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. **
So from early UK grime, through Fade to Mind and back again, the gun-related sounds, as illustrated in a recent Electronic Beats article, surface in this fractured stream of scrambled, sped up vocals and a gun being cocked (but in this case actually shot), in Tri Angle producer Evian Christ‘s first single ‘Salt Carousel’, to appear on his upcoming EP release, Waterfall, in early 2014.
That’s just about as exciting as the incredible line up for the Evian Christ-curated Trance Party, on at Corsica Studios this Friday, November 22, featuring a dream line-up including Holy Other, Jam City, Arca, Vessel and Wanda Group.
As the resident of the monthly ‘Deviation’ series, Benji B has championed the more experimental side of electronic music while embracing a full spectrum for a decade on the BBC. So between Al Qadiri’s Gulf War-inspired Desert Strike EP and Leary’s recent work on Kanye West’s Yeezus album, there’s certainly a lot here to draw from. Buy tickets here. **
‘Online social groups, that’s what clubbing is now.’ says Michail Stanglas he explains the changing nature of the way some interact with music during a discussion of Posthumanism at Unsound 2012. It’s a notion which the festival -in its tenth edition since starting as a still very underground affair in Poland’s cultural heart of Krakow -interrogates through a seemingly fatalistic theme of ‘The End’. Of course, while flash-in-the-pan online microgenres like hauntology and #seapunk might make you think much radical music is in the domain of the digital, it’s in seeing the epic and endless build-ups of YouTube phenomenon Evian Christ’s set, or the exquisite post-millennial DJing of Kuwaitee-American artist and producer, Fatima Al Qadiri, that you realise that just because something is of the virtual world, doesn’t mean it should to stay there.
While ‘digitisation as death to music’ is a question specifically brought up during the H+ talk on Posthumanism at the city’s Bunkier Sztuki, it’s an idea echoed and repeatedly refuted throughout the eight-day Unsound event. Whether it’s the submerged techno insurrection of Vessel or the rattling psychoacoustics of Brooklyn sound artist Ben Vida, there’s no denying the pure physicality of music in a real-time arena. There’s a smashed lamp by pure rhythmic force at Black Rain’s performance in Soviet modernist remnant, Hotel Forum, and brain-dissolving onslaught of Empty Set at the Manggha Museum. That’s not to mention the transcendental collaboration of Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) St. Catherine’s Church. They had the grand Gothic structure quaking to the point of feeling like it really was the end of the world –or at least of the centuries old building that contained it.
Amongst the less affirmative of ideas of endings are the apocalyptic murmurings of the Unsound-commissions by Biosphere’s examination of the first New Mexico atomic weaponry tests in Kijów Cinema, as well as Demdike Stare and the Krakovia Sinfonietta’s abstract excursion into shifting world orders with the revelatory animation from director Michael England in the Tempel Synagogue. But even in those, there’s a powerful sense of expectation and rebuilding; a logical progression from last year’s desperate and helpless overload of the scifi-themed Futureshock. That’s not least because, as Unsound’s rising global reputation reaches a state of transition –contemplating its potential for lateral growth with rising audience numbers and increased funding –people like Jamie Teasdale (Kuedo) and the Quietus’ new music editor Rory Gibb explore ideas of man-made, boundary-pushing technologies in conversation, while artists like LA-based production duo Nguzunguzu and Russia’s drum n bass inspired producer Slava tug, pull and drop their distorted bass performances within the physical realms of live music.
Fatima Al Qadiri and vogue beats-inspired artists Mike Q have the most to offer in this post-internet era, where they inhabit a space that is a step up from the hyper-critical neo-psychedelia of last year’s Not Not Fun artists, for example, but still within a proto state of realistion. That’s where they’re still beholden to distinctions, between pop and the avant-garde, east and west, samples and real-time mixing; all of which you can recognise in a live setting. In fact, it’s the deviant PAN artist Heatsick and Californian sonic intellectual Holly Herndon that offer a more integrated experiences of broken-down boundaries and realising the conceptual sonically, while teetering across the intellectual and the emotional most fluidly. Yet, they too have shortcomings in presenting a homogenous Libertarian world-view, in contrast to the anti-didactic globalism as Al Qadiri’s sophisticated intercultural mixes through Islamic chants and modern pop or Theo Parrish’s genre mashes across time form his early Detroit Techno days, to Nirvana and contemporary RnB in a single early-morning set.
But in making up for the conceptual shortcomings every individual artist is bound to have, it’s the Unsound programme as a whole that utilises their strengths and perpetuates an intertextual conversation, criss-crossing across space and time and mirroring the plural, globalised, post-internet world that drives it. Presenting music, art and ideas in conversation with each other, Unsound 2012 offers a multiplicity of perspectives for a fly’s eye view of the world, all with an ear for asking the question, ‘where to from here?’
Poland’s Unsound Festival runs annually in October.