Wysing Arts Centre is presenting the twelfth edition of their Polyphonic annual music and sound festival, Under Ether. The event is scheduled to take place online and live at The Centre during September, 2021.
Under Ether speculates on esoteric and magical futures, comrpised of three rituals hosted across Wysing Arts Centre’s phyiscal and digitial sites. Curated by Anne Duffau, the programme includes a necw live outdoor stage with musicians FAUZIA, CAMPerVan, YA YA Bones, and other acts exploring sonic forms of optimism and resistance. UK sound artist and DJ, Ain Bailey will host a closed door workshop on shared healing, which aims to connect themes from Wysing’s summer exhibition, Version. New Art City will hold the final ritual online at WysingBroadcasts.art, reiterating the recordings from the September 4 live event into digital space.
“It so obviously is a strong signifier for being displaced in your physical surroundings,” writes mobilegirl (aka Bao-Tran Tran) over email from her base in Berlin on the transcendent qualities of metaverse games like IMVU and Second Life, recently repurposed into clubs amidst pandemic. Unlike streaming-focused events, the open-flight worlds, and seemingly endless wardrobes inherent to these platforms characterize a realm of possibility warmly familiar to Bao. “These virtual worlds allow you to create a persona or to just express yourself in a way you cannot in real life, and I love that so much.”
Ideas of a digital self in connection to larger worlds (whether virtual or IRL) come through frequently across Bao’s discography, one that’s continued the legacy of global club vanguardists Nguzunguzu and their 2011 release Timesup, and ThePerfect Lullaby series. Bao’s approach to meshing classic RnB sounds with an array of new era dance tropes has earned her notable roles in Stockholm’s Staycore collective, on DISCWOMAN’s talent roster, and as the producer of inclusive fashion brand Chromat’s 2019 runway score.
Beyond the namesake of her alias—an homage to the Mobile Girl MiM online sticker pack—there’s an aspect of Bao’s work that playfully obscures supposed boundaries between the real and virtual. Subtle footsteps underscore pensive synthetic melodies, adding an open world dimension to her mix for Wysing Arts Centre‘s Polyphonic festival, running August 4 to 31 and September 5. Meanwhile, the ‘Hottie Lottie Lesbian Room’ cover art for her ‘SOCIALDISTANCETUNE’ track is directly sourced from IMVU. As fringe virtual settings have become increasingly normalized in club culture, I’m curious to know Bao’s position on finding a sense of belonging and community within these online spaces.
**You recently spoke on the escapist and cathartic qualities of nightlife. Has your perception of this changed at all throughout the pandemic?
mobilegirl: Absolutely not. The absence of nightlife really confirmed its qualities for me. I’ve never gone out that much, and there are a lot of aspects I find quite annoying even, but not being able to do so at all does take away that one necessary release every now and then. It’s the combination of experiences that make it so immersive and by no means replicable with all these restrictions. Really loud music, packed dancing, all the gross smells… Then, of course, also a distant sense of belonging. Not saying I relate to everyone going to the same party as me, but club nights undoubtedly bring together similar-minded people.
**Queerness and internet subculture have always been intrinsically connected. With regards to music, do you think this relationship has been impacted by online livestreams and virtual clubs entering the norm?
m: The way something is accessible always has an impact on the nature and progression of said thing, and it’s hard to deny that live streams have been pulling their weight in changing nightlife and music over the past years. But what I think has changed for the better with the recent surge is that the format moved to something more engaging because people are seeking to connect.
I also think there’s a big difference between regular live streams and virtual clubs. The latter cater more to the introvert as an extension of internet subculture. I find them really interesting because they form this bridge between the extraversion of nightlife, and the reclusiveness of participating in online worlds. Recorded live streams, on the other hand, have this un-engaging passiveness that I don’t really enjoy. They give you access to the music, and a performance without putting you and the music into a joint context. The lack of context is where things tend to get exploitative.
**I ask because I’m interested in knowing your thoughts on how these digital formats mediate dimensions of visibility and safety that are inherent to most physical club communities and their spaces.
m: It’s much easier to create safe environments online, I think. As long as you don’t stream a whole party, including the crowd, I don’t see a big concern in safety. Everyone is so secluded in front of their screens and you can choose how visible you are. Of course, everyone could potentially join but the presence of someone unpleasant poses a much smaller threat online than in a physical setting. RSVP systems often prevent that. Otherwise, it’s also a lot easier to moderate and kick people out. Especially if you go into Second Life-type formats, where you’re free to create an avatar, you could even add another dimension of anonymity.
**I find myself appreciating platforms like IMVU or Second Life, where you can alter your body, or fly around an entire world. In some ways, these settings feel more liberating because they’re not trying to mirror real life.
m: I spent half of my teens that way. I learned a lot of my English on a MMORPG [massively multiplayer online role-playing game] and spoke most to internet friends at that time. Looking back, it so obviously is a strong signifier for being displaced in your physical surroundings. I agree with you completely, these virtual worlds allow you to create a persona, or to just express yourself in a way you cannot in real life, and I love that so much. I find myself at a point in my life where I don’t need that as much but ‘wow’ it was essential when I was 15 [years old]. It’s like a highly amped-up and much less risky version of going in on your club fit.
**Last question, at what point should we log off?
m: I guess, ideally, we should be logging on for certain things and not even see that as the more permanent state… but the dopamine.**
The evening will feature a performance by the first project on the label Ectopia (Adam Christensen, Jack Brennan and Viki Steiri) who work with words, cello and synth. There will also be performances by N-Prolenta, xname (Eleonora Oreggia) and SIREN.
The new label is an extension of the art institution’s annual music festival, and will further evolve to include a recording studio, built in the summer of 2017, as well as residencies where Wysing will commission new works in recording and broadcasting for artists and musicians. The 2017 theme, ‘Many Voices’ will work with artists to “explore a diversity of contexts and positions to help better understand the role of art, artists, and arts organisations such as Wysing, at this moment of global political change.”
Joey Holder used to be a diving instructor, and has spent a correspondingly long time under the water. In retrospect, scuba diving is the scariest thing I’ve done. At the time it was great; a zero-gravity experience in a wholly foreign environment, with a 360 degree field of vision above and below. Plus the colours, and the warmth of the water (it was in the Caribbean, naturally), and the otherness of the fauna, and even strange things like the invasive but also comforting breathing apparatus. The trailing plumes of visible exhalation following each diver were all very powerful and evocative and at the time totally intoxicating.
But then: fear. The weight of the sea above, the alien-ness of the environment may be actually unwelcoming, the little technical dangers that only occur to anxious people. The technical integrity of the breathing apparatus, the bends.
Having spent some time under the water, it’s kind of hard not to let the knowledge of Holder’s previous career colour readings of her art; a preoccupation with the synthesis of nature and technology, an aesthetic palette and visual language of fluidity, digitally realised amorphous shapes, an indifference to the conventions of stasis manifesting in a thorough and ongoing exploration of digital space and the weightlessness it affords. Her practice is simultaneously broad and refined; broad in the sense that it spans group and solo exhibitions (she’s prolific), a legion of regularly-updated Tumblr pages (her email signature lists 11 separate links) and various residencies (she’s this year completed one at Wysing, and has work in their upcoming group show The Uncanny Valley).
Holder’s work’s refinement lies in its clear agenda. Her exhibitions support an expansive network of investigation, the Tumblr pages functioning as mood-boards, sketchbooks and image banks, useful to her but also to her audience for whom they provide a visual dictionary of context. Through them Holder archives images that shed light on both her aesthetic and conceptual preoccupations: bio-technologies, improbable creatures and environments, the uneasy proximity of the realization of science fiction into usable technology.
At the core of Holder’s practice lies a fascination with the natural world, and humanity’s interface with it. Her imagery is slick with bio-mucus and circuit-board coolant. The uncanny bleeds into the outright unsettling as she brings to light the alien in the terrestrial.
In an unusually anonymous pub in London’s Soho, we met up to discuss her work and upcoming exhibitions. This autumn she’s in three group shows –the aforementioned The Uncanny Valley, Exta atDeptford’s Res. gallery (running during Art Licks Weekend, October 2 to 4) and a joint exhibition with Viktor Timofeev called Lament of Ur at Karst.
Our conversation is illuminating and hallucinatory, the setting and her enthusiasm lightens Holder’s visions of Ballardian techno-human interfaces, aquatic molecular life that calmly and dispassionately adapts to the spoiled seas, and biologically engineered organisms with their inbuilt killswitches. I am left with visions of opaque jellyfish, floating through the seas of a de-populated earth. Through her online presence, as well as exhibiting, Joey Holder highlights the interlinked networks of organisms that exist in the world, with the digital analogous to the weightlessness of the deep sea.
Can you tell me a little bit about your upcoming exhibitions?
Joey Holder: The show at Res. is a show called Exta. It’s quite an abstract and theory-heavy… it’s kind of like slime-aesthetics, alien sort of stuff. But it sounds quite clever. It’s about slime, and weird shit; for this one they want me to do something with Dark Creatures, which is one of my Tumblrs, so I won’t be under my actual name, I’ll just be called that. I’m making a sort of trailer for the show; they’re doing a bigger show next spring, and I guess I see it as some sort of film-trailer or something for this bigger project.
Then I’m in a group show that’s happening at Wysing, called The Uncanny Valley. I’m basically doing a big floor piece for that.
I do a lot of shows, and I feel like my work is this continual process and output. I don’t think of my works as finished pieces, like static works within a gallery or something, so it’s quite nice to be invited to do lots of things. To somehow compartmentalize, or conceptualise or sort of seal off certain parts of my thinking, somehow.
I find the ‘Uncanny Valley’ as a concept so arresting, through it’s almost recursive description of a kind of human-engineered state where the proximity to flawless human-ness is what actually inspires negative feelings in humans…
JH:It’s really relevant. What’s happening now, with AI and robotics and stuff, how it starts to simulate life, I guess, becomes really fucking weird.
That’s something that I always think about in my own work, how we used to always separate humans from nature, or what we do from nature, when it’s actually part of the same thing.
I saw a quote in an interview with Dazed, “what we produce as humans is actually part of nature’s whole”. It sounded quite new-agey
JH: It is a bit like Gaia theory or something! But it is ultimately true, we are part of a bigger system. I’m not saying that it’s happy and balanced, but whatever happens in the world has a knock on effect. And we take resources from the earth, and are connected to other animals or something – not in a hippy-ish way at all, but like, I guess it’s like in a Timothy Morton sense as well.
I kind of always think about how everything we have as our technology ultimately comes from nature, although it’s not separate from us if that makes sense. You could think of any example, it comes from something that exists in nature. With what I’m interested in these days it becomes even weirder, because with stuff like synthetic biology we can ultimately not just take the wings of a bird and then replicate that, create an aeroplane wing or something, but actually take pieces of genetic code, and life, and essentially put that together -programme that into a new form of life. It’s actually using the stuff, using nature, for want of a better word, itself. It gets really fucking weird then.
Your engagement with these ideas goes beyond the superficial: it doesn’t seem like you just like these ideas, it seems like you understand them. Like you’ve researched them, you know how they work, and you can talk fluently about them.
JH: I wouldn’t say I can talk like a scientist about them in any respect, but some of my projects involve collaborations with scientists, and I have a lot of conversations with them. I did a big solo show called Hydrozoan, which came off a research residency I did. They paired me up with a couple of scientists from Nottingham university, they were plant scientists. I was researching aquaponics which is where you grow food from fish-waste, so you create a system where the fish are kind of providing the nutrients, the nitrates then gets kind of fed into the plants roots and then they grow. So I kind of simulated an aquaponics system within this show.
So yeah, it’s not just, I guess, appropriating the aesthetics of science. I guess I do do that, I don’t actually use, like I’m not a bio-artist as in, using scientific techniques within my work, I’m not actually doing stuff with live-tissues or anything like that, but…
I’m trying to understand why you would use the kind of imprecise tool of visual art to engage with the rational objectivity of science.
JH: I think that’s where the interest lies, really, because science is supposed to be this logical truth. And then scientists kind of build up to that. And I think that with science, or with any kind of system that we take up as a culture that then gets believed and then written down, that stuff is always subject to change, right? And so the next thing we find out, I mean it might not overthrow the whole thing, but there’ve been times when it has.
I guess maybe it’s like critiquing that static structure of that logic, or of language or something, and saying that it is quite malleable. Hopefully art can open something out within science, or question or critique it, in a way that gives people a different way of looking at it, whether it’s through this kind of Sci-Fi aesthetic, or anything else.
I’m kind of interested in very specialist research as well, and how that almost becomes its own system of logic. Maybe like contemporary art does; it starts referencing itself, and then you kind of have to be ‘in the know’ to be able to get into it or something.
You maintain a huge number of different Tumblrs accounts; how do they fit in to your practice?
JH: I was doing this job, I won’t tell you what but it was office-work stuff. I could get the job done really quickly, it was just a couple of hours in the day; it’s probably when I started to make more screen-based stuff. I’d got into net art, I guess, when I was just seriously bored at work, and wanted to find some way of breaking the screen. Breaking the monotony of the screen. That was when I really started to get into net art. Not post-internet art, but net art. I just started to make all these Tumblrs. I see them as mood boards, image collections that I can gain access to very quickly, and get ideas from or a feeling about something, or a project about something that’s a lot easier to access than putting stuff in folders.
I think when people started to become interested in my work was when I started sharing lots of images, and using these Tumblrs and stuff as a research tool. I think when people could see where I was coming from through this stream of research and through this process, that’s when they started to understand more about what the work was about. I guess I always kind of had a problem with the finished art object in the gallery. I always wanted to show that thing in motion or something. Show its progress. It’s just a moment in time of a continual process or way of working. The Tumblrs are more the sum, or the constellation of all these things and all these kind of strings, rather than this finished piece of work, if that makes sense.
Before I turned the Dictaphone on you mentioned that you used to be a scuba instructor; I find diving terrifying, I’d never do it again.
JH: I was really interested in why people were so scared, and I think there’s two main things. One is the equipment –it feels really alien and claustrophobic. And second, the main thing, is people’s fear of the –it’s the fear of the unknown. It’s not knowing what the fuck is down there. Because nine times out of ten, if you could get people calmed down to go down, and get them to look around, and show them a fish, or an octopus or something, then they’d be away. Suddenly because the world had opened up and they could see around them. It’s the fact that they have this idea that there’s this pitch black or something below them, or the abyss, something like that, where there are all these things that they don’t understand. Which is what, like within my work as well, I guess I’m drawn to; really odd things that are kind of beyond our comprehension. As humans we think of them as these alien things, ‘so outside of us, or things that look like they’re made of some other alien material or something; something that we just can’t comprehend.
What do you find compelling about this idea of the incomprehensible other?
JH: My interest in strange life-forms is about the limitations of our understanding, or language; that is about something that’s outside of the human system of reference, that we can’t get to grips with. I was talking about synthetic biology earlier; I’m also really interested in things that transcend out understanding of how nature operates.
I guess because we think as humans, which we are, we’re destroying thousands of habitats, and we’re killing millions of species, but then I’m interested in the other side of that as well, in quite an optimistic way what will happen when humans become extinct, something will take over. For example, we always thought about plastic as being this inert material that can’t biodegrade or rot; it doesn’t go back into the earth and become part of the cycle again. But now they’ve found that these microbes exist in the sea that are eating plastic. You know, so that kind of transcends our whole understanding. And these creatures might have come into being because of our direct action. Jellyfish are another example; jellyfish thrive in polluted waters, water dirtied by us. It’s kind of like this alien thing that we’ve got no idea about, but actually our actions are kind of creating these fucking odd lifeforms as well.
Do you think spending all that time underwater has influenced your practice?
JH: I’ve thought about that a lot. When you get used to scuba diving it’s like you’re weightless; with your buoyancy, you don’t go up and you don’t go down. So it’s a completely different space that you’re dealing with. You’re not walking on land, on gravity. I guess in terms of thinking about a gallery space though, I think it’s really helped me in terms of not… I mean going back to that thing about fixed objects in a gallery? The boring thing about post-internet art is a lot of it got taken off the internet and then put into this really clean, white gallery space and really cleaned up.
I kind of think that with the digital realm you can think about scuba diving as something that anything could happen within this space, or within a digital space. With the digital there is so much possibility for what can happen in there; you can be in a gaming environment, where it’s like you’re moving around a completely alien, different space, and I guess I think about that a lot in terms of creating this kind of liquid space, a space where things aren’t set by gravity.
Then between diving and the internet there’s a metaphor for the world, or something, as well. There’s all this crazy shit out there, these strange networks of creatures, all their communication, the way that they exist. It’s all here. We don’t have to go to outer space to find that, all of that stuff is here on earth. **
A recounted ghost story, they write, created a slippage between fiction and reality, a “part-believed, part-ridiculed ripple” that cast a shadow over not only their time at the Cambridge farmhouse but their post-residency work as well.
Wrapping up their respective residencies at the space (along with Electra (Irene Revell), Heather Phillipson, Paul Purgas, and Erica Scourti), the three artists have joined forces to devise a flexible framework—a kind of fragmented environment layered with film, text, spoken word, object, video and imagery—through which they present their unfinished ideas and works-in-progress, giving insight into the processes that underlaid their residencies at the arts centre.
The event of May 9 will also invite Electra’s Irene Revell, who will present films by experimental feminist film-maker Sandra Lahire, as well as contributions from Canadian artist, writer and educator Emily Rosamond and the writer, critic and curator, Chris Fite-Wassilak.
The art world would mostly be preoccupied with the 56th Venice Biennale in the week beginning May 4. Highlights at the prestigious Italian art fair including Burger King Venezia, Pizza Pavilion, The Internet Saga and SUNSCREEN online initiative listed in our short summary here of some things to look out for.
There are still things happening in other parts of the world, including an national election in the UK, along with parties and gatherings to celebrate/commiserate. There are new exhibitions at Arebyte Gallery, Millington|Marriot and Rod Barton, as well as the third in a series of events supporting the Multiverse Spring Residency at Wysing Arts Centre and Morgan Quaintance in conversation with Gery Georgieva around her Solo Romantika exhibition.
Everyone shows up on a bus from London – all genteel with takeout coffees and good manners, though they say it’s a different story at midnight when the party bus leaves Wysing Space-Time Festival for the city. The sun’s out, which is perfect and fortunate, and the setting’s idyllic: a proper modern-architectural art space in the middle of the Cambridge countryside. The program starts on the dot of 12 and I miss the first band because I’m sitting on a grass verge squinting in the sun and eating plums that fell out of a tree. It’s surreal and beautiful, and the various sculptural artworks scattered around the wooded space add to the sense of otherworldliness: a good level. People seem in the mood to get receptive – cider before lunch and avant-garde art feelings.
I make it on time for Ravioli Me Away, whose theatrical costumes, post-ironic 3D estate agent porn and smoke machine camp make me think I’m in for some knowingly artsy music hall moment until they start playing. They’re hard. And tight. And funny, and angry – though I can’t hear the lyrics very well, but what I make out sounds like pissed-off parafeminism with a dose of fuckit-whatever. Smashing out a hard beat on the tom and snare, Sian Dorrer – dressed in a silver hentai jumpsuit – can really sing, and does, all while holding down the rhythm with such a fierce energy it’s impossible to stay unmoved. Alice Theobald, a performance artist in her own right, is on the keyboard synth and second vocal, sardonically intoning half-spoken ripostes that provide a sort of affective texture to the narrative of the beat. Rosie Ridgway smacks out throbbing basslines like a frenetic punctuation of glottal stops, simultaneously soft and hard and round at the edges. Dance? I nearly died.
The day is blurred in places and the program was more or less constant, even relentless; if you wanted you could spend the whole day immersed in music of various kinds, but I didn’t have the stamina. There was Yola Fatoush – ostensibly an electroclash band of the post-punk persuasion, but perhaps also an alter-ego or some kind of performance art hologram? I’m confused by the Ken Burns effect photo experience playing in the background, which looks like a pretty white girl running around some late-summer idyll in a nightie thing and you can see her bum. Two people on stage walk around in printed t-shirts and one of them sings in a mic. It was okay.
Lucy Railton sat alone in a colored spotlight with a cello and some kind of mixing device while the audience, who started out standing, sank literally to their knees, one by one. A low bow across a single note and the sound was starkly eloquent; it seemed to go on and on. One didn’t watch this performance so much as feel it; there were many closed eyes and bowed heads in the room, among them, eventually, mine. The silence in between, a sound like thunder.
Elsewhere, in an art work reimagined as a tiny wooden theatre in the round, Sue Tompkins, best known for her stint in Life Without Buildings but now an artist working mainly in textual forms, performed a set-length poem, if poem is the right word. Her words were so juicy in her mouth that we all ate them up, kids in the front row and all, as she jumped around the stage like a child. It was an extraordinary performance, verging on the mediumistic – utterly affected and entirely authentic at once, like a religious rite.
Later on, Hannah Sawtell’s performance was an immersive and disorientating experience. Lit only by a powerful strobe light, she filled the room with dark synths and distorted drum hits, layering harsh waveforms to staggering effect. At times it was a dense attack on the senses, the sharp highs cutting through the rolling bass sequences. The modulators seemed to be running at multiples of the tempo of the strobe, making the performance encompassing and physical. As it ended after a brutal 30 minutes, one staff member muttered “thank fuck”. Long after the performance I was still mentally emerging from the experience – the outside world seemed to move with more fluidity, and to be a little quieter.
Later still, there was Nik Colk Void, who has been making noise in different forms for a while now (certain nerds might remember her from KaitO), but is possibly best known for being one third of Factory Floor. For the past few years she’s also been working with Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle to form Carter Tutti Void, as well as putting out solo releases. Her type of electronic industrialism, infiltrated by techno and ambient, set the evening’s dancers into motion. It was a hard driving set, minimal and effective, punctuated by moments of thundering noise. In front of a degraded video loop of an electric guitar she played her own, bowing the thing to add texture to an already robust sound. Some of the noise textures felt physically painful so close to the speaker. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I left before the night bus, and before Holly Herndon, whose cerebral, sensual soundscapes I was sad to miss. An all-female lineup in a festival subtitled The Future feels like a bold and necessary move right now, and the whole day was infused with this spirit of engagement and experimentation, subverting the hedonic festival spirit in all the right ways. **
While David Raymond Conroy and James Richards live in-residence for the entire 10 weeks, the other participating artists will be joining them for shorter periods and contributing to a series a public events throughout the residency.