Looking for the golden needle

Sophie Hansen has mixed feelings about mixed-up media at the ICA

Retina Dance Company

Retina Dance Company

Retina Dance Company

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) used to be one of the most progressive live art venues in Britain, featuring international artists and nurturing national talent on the peripheries of performance culture. Inexplicably the programming department recently closed and the live art offer of this excellently resourced centre has dwindled to the ad hoc hire of space to visiting groups such as the Lust contingent who presented the multimedia festival, Strange Fruits, Nature’s Mutations, March 25-28. Links nevertheless remain between previous performance programming, current activity in the gallery, the cinematheque and media arts centre and externally curated events, for Lustfest mixed its media so thoroughly that that old ICA feeling of disorientation and sensory overload remained.

Lust are a cliquey London-based collective of multi-disciplined European artists, “umbilically linked by a network of creative relationships.” Founded in 1992, Lust has annually presented a showcase of experimental performance art with a plethora of premieres and an edgy degree of “it’ll be alright on the night” improvisation.

This year’s festival took advantage of the ICA Bar (regular host to DJs and projectionists) by presenting a series of eclectic musical partnerships to loosen up the punters for the main events in the theatre. On the opening night, Fabienne Audeoud and L’Orange screeched and swooned respectively, offering the A to Z of female vocal tactics to bewildered boozers. ICA members, in for a quick pre-commute pint, were hurried homeward by Audeoud’s operatic improvisations.

In the theatre, Malcolm Boyle’s one man Mission for the Millennium introduced the fearsome faith and fantasy of evangelical revivalist Reverend Anal Hornchurch. Bose and Ficarra’s experimental film last june-4.30am provided respite in its fuzzy evocation of fleeting internal landscapes and the German quintet, Obst Obscure, entered still shadowier realms with their ghostly Kino Concert, incorporating filmic imagery into a Kafka inspired soundscape.

This same spaced out vibe coloured Thursday’s Trance Magic set by Polish vocalist/pianist/composer Jarmilia Xymena Gorna whose wild, echoey arpeggios bewitched the urbane drinkers. In the theatre Jane Chapman’s harpsichord found startling contemporary resonances, in dialogue with Daniel Biro’s Fender, Rhodes’ piano and Peter Lockett’s percussion. Two short films failed to impress amidst these sonic assaults and it was only the concluding performance of Tweeling by Retina Dance Company which reasserted the earlier intensity. Filip van Huffel and Sacha Lee’s demotic twins were all id as they forged the naked will to separate and dance their raw new selves into life. This act of creation, to Jules Maxwell’s evocative score, drew a cohesive conclusion to an epic evening.

Friday focused on a real-time ISDN linked jam with musicians in Nice, however a shamefaced Luc Martinez communicated the first anticlimax of the festival, announcing the failure of the video link. The audio connection to audiences and artists gathered at CIRM (Centre International pour Recherche de la Musique) left much to the imagination. As Martinez manipulated photo-sensitive instruments through a jazzy improvisation, it was unclear whether the intervening noises were his distant colleagues or simply another sample from his own computer. And yet the loss of raison d’etre did not entirely deflate this event as the bilingual apologies were followed by a ghostly, obscurely enchanting exchange with the ether. It is ironic that the much fanfared New Media Centre of the ICA cannot overcome an obstacle as concrete and foreseeable as the two incompatible national ISDN networks which undermined this event. Blame lies both with the venue’s lack of support for visiting artists and with the artists themselves, inadequately prepared, as ever, for the age-old technical hitch.

In more controlled circumstances, the festival drew to a close in the safe hands of saxophonist Evan Parker, in conversation with Lawrence Casserley’s diabolical deck of sound processors. Repeating her anomalous intervention with another disappointing dance/film, Jane Turner’s company presented Hybrid, a work as uninspiring as Friday’s solo, Compost, demonstrating that multiple media can confound artists and confuse audiences, with distracting results.

The enduring value of Lustfest, like most multimedia ventures, lies in its ambition. The disjunction between rhetoric and reality, ideals and outcomes, is typical of such progressive initiatives. Artists inspired by the multiple opportunities of cross-cultural, cross artform creativity, facilitated by new technologies will never be thorough or pragmatic. The outcome of all this abundance is almost by necessity erratic. Audiences, forearmed with tolerance, tempered expectations and a capacity to spot the golden needle in the haystack, will doubtless return to the ICA for Lustfest ’99, if either organisation remains.

Strange Fruits, Nature’s Mutations, Lust, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, March 25 – 28

RealTime issue #25 June-July 1998 pg. 14

© Sophie Hansen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1998