The Re:Balance program questions how club culture will recover from overarching social crises and modes of action spurred from the intersections within its space. Emotion Labor Queen will address the former individually in their workshop ‘Holding space – how to be kind to ourselves’. Meanwhile, a series of concerts will take place throughout the festival. Myss Keta is scheduled to perform along with an audiovisual performance by DJ Vanessa Opoku, Elle Fierce, and AUCO from NO SHADE.**
Balance Club / Culture’s 2021 festival Re:Balance runs on October 2 in Leipzing at UT Connewitz. Tickets are available via their website.
Emergent sentience – a holy grail of unity between new technological developments and age-old philosophical ideas – provides a set of perspectives to consider the nature of presence. Death, legacy and the echoes of physical, mental and spiritual awareness grant further windows to gaze through. Presence is felt and shared as both personal and communal experiences. The treacherous chasm between memory and canonisation in a world currently obsessed with ‘truth’ is pertinent.
The Unsound brochure posits that this year’s theme of ‘Presence’ invites reflection on how best to exist under life’s circumstances. The international festival is known for its forays into electronic and avant-garde music and art, bringing a multidisciplinary cohort of producers, performers, musicians, artists and writers to the Polish city of Kraków to pragmatically tackle multifaceted questions on the modes, meanings and manifestations of existence. Tying global artists with local scenes, it brings the fringes to a concentrated centre each year. It sits as a towering landmark for a culture that sees itself as underground and experimental, cultivating moments of alone togetherness that are simultaneously slow-moving and epiphanic, tangible and amorphous. These contradictions are continuously negotiated just as the festival navigates its own way through its point of inquiry. Salient angles from which the concept of presence is approached include survival, absence, disruption and the digital realm. These perspectives are investigated in the sections below, alongside thoughts from some of the artists themselves.
Virtual and Digital
A number of avatars take to the stage at Unsound. Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones have flitted between virtual and physical realms, hosting interactive videos online and bringing their own rubbery, mutative uncanny valley sonics to club music as Fractal Fantasy. For their peak set time appearance at the colossal Hotel Forum, they perform with live motion capture to project themselves in different sizes, shapes and environments on the screen behind them.
‘Absence 2018‘ is a bot developed by crypto-artist TCF and several programmers, created and deployed during the festival. Users of the Facebook Messenger chatbot can type commands, allowing them to check programme details, broadcast messages and receive notes. The scope of the user experience soon widens as the automated service begins to assign tasks to users, ranging from pop quiz questions on Unsound’s history to initiating a competitive augmented reality game with prizes. It’s a novel way to communicate with people during events and provides the opportunity to share the experience with strangers and a charming play on the theme. The choice to prioritise people’s connections with each other rather than having the bot strike up a false friendship with users comes as a relief.
The premiere of performance and audiovisual art-based presentation ‘Magna Surgat’ also features live motion capture. Dance collective House of Kenzo interpret the music of fellow Texan producer Rabit, and their choreography is in turn monitored and reconfigured into a digital environment on screen by visual artist Sam Rolfes. The visceral voguing of the dancers and the hypnotic abstractions of their shadows on screen are locked in battle for the audience’s attention. Company Wayne McGregor reverse the flow of information in the Jlin-scored Autobiography, a show where the dance ensemble move to the DNA of their namesake as parsed by an algorithm. Graceful and opaque, it’s a reminder of all an avatar can conceal in the act of appearing visible.
Play and Disruption
Writer and composer Emile Frankel speaks on ideas of play and ambiguity in music and their relationship with the current political climate. He posits that much of the music from recent years sitting on the industrial-electronic-experimental axis (Amnesia Scanner’s work, for example) feature a sense of compositional uncertainty and randomness. This taps into human tendencies of extracting information from noise and discerning patterns where there are none – a sensation known as apophenia. In the act of listening, this compositional ambiguity compels people to subconsciously long for stability and meaning in the music. Frankel then introduces the phenomenon of collective false memory known as the ‘Mandela effect’, where social factors such as ambiguous information lead people to believe untruths (i.e. that Nelson Mandela died in the 1980s – a falsehood many have subconsciously embraced). When their illusions are shattered, those experiencing the effect come to believe something is amiss with reality itself, rather than accept that they’d misremembered. A similar expression of existential denial has become quite common since Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president. Frankel says the Mandela Effect is an unintended political consequence of ambiguity, almost issuing a caution to the dystopian, erratic electronic sound of the moment. Fortunately, he proposes that there is a utopian, constructive way to introduce ambiguity into music: through play. He nods to improv jazz, more of an approach than a genre; it sets its own paradigms and seeks to discover rather than obfuscate, just as children do.
Amnesia Scanner’s recent album Another Life features the voice of Oracle, a software stack processing outsourced vocal work from online freelance marketplace Fiverr, manifesting as the third member of the group. The ‘AS Oracle’ live show introduces this new member across media, as the crowd is invited to join an ad hoc Wi-Fi network with a dedicated chatroom where Oracle is also present during the concert. Usernames are anonymised and anyone in the IM chatroom can share words or Amnesia Scanner-themed stickers, while the ‘chatbot’ Oracle also weighs in. The user base of fans incline the conversation towards self-referential memes, in-jokes, commentary on the music and frequent, transgressive attempts to test the limits of the technosocial construction. Oracle’s responses are in essence a simulation of the Turing test, while the encouragement to look down and stare at one’s phone during Amnesia Scanner’s performance flies in the face of live music convention and adds a new dimension to being present. The group take this idea one step further, triggering the webpage’s background to flash oranges and yellows during particularly intense moments of the music. Through logging in and participating in the chat, the audience inadvertently become proxy strobes for the artists, their phones now lighting fixtures to be weaponised at whim.
Elements of disruption and chaos are intentionally programmed, too – percussionist Adam Gołebiewski launches into his powerful solo drum set smack in the middle of a club night crowd, moments after the previous act has left the stage. At other times, artists themselves take the initiative. Gaika ensures that the audience is part of his bombastic, industrial-drenched dancehall storytelling. He tells the lighting engineer to bring the room to total darkness before asking his audience to turn their phone flashlights on. While such a request is often saved for more still, sentimental gig moments, here the vibrancy and sway of the dancers and their torches conjures a more spirited, ritualised unity.
On his stories: “They’re from all around the world and it’s all true. It’s actually my life. If you know anything about me and you go and listen to the lyrics, it’s quite uneasy listening. It’s quite an uneasy listen for a lot of my friends – they get it, they know what it’s all about.”
On technology: “I didn’t have a phone for four years. They just rot your mind, you know? Well not rot your mind but make you not present. You have to wean yourself off it, so you don’t have to pick up and put it down. I use Instagram less than most people but I see it as unnatural to me. If it gets too much I’ll throw my phone in the bin, because I think we’re sliding between realities.”
On staying present: “Concentrate on what’s real, on what has meaning. Not the spectacle, the actual thing. How I feel, [how I’m] being viewed. Not how I want to feel, not how I want to be viewed.”
Absence and Isolation
A classical concert pays tribute to esteemed composer Jóhann Jóhannsson by way of his previous collaborators: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Sam Slater, Erik K. Skodvin, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Sinfonietta Cracovia, who close Unsound on a gentle, comforting note. The festival also remembers and celebrates Ursula K. Le Guin, through a poignant, enthralling performance of her project with Todd Barton, Music and Poetry of the Kesh. It is presented as the sound of a fictional, purely imagined society, isolated from real life frames of reference. Yet the vaguest recognition of familiar textures and melodies prompts a consideration of all we passively absorb from our surroundings. Anthropological studies continue in the film programme, as Welcome to Sodom (2018) spotlights Agbogbloshie, Accra – the destination landfill for swathes of the West’s electronic waste. Through an inescapably colonial aperture, the film intrudes upon and documents a troubled community of workers left damned by consumerism, delving into what it means to be isolated and ignored in a globalised world.
A train ride outside of Kraków and down a skeletal, draughty lift underground lies the Wieliczka Salt Mine. It exists in the forced, shallow liminal space between abandonment and community as tourist attractions often do, offering a canteen, bar and remarkably strong 4G connection among its cavernous walkways and curious chapels. It’s here that minimalist vanguard Terry Riley performs with his son Gyan to a seated audience who are entombed in the stasis of quiet music amidst silent surroundings. Terry Riley’s brittle voice contends with the anatomical demands of his opening raga, his Hindi developing Arab inflections alongside Gyan’s acoustic guitar as if the pair were making Malian folk. Here in the Polish mines, with the Rileys on stage – for how many is this the first time seeing Indian classical music live? Survival and Sustenance
Rory Gibb, Paul Rekret and Anja Kanngieser broach the topic of sound and environmental crisis in their presentation called ‘Amplification/Annihilation’. They draw a parallel between the growing use of field recordings in countercultural spheres and the ecologies of ‘60s and ‘70s folk revival music, such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. The causes and consequences of climate change are not equally distributed across the globe, so it is interesting then that the researchers point out the most diligent sonic activism in this area has come from marginalised communities. They cite Standing Rock protest group Voices of Water, as well as a bounce anthem from New Orleans’ 5th Ward Weebie titled ‘Fuck Katrina’. While the electronic underground’s apocalyptic rave music thrills in its own way, this sort of activism makes a compelling argument for moving beyond fetishising sonic aesthetics and using music to galvanise and mobilise instead. In a similar vein of protest, free jazz group Irreversible Entanglements marry mesmerising musicianship with uncompromising resistance politics to devastating effect. “Why are you here? Who sent you?” Moor Mother demands, leading the band. For some, simply being at Unsound in Kraków – a scene and city largely white – is an act of resistance and a declaration of the right to exist and be present in itself. Lotic’s lyrics also resonate with this issue of making presence felt: “May every step you take burn your print.”
Sarah Davachi’s midweek morning show demonstrates music’s healing potential as she shares delicate ambient tones to an audience strewn across the floor. Care is also a key theme of vocal and performance artist Colin Self’s opera Siblings. Backed by a string section and a choir of workshop participants formed earlier in the week, Self presents a proposal for interdependency, non-biological/found families and queer kinship through cluttered electronic beats and Disney-like expositional ballads. Concepts such as ‘reflection’ and ‘radical dissolving’ appear on a screen with track titles and a timer counting down to the end of each song. Self frequently breaks the fourth wall to narrate their own performance, leaping on and off the stage, sitting with the choir on the floor at times and sending off the show with a climactic vogue routine. They pose with venue staff, clamber in amongst audience seating to cause havoc and wave a book tied to a string as a prop, steadily tearing it apart. It’s a joyous, bemusing and righteous affair that champions ideas of presence through and through. Colin Self Speaks
“If you’re doing performance, presence is always part of the conversation. I was leading this choir session yesterday and one of the people participating [was] talking about presence not just being about what the performer is doing but actually the other people in the room. Getting out of this very vertical, binary relationship of audience performer, where everyone else also has to be present. So much of what these choir sessions became is trying to get us to be present with each other, and presence also being about active listening and engaging with each other on a human body energy level.” “I think people are checked out because it’s a really hard time to be alive, in some ways. People are increasingly taken out of these places where we can encounter a stranger and have a relationship with a stranger in conversation. Presence is… I feel it’s precarious because it’s under attack. Being with each other is something we have less and less of. There’s solitary presence which has to do with a meditative state, in yourself and conscious of yourself. But then there’s presence with multiple people in the room, are you paying attention to what’s happening and what’s going on to what’s around you?”**
The Houston-born artist released Damsel in Distress and Agitations via Berlin’s Janus collective — that includes producers M.E.S.H.,Kablam and others in its release catalogue — in 2014 and 2015, respectively, later dropping his debut Heterocetera EP on New York-based label Tri Angle that same year. Lotic is known for his deep and somber club pulses, as well hisremixes of pop cultural favourites including Beyoncé’s ‘Drunk in Love’ and Missy Elliot’s ‘9thInning’. He’ll be touring the US, Canada and Mexico through August before heading to Russia in September:
– New York – MoMA PS1 Warm Up, Aug 12
– New York – Secret Project Robot, Aug 12
– Mexico City – MUTEK, Aug 18
– Los Angeles – GHE20G0TH1K, Aug 19
– Montréal – MUTEK, Aug 26
– Kazan, Russia – Unsound, Sep 9
The second #C2CMLN festival is on in Milan, running in parallel and in collaboration with MiArt fair, running April 7 to 9.
The Club To Club event, that also runs in Torino alongside ARTissima and carries on the notion of bridging the gap between music and contemporary art, is in its second year in the Italian city and performances will happen in novel venues such as Magazzini Generali, BUKA, and Santeria Social Club (SSC).
A number of these artists recently performed at Amsterdam’s Paradiso for Sonic Acts 2016underits theme of ‘Dark Matter’ and emerge as a part of a growing movement towards a more networked and globally aware approach to electronic music production and distribution.
Going under the theme of ‘What is Animation?’ the festival’s focus is on what the press release calls an “updated view of the history of film animation and the current trend of connecting animation with spatial-light experiments.
PAF also welcomes guest curator Pavel Ryška, with his Wild ’60s section of the programme that is one of several other ones that include the Other Visions Czech animation competition, Aport Animation and PAF Art,as well as Animation Beyond Animation, which will include contributions by Lotic, Vessel, Samson Kambalu, Takashi Makino, and TCF.
Playing songs from her latest album, Vulnicura, which deals with her separation from husband Matthew Barney, the performance will be classic Björk: melancholy and supernatural in turns, with otherworldly instruments, psycho-poppy visuals, and a general air of alien and distressed beauty.
Opening for Björk will be the Venezuelan producer and DJ Alejandro Ghersi, better known by his stage name Arca, and Houston-born producer J’Kerian Morgan, better known as Lotic.
“There were a lot of things that were telling me to leave”, says Houston-born J’Kerian Morgan, in bed and on camera from his Berlin base. “Me and my boyfriend at the time literally sat down and brainstormed: ‘what can we do to get out of here?” Better known as producer Lotic, Morgan has been calling the German city home since 2012. He’s one of a wave of US expats flooding its music scene, along with party organisers Janus for whom Lotic is resident DJ. It’s a collective that includes other artists like M.E.S.H., and Kablam, as well as founders Daniel DeNorch, Michael Ladner and James Whipple, and has released Lotic-produced mixtape Damsel in Distress –with an infinite recycling symbol saying “HYPE, HATE, COPY” –last year. It’s a heavy listen, pulsating with a kind of numbing heat that melts through clonking beats and warped vocal samples like Beyoncé’s ‘Drunk in Love’ and Missy Elliot’s ‘9th Inning’.
Following that up with his first EP, Heterocetera, released on the New York-based Tri Angle label on March 2, the sonic pop culture references are gone –or, at least, less recognisable –and a restless, delicate universe of metallic strokes and icy rhythms stands in its stead. “I’m really happy with the back cover because it looks like a skeleton but if you look closely it looks like it’s made out of glass. It shatters”, says Morgan about the EP cover art, featuring the lustrous bones of a “creature with wings” by Munich-based artist Alberto Troia (aka Kyselina) on the front, its fragmented remains on the back.
It’s almost like a wordless expression of a world that isn’t quite right, one that’s ensnared in its own mirage of polished strength, but cracks easily. It’s this awareness of a certain fragility that bleeds through Heterocetera, whether it’s in the hocking, heaving bounce of ‘Phlegm’, or the urgent clatter carrying through the sighing pitches of ‘Suspension’. There’s something off in Lotic’s universe, where US-born Americans can’t stand to live there, and techno is a sound invented in Detroit, yet is somehow now ruled by Berlin. Morgan understands this, and it’s reflected in his music, visuals and conversation, where issues of ignorance, prejudice and the internet are as streamlined as the systems that perpetuate them.
Do you think being in Berlin that you’re treated differently?
J’Kerian Morgan: Um… yes… no… it’s different. I’m definitely more comfortable, I feel safer. I’m probably not going to get shot on the street. But then I don’t speak the language very well and I am still playing a very strange kind of music for the general setting that I’m in. I’m still super-comfortable but, I mean, racism still exists. Here it’s more like this exotic vibe thing where they are still very curious because they don’t know anything about where I’m from, which is fairly innocent. It’s not okay but people aren’t like, assuming I’m a bad human being, or up to no good etcetera, etcetera.
Also, being gay here is really easy [laughs], which is not anything I can say about anywhere in Texas, and I hear a lot of bad things about New York too, actually.
That’s what’s so interesting about the US, when you think about popular culture. You might get an impression of the country being a liberal one but it’s actually pretty conservative.
JM: It’s so insane. This is a huge thing that Austin prides itself on, specifically. Especially being in Texas. It’s like, ‘okay, yes I can ride my bike to school but this is still Texas. There are some things that you can’t believe in. It becomes a very specific kind of liberalism. Like you have to be a vegan, or you have to ride a bike and it’s like, ‘no, how is this freeing for anyone? This is like a very specific lifestyle’.
Also, when I would DJ, I would just play just RnB and hip hop at certain venues and it would be such a huge problem to be playing this ‘black music’. They want to hear like 60s rock n roll, it’s so weird. It’s like, ‘How can you pride yourself on being so liberal and you don’t care about anything, you actually don’t care about anyone except yourself?’
You have some noise elements in your music, is that a result of that kind of homogenously rock environment?
JM: Those are just my own personal interests. Growing up in Houston, there was a super strong hip hop scene, with DJ Screw and his whole universe of friends and colleagues, but he had this approach – which I hadn’t realised was actually pretty experimental until later. I sort of got sick of hearing just the music on the radio. I always enjoyed it but as I was getting older I was getting more interested in hearing stuff that I hadn’t heard before. I kind of started with other radio stations and took it all the way to the other end [laughs], to songs made of pigs being slaughtered or something like that, over the course of years. I was trying to go as far as I could go in terms of discovering sounds.
When I got more serious about making music I wanted to incorporate all of those things into my own. Also discovering things on the internet, and this community of people on the internet, that were interested in similarly strange or unusual ways of making music. That helped and encouraged me to keep doing it. So I was like, ‘okay, I’m not the only one doing it, I can maybe make this work somehow’.
It’s funny that the internet was meant to bring the world to you but seems to have sent you out into the world instead.
JM: Yeah, I’m so happy to be in Berlin because I do have more real access to people. I can go to someone and touch them, and talk about music. I was never super interested in having ‘internet friends’. It’s a thing that happens, but I never wanted to be one of these internet-based artists; to just have tonnes of connections because you’re on, whatever, Soundcloud or Twitter all day.
I always felt like I was isolated already [laughs], so I didn’t want this further isolation from the world. But yeah it’s funny, we talk about the internet connecting you to the world but it can easily become the only connection that you have.
I was thinking about this idea of ‘networking’ detracting from the merit of the work itself, how it’s being exacerbated by online networks. Because not only do you have enough connections to help you gain notice but you become more desirable to online media based on those connections. It’s more insidious than just knowing a bunch of people who can help you.
JM: It is, and also the fact that music itself is made for the internet. It’s like, ‘can you actually play that on the radio or in the club? What is the function of it?’ Not that I think that music needs to be functional in any way but there’s a specific thing that happened culturally when Soundcloud made it easy to reach millions of people. There is a very dark element to this sort of internet music community.
You use that Masters at Work ‘The Ha Dance’ sample in ‘Heterocetera’, as a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to how overused it is in electronic music. It’s as if that Voguing compilation came out in 2012, everyone heard that and thought they knew everything about House Ballroom.
JM: Yeah, it’s very strange. You also can hear similar things happening with this ‘new grime’ thing. It’s like, ‘ok, how many space-ish tracks with vaguely video game-esque sounds can I make?’ ‘How many more times are you going to do that, and keep grime where it is? At some point you’re going to have to have an actual emcee on your track’.
I always just have this feeling of, ‘when is this going to die?’ Not that all trends are bad, they’re fun and they’re useful, especially for dance music, but when things just kind of keep going, and going, and going, and going, and going, and there’s no real basis in the real world. Like, Vogue music is obviously still relevant in certain communities in the ‘States but when ‘x’, ‘y’, ‘z’ white person in the UK is sampling it, it’s like, ‘where does this go? Are you sending it to Mike Q or just trying to capitalise on the popularity of this thing that people are talking about, a lot?’
How does it feel then being in Berlin and outside of this mostly white techno scene, when techno wasn’t white in the first place?
JM: Yeah, it’s weird. I think Berlin has definitely developed its own kind of techno, and places like Berghain are very responsible about recognising the history of it but it’s like an industry here, you are always going to hear techno, wherever you go. I have a lot of friends who come to this city just to come and dance, which is totally fine, but the historian in me, the black man in me, the gay man in me, always wants to be like, ‘do you know what you’re doing?’
People talk about techno so much and they love it genuinely and it’s like, ‘do you really know the history of it?’ Of course, I try not to assume, but sometimes when I’m DJing and I get a weird response I’m like, ‘who do you think are the originators of all interesting forms of music for the past couple of decades?’ [laughs]
Not to say that I’m doing something that is historically important, but I always have this reaction that’s like, ‘is it because I’m black?’ I have trouble detaching the experimental nature of what I’m doing from just being there doing it.
When you talk about this inability to distinguish this kind of cultural ignorance from prejudice, it makes me think of this problem with the internet. It feels like I can’t have my own thoughts because I’m constantly exposed to everyone else’s and it causes all this confusion, like the more you know the less you understand. You know there’s an issue but the difficulty is pinpointing that issue. It becomes difficult to take a position, and that’s how the internet can be disarming…
JM: Definitely, and so my visuals, and the music too, is always an attempt at trying to steal this attention just for one second. If you’re scrolling through a bunch of artworks and you stop on mine, then I’ve succeeded somehow [laughs], even if it’s only a tiny, tiny victory. That’s also the idea for the Janus posters. If it will make you pay attention for one second, then that’s good for us, whether or not we succeed, it’s impossible to know.
It’s about creating a very strong and memorable image, even if it’s sort of distorted and it’s going to get lost in the sheer volume of the internet. There’s no way to really have a clear message when there’s all this noise surrounding you. I think there is a lot to take-away from the artwork, it does speak but how clearly can it speak when there’s all this other stuff being said?**
The radio show/music blog/party throwers, Seb and Iydes, have been on the scene since 2010, following new movements in electronic music through their two-hour monthly radio broadcasts from 2011 and regular club nights from April this year.
Thursday’s show brings “Berlin resident, Janus crew member, and self-proclaimed ‘club terrorist'” Lotic with his UK debut, followed by Gum Artefacts/PC Music associate Felicita (who we flagged for interest here) and resident DJs (and persons behind Tropical Waste) IYDES and Seb.