Leaving the theatre space of Kraków’s Manggha Japanese art and culture museum I am confronted by a row of festival posters. They’re pasted across the historic Polish city this week, October 13 through 17, printed with Unsound’s dəəp authentic branding alongside a glistening 3D-art humanoid character and a prominent purple-blue QR code. As I walk out the venue playing host to the festival’s first evening performances, I flick open my phone’s scanner like second nature and point it at this ubiquitous graphic symbol.
While the concert I’ve just left felt almost back to pre-pandemic ‘normal’, it was QR codes that got me here: one on my boarding pass, one on my passenger locator form at the airport gate, one on my NHS app vaccination certificate shown at the gate, and again at the venue. On this poster is yet another of these matrix barcodes, this time leading me to a link that asks for access to my phone camera. I am well past thinking twice about data collection these days, so I select ‘yes’ without hesitation and then view the riverside mainroad in front of me through my device’s screen. A pearlescent animated creature—created by New York-based Polish duo Pussykrew—leaps onto the footpath. For a festival that welcomes us back to a confused notion of what constitutes ‘IRL’ after the pandemic, this AR intervention is a colourful reminder of the new metaverse that has become second nature over the past two years.
Now in its 19th edition, Unsound has expanded from its founding home of Kraków, with past events in New York, Toronto, Adelaide. However, its annual meetup in the picturesque former Polish capital remains the core of the organisation’s offering, as both a site of discussion and ambitious live sets, as well as a memorable bacchanalian party for the global experimental electronic and club music communities.
After a discourse-oriented online festival in 2020 as the year wound up towards ‘Zoom fatigue’, this year’s Unsound seeks to reinstate the sweaty physicality of the club. Its theme ‘deep authenticity’ refers to avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros’ concept of deep listening, focussed on high attentiveness. ‘Authenticity’, a conceptual crutch in both art and underground music cultures, is referenced here in the way that Walter Benjamin famously used the notion in his writing, to discuss the authentic or un-reproduced original artwork. Unsound 2021 seeks to refocus as much as possible on those moments not reproduced through livestreams, Instagram stories, or Zoom meetings: just the artists, a PA, and an audience in Kraków. The reality of this gets messy in our post-pandemic (or pre-endemic) interregnum, as the resulting week was one of joys, disappointments, nostalgia, and a lot of us simply relearning how it is exactly we’re supposed to behave at this stuff again.
Opening the festival’s performances at Manggha, Flora Yin-Wong’s brooding spoken word vocals explore ideas of spirit possession, with a haze of humming ambient field recordings launching the evening in a subdued manner. Her performance is contrasted with a likewise vocally-oriented set by Juliana Huxtable, Ziúr and Theresa Baumgartner’s Off License project, in which Huxtable’s stylised poetry performance delivers phrases about bodegas, spätis and off licences, giving a kind of anachronistic downtown punk avant-garde evocation. This clashes at times bombastically, if not a little jarringly, with Ziúr’s highly theatrical singing style and explosive electronic soundings.
Following a walk along the river, the evening’s club event is held at 89—an old strip club turned Unsound-programmed techno venue in the basement of Soviet era former festival home Hotel Forum. The club’s red-carpeted floors, walls and booths give a Lynchian atmosphere that is strongly interrupted by evening highlight aya. Her unpredictable performance arc and eclectic production sound meet with her talent as a singular (and hilarious) Manc master of ceremonies.
The following evening at Łaźnia Nowa Theatre provides a reintroduction to certain unforeseen instances that have been missed in the absence of live events. Early in a delicately-performed set by Eartheater, a punter smoking in the bathroom sets off alarms and noisy industrial fans. The New York artist proves her excellent stage experience, coolly switching her set order and holding the audience’s attention with banter, making her eventual resumption of songs from her 2020 PAN release Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin all the more satisfying.
There are murmurings among some who miss the old Hotel Forum venue. Having not been in past years, the comparison is a little lost on me, but it is hard not to feel like any longings for previous editions are tinged with an implacable nostalgia for beforehand in general: the hazy memory of a feeling before the pandemic.
This year’s largest venue, a former industrial warehouse area renamed Hype Park, holds acts over a sizable festival stage, as well as a more intimate (and better-sounding) club room. Evita Manji opens the first evening in Room Two with glistening and glacial electronics, followed by tactile and thoughtful techno excavations from DeForrest Brown Jr. It culminates with the artist himself launching into the crowd for a fully embodied performance. While the Unsound 2021 is devoid of AV projections (a response, it is claimed, to our year of staring at screens) a massive exception is made for the hyperactive 3D visualisations of Sam Rolfes, accompanying Danny L Harle’s high intensity rave for The Harlecore Experience live show.
During the pandemic, LSDXOXO made an evolution from DJ/producer to front-person with a new EP and the viral club track ‘Sick Bitch’. Here at Unsound he presents the European premiere of his new live material. Strutting the stage and delivering vocals to a DJ backing, the Berlin-via-New York artist seems still to find his feet with stage presence, although his futuristic ballroom-inflected sonic and visual world is captivating enough. Playing into the early morning is a back-to-back debut from recent production collaborators object blue and TSVI, whose 2.5 hour set sprawls stylistically around a percussive techno crux, proving a natural chemistry between the two artists. Their late night energy in Room Two is matched the following evening by Dis Fig, who brings a highly eclectic mix spanning techno to more well-trodden house party favourites.
On closing night, rather than host a typical late-night party, Unsound dəəp authentic ends in a quiet affair with a pensive staging of experimental composer Annea Lockwood’s 1968 piece ‘Piano Burning’. Soloist Martyna Zakrzewska performs on an upright piano that has been set alight in a large Kraków field, eventually standing up and walking away as the instrument is engulfed further in flames, and the sounds of strings giving up inside can be heard. A crowd of about 100 or more people circle the performance, listening attentively to the mic’d up tactile sounds of flames licking the instrument.
Phones are pulled out, and soon images of its blazing wood panels fill my Instagram stories, as everyone continues to share their digital documentations of the week that has just passed. Reliving these recent memories online the following day, I flick through stories that are interspersed with completely black screens, tagged DJs and thumping sounds. Some of those I had seen at the festival had moved on to that weekend’s party at Berghain, and the club’s famed no photos policy nowadays just means people proceed to absurdly share sound-only stories.
Our contemporary moment is inescapably integrated with tech, and the pre-pandemic association of authenticity as being entirely “in the moment” IRL now seems moot at this point. However, festivals like Unsound do offer augmented escapes from the everyday, as well as moments of connection deeply needed after lockdown. The conversations there felt so much more saturated, joyous and attentive than those countless we’ve had online in the last 18 months.**