There’s a hint of brightness and enthusiasm on arrival at PAF Spring Olomouc. “No more slippery frozen sidewalks but rather fresh grass and sunny greenhouses,” reads the programme text. Usually held in deep winter December, the moving image and music festival’s return post-pandemic signals new beginnings with its springtime edition, made all the more fitting by its lush botanical garden location in Flora Olomouc. Set during an unseasonably warm weekend, coloured crocus flowers can be seen peeking from the grass in the venue’s neighbouring park. The festival itself has a distinctive communal atmosphere, with participants huddled together over the days and nights outside a temporary bar and lounge area, which itself plays host to talks, screenings and playable indie game cabinets by Ateliér Duchů.
On opening night, Soho Rezanejad performs her work ‘The Entertainer,’ melding electronics, vocals, and theatrical atmospheres. Seated centrestage beneath a flood of red lighting, a pre-recorded voiceover narration ambiguously spotlights the artist under the audience’s active gaze: “To wait openly is just to be naked. In fact the more she waits, the more naked she becomes.” Rezanejad rises from her seat and begins a strong vocal performance against a backdrop of glacial electronics, moving in a subdued pace around the stage, before rupturing her passivity with respect to the audience’s spectatorship by breaking the fourth wall. Walking off stage and standing within the audience, Rezanejad allows the seismic backing track to take centre stage, interjecting with unmiked clapping and vocalisations. There are moments when audience members themselves become the subjects, as Rezanejad stands in the crowd, back to the stage, implicating viewers with a stare-down. It is a performance arc that consistently holds its tension, ringing in the early hours of the festival with a memorable sense of liveness.
object blue next delves into metallic electronics coalescing with Natalia Podgórska’s hypercolour forest-scape visuals. Against Podgórska’s 3D animations — resembling at times a swampy climate apocalypse — object blue holds the audience sonically, spanning stochastic beat incursions along with melodic through lines. The audiovisual collaboration creates a narrative passage, moving through Podgórska’s scenes of electrifying greenery, flames, and glaring abstract refractions, stopping to pause occasionally with object blue’s spacious droning reliefs.
In a cinema hall Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin screen several of their short video works from the Whether Line series, traversing motifs ranging from seances and magic, gun ownership and “open carrying,” all filmed at the artists’ rural property in Ohio. As is consistent throughout their work, a pseudo-joyous sheen belies a camp allusion to tragedy and mania, well placed in a lineage of Jack Smith’s oddball visions with his 1963 “comedy set in a haunted music studio” Flaming Creatures, or the DIY outsider video drag of Shaye Saint John. In colourful and conversational Q&A sessions held over video link, the duo unpack the ways in which their idiocentric plot devices respond to a contemporary moment of psychic tension and social malaise.
In Flora Olomouc’s greenhouse, the Only Glass Between Us exhibition hosts works from the n.b.k Video-Forum coupled with selected pieces by Czech/Slovak artists. Installed throughout the botanical display on TV screens — sometimes feeling like technological relics from the pre-digital video age — the pieces populate a landscape of palm trees and bird of paradise flowers, in a rainforest recreated out-of-place within central Europe. This intervention in the natural/unnatural environs of a greenhouse — that typical Victorian age technology for a bound and controlled nature — made for a thoughtful viewing experience of the videos. As noted in the exhibition text, “the individual works relate to the questions of the artificial world and invisible borders,” with regards to migration, or likewise the “classification and hierarchization of knowledge and living beings.” Such a loaded exhibition space made videos by the likes of Rebecca Horn, Wolf Kahlen and Ulrike Rosenbach, alongside more contemporary contributions from Anetta Mona Chişa and others all the more topical, away from the semiotically sterilised confines a white cube.
This anthropocene blend of the organic, synthetic and a fraught relationship with nature was likewise present in a screening by BCAA System, whose latest film No Blade of Grass sees a natural landscape clash with protagonists dressed in otherworldly garb. Evoking some kind of displaced nomads in a science fiction film, the LARP-like onscreen performance of the collective has further resonance post-pandemic, bringing to mind our shifting more and more towards online avatars, accelerated during lockdown via the likes of Minecraft and IMVU. Meanwhile back in the festival hub, London based artist collective Babeworld presents a screening of their films with a discussion mediated by Anne Duffau of the A—Z curatorial platform. Certainly the most moving of these was collective member Gabriella Davies’ Dad, Dancing (2021), a harrowing and poignantly funny unpicking of performed identity, socialised expectations, and alienation told through an elegantly narrated clip of the the artist’s dad dancing to his favourite songs at a pub jukebox.
As the festival’s second evening draws to a close, a midnight performance by Space Afrika brings brooding ambience to the main hall venue’s stage, drenched in red LED lighting. There are thick beds of synth pads, and echoing fragments of melancholic vocal clips that sound like traces of Saturday night radio in the back of a rainy cab ride home. Set to a grey backdrop of projected visuals from urban Britain, the Manchester duo absorb the audience with a live treatment of the glacial atmospheres that made them much talked about with 2021’s Honest Labour album.
On the day of leaving Olomouc I walk around the town’s main square, passing a small crowd gathered beneath the Astronomical Clock tower striking noon, with an automaton show built in the Soviet era. Being a Sunday during low tourist season, it is eerily quiet. Throughout the old town Ukrainian flags and posters of solidarity cast a stark reality on the pleasant hopefulness of spring, with the heartbreaking war all too close to home. PAF is due to return once again for its winter festival this December, and no doubt the months until then will be trying. However this weekend feels for everyone here a pause for relief and community in uncertain times, a much needed recentering of balance before the year ahead.**