Felix has been in Brussels most of June with Valeria Merlini making preparations for the Tuned City Brussels sound art festival. It took place this weekend and so me and my laptop hopped onto the Eurostar to Brussels to see/hear the kind of thing Felix and her sound art colleagues do for a living.
Working remotely went like a dream once I’d switched hotel rooms (my original room was built inside a Faraday cage) to one that had wifi, and so I spent the daytime working on some ideas (shh! secret…) and then around 4pm I’d track down the artists and get involved for the evening. I took a few photos with my phone and here’s a selection along with a bit of a review.
Firstly the disclaimer – I am not a sound artist, I’m not especially well-informed, so what follows is really the perspective of an interested layman. My partner IS a sound artist and undoubtedly influences my point of view to some extent, but these are my words and my opinion, not hers. So if I cause delight and offence – yaay and sorry, it’s my fault.
Right then, Tuned City Brussels – here we go. As I understand it Tuned City is the brainchild of Carsten Stabenow and it takes place every couple of years, the last one being in Tallin, Estonia where Felix and Valeria (Ford & Merlini) first worked together. This year Carsten teamed up with Julia Eckhart of Q-02 in Brussels to put on the show.
What an ambitious festival – 3 days, 47 artists, across 22 venues – enough to make any project manager shudder! Add on top the audience, the number of installations and instruments that need transporting, building, (fixing?), dismantling, all a tight schedule, all in public spaces with folk meandering around and you have a pretty intense logistical challenge on your hands.
Felix and Valeria opened the festival with live mixing of recordings they had made of various places in Brussels, plus recordings made by some students they worked with earlier in the year. The projector showed live use of radio aporee, a brilliant idea created by Udo Noll that is (more than) a web map for recording, playing and sharing site-specific field recordings. Udo was at Tuned City with something called bx – a briefcase full of tricks that becomes a solar-powered radio broadcasting station plus live internet streaming. Very cool and I think Udo was having a lot of fun.
There were various sound walks over the weekend which offer interesting ways to engage with the city. Because I was busy during the day I didn’t get to join in most of these, but I took part in two. One was by Christina Kubisch which was a guided walk around Botanique – a botanical garden surrounded by trams and skyscrapers. Christina has created headphones that pick up electrical noise – so for example when you walk past a photo booth or fire alarm box you can hear the electronics. Never has standing at a pedestrian crossing been so much fun! As a walk it was full of surprises, even for Christina who seemed as delighted as anyone to find a metal statue that when you put your headphones near the bull’s mouth, you heard a local radio station!
The second walk was by Akio Suzuki who had marked specific spots on the streets around the south of Brussels for you to stop, listen and contemplate. This idea of walking and deliberately listening is an appealing one because so often in the city I find I try to consciously block out the sound, so this was a nice change. The group of people I joined were bristling with microphones, and attracted the attention of Suresh – a new resident of Brussels who had just been to yoga. Suresh joined us for 30 mins or so on the walk and I think he had fun learning a little about Tuned City.
Each evening finished with performances that tended to involve us the audience sitting in chairs watching them the performer. Now normally when I am in this situation I am being entertained – it is a music concert, or a standup comic, or I am at a talk about something I find interesting, like information management! So I struggle to sit still and watch someone saw a string with a bow or move bits of electrical kit near each other and “play” the interference, unless it is interesting or entertaining. Besides, I am NOT target audience for this kind of work – some of it seems to be done by the in-crowd for the in-crowd purely as a way of comparing dick size. That said, two performances stood out for me:
Firstly Marina Rosenfeld and Okkyung Lee on the opening night. NOTHING had gone their way that day and so they found themselves really compromised with an incomplete and damaged set of tools at their disposal, yet pulled-off an incredible performance involving a list of office departments (as you do), a cello and a magic box of electronic sounds in Curo Hall – a huge empty space with a balcony all the way round. I liked that it was possible to walk around a little, and the sounds they produced made the building come to life. There was one section where Lee was revving her cello like a motorbike which was thrilling.
Secondly was the last performance by Zenial (Lukasz Szalankiewicz) – this was a sit and watch performance of a guy with a load of electrical devices (digital camera, transistor radio, many other bits and bobs) make all kinds of horrendous buzzes and squeaks. Yet somehow out of this mess of noise he found rhythms and was able to build the sounds and the atmosphere in the room up like a club DJ. There were definite messiah moments as he laid his hands upon the kit, but somehow he had enough conviction and presence to get away with it.
Zoe Irvine gave an interesting performance before Zenial – she borrowed recordings from an oral history archive, chopped them up and put them through lie detector software. She did it in a way that (mostly) took language out of the equation and left it to the software to judge truth or lie based on the supposed level of stress in the sound snippet. For me it wasn’t as “entertaining” a performance as the other two I mentioned, but it was probably the most thought-provoking and political piece in the festival. It certainly raises questions about the extent to which society is putting “the machine” in charge and has left me uneasy.
The performance I saw on the Saturday night was the low point for me – visually it was interesting with a sail and an upturned boat (to my mind anyway), but I could not understand the connection to Brussels (or any city), or why the man was making such a monotonous racket with his bow while the woman twanged his string. I’m sure he had a good time though…
Friday night’s performance also lacked any obvious link with Brussels, but it had amazing looking instruments, two excited lads playing them, and it was set in a huge church that has become a squat. Like with Zenial – the sounds had enough variety and rhythm to be entertaining, but also the setting was much less formal – you could walk all the way round, and at the end we were even allowed a go on the wind up horns. What’s not to love?!
Brussels is rather blessed with bars and beer, which seemed to go down well with the artists (and me). The unwinding at the end of the day was a lovely sociable affair. As an outsider I was made welcome (thank you) and the conversation was a fine old mix of ranting, laughter and debate. I had not appreciated the depth of knowledge these people have on the history and philosophy of sound art. The catalogue of names and projects that get tossed around is bewildering and impressive to an outsider like me and spending time in their company made me realise there IS substance behind the work.
Much less impressive is the academic vocabulary that gets slapped around – pedagogic didactic liminal interstitial sick bucket. I object to it in the same way as I object to IT technobabble – it is a divisive form of anti-communication to anyone not in the gang, and I think it is a major reason why art is considered inaccessible by the masses.
I think the vocabulary is a difficult problem, because the academic world is fierce and words are weapons, so you need a formidable arsenal to survive. This is not the case outside of academia where ease of understanding wins. I am sure the work of artists will be valued more if you can remove the verbal barriers. But there is hope! – we were discussing the merits of one of the performances and people (yes you Felix!) were wielding out the big words, when a lovely bloke called Michael said in one of the simplest sentences ever uttered by an academic: “It really helps if it sounds good.”
My favourite parts of Tuned City Brussels though were the site-specific installations in the city. And my favourite favourite was Pierre Berthet’s piece in Abbaye de la Cambre. As you can see in the underwhelming photo, it is barely visible – a collection of taut wires and tin buckets suspended between two trees in the grounds of the abbey.
So it wasn’t visually arresting. The sound had no rhythm, just a series of long (several minutes) drones with fairly subtle changes. But it was beautiful, reverent, and seemed to be as old as the trees it came from and the walls that surrounded it. I cannot describe what a “good” sound is, but I totally know what Michael means, and for me this sounded amazing.
Of everything I saw and heard, the one that was most public must be the group performance in Gare du Nord by Lukas Kuhne and Robyn Schulkowsky. It involved half a dozen artists (including a fun Aussie/Cornishman called Rob) thumping wooden boxes to make a tremendous rhythmic boom throughout the station hall at the entrance/exit to all the platforms. The full spectrum of people from beaten-up drunks to business women stopped to watch the performance, and if outreach was one of the Tuned City Brussels aims then I think this gets a big tick.