The dedicated visual art strand of the 20th anniversary FutureEverything festival in Manchester was its most compact component, focused on a brace of live events at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Exchange Theatre. Before the unveiling of Cod.Act‘s sculptural installation Nyloïd and the première of Blast Theory‘s walking tour Too Much Information, however, a pair of luminaries from the mercurial field of digital art were given prominent positions at the festival’s opening gala, held in the RNCM’s main theatre.
Headlining the night was the UK première of The Well, a collaborative piece performed by electronic musician Koreless in tandem with a quartet of Russian Orthodox choralists, with visual elements designed by Emmanuel Biard. The latter, already a figure of acclaim in Manchester following his collaboration with Evian Christ at last year’s festival, provided a highly sophisticated light show which undeniably elevated Koreless’ score.
This score was at its strongest when the vocalists were on stage, particularly those moments when their eery chants came to us processed through something resembling autotune, acquiring a disorientating and anachronistic slickness. In turn, Biard’s contribution was most marked in those moments when the quartet left Koreless to his own devices and the music lapsed into more familiar IDM (intelligent dance music) tropes.
The most accomplished passage of all came at around the halfway point, as white lasers suspended from the top of the stage first spread their beams out wide, catching thick quantities of fog to create an airborne tableau reminiscent of a smudgy charcoal drawing, then gradually contracted, evoking a flickering cinema screen and finally suggesting footage filmed from a speeding race car.
A fellow critic expressed ambivalence in the event’s aftermath over the extent to which a light show like this could ever really become a valuable and communicative artwork in its own right; Biard’s design may in the last instance be indistinguishable from the kinds of spectacles one can see weekly two miles across town at the Manchester Arena, but it was for all that a spectacle which pushed lighting choreography to impressive levels of tactility.
Complexity from simplicity
The gala’s headline act was all but upstaged, however, by the support: Memo Akten‘s Simple Harmonic Motion for 16 Percussionists, the latest station in an ongoing multi-media project, was a short performance making good on the artist’s professed desire to allow complexity to arise from simplicity. As the 16 percussionists gradually took the stage, each beating a simple figure on a drum, first with one stick and then two, the sonic patterns that gradually emerged grew bewilderingly dense.
The rolling, coiling, snapping and popping drum figures were accompanied by visual flourishes: each of the percussionists wore a monastic hooded cloak (monastic aesthetics were something of a theme for the night), and some way into the performances the drumsticks began emitting beams of light into the eyes of the seated audience.
The almost-sculptural drum patterns seemed to exist on a different, non-synchronous channel to this aspect of the performance: this observation was vindicated the following afternoon when Akten confessed that he wanted his audience to be able to read the two levels of the performance separately. The result was performance in which neither the sonic nor the visual was subordinated to the other, but rather combined to create something which held the two together in a kind of synaesthetic flux.
Installed on the same stage the following night, Cod.Act’s Nyloïd was no less beguiling than Akten’s contribution. Entering the darkened auditorium alone, I was presented with a cylindrical speaker, installed at the apex of three spindly metal legs, emitting a breathy, raspy wittering backed by soft thuds. Once an audience had gathered at the foot of the stage, the structure began to rock disconcertingly, before repeatedly collapsing and rising in spasmodic motions.
As the tripod flailed, its legs were revealed as sound producers in their own right, creating jarring clangs each time one leg crossed or collided with another. The sense of animality became increasingly palpable throughout the ‘performance’, the wittering becoming chirps, purrs and growls, the falls evoking a sense of vulnerability and sympathy comparable to watching Bambi slipping on a frozen pond.
Although only three-legged, the structure threw up a host of arachnoid resonances, from Louise Bourgeois’ Maman to China Miéville’s Weaver. Which is to say, the tripod’s animal evocations added up to something compellingly monstrous.
Each of these pieces in their own way placed the spectator in a somewhat awe-struck position with regards to technology. Blast Theory’s Too Much Information took an antithetical approach, relying instead on more prosaic technologies.
The work consisted of a walking tour taken on a individual basis, in which a custom GPS display on a loaned smartphone led the participant to various points on the streets surrounding the Royal Exchange Theatre. On arrival, the phone played audio recordings of anonymous locals recounting various intimate experiences: memorable erotic encounters, struggles with loneliness and depression.
Blast Theory’s work had little to say about Manchester itself, and the testimonies did not align with the city grid in any meaningful way. Rather, it provided a twist on a type of experience which from this reviewer’s perspective is by now common to the point of absolute triviality: namely, silently navigating city streets and crowds of strangers while simultaneously tapping into the great wells of intimate exchange found on social networking sites like Twitter, or the emotive testimonies presented in episodes of podcasts like Serial.
Furthermore, Too Much Information‘s presentation of sex as something coursing below urban life on the level of digital communication resonated powerfully with burgeoning technologies such as Grindr and Tinder, which have recently been addressed to interesting effect by the likes of writer Huw Lemmey. The fact that the GPS technology did not, in typical fashion, run perfectly smoothly was one of this work’s most important aspects: the content of the intervention was buried deep inside an absolutely familiar form of frustration and anxiety, and as such helped to bring those affects to conscious attention.
The artistic component of FutureEverything thus ended on a bright note whereby the thrill of innovation was displaced by a careful and thought-provoking consideration of those technologies which structure our lives in the here and now.
FutureEverything 2015, 25-28 February. futureeverything.org
Correction: An earlier version of this article spelt Memo Akten’s surname incorrectly. This has now been amended.