Electrofringe: eyes and ears to the future

Jeremy Yuille

Midi Scrapyard Challenge

Midi Scrapyard Challenge

Midi Scrapyard Challenge

“What software do you use?” This question inevitably arises at any presentation by artists working with new technologies. Certainly, knowing something of tools is important, but this query all too often sends dialogue into a tailspin of tech-talk and TLAs [three letter acronyms], diverting attention from artistic intention and inspiration to methods and technique.

My overwhelming memory of this year’s Electrofringe festival was of presentations and discussions that mixed theory and practice with a mature sophistication. Something had definitely changed since my 2001 visit to Newcastle; artists performed works in progress and then discussed them, academics presented alongside VJs; panels included toolsets in discussion of concepts and artistic aims; masterclasses tempered technical know-how with practical examples. I felt Electrofringe had come of age in an environment it has helped build over the past 6 years.

First, some background: each year around early October under the auspices of the Octapod Association, Newcastle hosts an amazing array of interrelated festivals. The This Is Not Art festival (TINA) includes: Electrofringe; the National Young Writers Festival; the National Student Media Conference; Sound Summit, a national conference of independent electronic music and hip-hop; Radioactive, a national radio industry conference open to anyone involved in community, commercial, public, online, and digital radio; and Critical Animals, a graduate conference focused on the themes of all the above.

As an interdisciplinary event like no other; it’s not uncommon to find yourself wondering: “now which festival is this panel a part of?”

Electrofringe is “a hands-on, all-in, new media arts festival exploring sound, video, gaming, audio visual integrations, screen, hypertext and installation” (from electrofringe.org). That’s a very tall order, and a quick search of the website reveals that the program covers a lot of ground. It is impossible to be at every presentation, so you really have to choose whether to concentrate on one strand of the festival or sample widely from the range. However, Electrofringe is a lot more than the officially sanctioned events and anyone who only follows the program will miss out on a great deal of what the festival has to offer. Putting in time at the festival club (definitely try the ginger beer) and gigs are both worthwhile. Dinner is optional.

It’s the relaxed atmosphere of TINA that makes Electrofringe a must-do for anyone interested in maintaining a connection with what’s happening in Australian new media art and activism. The distinctions between presenter, audience, emerging and established artists are the fuzziest I’ve experienced anywhere. In what must be Australia’s highest concentration of eclectic new media talent outside a capital city, the festival fosters connections, collaborations and (increasingly) critical reflection. The many ongoing networks and collaborations that trace their existence to a specific Electrofringe forum attest to this, as to some extent does the recent explosion of Australian VJ culture and artists using digital games for creative expression.

This year’s festival featured diverse international artists presenting workshops, masterclasses and overviews of their work. Jonah Brucker-Cohen from MIT Dublin ran a workshop for creating alternative MIDI controllers (out of junk) and presented his extensive body of work subverting common conceptions of what networks can be. His installation PoliceState, a physically manifested carnivore client, was a great addition to the FraGGed exhibition (curated by Thea Baumann). The-phone-book Ltd from the UK helped participants create artworks for SMS and wireless delivery (courtesy of ANAT). Marije Baalman from Berlin gave a very thorough masterclass on Wave Field Synthesis and presented electroacoustic works written for this new way of spatialising sound. Janek Schaefer performed and presented work situated on the edges of architecture, art and turntablism. These guests expand the context of the festival, injecting new ideas and practices into the Australian scene. While bringing international credibility to the festival, this also raises the question: are Australians still averse to keynoting local talent?

Kipper's Viderunt Omnes 3D in FraGGed

Kipper’s Viderunt Omnes 3D in FraGGed

Kipper’s Viderunt Omnes 3D in FraGGed

On that front, other major highlights (surveyed from a range of attendees, organisers and performers) included: a series of in-depth workshops exploring patcher-based software techniques; investigations into the nature of text in visual culture and digital environments in panels chaired by Linda Carroli; plans for ongoing collaboration and discussion from sessions on surviving artists collectives and videotista tactics; Archimedia’s presentation on representations of Hackers in Media; QuantaCrib, a hybrid performance space designed to enable new media artists to interact with traditional media artists; an unofficial collection of the infamous and insanely intense as the Dual Plover label gave good reason for people to stray from the festival plan; and performances and masterclasses at the SPA[V]CE.

As an area concentrating on multi-channel audio-visual work, the SPA[V]CE inverted the usual panel model, having 40 minutes for presentation and performance with 20 minutes for discussion after. The atmosphere allowed for subtle works, with presentations ranging from live audio-visual improvisation and works-in-progress to very polished performances, inspiring some artists with “greater motivation to pursue ideas and projects.” The team responsible for the SPA[V]CE (Alan Bamford, Alistair Riddell & Shannon O’Neill) represent 3 quite different artistic practices based in 3 capital cities, a fine example of what Electrofringe is so good for: creating connections and mixing it up. It’s great to hear that the festival directors, Vicky Clare and Gail Priest plan to continue the format next year.

With eyes (and ears) to the future, the challenge Electrofringe faces is to stay connected and open to possibilities while it continues to develop and organise the program. In true Electrofringe fashion, it’s a challenge best met with a mix of audience, artist and curatorial input. There’s just one major problem to overcome: you can only take so much in one long weekend. All the extra-curricular activity, the associated late nights and hoarse throat (attempting to continue conversations over the band) combined with daily injections of new theories, people, techniques and experiences add up to a formidable test of the mind and body. You may want to start training for next year.

Electrofringe, directors Gail Priest and Vicky Clare, Newcastle, October 2-7

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 29

© Jeremy Yuille; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003