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Signalling by light and sound

Clinton Green: Bogong ELECTRIC 2013

Clinton Green is a Melbourne-based writer, musician and music researcher.

Photophon, Klaus Filip Photophon, Klaus Filip
photo Aksana Hugo Anastas
Walking in single file through the inner passage of a dam is not where an audience for a music performance would usually find itself. Emerging from the other end onto the far shore of Lake Guy, deep in Victoria’s High Plains, was just as unexpected. Outside we were greeted by the drone of a hurdy-gurdy calling across the water and the spectacle of countless stars reflecting on the lake’s surface.

A bank of lights flashed intermittently further along the water’s edge, signalling a response to the music coming from the opposite shore. When the music ended the audience cheered and flashed their torches in the hope that John Billan, the artist responsible, would receive these signals of appreciation across the lake. A mobile phone call was made to Billan to request an encore, to which he complied and another five minute burst of haunting hurdy-gurdy wavered across the water. The sound was thrown across the lake by a ‘sound mirror,’ a large metal bowl standing on its side with a speaker in front of it.

This distinctive experience was part of Bogong ELECTRIC, an exhibition and performance program based around the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture. The Centre was established in the Bogong Alpine Village by sound artists Philip Samartzis and Madelynne Cornish to support cultural and artistic “initiatives investigating the history and ecology of the Australian Alps.” Following Bogong AIR in 2011 (RT102), this is the second festival associated with the Centre.

The village is an idyllic cluster of cabins fanned out on the side of the mountain alongside Victoria’s largest hydroelectric system, whose infrastructure includes a dam and several underground power stations. Rarely does such a pristine natural environment co-exist so closely with man-made industrial might. It’s hard to think of a more ideal setting for a posse of local and international sound artists to explore this juxtaposition across the festival’s four-day program through a variety of site-specific practices. Bogong’s relative remoteness also has its downside: over four hours’ drive from Melbourne, attendees were mostly the artists themselves and their partners, students of Samartzis or Billan, or others with some role in the festival, plus a few hardy punters.

Geoff Robinson installation, image courtesy of the artist and Bogong Electric Geoff Robinson installation, image courtesy of the artist and Bogong Electric
The program was made up of a variety of performance and installation pieces situated around the village and hydroelectric infrastructure. The installations ranged from the familiar video/speaker set-up (Madelynne Cornish, Synchronator, Geoff Robinson), to unique works that required active participation from audiences enabled by the use of headphones. Christophe Charles’ piece was listened to while canoeing on the lake, and Lizzie Pogson’s work was similarly experienced walking through the innards of the dam, her narrative guiding the listener along the walkway. Klaus Filip’s simple yet delightful work invited participants to move through a series of suspended lights while wearing cordless headphones receiving transmissions from each light, ranging from electrostatic to music. Listeners often set the small suspended lights swinging to wondrous sonic and visual effect. The performances were often site-specific in nature as well, taking place outdoors, night and day, and even in the AGL Information Centre adjacent to the power station.

Themes of water, electricity and industrial sound (often sourced from field recordings made on location) recurred through installations and performances, but it was the artists who ventured a slightly different take from the obvious who were most successful. Billan’s piece was the outstanding work of the festival, largely because it went beyond these themes and explored the idea of signalling by both light and sound, using the lake and surrounding environs as a grand mise en scène that enhanced the evocative nature of the piece. Michael Vorfeld’s Light Bulb Music performance was also a (ahem) highlight. The Berlin-based artist’s multi-layered rhythms and textures created by an array of amplified light bulbs must have been close to top of the festival curators’ wish list when they settled on the event’s electricity theme. Vorfeld performed his piece lakeside in the evening, his blinking and buzzing coloured lightbulbs the only light source other than the stars. This was ‘electronic music’ at its most elemental.

The common criticism that sound art works are too long with little variation could be applied to most of the festival’s performances. Even Vorfeld was guilty of this to an extent; only John Billan’s sound mirror performance avoided this trap. The fact that he received an encore is a lesson for sound art performers. Yet there’s also no doubting that the more successful works of Bogong ELECTRIC lived up to sound art’s site specific aims of articulating both the space and environment. With its meeting of natural features and monolithic electrical infrastructure, Bogong itself was the star.

Bogong ELECTRIC 2013, curators Philip Samartzis, Madelynne Cornish, Bogong Village, 1 Nov-1 Dec

Clinton Green is a Melbourne-based writer, musician and music researcher.

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 46

© Clinton Green; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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