Electrofringe 2002: art and other dirty words

Gail Priest

The Light Surgeons at Hardware House

The Light Surgeons at Hardware House

Electrofringe 2002 to me is a kind of blur, induced, not as some may think by the fabulous local ginger beer, but by a kind of escalating atmospheric oscillation. Take a horde of people from across Australia with a smattering of international guests, all involved in new media arts in its many manifestations—sound, music, video, graphics, hypertext, net art, gaming—and get them lapping a block in Newcastle’s Civic centre for 5 days of workshops, forums, discussions, performances, demonstrations and exhibitions (and 6 other concurrent This is Not Art festivals) and gradually a kind of conceptual electromagnetic field develops. This charge induces a subtle but relentless interference-like speaker hum—from which I now try to extract the essence of Electrofringe and a smattering of Sound Summit events.

Earlids

The opening forum, Musician’s Journeys, with Anthony Pateras, Robin Fox, Adrian Bertram, Julian Knowles and Bruce Mowson was a highlight because it plunged straight into ideas, issues, visions—the conceptualisation of how and why artists work. Discussion began with each artist’s progression from a variety of backgrounds—classical music, sound engineering, bad guitar and super overdrive pedals—blossoming into a rich conversation. The (for some) well trodden territory of performativity and laptoppery, the focus on micro-gesture, the influence of improvisation in both acoustic and digital modes, the importance of defining contexts for sound art and music were all thrashed out, concluding with the spatial and physiolgical nature of sound and speculation from Pateras as to why we lack earlids. With exception of Bertram, the artists then gave us examples of their work: Pateras & Fox’s fast and frenetic multi-tooled, live effected car key jangling onslaught; Knowles’ solidly satisfying, all enveloping spatial audio; and Mowson’s unrelentingly minimal and perceptually disorienting looping. These fellas practice what they preach.

An interesting foil to this forum was Women in Electronic Music as part of Sound Summit. Day 3 and I had not seen many/any women on sound-based forums so I was eager to hear what Kate Crawford from B(if)tek, Kristen Erickson aka Kevin Blechdom, Riz Mazlen aka Neotropic, Sofie Loizou from Southern Outpost, Kaaren Overliese, and Ruby Grennan from Inertia distribution had to say. Disappointingly not a lot. When asked about the concepts behind their work, with the exception of Crawford and Loizou, they seemed appalled by the very idea. Neotropic declared, “I don’t believe in concepts.” Now I view sound art and music as inhabiting a similar terrain—based on concepts and investigations, but also guided by instinct and emotion. Perhaps these electronic music artists don’t consciously work from a conceptual base and that’s okay, but when Neotropic argued that, “Concepts are cold, I work from emotion”, I became perplexed. Why can’t working from emotion be a concept? What kind of paradigm is the either/or duality buying into? To my relief, in a later session where these women talked about production techniques they all were much more forthright and the examples of their work were impressive. Interestingly, Kevin Blechdom believes women can’t visualise and dream themselves as electronic musicians, because they see so few examples in the media. Maybe when planning for next year and the question arises “Do we still need a Women in Electronic Music forum?”, the answer will be no, because there will be far more women (and they are out there) integral to electronic music culture.

Eyecandy

The Visuals Worldwide forum brought together The Light Surgeons (UK), John Dekron (Germany), Kirsten Bradley aka Cicada and Cindi Drennan/Tesseract Laboratories to talk about visual performance/VJ-ing in both Australia and internationally. Light Surgeons use Super8 and 16mm film, slides and digital video to create highly layered works with a strong design aesthetic. Their promo video has stunning images from the very tools they use—close-ups of slide carousels, keyboards, film canisters and a beautiful shot of a scanner’s laser easing back and forth across the screen. Live at Hardware House (the Saturday night party organised by This is not Art) their work seems a bit too designed, too slick. At the same venue, John Dekron’s work, based around found and filmed footage mixed and effected in realtime has a more dynamic and dramatic quality with its chunky silhouettes and monochromes. Cindi Drennan talked about Video Combustion, an immersive audio visual event at Performance Space earlier this year (RT 50 p27) incorporating multiple-user jamming. This event was interesting not only for its scale but for attempting to find new contexts for visual performance out of the clubscene. (An excellent example in Electrofringe was Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar’s Birdcage situated by the railway line with live audio and visuals projected onto the walls of a warehouse off Hunter Street. The set with Cicada and notsusan’s delicate and minimal visuals of feathers, stones, and string, accompanied by Ben Frost’s almost painfully beautiful sound was a real highlight.)

The main debate that arose during the Visuals Worldwide forum was about the eyecandy issue. With so much happening visually is there anywhere left to go? Is there a space where less can be more? Is the continuing opposition to narrative hostile to linearity or to meaning in general? Has the technology changed but is still giving us the same old eyecandy (as some artists muttered)? Are artists really doing things that have not been done before? John Dekron admitted that potentials of the medium have barely been tapped making it all the more exciting an area to investigate.

Scalene (SoundSummit)—an international collaboration between 3 sets of sound and visual artists from just about everywhere—is based on the architecture of 3 cities, Manchester, Montreal and Sydney. The artists had to “sample” a building and then make 3 works within different parameters. Each video and sound piece was then swapped and remixed by one of the other groups. The results were made into a double CD (see www.realtimearts/earbash for Jean Poole’s review). Missing them at Hardware House I caught part of their set at Frigid in Sydney a week later. With beautifully constructed visuals and audio that seem to forge a real if not always harmonious interplay, Scalene add some interesting ideas to the narrative vs eyecandy debate.

Erotecha©

I love tech talk. I like letting it float around me, even if I have no idea what is being said, grabbing snatches that will hopefully become clear somewhere along the line. My mission for Electrofringe was to leave with some understanding of the mysteries of Max/MSP. Sitting through the Patcher workshop, where 6-7 artists attempted to network at least 6 different computers, all using patch-style software like Max/MSP, Reaktor, Nato, Jitter etc for realtime sound/video mass manipulation, including panning parameters, was satisfying on many levels. Massive and unpredictable, the workshop didn’t quite shed light, but suggested multiple possibilities. By the time I had tuned into a masterclass with Wade Marynowsky on his synaesthetic audio/video patching and felt my way through the magnanimous John Dekron’s session, the step by step process of creating a video patch with Max/MSP & Nato, which he later made available as freeware, the basic principles were beginning to sink in. This kind of hands on revelling in technology makes Electrofringe really engaging.

Erotecha of a different kind was found in the almost controversial Cam Girls forum hosted by Susan Hopkins author of Girl Heroes (Pluto Press). Cam Girls are young women (often girls) who have self-dedicated websites with live footage or ‘performances’, daily diary entries and wishlists where people can buy them things in return for their, well…just being. This phenomenon appears to be one of those glitches in popular media culture that finds its way into new media art and cultural theory—the argument being that these women are taking control of the media and their image and then exploiting both. Zofia Szeretlek is certainly a young woman in control, pushing her work beyond the facile towards an arts practice, with attempts at deconstructing her own image in ways not dissimilar to Cindy Sherman. On the whole it appears to be a practice almost too obvious to argue from a feminist perspective though a valiant attempt was made to create debate (with men the most vocal feminists in the room) but the general consensus was ambivalence—the defining factor coming down to matters of taste and substance.

Szeretlek was also part of the Public/Private Surveillance Strategies forum with Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski discussing paranoia and their Paranoid Poetry Generator. The PVI Collective showed excerpts from their A Watching Brief, a fascinating interplay between surveillance technology, reality TV and performance art. Disturbing but interesting was Jason Gee’s evolving work playing with the ideas of inverting/exposing/embracing/developing voyeurism; it’s based on a growing library of webcam portraits secretly captured from websites.

Polarities + –

The concluding event of the 5 day talk-teach-tech-fest was Mutant Electronica (a This Is Not Art event) at the Cambridge Hotel where the pull of the aforementioned magnetic field was at its strongest. With 3 rooms dedicated to different music/sound styles, the event was massive. Kevin Blechdom delivered her obsessively programmed, quirky electronic pop and innocent/obscene hysterical vocals (a performance that could only be topped by her karaoke version of Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song which I was privileged to witness back in Sydney). English maniac VVM tortured classic pop favourites from behind his pig mask and Toydeath performed their push-button heavy-death cuteness. There was so much it couldn’t be absorbed, creating a joyous though almost crushing force.

Maybe this force is a yield of the polarities of tech and concept. Electrofringe is full of satisfying tech talk and stimulating concepts in its forums, but the 2 were rarely discussed together. Is it possible to talk of concepts and technology simultaneously, in terms of each other? Sometimes the concept is the technology—let’s talk about that. Electrofringe is an indispensable event in the development of an ever expanding new media culture in Australia, bringing together established and emerging artists, bombarding them with stimuli, slamming them up against other This Is Not Art festivals like Sound Summit. Maybe a challenge for the next Electrofringe is to encourage this melding of tech and concept so we can talk smart and dirty at the same time.

Electrofringe 2002, managers Shannon O’Neill, Joni Taylor; Sound Summit, managers Seb Chan , Mark Pollard; This Is Not Art, manager Marcus Westbury; Newcastle, Oct 3 – 7.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 18

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

1 December 2002
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