Unsound 2014: The Dreaming - By Volume

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Unsound 2014: The Dreaming

Tayyab explores Kraków Unsound’s theme in depth

Author: on October 27, 2014
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The theme for Unsound 2014 is The Dream.

On the one hand, this theme explores music that is surreal, dream-like and trance-inducing – be it through drone, rhythm or the juxtaposition of unexpected elements. But there is also a wider cultural context.

The Dream is a symptom of a world where self-expression and experience are increasingly mediated and commodified. It plays out on laptops used for work and leisure, in networked coffee shops, airports, international “artistic enclaves” and nightclubs. Anxiety is its underside: those Living The Dream often do so in precarious financial situations, while in the background, ecological, political and economic systems lurch towards collapse; war looms on the horizon, threatening to escalate.

Music is one of the ultimate harbingers of an emergent Dreamstate. Its cultural capital expands even as its labor is gradually emptied of monetary value. In the wake of the new music-industry infrastructure, media companies and brands, a kind of global “underground” forms, where the insatiable drive to be fresh produces, paradoxically, more of the same. Nowhere is this more evident than at the modern festival, where line-ups seem to be becoming more homogenized, whether at mega-raves or smaller specialised events. Historically, The Dream stems from alternative and even oppositional artistic movements and social systems. Our question is, what remains of that subversive drive? In asking this, we realise we also open the position of our own festival to scrutiny, revealing contradictions.

Through a series of artistic actions, films and talks, Unsound 2014 will explore these ideas, as well as consider their original source – the counter-culture movements. And of course, at the heart of Unsound’s The Dream are pivotal musicians and artists whose success — or apparent lack thereof — doesn’t affect their refusal to compromise.”

- Unsound

* * *

Unsound is an annual multidisciplinary arts festival that has taken place in Kraków, Poland for a few years now, centred around techno and experimental music in particular. It’s integrated across the city’s venues, ranging from theatres and art spaces to museums and concert halls, and has even expanded to New York. Recent years have carried themes such as Horror, Future Shock and Interference, while this year’s edition was based on this idea of The Dream.

The scope of potential topics involved within The Dream is mouth-watering, sure, but the first thing to address is that Unsound are looking to incorporate several different phenomena into the theme. There’s the straightforward take on dreams themselves, which isn’t an especially big step considering ephemeral ambience and repetitive rhythmic patterns in club music, as well as the ‘transcendent’ aesthetic that is attributed to this music. It seems like an easy way to shoehorn a wide array of acts onto the bill and fit them into a festival theme. But then there’s the other, far more interesting side of The Dream: the current model of the music industry is unsustainable in an environment that is changing at a rapid rate. Everything from content-driven discourse and unpaid employees in the media to bedroom producers and music platforms making or breaking artists is, in terms of cultural capital, at stake. There were plenty of other issues to touch upon, but my interest lied in what it is Unsound had to say about the current state of commodified self-expression, and where they suggest going from here.

To be candid, Unsound was a really fun time, but it’s worth gauging how well the festival explored its own theme. It began with as literal a take as possible: Chris Abraham’s solo piano performance of John Cage’s “Dream”, which followed on from a presentation on the relationship between videogames and nightmares. Author and researcher Jayne Gackenbach introduced the idea of videogames as having different nocturnal effects for different genders: men tended not to get nightmares from violent games and could in fact find them empowering, whereas women would be more likely to experience nightmares afterwards, according to the research. Gackenbach explored the psyche of different participants but there didn’t seem to be any focus on people that exist outside of gender binary constructs, although the research they did have was long in the making. It left me wanting as I headed into the talk with recent developments in the gaming world on the mind; Zoe Quinn has been the target of severe harassment from misogynists, as has Anita Sarkeesian, the latter simply for pointing out how misogynistic the gaming industry is already.

An attendee prompted Gackenbach with a question at the end, suggesting that the cripplingly imbalanced representation of non-men in many games, especially violent ones, may be responsible (in part, at least) for the gendered difference in reactions. Gackenbach seemed to find the suggestion intuitive though she concluded that there hasn’t been enough research to pin it on that. Certainly, it’s taken this long for misogyny be scrutinised by a mainstream gaming community. The most crucial part of the presentation for me, especially at the very beginning of Unsound, was Gackenbach’s notion that dreams are simply another strand of reality, often about the person themselves once the layers are peeled away, and no less valid than what we deem to be ‘actual reality’. In The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa talks of how the traveller is their own journey, and what they see is not what their eyes capture, but is in fact themselves. So our dreams and what we call ‘real life’ are both valid, as all are just fragmented reflections of certain facets of ourselves.

Continuing with the literal understanding of The Dream, many artists found their audience caught in a trance-inducing snare – however, the way they brought their audience to such a state varied. Warna’s warm-up set swept ambient music into Balkan folk, before Brooklyn’s Xeno & Oaklander pushed bodies into motion with a live set of darkwave material, although I’m certain the minds of the crowd still weren’t in the immediate vicinity at this point. Some acts perhaps inadvertently set the mind off into the sky like stray balloons, including Suzanne Ciani & NeoTantrik (Sean Canty of Demdike Stare and Andy Votel), whose improvised collaboration missed at least as often as it hit. The chemistry was there, but a lack of narrative and structure meant it was hard for the crowd to connect with it, even if there were some breathtaking moments of ambience and they did gel well together (they were later joined on stage by Lichens’ Robert AA Lowe).

Several of the audio-visual performances worked towards a dreamstate; the orchestral showcase of Nommos and the partnering of Grouper and Paul Clipson were a part of that. Both took place at a concert hall within ICE, a gargantuan building styled like a conference centre on the border of the city. Both were also unexpectedly divisive, serving as a closing gig of sorts on the last day before a final party. Grouper’s intimacy seemed to dissipate in the large venue that saw seats facing down to her cross-legged, shoes-off set up whilst Clipson’s tape reels on projection provided an extra source of noise as well as visuals. Presented with an orchestra backing up the lead synths, Craig Leon’s Nommos had some people lost within its rhythms and others unimpressed by the forced grandiosity of it all. There was another show at ICE – albeit in another room suited more to Star Wars’ galactic senate debates than musical showcases – that saw Cyclobe follow TCF up with a resounding adventure through soft sounds. Formed by Coil affiliates Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown, Cyclobe performed as a five-piece, merging rustic with synthetic to form an intangible and dizzying experience. Jed Kurzel’s score to the film Snowtown was played live to unused footage from the film. It was the structure of that dream that served the performance well, clips stitched together impressively by Marcel Weber (MFO) despite the miscellaneous nature of the raw material. I found Lichens’ analogue synth and vocal show wearying even though his aim was to achieve a woozy and hypnotic state. Maybe he was successful, but it wasn’t particularly pleasant.

* * *

Further along the spectrum of sensory awareness, past the trance-like state, resides delirium. Just as the free bus (signed “Ladder to God”) took us to the Swans gig, Swans themselves took us to a state beyond reason with their extended, self-absorbed marathon setlist. Some withstood the sonic barrage before eventually tuning out whilst others strived further to embrace it – not a task the monumental group cared to make easy for people. Other roads to delirium passed through Piotr Kurek’s electronic re-scoring of Majewski’s Rondo, or Księżyc’s stage shenanigans that included moments spent amongst the crowd in the pews of a church tossing giant balloons to each other. A screening of Electric Dragon 80000 V, a Japanese film from 2001, also served as a reality well-separated from the norm. Its protagonist – a man who conducts and wields electricity, talks with reptiles and relies on an electric guitar for sanity – faces off against a vigilante who can also control electricity but struggles with a personality disorder. It’s completely ridiculous and self-aware too, which made for a fantastic hour at Kino Pod Barnami.

In terms of The Dream as a by-product of the commodification of art, there were a few instances where the Unsound theme was explicitly engaged. Lars Holdhus, performance name TCF introduced a new concept for music distribution where the paradigms of BitCoin are applied to the industry. With regards to distribution, people could choose to purchase the works of an artist which would be seen as an investment in the artist themselves, with variable levels of worth indicating measures of cultural capital. These exchanges would happen on websites established to function as mirrors of BitCoin currency exchanges and shadowing BitCoin’s blockchain – data attached to all currency in circulation detailing the history of the money’s previous owners and transactions whilst protecting anonymity – music could have the entirety of musical history attached to it. They would be kept in sync across the system and so any recording of history that fell out of line with the rest would be rectified. The idea has plenty of issues such as huge companies rivalling such a decentralised peer-to-peer system, plus arcane musicians that don’t maintain their work well enough becoming undiscoverable. Holdhus called it an experiment but it was reassuring to see ventures into alternative models for the industry.

TCF was one of a select group of artists really stretching the limitations of constructs and pushing out of them on the bill. But for a couple of panels here and there, I’m not hugely convinced Unsound had much to say about The Dream, or at least in comparison to the quantity and vastness of the questions it posed. The festival itself was dreamlike in both senses of The Dream: it was a surreal experience, and I’ve never been to a festival like it. Attendees weren’t quarantined from the rest of civilisation, instead sprinkled and scattered across a Kraków that’s still moving forward with daily life. This ‘alone, together’ feeling of amazing things happening beneath the city’s nose was most explicit at the NTS mobile radio set-up on the ground floor of Narodowy Stary Teatr. As artists dropped in for crew mixes or in-depth discussion on their creative process and what it means to be ‘living the dream’, the backdrop of the town square saw the banal grind juxtaposed against the visions of today’s dreamers.

* * *

The Dream was defined by Unsound with reference to the homogeneity of festival line-ups and a counter-culture that strives to be fresh but ends up contributing to this normality with plenty of similar artists. Billing Swans as ‘headliners’ seemed odd, as it’s not like Swans haven’t been touring, and the swathes of ambient-dreamscape or techno-experimental acts meant those areas could taste stale at times. Musically, there were plenty of acts there that demanded attention, though, and I wouldn’t accuse Unsound of having a similar bill to other festivals. Most major festivals don’t well-represent the demographics of music, booking many male acts and few female or trans artists. Unsound didn’t stand out from the rest in that respect, hindered by an unacceptable imbalance. It’s also worth noting that the context in which The Dream was addressed was a disproportionately white, western-centric place and most participants in talks, panels and presentations were white males. Part of The Dream relates to this digitally connected, globalised environment where there is more accessibility to music than ever before, and how the way we engage art feeds back into the way it’s created. The density of Unsound’s schedule, and its clash-heavy nights meant that by the end of eight consecutive days of live music, loud music and discourse, I was burnt out and felt unable to process much more. If The Dream means doing everything just because it’s available, I would advise against it.

These aren’t simply criticisms, as the crux of the issue is that they are all features of the mainstream, which calls into question the nature of counter-culture itself. It seems that counter-culture and the mainstream share a symbiotic relationship, all subject to the same overarching system and so the qualities of that system itself need to be acknowledged, identified and analysed. Certainly, the way icons and developments of the underground are canonised and adopted into the mainstream suggests counter-culture helps drive the culture that it is a reaction against. Unsound Kraków was thoroughly entertaining and occasionally engaging and provocative, and I’d consider it essential for anyone remotely interested in experimental art. That said, Unsound is part of the counter-cultural engine within that system whose failing is a lack of self-awareness, rarely tackling the issues it proposed head-on in practice, existing in its own reality of dream.

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