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if you like photosensitive seizures, we like you

alex white: elektra festival, montreal

Sound artist, video artist and youth worker Alex White is a co-director of Electofringe and co-director of the Sydney leg of Liquid Architecture. His attendance at Elektra was assisted by the Canadian Government.

Frank Bretschneider, Elektra Frank Bretschneider, Elektra
photo Alex White

The Elektra Festival is held annually, and its ninth outing in May 2008 consisted of gallery exhibitions, audio visual performances and a conference for new media festival producers from around the world. Elektra focuses on large scale concerts and electronic art installations shown at the excellent Usine C venue and gallery space, with satellite exhibitions and screenings around central Montreal.

Each of the four nights featured live audio-visual performances from high profile artists such as Frank Bretschneider, alva Noto aka Carsten Nicolai, founder of the seminal German label Raster-Noton, and TeZ of Optofonica. The presentation of these performances is intimidating with an enormous surround sound system and triple projection screen across almost an entire length of the space. The terrifying potential of this apparatus turned on a consensual audience was fully realised each night. TVestroy, a duo from Montreal found this still somewhat lacking and added a further 5 CRT screens and multiple strobe lights. The noise and light subsequently emitted was overwhelming leaving the audience and this reviewer unable to do anything more than either hope we wouldn’t die or get another drink.

The performances continued in this vein with Netherlands duo Synchronator exploring signal based video instigation using an array of custom built analogue equipment. I had been very keen to see Synchronator for a while and they did not disappoint with a 40-minute set exploring a territory that was less concerned with overwhelming spectacle than with focusing on what seemed to be genuine live experimentation. Synchronator utilise modulated electrical signals to directly produce violently colourful audio and video.

A momentary lull in the consistent light bombing came from Swiss-based Untitled Sound Objects who are usually configured for installation based gallery works. Their live performance utilised small platforms supporting a variety of substances such as sand and beads. These were modulated by small offset motors controlled by the artists. The amplified movement of the objects on each platform created the sound for the work and a macro camera focused on the vibrating objects produced the video. Their work was relatively quiet and subtle producing delicate, shimmering timbres.

The highlight of the concerts was Telco Systems, from the Netherlands, whose throbbing, howling music was perfectly accompanied with live video that maintained a discernible and intrinsic relationship while also managing to be very beautiful and engaging in its own right. The video produced was a series of organic, two dimensional monochrome patterns constructed in realtime and relationally linked with the audio. It’s rare when the phrase “like Pansonic but good” can be uttered aloud without fear of serious reprisals from peers but that’s how good they are.

The theme of Elektra seemed to be about dual and intrinsically related sensory stimulation. So the unannounced but glaringly obvious intention behind much of the programming seemed to be a series of attempts to produce synthaesthesia in the audience. The inclusion of Kurt Hentschläger’s Feed epitomises this concern. The work originally premiered at the Venice Theatre Biennale in 2005 and has been shown by Elektra three times over the past two years. Shown each night of Elektra after the concerts, the audience was limited to 100 and every night it sold out.

To enter Feed the audience must first sign a waiver. Any audience members who have a personal or family history of photosensitive seizures, a heart condition, high or low blood pressure, anxiety, claustrophobia, migraines or headaches or simply don’t feel well that night are precluded from the experience. The reason behind this water tight waiver is that Feed has triggered seizures in people with no known history of epilepsy and panic attacks in the audience are almost guaranteed. Ten clearly marked safety officers surround the audience who are seated in the middle of the room. The screening process and the work’s reputation made me anxious before I even sat down.

Feed operates in two sections. The first consists of a live 3D animation video that has direct correlations with the sound. A lone, naked, thin androgynous figure floats in a black space, occasionally thrashing and convulsing as though electrically shocked. This figure is then cloned again and again until the entire screen is filled with floating, convulsing dead bodies. The audience is then suddenly enveloped in thick theatrical smoke from more than 10 heavy duty smoke machines. This becomes so thick you cannot see you own hand more than an inch in front of your eyes. 30,000 watts of strobe lights are then triggered from above in sync with the music, performing complex sequences.

The combination of smoke and strobing causes a complete loss of depth of field and spatial orientation. The white and red light flashes occur on the edge of the viewer’s eyeball, actually silhouetting it against the optic nerve. Patterns then form and it becomes possible to see the blood vessels in the eye and the shape of the retina. Other effects are generated by the brain’s repeated attempts to make sense of the experience. At the peak of the work my vision rippled like water when my eyeball was vibrated by the 5,000 watts of sub-woofer the work requires. Feed is both terrifying and beautiful, opening up a field of penetrative art that conducts itself beneath the surface of the skin.

For the past two years Elektra has invited and flown producers and directors from some of the biggest electronic arts festivals and organisations in the world to meet together at the festival. Ars Electronica, Transmediale, Radar and more than 20 others were represented. Electrofringe festival, part of This Is Not Art from Newcastle, Australia was invited as the sole representative from the southern hemisphere. The marketplace included opportunities to represent our festival, meet Canadian artists and plot together into the wee hours. While Electrofringe feels very small in the company of such giants it was an amazing opportunity to develop an understanding of the global electronic arts scene and realise the unique and beautiful aspects of our own little community.

Elektra Festival, Usine C, Montreal, Canada May 7-10,; International Digital Art Marketplace May 8-9

Sound artist, video artist and youth worker Alex White is a co-director of Electofringe and co-director of the Sydney leg of Liquid Architecture. His attendance at Elektra was assisted by the Canadian Government.

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 27

© Alex White; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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