Report /

Condemned to Roam, Without Repose / Documenta 14

“We will fail. But we will try.” Wandering through the streets of Athens, I read these words in the much-leafed-through pages of my About Documenta 14 pamphlet. The words rightly address the difficulty of harnessing coherent, critical agency amid such a mega exhibition. Pursuing a politicized reading of our present moment and its attendant histories, Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk cited “unlearning” — a play on the working title “Learning from Athens” — as a way to enter into an exhibition that attempts to sidestep any hegemonic narratives and allow space for manifold approaches and multilayered, unfolding interpretations.

And yet, from the word go at the press conference, where Jani Christou’s Epicycle (1968/2017) was performed by the participating artists and the curatorial team, who hissed, wailed and stamped their feet like a group of wild, untameable animals (being conducted by a white man), it was difficult to glean any clear methodology.

Spanning four main venues — the Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), the Benaki Museum – Pireos Street Annexe and the Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA) — with additional performances and happenings taking place throughout the city, the exhibition offers hundreds of works to write about.

Originally founded in 1871 as a musical institution, the Athens Conservatoire (Odeion) features projects by artists who deal with sound or reconsider its use-value. Susan Hiller’s video work The Last Silent Movie (2007) draws visitors into a pitch-black space where, sitting in old-fashioned cinema stalls, they listen to archival recordings of extinct and endangered languages. Understood only as variants of noise, pitch, tone and vibration, a constellation of dying communication is mapped, the supernova before the ultimate silencing of these minority groups. In Nevin Aladağ’s Music Room (Athens) (2017), performers play musical instruments constructed from furniture: stools as drums; sofas plucked as guitars; chair cellos; metal tables adorned with bells to shrill effect. She references tarantism, mainly practiced by women who “dance away the pain of any poison.” Yet as people observed the performance, no one danced, choosing to soak up the experience with passive eyes rather than active bodies.

Archival materials from the Scratch Orchestra are presented nearby (an example of Documenta, true to form, offering up hidden histories but making them feel didactic and dry, boxed in vitrines). This musical community, representing varying levels of expertise, formed in 1969 in London to perform music “from scratch,” often based on written instructions and graphic scores. Daniel Knorr’s performative installation Materialization (2017), in which a mountain of detritus from the streets of Athens is pressed, object by object, into books for visitors, feels like an overliteral and sentimental spectacle of what we might “take away” from Athens. More subversive are the instruments made (and played) by Mexican artist Guillermo Galindo, also comprising discarded matter. These odes to border crossings use plastic combs, water bottles and boat parts to reference how Mesoamerican peoples saw instruments as talismans for movement between worlds.

Nigerian Emeka Ogboh’s The Way of Earthly Things Are Going (2017) wraps an amphitheater-of-sorts within a sonorous landscape, transforming data into musical scores from documents about financial crises from 1929 to the present day. A real-time LED display of world stock indexes runs simultaneously, its bright red and green digits charting the world of finance, which feels jarringly stark amid the ambient sounds. Performances at the Conservatoire abounded, including Haitian choreographer Kettly Noël’s Zombification (2017), in which puppets made from hessian bags and ropes have mirror-panel visages reflecting the viewer’s own face; these voodoo figures move as zombies within a bamboo-stick installation, seen as “nonfolkloric figures responsible for current, real, globalized violence.” And they’ve got our faces.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a former brewery that was abandoned in 1982, has only recently reopened after a long-term reconstruction project. Nigerian Olu Oguibe’s Biafra Time Capsule (2017) reflects present-day narratives of displacement through books, photographs and magazines representing the human tragedy experienced by Biafra during the 1960s Nigerian civil war. French filmmaker Michel Auder’s Gulf War TV War Untitled (1991, edited 2017) depicts him filming his TV while constantly changing channels. I was reminded of my own 1990s childhood, when I sat and stared and flipped past the static between stations, from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to news reports on George H. W. Bush’s “Operation Desert Storm” in Iraq to easy-to-watch commercials.

Chilean Cecilia Vicuña’s sculpture Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens) (2017) suspends thick masses of knotted red wool from a circular metal frame. Reminiscent of umbilical cords, blood or even matted hair, quipu was originally an Incan system for recording events with knotted strings. Here, the poet Vicuña symbolically suggests the joining of word, narrative history and flesh as we imagine the bloodshed of past regimes, including Chile’s Pinochet, which resonates with today’s landscape of war and brutality.

On Pireos Street, the Benaki Museum seeks to investigate untold, unfinished or overshadowed histories. Israeli artist Roee Rosen fictionalizes the life of Eva Braun (Live and Die as Eva Braun, 1995–97), writing texts that place the reader in the subjective position of Hitler’s wife. This does two things: make us see Braun as human, and reminds us that we too are emotional, fallible and capable of committing evils. The standout work is Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s somniloquies (2017). A seventy-minute film of hazy, indistinguishable body parts, as if seen through squinting eyes in a dream, is overlaid with 1960s recordings of the world’s most prolific sleep-talker, American musician Dion McGregor. His descriptions veer from being cruel to intriguing and sometimes funny, as extreme sexual scenarios are interspersed with the sounds of snoring. Though the histories we amass in our dreams are often lost to the night, here we experience a half-open window onto that world.

Projects at the Athens School of Fine Arts (where one could also visit the studios of students) supposedly address notions of creativity and educational experimentation. Photographs, magazine articles and texts about Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s dance deck (on the hills outside San Francisco), where innovative dance pieces and improvisations took shape in the 1960s, reinforce current rereadings of the history of Minimalism, inserting dance and movement into the story. Artur Źmijewski’s film Glimpse (2016–17) is a staged documentary depicting the refugee camps of Berlin and Calais. The artist paints men’s faces white, marks their clothes with crosses and gives them new shoes. Although Źmijewski raises important questions regarding the place of art in the world and its impact on our reality, his work here feels both patronizing and exploitative.

The first chapter of Documenta 14 in Athens poses an open-ended question regarding what art can be during times of economic and humanitarian crisis. What it doesn’t answer is what art can ever really do, or where the agency of this exhibition lies (and the subsequent use-value of its €37 million budget). In an open letter about artist and refugee evictions as implemented by the city of Athens, written by the local activist group Artists Against Evictions to Documenta 14 visitors, they urge: “You say you want to learn from Athens, well first open your eyes to the city and listen to the streets.” The exhibition is complex and obfuscated, just like the world in which we live, and at times it’s hard to tell what is happening and why — again, an excellent reflection of our times. But we need more than a mirror image. Culture can do more, has done more, and should strive to stimulate social change. By reflecting a complicated world within which we’re already becoming lost, it feels as if the many voices of the artists in the exhibition drown one another out. We are left “condemned to roam, without repose.”¹

by Louisa Elderton

¹ from “Conversation,” a poem by Olu Oguibe, quoted in Documenta 14: Daybook
read more
Report /

Whitney Biennial 2017 / New York

Hanging from the high ceiling of the Whitney’s glassy ground-floor lobby are the embroidered textiles of filmmaker and artist Cauleen Smith. Installed near to the museum’s entrance, they’re among the first works that viewers of this year’s Whitney Biennial are likely to encounter; more are installed in one of the exhibition’s central spaces on the fifth floor.

One side of each of Smith’s brightly colored textiles bears text in a looping cursive script, decadently rendered in velvet, satin, sequins and beads. “Rage blooms within me,” reads one work. “I cannot be fixed,” reads another. On each opposing side are graphic figures and heraldic designs composed of a private iconography of eyeballs, eight balls, hearts, diamonds, teardrops and drops of blood.

Collectively named In the Wake (2017), the textiles share a title with a book published last year by feminist scholar and historian Christina Sharpe, subtitled On Blackness and Being. The book’s central image — that of the wake trailing behind a ship — lends itself to the long contemporary afterlives of transatlantic slavery, equally invoking the wake as a mourning ritual and a coming to consciousness.

The Biennial’s wall text describes Smith’s pieces as “banners to be used in a procession,” an offering informed by “the artist’s sense of disgust and fatigue when confronted with video after video offering evidence of police violence against Black people.” Last September, Smith organized one such “Black Love Procession” in protest of an exhibition at Chicago’s Gallery Guichard, where Ti-Rock Moore, a white New Orleans artist, staged the scene of Michael Brown’s death as an art installation. Photos of this work are especially grotesque, and include a figure in the shape of a man lying prone on the gallery floor.

Smith’s procession gathered a twenty-odd group of people to march on the gallery in the spirit of honoring and caring for black communities. “We just wanted to tell our folk that we loved them,” Smith said in a Hyperallergic article. In a review of In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, artist and writer Hannah Black writes that “mourning can be and has been a politics, but it must avoid becoming only a litany of horrors. Refusing melancholy in favor of care, In the Wake understands mourning as a practice embedded in living, and vice versa.” In the wake of a white artist trafficking in black suffering, Smith’s banners seek redress. One reads, “We were never meant to survive,” while another, chillingly, says, “My pathology is your profit.”

That the exhibition foregrounds a black artist’s lyrical and explicit criticism of the way that images of brutal anti-black violence are exploited by white artists and curators will no doubt come across as a tortured irony to those who have been following media coverage of the Biennial from the past few days. Among the works included is Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016), based on the brutal 1955 photograph of the corpse of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in his coffin. I’m mentioning it here only briefly, as other longer and better analyses of the violence in this gesture already exist. Hannah Black addressed a generous and widely circulated open letter to the Whitney, stating that “those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material.” Writer and artist Aria Dean published a long, lucid response on Facebook. Artist Parker Bright, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Black Death Spectacle” written on the back, staged a protest in front of the painting on the first day the Biennial was open to the public. I want to echo one of the demands of these artists: to the curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, this painting should be taken down. This is what a token gesture of accountability might look like.

What does it mean for a curatorial politics to be so baggy and so vague that it accommodates, in one gallery, a challenge to the translation of black death into spectacle, and then goes on, in the next gallery, to restage that same spectacle? The curators’ didactic texts make reference to “a turbulent world” and a “time rife with racial tensions, economic inequities, and polarizing politics,” but their disingenuousness shows.

In light of this, a question I keep returning to is that of the frameworks by which the art world and its actors can be held accountable. Does the art industry even have models for accountability that move beyond the discursive and into the actionable?

Two artworks in the exhibition foreground the material infrastructures of the Whitney that make the fact of the museum possible; both of these offer ways of thinking about institutional accountability. Both formally understated works, they risk being overshadowed by louder activity in the gallery space. This is especially the case in Cameron Rowland’s Public Money (2017), which consists of a simple grid of wall-mounted, framed, Xeroxed legal documents, accompanied by an essay written by the artist. The artwork’s listed materials, however, are “institutional investment in Social Impact Bond,” where a Social Impact Bond (SIB) is a contract between the state and private investors that financializes social services.

SIBs are very new, as a financial tool, so little evidence of their effectiveness in public life exists. They are created when a private investor puts money toward a quantifiable “social” objective, such as, for example, recidivism in Ventura County, California, prisons, which is the purported purview of an SIB in which Rowland has had the Whitney invest $25,000. If the investment achieves its stated goals — here, a reduction of the number of inmates who return to prison within a certain time frame after their release — the county government pays back the investors, with interest. If the investment is unsuccessful, the investors assume the losses.

Operating a recidivism project with private funds takes away whatever slim measure of transparency a state organization would normally be required to provide to its publics. Information about how exactly people will be kept out of prison, how the effectiveness of the program is measured, etc., is available only to investors. The Ventura County SIB focuses on providing individuals with a privately trademarked form of cognitive behavioral therapy, emphasizing, as Rowland explains in his contextual essay, “the personal responsibility of prisoners for their arrests, rather than changing policy to reduce arrests, convictions, or sentences.” Rowland’s investment in the SIB gains him access to details about how the process is managed; after the five-year term of his nondisclosure agreement expires, he will make this information public.

Adjacent to the Cauleen Smith banners in the museum’s lobby is Park McArthur’s Another word for memory is life (2017), composed of two aluminum panels painted an officious shit-brown. (Also like Smith’s works, more of McArthur’s panels recur in the museum’s upper galleries.) Their design is familiar: following the standards described in the Manual of United Traffic Control Devices for road signs indicating cultural sites, the panels are constructed from one-eighth-inch-thick aluminum with rounded radius edges and are painted Pantone 469. The space of the sign is blank. Installed directly above the museum’s ticket desk, their lack of information reads like an intentional measure of opacity, something meant to be signaled but ultimately withheld. Rather, the style protocols that divide official culture — such as the Whitney — from unofficial culture are themselves on display. McArthur’s works stress that cultural events like the Whitney Biennial can, like roadside style protocols, intentionally misrepresent the ideological (whose culture?) as the politically neutral. Such groundwork is necessary before discussions about institutional accountability are even possible.

by Tess Edmonson

read more
Report /

Condo / London

Condo, the brainchild of Vanessa Carlos of Carlos/Ishikawa, is back to liven up an otherwise quiet moment in London’s art calendar. The format is simple: thirty-six international galleries are hosted across fifteen of the most progressive commercial spaces in London.

Information is kept to a minimum: a frenziedly flashing map is all there is to the initiative’s website, a red snake traversing the city’s geography and showing the way from newly bohemian Peckham in the South to Soho and to the old vanguard East End. Originally conceived as a collaboration among emerging galleries, Condo has doubled in size from last year, and endorsements by longer-standing galleries, such as Sadie Coles HQ, Greengrassi, Herald Street, Maureen Paley and The Approach, are a testament to the success of its inaugural edition.

The event kicked off with the heaving opening of “Room” at Sadie Coles HQ, an all-women show featuring sculptural installations and photographic works, juxtaposed with a solo presentation of Martine Syms by Bridget Donahue Gallery (New York). A group of photographs of varying sizes frames representations of black subjects distanced by partial views and reflections or by historical space. The short looped video Lesson LXXV (2017), embedded horizontally in a purple plinth, pictures the artist close up, her face and T-shirt drenched with white milk — a reference to recent footage of demonstrators using milk to counteract the effects of teargas. Syms’s personal reflection on the mechanisms of production of black identity resonates poignantly with the works in the group exhibition, which challenge, with a rebellious attitude, the boundaries — physical and psychological — of the space assigned to femininity.

In Peckham, Arcadia Missa and VI, VII Gallery (Oslo) opted for a collaborative presentation of London-based artists. Emma Talbot’s colorful open tent, suspended from the vaulted ceiling, creates the feeling of an intimate, sacred space at the center of the gallery. Through delicately hand-drawn vignettes and vibrant patterns, You Do Not Belong To You (Universal Story) (2016) narrates the story of the Red Tent, a traditional space for women to take refuge and find mutual support. A theatrical dimension was brought by Than Hussein Clark’s set of elegantly balanced enamel and hand-blown glass lampposts, which seemed to cast Eloise Hawser’s minimal stretched fabric screen — embedded with cryptic security patterns — and Brad Grievson’s abstract patchwork canvas as enigmatic characters on a stage.

At Emalin, the gallerists were planning a group exhibition about the deconstruction of the face as a site of identity, and the work of Shana Moulton — represented by Gregor Staiger (Zurich) — fitted the brief perfectly. Moulton’s video Sand Saga (2008) riffs on new-age motifs as the features of the artist’s alter ego, as well as the objects in her boudoir, undergo psychedelic transmutations. Two headless mannequins — their faces reproduced on video tablets attached to their derrieres — complement the presentation, one aptly titled Medusa’s Stare (2016). A number of sculptural works are lined up along the perimeter of the space, like a curious crowd looking in at the visitors. One is quickly caught scanning their shapes in search of the identifying markers of human features: welded from found steel objects, Melvin Edwards’s contorted mask Iraq (2003) was made in response to the war’s dramatic events; Nicholas Cheveldave created an uncanny medical cast of Kaspar, a robot with minimal facial expressions that helps children with autism; The Grantchester Pottery deconstructed the fragile outline of muse Dora Maar’s eyes, mouth, nose and tears in glazed stoneware gracefully suspended from hemp cords.

The last stop was at Carlos/Ishikawa with guests Tommy Simoens (Antwerp) and ShangART (Shanghai), where the gallery was transformed into an arena. One was invited onto stadium seating among Oscar Murillo’s life-size effigies of Columbian workers, their papier-mâché heads simultaneously highly detailed and expressionless. From time to time, a guest singer animated the scene, bursting forth with a cappella love songs in Spanish. Ouyang Chun’s heavy impasto triptych of prostitutes under a spotlight and Yutaka Sone’s crude scale model of an Aztec theme park reinforced a sense of discomfort with being the onlooker or the subject of display.

Although it is hard to define what Condo is, the strength of its proposition lies in its ability to mobilize like-minded people to create productive collaborations, both locally and internationally. In a city like London, dispersive by nature and driven by capitalist gain, it seems vital to nurture a sense of connection and to take action.

by Silvia Sgualdini

read more
Report /

Amsterdam Art Weekend

The most recent edition of Amsterdam Art Weekend featured more than fifty official participants alongside many more satellite pop-ups around the capital. Eclectic, open and varied, it presented itself as a cross section of the Dutch artistic panorama.

As Amsterdam Art Weekend director Adriana Gonzalez Hulshof notes, the city is a vital incubator for young talent, and it is easy to understand why. Bicycles, canals and clean air help to maintain a positive atmosphere, bound together with Amsterdam’s identity as both stylish and transgressive.

The first stop was the green district close to the city zoo, where the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten is located. This venerable art academy offers residencies to approximately fifty artists, providing space for research, experimentation and artistic production in an atmosphere far from didacticism and ideology, leaving artists free to develop their own approaches. Every year, for just two days, visitors are allowed into the studios to behold this expanded laboratory. On this occasion, artists such as Deniz Eroglu, Sander Breure & Witte van Hulzen, Tamar Harpaz, and Kate Cooper, to name just a few, demonstrated an innovative spirit in tandem with a deep awareness of their field of research. Deserving residents are quickly absorbed by the local gallery system; for example, the ex-student David Maljkovic is now exhibiting at Annet Gelink Gallery with a series of eight collages and a video that investigates the space between artistic practice and everyday routines.

The varied structure of the gallery system, ranging from research-oriented spaces to more traditional venues, has helped balance this scene. Worth mentioning is Dustin Yellin’s exhibition at Grimm Gallery, which is currently staging 10 Parts (2016), a neo-apocalyptic collage comprising thousands of micro-figures cut from books, magazines and encyclopedias. These fragments are fixed within layers of glass, crystallizing a hallucinatory vision of humanity’s impending descent into the abyss. Yellin’s work is a catalogue of the collective unconscious, a stratification of human imagination.

Berend Strik’s exhibition “Redefining Realness” at Galerie Fons Welters is ambiguous and complex. The artist reworks photographic images as embroidery, stitching circular and flame-shaped patches of fabric to greatly enlarged C-prints. Applying an extra layer onto the support surface, Strick investigates the complex experience of the viewer and reflects on the fluidity of media.

Galerie Alex Daniëls shows new works by Marcus Harvey that investigate a possible idea of Britishness. His bronze sculptures mash up the iconography of Blair and Thatcher with galleons, police helmets, tattoos, and other junk-shop wares in a humorous, three-dimensional state-of-the-nation collage. The exhibition of Florian & Michael Quistrebert at Galerie Juliette Jongma has notable grace. The brothers, nominated for the Prix Marcel Duchamp in 2014 and featured at the Palais de Tokyo in 2015, present a series of transparent paintings suspended by ropes, calling to mind Alberto Burri’s “Combustione Plastica” series (1961–62).

Ellen de Bruijne presented a lyrical, intimate and humbly controlled improvisation by Jeremiah Day, while Wu Tsang entertained a queer audience with the support of poet Fred Moten. The performance, titled “gravitational Feel,” blurred touch, voice, space and time in a former bathhouse restored by the Splendor collective.

The highlight of the weekend was undoubtedly the exhibition of Jordan Wolfson, who kept the delicate constitutions of Stedelijk visitors under constant bombardment. Suspended by metal chains within a cubic stage is an animatronic mannequin that is brutally thrown in all directions. Colored Sculpture (2016) recalls an archetypical pop image, personifying a mix of Huckleberry Finn, Howdy Doody and Alfred E. Newman. References to child violence, to the manipulation of individuals by external forces and to the Debordian society of the spectacle infuse the exhibition, evoking both anxiety and impotence. The exhibition also includes the video Raspberry Poser (2012), presenting a world populated by Disneyesque cartoon characters, mutating red blood cells, a peripatetic condom, images from art history and a punk (played by the artist himself).

by Giulia Gregnanin

read more
Report /

Why Not Ask Again / 11th Shanghai Biennale

In the Chinese philosophical system known as feng shui, literally wind and water, qi, the metaphysical force of unity, is carried and dispersed on the wind. Water brings qi to rest. In the 11th Shanghai Biennale there are many such light breezes, enhancing works that play on all the senses.

These include Yin Yi’s Ocean Wave (2016), a tight cluster of electric fans at the entrance that rhythmically switch on and off. The image of water, in the form of the video Flag (Thames) (2016), turns out to be fake; it is a year-long computer simulation in which the artist, John Gerrard, has included a large patch of iridescent oil that smothers the restlessly moving surface.

The notion of agitated movement is in keeping with a remark at the opening reception by Monica Narula of the curatorial team Raqs Media Collective: “The work of art is an antidote to the poison of inevitability.” The suggestion is of an urgent need to administer a cure. Throughout the exhibition, wall texts describe the works in the present tense, as actions. The curators frame the exhibition as a quest “to discover, transmit and learn…” The titular question “Why Not Ask Again” resonates with Vladimir Lenin’s title “What Is To Be Done?” Lenin’s essay outlines a problem and opines a program for change. Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s novel, from which Lenin borrowed his question, fleshes out an ideological way of living. In this exhibition uneasy questions are proffered—but no answers are suggested.

Many works create ambiances with odor, surface texture, motion, illumination or proximity, making these elements just as important as sound and vision. For example, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s So Far (2016) presents a whiff of mineral fuel amid two forklifts arranged face-to-face in a tug of war. They are parked close to the entrance of the Power Station of Art, the Biennale’s primary site, so that they obstruct access to the vast atrium. Three sealed eggs, composed of ceramic crocks joined by their rims, are braced in chains between the trucks. The drama implied refers to Otto von Guericke’s experiment demonstrating atmospheric pressure. This was spectacularly performed in 1654 when thirty horses attempted to separate two copper hemispheres with a vacuum inside. The current work is even more elaborate, yet by replacing the hot bodies of sixteen snorting horses with cold machines, and the plasticity of copper with vitrified material and silicone sealant, the awe of grasping the science of air pressure is dissipated. Gone too is the culture of labor that later led the Levi’s jeans brand to use a logo depicting horses pitted against the resilience of the company’s product, likely inspired by an image of the experiment. So Far is a memorial to praxis. But, today visitors cannot enter through the implied arch; they have to go around.

If an ethos of manual work can be evoked by representations of tools, in this case the tools have all been laid down. In As Long as You Work Hard (2013) by Cell Art Group, a dense constellation of hand tools are embedded in a wall of steel; in Susanne Kriemann’s Pechblende (2016), “miner’s objects” lie inert within dim projections; or in Vinu V.V.’s Noon Rest (2014), sickles are impaled in a tree. These are final acts, job done—everyone gone.

Life doesn’t flourish in this exhibition. In Caparazón (2010), Regina José Galindo peacefully curls up in a protective double-skinned plastic bubble, only to be subjected to a percussive assault from a small baton-wielding mob. Spiders and bees endure in the works of Tomás Saraceno and MouSen+MSG, but their citadels are frail and can easily be eradicated by thoughtless fingers or casual boots. Presence is mainly in traces, such as the washing left to dry on a fighter jet, a public monument in Lahore, in Ayesha Jatoi’s Clothes Line (2006); or in Georges Adéagbo’s extensive array of objects and artifacts, “The Revolution and the Revolutions”…! (2016).

“Why Not Ask Again” yearns for the future, but many of the artworks look back quizzically, passively or with humor to show how the past buffets and fractures the present. YoHA (Graham Hardwood & Matsuko Yokokoji) provide a notable exception. Plastic Raft of Lampedusa (2016) is a meticulously dismantled inflatable boat. The fileted rubber craft inevitably speaks of the exhausted desperation of migrants. There is some hope here. It would be an arduous and complex task to put it back together, but not impossible. A few artists try new ways to fit the pieces together, to persevere and to restore balance.

by Andrew Stooke

read more
Report /

Culture in Chaos Unsound Festival / Krakow

There’s more to Unsound Festival’s theme of “Dislocation” than mirroring the name of this year’s controversial Berlin Biennale curators, the collective known as DIS. From the Latin word for “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” the prefix dis now evokes the shattered geographical, political and psychosocial states of a world that has become fragmented by the very global networks paradoxically meant to bring people together.

Having last visited the medieval Polish capital of Krakow for this most progressive cultural program in 2012, the possibility of a British exit from the European Union was a mere fantasy. How things have changed.

In 2016, music and audiovisual event titles like “Turbulence,” “Brace Position” and “Fracture” dominate, while daily talks cover subjects such as “Geographic Blur,” “Authentic Exoticism” and “Brexit Strategies.” The façade of the semi-defunct Soviet-era Brutalist building Hotel Forum — begun under one regime and finished at the dawn of another — is now entirely covered by an English-language start-up recruitment ad that reads “DON’T BE A CORPORATE SLAVE.” The once-shabby and claustrophobic Room 3 of this main Unsound venue is now a trendy bar where young and interesting music crews like London’s Bala Club and the Stockholm-founded collective Staycore perform. The white-tiled walls of the hotel’s former kitchen host the flashing dry ice and so-called “post-genre” club music of Mexico City’s N.A.A.F.I collective and Berlin’s Mobilegirl. Everyone here plays with pop music, whether it’s the standard four-to-the-floor beats from Lao — sampling Usher, Dan Bodan, and Masters at Work — or Berlin-based Ziúr’s manic rhythms and heavy-metal touchstones interrupted by a slowed and pitched-down version of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” mangled to eerie unrecognizability.

Mostly the other rooms are reserved for the older, more established acts. The epic carpeted ballroom of Room 1 — almost pitch black with an elusive though dazzling light display in its ceiling — features artists like Raime, Demdike Stare and Forest Swords. Once, though, its too-dark ambience for music to be mulled over is shocked through with the Gestapo-like audience-facing spotlights of Dean Blunt’s Babyfather project. The Hackney-born performer, with his cohort of an emcee, DJ and ever-present bouncer-figure, tears through ’90s hip-hop hits like Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It” and shout outs to South London before assailing the crowd with strobes and shrill white noise, booming “Don’t panic!” The modest sound desk stands draped with a Union Jack flag: a somber reminder of the looming prejudices that led to the British vote to leave the EU, and Babyfather’s own thundering “agit-rap” in response.

Identity and how a person plays with it in the face of such monumental shifts in borders and communication becomes a strong driver of this year’s Unsound survey of global art and club music. One example being PC Music–affiliate Felicita’s presentation of an hour of cultural confusion in his “Soft Power” performance in the newly built congress and conference center, called ICE. An attempt by the London-based producer to reconnect with his Polish roots comes in the form of a collaboration with the Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble. His characteristic conflation of sweet and effeminate melodic motifs with discordant rhythms and malicious drones meets the polarized gender binaries of traditional folk choreography as his dancers perform their assigned roles. The signature whoops and whinnies of Felicita’s girlish sound palette are marked by dissonance, the occasionally empty stage doused by low-lying smoke and Florence To’s pink-hued lighting displays. The clash of identities and representations here is palpable, in an event that raises a pertinent question in these times of rising nationalist sentiment in the UK and elsewhere: “If this culture isn’t mine, then what is?”

Unsound tries to locate — or at least reconfigure — ideas of time and space with its scattered “listening stations” that are dotted across a map of the city into what the program calls “temporary disconnected zones.” Field recordings from Tanzania, New York, Thailand, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Poland’s primeval Białowieża Forest play from speakers in cafes, restaurants and bars as people consume.

The sense of literal, violent dislocation is also felt back at Hotel Forum, where artists like Kablam, Toxe and Kamixlo sling out sounds and samples that shouldn’t sit together. Brutal mash-ups of metal, melodic rock and electro come hand-in-hand with dismembered pieces of songs by Skrillex, Beyoncé and Britney Spears. Soft and hard sonic possibilities exist momentarily in the same space before shattering completely, generating the kind of bare hedonism that a recently reformed Death Grips unleashes in the outer-suburb venue of Łaźnia Nowa Theatre. There, Bach plays on stage while hooded roadies run a sound check, as the crowd, pregnant with anticipation, surges forward, full cups of beer flying before the show even begins.

As Yves Tumor hangs from the ceiling over the Room 3 sound desk in a butcher’s apron and jockstrap, shout-singing to waves of noise and flinging himself on his audience, one wonders what we are looking for by listening to such music. There’s a sense of frustration, of urgency here that’s electrifying in its hopelessness — where things have gone bad and there’s not much we can do about it.

by Steph Kretowicz

read more