The raw inter-realities of Lausanne’s Les Urbaines festival

, 16 December 2016

The Gothic architecture of Lausanne sprawls and climbs over the ebbing pixels of a mastered landscape. It’s populated by bodies, feverishly moving to a nebulous bass line that drops it’s beat. The lights go up over countless acts and stages. Dipping and grinding in the heart of Switzerland for its annual opening, the concept of Les Urbaines mimics the panoramic view, layering, negating and twisting through its lived surroundings. This year running from December 1 to 4, the festival offers intimacy as a central theme, giving way to new reflections and materials from over 65 participating artists. The intense line-up of performers and artists appearing in countless venues, like Arsenic, Le Bourg and TILT includes Colin Self, HVAD, Guy Meldem, Vanessa Safavi and others. It spans three days and concludes with an exhibition, Meaning can only grow out if intimacy (Limbs, Water, Nostalgia), curated by Elise Lammer at Espace Arlaud, running until December 31.

The press release quotes Donna Haraway whilst guiding viewers into the digital cacophony of a 19-year-old rapper Wulfy Benzo‘s live performance, who plunges into the stage with clickbait lyrics and sentimental teen iconography. There’s barely a second to breathe as one sinks into the successive emotive sweeps of Balz Isler‘s QuickTime windows presentation, projected onto a silk-draped screen accompanied by the artist’s own melodic vocals reminiscent of Lana Del Rey’s early dulcet tones. As night, falls crowds of people make their way to the adrenaline-flickering mosh pit of Yves Tumor. He sweats and yells, figuratively clawing his crowds eyes right out of their sockets. As they gaze, entranced, he tears through the audience in a jumpsuit riding a wave of power.

Kris Lemsalu @ Les Urbaines, Lausanne. Photo by David Wolschlag.

The festival offers its audience a contemporary reading of how artistic mediums are presented today.The festival offers its audience a contemporary reading of how artistic mediums are presented today. Works like Ernestyna Orlowska’s ‘Fruits’ literally thrives through the eyes that peer onto the staged installation. The artists only perform actions that they choose in their pseudo-game show reality, wearing outfits reminiscent of Ryan Trecartin’s drag queen-esque banshees — complete with white contact lenses — and Boychild’s gender-fluid Butoh dance moves and Hood by Air aesthetics. The three performers could not physically perform if the audience didn’t exist. They would remain motionless matter adorned, yet useless and unseen. As here, the festival refuses a singular genre, such a sculpture, music or performance, but instead installs a multi-faceted temporary, raw community throughout the city. 

I write raw, not to describe the aesthetics but because many of the works are newly produced for Les Urbaines and seemingly unversed as far as their looks to be room for improvisation. Perfection isn’t the most immediate goal, which gives them a certain freshness and momentum. This is most apparent in the smothering, smokey cobalt-blue depths of Ligia Lewis’s erotic masculinity choreographed tale of a young man’s power trip in today’s western world. The audience are seated in a traditional tiered theatre setup. The air is thick with dry smoke as the lights go on and the post-human chords of Twin Shadow vibrate through the room. A half-naked 20-something boy appears dressed only in boxing shorts, running shoes and a gold grill over his teeth. He moves through a monologue shakily as his mouth manoeuvres the piece. At times it sounds like a feverish rant from a Beckett play, changing tack to something like the cruel tongue of Robert de Niro in the cult classic film Taxi Driver. The protagonist plays the macho. He moves paces, dances, runs laps and addresses the audience but he doesn’t seem rehearsed or naturalised to the stage — he seems to be re-enacting a moment he has experienced himself, not one that’s been orchestrated by Lewis.

Ligia Lewis, ‘Sorrow Swag’ (2016). Performance view. Photo by Nelly Rodriguez. Courtesy Les Urbaines, Lausanne.

Many of the works, not only physically appear commonplace in their blur between life and art but also raise issues of today, in a way that feels less academically prescribed but more conversational. One piece that is particularly enigmatic is a performative lecture from Finnish artist Samira Elagoz entitled ‘Cock Cock…Who’s there?’ It spans over 65-minutes and tells the story of the artist’s traumatic real rape, which she “celebrates” every year via her own ritualistic practice. She calls it her “rape anniversary” and observes it by speaking to family and friends about the event on camera or over Skype, performing her multiple female identities that she has constructed in relation to the male gaze, sexual fashion, linguistics and social gatherings. Elagoz uses the narrative device as a monologue delivered by her, alongside real video footage and re-enactments of reporting the assault. Over the course of the three years following Elagoz’s first rape (she is, sadly, assaulted a second time, a year after the first one), the artist has worked through various online and real-life situations that give her mostly a controlled space to study men and their behaviour in relation to her own sexuality. The spectacle is at times tender, but as the male protagonists change from user to used you also see fear, domination and principles of empowerment that could be real or fictitious. The video leaves the audience wondering if what they have just witnessed was Post-feminist emancipation, or unacknowledged Stockholm Syndrome.

Elagoz is not the only performer to leave the audience in a state of unfathomable insecurity. Hunter Longe and Lauren Huret’s work ‘Deep Blue Dream_refresh’ dissects our ambivalent relationship towards technology and our own personal data. Simply enough, the performance starts by offering an overview of Deep Blue, the now retired supercomputer that first triumphed over chess champion Garry Kasparov. The installation performance is in the form of a two-channel screened projection setup on a stage with the audience watching the films like at the cinema. After the audience watches a brief and playful history of the machine, the monitors suddenly flip out and start to project an image of the audience on to the screens. Scanning faces, they pull up names and data of the crowd from the internet and drop them into the frames or read these details over the sound systems. They then start to mediate online images of audience members, some more embarrassing than others, in a  process reminiscent of a stand up comedian working the crowd. It’s funny, yes, but unsettling as we see the speed in which our lives and identities can be found and shared publicly. In this case, it’s for our amusement but what makes us assume it’s just a momentary gag?

Anne Lise Le Gac & Élie Ortis, ‘GRAND MAL’ (2016). Performance view. Photo by Greg Clement. Courtesy La Urbaines, Lausanne.

Les Urbaines has an uncanny way of making everything come together, where reality slips between online data and the stage, and in doing so it becomes more real. The festival  program continually conjoins the familiar with the illicit and sentimental. Desire naturally runs thick and fast through the Meaning can only grow out if intimacy (Limbs, Water, Nostalgia) exhibition, which doesn’t only deal with the sugar-coated moments of intimacy but the parts in which we heal or hate ourselves through our own conditioned closeness. There’s the Google Image searched lectures via Krump dance moves and sexual provocation from artists like Anne Lise Le Gac and Elie Ortis and the liquid nude-latex body of Kris Lemsalu. Clinging to her own man-made icon of an angel, the figure looms over the museum goers with two ceramic wolf heads with dripping tongues and wings made from car doors. She ironically holds it tightly, her nails almost piercing through the latex as she throws and pins herself at the mercy of her own creation.

Showing its audience that what we watch is often much closer to our own self-realised parodies than an observed fiction, Les Urbaines manages to create a believable and aesthetically impressive mini-global universe throughout Lausanne. It’s world that irritates and feasts on socialisation, media, morality, honesty and the viewers themselves. The works accelerate not only through the producer’s intentions but through the moments of intimacy and experience you live through as a viewer rather than a critic’s mediation of the pieces. Les Urbaines sits heavily and overbearingly here — right here, right now — in a moment that’s captured but not tamed by the observer or the technology that watched it.**

Les Urbaines was on in Lausanne, running December 1 to 4, 2016. 

Header image: Ligia Lewis, ‘Sorrow Swag’ (2016). Performance view. Photo by Nelly Rodriguez. Courtesy Les Urbaines, Lausanne.