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sounding the festival factory

gail priest: ars electronica 2010, linz


ARS ELECTRONICA 2010 TOOK PLACE IN THE BREATHTAKINGLY CAVERNOUS TABAKFABRIK IN LINZ. THE 160 YEAR OLD PROCESSING PLANT ONLY CEASED PRODUCTION IN 2009, SO THE DUSKY, DAMP SMELL OF TOBACCO WAS STILL IN THE AIR. IN WHAT WAS BOTH A CONCEPTUAL EXPLORATION OF ‘FESTIVAL AS FACTORY’ BUT ALSO AN ATTEMPT TO FILL SUCH A LARGE VENUE, THE MASSIVE PROGRAM OFFERED A MULTIPLICITY OF RESPONSES TO THE THEME OF ‘REPAIR,’ SOME PERHAPS IN DIRECT OPPOSITION TO EACH OTHER, AND MANY DECIDELY ANTI-ELECTRONIC. WITH SO MUCH ON OFFER, I CHOSE TO LISTEN TO THE FESTIVAL FACTORY’S WORKINGS.

winning works

The centre of the festival is the Prix Ars and this year’s Digital Music & Sound Arts category yielded several excellent works. My personal favourite was the kinetic sound sculpture Cycloïd-E by Cod.act (Swiss brothers Michel and André Décosterd) which received an award of distinction. The work comprises five pieces of piping attached at the ends in a way that allows them all to swivel 360-degrees. The base pipe is attached to a motor that causes it to rotate, in turn causing the four other sections to spin on their own axes, resulting in endlessly changing articulations. Within each pipe is a small speaker and oscillator, so the haunting hollow chords doppler as the sculpture dances. For all its complex engineering, Cycloïd-E appears elegantly simple and is totally mesmerising.

Surprisingly, this is the first time that Sound Art has been included specifically in the Prix Digital Musics Category. As we head into the second decade of the 21st century, perhaps this reflects a new ambivalence towards technical wizardry for its own sake and a stronger appreciation of aesthetics. The fact that Canadian artist Martin Bédard’s piece, Champs de Fouilles (Excavations), received an award of distinction certainly exemplifies this. A purely audio experience conceived for speaker orchestra and made from field recordings of excavations around Quebec, Bédard’s piece has direct lineage to the musique concrète and acousmatic schools and is a rich and dramatic exploration of texture and structure. Unfortunately the work suffered from being exhibited in a stairwell, a place of transit rather than contemplation, and was accompanied by the constant thwumping of heavy doors leading to exhibition floors. While Bédard was good-humoured about the situation, it’s unfortunate that a festival so actively engaged in sound culture is still struggling with these elemental issues around the presentation of sound works.

Japanese artist Ryoichi Kurokawa was awarded the Golden Nica for his audiovisual creation rheo: 5 horizons, which fared much better in its presentation context. The installation consisted of five channel audio and vision exploring the flow of exquisitely barren landscapes intertwined with precise digital draftsmanship and was housed in its own half of a warehouse space. However it was in concert form that this work truly came to life with the sense of connection between organic, digital, audio and visual elements combining in an indivisible union that was simultaneously grand and meditative.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable sound performances in the festival took place as part of the Frozen Music opening night events. Japanese artist Ei Wada’s Braun Tube Jazz Band is a wonderful exploration of human-machine interaction. Gathering a bank of old cathode ray television sets, he sonifies the electromagnetic radiation and plays the whole installation like a giant drum machine. The sets are highly responsive to micro and macro gesture as Ei Wada taps, swipes and pinches the hum and drone into complex beats and melodies equally at home in a gallery or on a dance floor.

Rupert Huber, Franz Hautzinger, Sound Space, Ars Electronica 2010 Rupert Huber, Franz Hautzinger, Sound Space, Ars Electronica 2010
photo rubra
sounding spaces

An impressive aspect of the festival was the focus on the sonic potential of the Tabakfabrik complex itself. A massive empty warehouse with a natural 12-second reverb was named The Sound Space and programmed with three modes of presentation. Part of the day it was used to channel back sounds from around the site for treatment by the space itself; it was also the place for a range of workshops; and finally it was a performance venue. In reality I’m not sure the space was ever still enough to experience the first mode, blending frequently into the workshop situations. The performances offered a tighter focus, a range of approaches from the vocal play of AGF and the gentle piano mediations of Rupert Huber to the mass improvisation under the guidance of Marco Palewicz. While I’m not sure that all of the performers were consciously exploring its acoustic properties, the space certainly imprinted itself on performers and audience alike: huddled in the centre, dwarfed by its vastness, one felt a kind of humility, according almost a sense of sacredness to these performances.

The Long Concert was a roving event that explored almost the entire Tabakfabrik and, given it was in collaboration with the Brückner Orchestra, featured for the most part a contemporary classical repertoire. Starting off in the long galleries of Bau 1, Karleinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglige could have been amazing if it had been presented on the multi-speaker system for which it was composed, or at the very least on something more than the two very small speakers placed in the ceiling. The large crowd had been supplied with cardboard stools requiring origami-like construction, so the entire presentation was accompanied by the shuffling of the arriving audience and their cardboard manipulations. Positioned further down the space, Arvo Pärt’s piano works fared marginally better, as the audience began to settle and let Pärt’s profound simplicity float in the dusky light. Pärt’s music was the focus of the program, with a seated orchestral concert in the main hall and an epilogue of his Fratres pieces in the belly of the Magazin building. Not so adaptable to ambulatory placement, the contemporary classical repertoire was best served by the concert hall setting, but nonetheless produced an intriguing experience that drew in a large local crowd keen to explore the Tabakfabrik.

hearing the hum

A real highlight was the inclusion of Christina Kubisch (Germany) as a featured artist (and juror of the Digital Music & Sound Art Category). Kubisch has developed her practice around electromagnetic reception and transmission. Some of her past works have involved creating content to be received by her specially modified headphones within site specific installations (RT60), but lately she has concentrated on the pure reception of the electromagnetic hum of the world around us. Also exhibited was a recent series of works undertaken in the densely populated Ruhr area of Germany where Kubisch has recorded the electromagnetic hum of transport systems and public spaces. The centre piece is Bewegungen nach entfernten Orten (Movements to Distant Places), a six channel sound installation in which the recordings are composed into a stunning soundcape of shifting waves and overlapping fields of elemental vibration. In another installation, Ruhrlandschaften 2010, Kubisch places 40 numbered photographs on the wall and the visitor, armed with a standard gallery audio guide, can punch in the number to hear the sound of the various locations. This work highlights the surprising range and subtlety in the hum of objects around us: the deep earthy thrum of high tension wires; the staccato beats of a fluorescent sign; the high-pitched whine of a public telephone.

In addition, Kubsich offered walking tours so we might directly experience these energy fields. Having picked up a pair of her special headphones in the city centre, you could follow a designated route of traffic lights, street signs, overhead wires and security gates, or you could wander on your own sonic adventure. You could also go on a tour with Kubisch herself around the Tabakfabrik; this was particularly engaging because she had access to closed off areas such as the power plant. Initially Kubisch was disappointed, as most of the electrical infrastructure had been removed when the factory closed down; however what emerged in its place was perhaps even more interesting. Many of the festival artworks had their own electromagnetic signatures, so Kubisch opened up the possibility of an alternate way of experiencing Ars Electronica—a completely sonic Ars Electronica. Works such as Matthew Gardiner’s Oribotics (origami robots) or Jacob Sikker Remin’s KUBEN made from fluorescent lights, the flat screen monitors of Ryoichi Kurokawa’s rheo: 5, or the numerous video projectors took on whole new aural aspects. This accidental discovery was gently subversive, and a wonderful way to explore the exhibitions.

What Christina Kubisch’s Tabakfabrik intervention highlighted was the many ways to explore and access Ars Electronica 2010. You could experience the elite of media art; marvel at what corporate money can achieve with Honda’s robot ASIMO on display at the Ars Electronica Centre; talk code with the open source community; get your hands dirty repairing furniture in the workshop; or ‘repair’ yourself through self-help workshops. Like the many departments of a manufacturing plant, each area had a different agenda and often a different audience, but working together they brought into meaningful and joyously sonorous production the curators’ vision of the ‘festival as factory.’


Ars Electronica 2010: Repair; Tabakfabrik, Linz, Austria, Sept 2-11

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 18

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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