroll from one event to the next. Walking out of Oneohtrix Point Never’s bodily performance, you were confronted by exhibitions such as Sedition’s ‘Art of screens’, –a company looking to revolutionise the consumption of art through its online purchase and digital display on screens. Several artworks played on a loop around the Sedition booth in intense definition, Field’s skin cells blooming and ZEITGUISED’s liquorice all-sorts tumbling with crystal cartoon edges; each one explored themes of interface between the physical and the virtual, which was in harmony with the underlying question of the privatisation of online space and the physical manifestation of online art. Most arresting was Universal Everything’s 2011 animation ‘The Transfiguration’, which depicted a single human figure walking at a constant size and pace in the centre of the screen while morphing from being made of hair to being made of bubbles to being made of spikes. As with Sedition’s take on the art world, the textures were changeable and shed easily, yet its pace forward was consistent and determined.
Elsewhere, at the Glassworks ‘Pan Me‘ installation, run by the London-based animation and effects agency, users were invited to actually interface with light and sound displays using face and hand recognition technology. A little more explanation and guidance surrounding the works might have been useful to help users understand what it was they were aiming to achieve by flipping through samples or moving lines of light with their faces, but in a way the experience of being plunged into a dark side room and given little human instruction was a more interesting (and fitting) experience. The question of the possibility of an intuitive interface hung heavily over the experience; particularly in light of the way in which computer and human engaged in a two-way exchange, with mounted cameras using photos and facial recognition to embed the persona of the user in both the physical and digital sides of the experience.
As well as a festival that, on the whole, confronted you with the impossibility of the amount of human bodies existing in one section of meatspace and the strangeness of such a place designed to hold so many, here was an experience that demanded you think about the way your living body interacts with technology and with networks that blossom from your every movement; not only a privatised digital landscape like the one we navigate every day via social media, but a digital sub-reality that actually depends on the body. With photos of users appearing onscreen at the air-swipe of a Matrix-style web, I was preoccupied with thoughts about the endless photos people were taking of strangers, the apps being used to navigate Barcelona and the hashtags that beamed from every available surface denoting Sónar’s status as an extension of digital landscapes as a whole.
Those apps were more useful at the Sónar By Night venue, which is notoriously cavernous and provides the most extreme experiences available at the festival. Copeland, performing on the Friday evening, provided the most bodily listening experience of the weekend with a set that shirked her perceived role as “female vocalist” to display her aggressive range of ear-splitting whines and thuds of bass, matched with blasts of light that made it difficult to watch her for an extended period of time. Immediately afterwards, Visionist played a grime set that used a minimal framework as a bassline for contortions that clambered all around the space, with all the fun-not-fun of his cathartic I’m Fine EP series. Both artists played the smallest stage of the venue, drawing their crowd together.
Evian Christ, meanwhile, took to the huge SónarLab, but created an intimacy all of his own with a series of well-worn tunes and straight bangers from his early YouTube cuts (‘MYD’ and ‘Fuck It None of Y’All Don’t Rap’ being the stand-outs) as well as ‘I’m In It’, the tune he produced for Kanye West’s Yeezus, and a slew of current dance floor heaters from Young Thug and MssingNo. These recognisable moments appealed straight to the producer’s online success story, and hummed with the closeness of bringing together a congregation of people who usually worshipped together in the form of Soundcloud comments and ‘@’s.
On the Saturday, an easy stand-out at Sónar By Day was Sinjin Hawke, who had the same body-slamming approach as Evian Christ despite playing closer to 9pm at the close of Sónar By Day. All presence and lightness, Sinjin is the kind of performer you can’t take your eyes away from, and his willingness to drop big tracks like his 2013 hit ‘Yea Hoe’ and his ‘Say My Name’ remix created a similarly familiar atmosphere to the IRL hype of Evian Christ the night before. Future Brown were one of the most-anticipated acts of the final day, and as expected brought a similar slew of cold, metallic hip hop and grime shot through with vocal stabs. It was a little disappointing to see that Fatima Al Qadiri, Nguzunguzu and J-Cush took turns to play B2B from a laptop, however, despite being right in the middle of one of the biggest stages: some of the tension that had been building for their set from the promise of their hyper-stylised hip hop dissipated in the actuality, as they seemed lost and disjointed in all the space. But with more of a visual component to pull viewers into their space like OPN, or just more musical and performative involvement from the whole crew, sonically this is a set that could make any venue connect.
Where they didn’t quite come through was where the rest of Sónar succeeded almost seamlessly; in making use of space, as a physical entity but also a social, emotional and sensory one, as well as a thing to be considered and discussed in itself. Despite movement to a bigger venue and an impossibly huge line-up, Sónar remains an intimate festival, because of the way it so comfortably inhabits the digital alongside the physical. Dominating social media feeds, placing music in its context of consumption by presenting apps and other technologies, and wising up to the artists that generate the most intimate live performances thanks to the IRL audience they summon from the digital ether, this was the music festival for this year’s hyper-connected crowd. **