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Sonic Acts XIII Festival

The Poetics of Space:  Spatial Explorations in Art, Science, Music and Technology

Sonic Acts XIII Festival
Amsterdam, Netherlands, February 25-28, 2010
Festival website:  http://2010.sonicacts.com.

Sonic Acts XIII – The Poetics of Space

by Arie Altena & Sonic Acts, Editors
Sonic Acts Press, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2010
256 pp., illus. Paper, €15,50
ISBN: 978-90-810470-3-6.

Reviewed by Trace Reddell
University of Denver


The thirteenth iteration of the Sonic Acts festival and conference offered a stunning exploration of concepts and practices of spatiality in the arts.  The content ranged widely from audiovisual performances (themselves ranging from minimal techno to noise to live cinema, with visual content extending from single to three channels and even full-dome), multi-channel electroacoustic presentations, a film programme, installations, a smart mob event, and lectures.  I encourage the reader to review the excellent documentation of the event at the Sonic Acts web site, including interviews with participants, reviews, video clips, and loads of excellent photographs.  Here, I want to sketch out the major themes that emerged each day to link up the day’s conference programming at De Balie with the evening programs at Paradiso the first three nights, then at Artis Planetarium on the final night.

Each day of programming exhibited a wonderfully constructed thread between the particular topics of presentation at the conference that were followed or bridged by reinforcing and exemplifying performances, screenings and recordings at the festival – in several cases with overlap between particular lecturers whose performance or work was featured later in the evening.  I do not mean to reduce the artistic contributions to mere examples of the theoretical or historical discussions; rather the evening program extended the ideas, themes and descriptions of artistic and technical practices into something more tangible and embodied, even as the art works and performances made their own unique contributions to the theoretical and thematic.

The festival began with an exhibit of light and sound installations at the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk).  One of the most pleasing elements of this exhibit was the lack of so-called “interactive” installations.  Not an infrared sensor or motion-tracking device was to be found, with the pieces involving more subtle optics and sonic spaces, playing with the variances of frequencies of light and sound and making use of visitors’ physical positions in the room, the angle of head tuning the ear, as it were, or interference of a participant effecting the line of visual projection.  Relying on the spatiality of the various rooms of the NIMk, these works suggested more evocative forms of interaction and engagement between the body and its senses than most contemporary interactive work I have experienced.

The opening event also included Brandon LaBelle’s four-channel piece for loudspeakers, “Q&A, or the further adventures of a sonic body.”  While conducting a playful inquiry into the presence of human voice in space, this piece gently mocked the conventions of the Q&A ritual typically encountered at academic conferences.  After a smattering of applause, the loudspeaker at the front of the room took the place of LaBelle’s “lecturer,” another speaker at the back of the room housed LaBelle’s first “questioner,” which was eventually interrupted by a third “questioner,” again in LaBelle’s own voice, on a speaker set to one side of the room, while the fourth speaker housed the only different voice, that of another participant and writer at the virtual conference session evoked by LaBelle’s work.  While the content of LaBelle’s piece was compelling in its own right, ultimately this opening segment came to represent two main trends consistent throughout Sonic Acts XIII.  First, the audience filled or somewhat exceeded capacity at almost every event, which was sold out across the board.  And second, this was to be one of only two “Q&A” sessions at the entire conference.  Conference sessions gave all presentation time to the presenters, which to my mind was another improvement on received concepts of what it means to “interact” at events of this nature.  In place of Q&A at the conclusion of each presentation or panel, the final panel of the conference included a very short opportunity for more formal Q&A before launching into the “Sonic Hub,” which allowed for free-flowing discussion among the conference participants and audience in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Tracking back to the first night, the gallery opening was followed by the first program of audiovisual content at Paradiso, with five hours of performances and film screenings. “Deep Spaces” featured performances ranging from Keith Rowe, improvising with the Nordic duo Streifenjunko and visual performer, Kjell Bjørgeengen, to a Monolake Live Surround set in which Robert Henke collaborated with Tarik Barri, whose mostly chromatic visual scale evoked an abstract, op-art spaceship.  One of the most powerful moments of the night was Haswell & Hecker’s “UPIC Diffusion Session #22” for surround sound and laser lights, which utilized Iannis Xenakis’ graphic input computer music system, UPIC.  Though our balcony seats were not the ideal spot from which to appreciate the spatial sounds and complex geographical forms emitted by the lasers, the performance still powerfully evoked strange spaces that struck me as “retro-futuristic”:  wire-frame crafts emitting search beams and warning claxons as it scanned the world it discovered or invaded, dive-bombing aircraft suffering from engine-failure followed by an aggressive battery of laser cannon fire directed into the theater, the directionality then reversed so that the viewer seemed drawn forward into a domain of old-school, wormhole visual effects.  Jürgen Reble & Thomas Köner’s “Materia Obscura” took shape on the opposite side of the spectrum of Haswell & Hecker’s performance.  Köner’s gentle, quadraphonic soundscape scored Reble’s dissolving and decaying collection of 16mm chemograms with great subtlety and mystery.  The visuals involved in this performance exposed the materiality of the film surface itself, often revealing beautifully deep colors as single frames split and cracked; the occasional appearance of a hand sweeping across a flat surface, perhaps the top of a drum or round table, and a face staring into a fire, suggested an ancient setting for deep, alchemical experiences and ritual.  Between these live sets were screened such films as Fred Worden’s “1859,” built out of a 30-frame clip of a lens flare, and Makino Takashi’s “Still in Cosmos,” with score by Jim O’Rourke.

Following the opening program, the next three days and nights of the festival were densely packed.  Thankfully, there were no concurrent panel sessions during the conference, again which led to such well-attended, standing-room-only talks that streaming video signals were sent into two additional rooms to handle the overflow.  The format for each day followed a pattern of keynotes or lectures, after which ran a shorter (1hr.45m) panel session, then two panels run back-to-back in epic, two-and-a-half hour sessions, followed by another shorter (1hr.45m) panel session, with breaks situated throughout.  Each evening included three to four hours of programming.  Such detail of reporting may be overly mundane, but I find it a useful referent to remind myself of just how much content was packed into these few days – the cliché phrase, “never a dull moment,” comes to mind.  The breadth and depth of content was excellent across the entire event, which never seemed constrained by a particular agenda or even a precise definition of such key words as, say, “space” or “poetics.”  I found this more provocative of new ideas and responses, and I was relieved that most conference presenters were more interested in describing theory in ways that attached it to practices, historical as well as contemporary, rather than bogged down the proceedings with tedious attempts to define terminology ambiguous by nature.  In fact, the range of content was expansive enough that often very surprising connections could be made across theorists, researchers and artists whom I would not otherwise associate with each other in the first place.

The first full day of conferencing bridged the spatially-oriented audiovisual performances of “Deep Spaces” with the expanded cinema program of the second night.  The largely historical nature of the film program was set up effectively by the day’s lectures on art and technology projects from the 1950s through 1970s, including Cage and Hiller’s HPSCHD, Jacobs and Belson’s Vortex Concerts, and the Pepsi Pavilion of 1970.  The evening program oscillated between films from multiple generations as diverse as Moholy-Nagy’s classic “Lichtspiel Schwarz-Weiβ-Grau” (1934) to Gill Eatherly’s 3 screen, motorik-driven animations, “Hand Grenade” (1972), to contemporary work by Daïchi Saïto.  The film program was punctuated by live cinema performances from Bruce McClure, Greg Pope & Gert-Jan Prins, and Optical Machines, whose elaborate light and sound constructions were one of several I experienced at this event that did not put the uniqueness of their technical process itself ahead of developing a unique and substantial experience to be conveyed through that technical process.  Works falling short of what may be a fairly personal standard of perception would be Paul Sharits’ “Color Sound Frames” from 1974 and Jacob Kirkegaard’s live performance, “Sabulation” (2010), both of which seemed to be technical experiments in search of something to convey through them.

The third day of the conference was largely devoted to the spatiality of sound evinced through acoustic ecology, soundwalks, and field recordings.  Talks in the day from Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Annea Lockwood were followed in the evening by a multi-channel electroacoustic presentation of works by the same, as well as audiovisual soundscape-oriented performances and presentations by Kirkegaard, Gilles Aubry, Yolande Harris, and others.  Lockwood’s six-channel composition, “Thirst” contrasted two primary acoustic spaces: the immediate, noisy space of transit encountered in Grand Central Station and shattered periodically by blaring security announcements against the space of memory, a Damascus courtyard evoked by the Lebanese sculptor, Simone Fattal.

Perhaps the most profound moment that I experienced at Sonic Acts XIII occurred during the ninth conference session on the last day of the festival.  Topically, it would seem that presentations around the theme of “Gardeners of the Future” would be miles away from my own presentation on the late-1950s Vortex planetarium concerts.  But to the contrary, the exceptionally distinct talks by Roger Malina, Paul Prudence, and Philip Beesley resonated with several ideas bouncing around in my head regarding the lived and imagined scale of human experience – and in particular the role of the senses as mediator of acoustic and visual scale in cybernetic systems.  These talks also offered insight into the need for a careful stewarding of emotionally and mentally healthy environments, a concept gently introduced by Beesley that helped me clarify problems I had with some of the pieces seen and heard earlier, like Takashi and O’Rourke’s shattered film with noise score, “Still in Cosmos,” or Sharits’ ultimately exhausting “Color Sound Frames,” or the Maryanne Amacher tribute piece that still has my ears ringing after its shattering of my so-called “third ear.”  Coming back from the planetarium with tinnitus was not what I hoped for from this festival!  At any rate, I found it refreshing that Beesley was willing to announce that these kinds of pieces may in fact be troubling precisely because they promote, or even force, their troubles onto the audience.  This didn’t strike me as trite because, even as in his own work, Beesley does not step back from making difficult decisions, such as confronting the necessity of negotiating with his audiences across complex systems’ boundaries of mind, mood and body, both natural and artificial.  Connected to my own concern with the fact that NASA largely neglected the mental life and emotional health of astronauts even as it proposed radical re-engineering of the human body and its biochemical and physical functions, the particular artistic pieces and performances with which I had trouble seemed to favor obsession with a particular technical process and noise program in ways that precluded more subtle and evocative structures, all in the name of abusing their audience partners by confusing technique with aesthetic and infliction of life-altering pain with sensory exchange and communication.

To return to the “Gardeners of the Future” session, these three presenters – one an astronomer and art-science editor who describes himself as an atheist positivist; one a digital designer, visual performer, and independent research-blogger invested in computational autopoesis and evolutionary automata; and the third an architect and interactive sculptor who showed several slides of cosmic Christian iconography – represent a multi-tasking hybridity that I encountered throughout the festival.  At Sonic Acts, variant works and peoples were aggregated in ways that drew out compelling connections across the set, so that this feeling of essential hybridity grew in complexity.  And that is the genius behind Sonic Acts:  working across and through a great variety of disciplines, fields and practices, as well as across histories, generations and continents, in ways that foster new connections for all in attendance.  I will conclude with just a couple of more comments about the significance of the organization of this event.

Sonic Acts XIII bore the subtitle of “spatial explorations,” and truly, the crew responsible for the festival nurtured an environment in which significant explorations of space, art and technology could take place.  I felt something of the presence of the “dark matter of the universe” described by Roger Malina.  Numerous lectures (each delivered in a different style ranging from academic to anecdotal), performances, film and video screenings, electroacoustic audio presentations, and exhibitions only stood in for a small portion of the potential content of Sonic Acts.  This content was revealed through the conjunction and influence of the various parts on each other, arranged in such skillful fashion by the event organizers without being simply predetermined.  Exemplifying this aspect of the festival, the final night of audiovisual programming that took place at Artis Planetarium evoked the space of compelling dark matter with two subtle pieces by TeZ, first, and later by Evelina Domnitch & Dmitry Gelfand, with sound by Francisco López.  These performances combined cymatic disturbance and brilliant laser lights to recall the history of light shows while, especially in the second case, exploiting the full-dome in ways that suggest to me the future of science fiction cinema while also solving a problem that I have encountered in my own planetarium work – namely, how to integrate the performer’s body into the projected space.  I experienced a moment of exhilarating field-inversion in which a performer’s shadow loomed over the dome, which took on the sheen of vast bubble-world, its surface boundary seen from the inside.

Between this pair of spectral light-shows was Paul Prudence’s “RyNTH,” a full-dome grayscale piece that frequently shifted from long lines and descending bars to vast spheres experienced from both interior and exterior vantage points.  This was one of the most stunning uses of the full-dome that I have seen.  The use of grayscale emphasized subtle contrasts and shifts from states of complexity to simplicity, all based on only a few basic, generative forms.  The dynamic motility of these forms put the audience in motion both within the forms as well as in a space occupied by the formal structures.  In this way, Prudence’s work visually and sonically enacted for me something compelling about the Sonic Acts XIII festival as a whole.  There was enough space in the program to allow me to breathe across the different presenters and performances, so to speak, in order to discover how they connected, contrasted and related across that dark matter that drew them together in the first place.

Finally, the conference book edited by Arie Altena and Sonic Acts excellently mirrors the scope and scale of the festival through articles (some of which duplicate conference lectures and panel presentations while others supplement conference content with work original to the volume), as well as interviews with a number of artists who participated in the festival.  The volume includes numerous black & white and color plates that illustrate both the history and contemporary scope of the festival, including many excellent two-page spreads.  The book’s graphic design by Femke Herregraven contrasts angles and lines against squiggles and swirls that often cut across an entire page of text in ways that evoke the simultaneous structure and sprawl that made Sonic Acts XIII such a successful and thought-provoking event.

Last Updated 1 April, 2010

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