At Glasgow’s sonic-art biennial, gameplay becomes theatrical

Gaming tools allowed audiences to wander through natural landscapes as stages for environmental activism or psychological thrillers, at Sonica 2017

In trying to explain my experience of Sonica – Glasgow’s sonic-art biennial which returned to the city from 26 October to 5 November 2017 – to friends, I described a lot of crazy things. Like playing an entire church as a musical instrument with the aid of a laser pen (Prague-based composer Floex and artist Initi’s Archifon IV (2017), installed at the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel); as each architectural feature was lit up with my green laser beam, it would trigger a loud noise, cheerfully singing like a mechanical choir. Or seeing guitars float mid-air in an abandoned swimming pool (Mexican artist and composer Manuel Rocha Iturbide’s The Extended Tension (2013), at Govanhill Baths), suspended by very long guitar strings that could be plucked; bouncing amplified sounds off the cool, dusty tiles.

Floex and Initi, Archifon IV, 2017, University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Sonica 2017

Floex and Initi, Archifon IV, 2017, University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Sonica 2017

Floex and Initi, Archifon IV, 2017, University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Sonica 2017

It’s impossible to neatly wrap up a festival which deliberately never has a theme. Sonica does, however, always seem to feature a dizzying array of research and ideas, and a dedication to new and never-before seen techniques and processes. Most, if not all, of the performances I saw in the last week of events were an exhilarating mix of live theatre, visual art and electronic music. But perhaps what ties all of the festival’s editions together is its spirit of internationalism, and successful, human collaboration. Sonica was first unveiled by Cathie Boyd – director of Glasgow art house Cryptic – in 2012, at one of the Scottish city’s most prestigious performance venues, Tramway (formerly a tram depot located in the Pollokshields district). Between then and now, the festival has toured the world with over 400 events, many of them premieres. Sonica has also made international acts the bread and butter of its operations at home, bringing over 180 artists from six continents to Glasgow.

Manuel Rocha Iturbide, The Extended Tension, 2013, installation view, Govanhill Baths, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Sonica 2017

Manuel Rocha Iturbide, The Extended Tension, 2013, installation view, Govanhill Baths, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Sonica 2017

Manuel Rocha Iturbide, The Extended Tension, 2013, installation view, Govanhill Baths, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Sonica 2017

Under the miserable smog of Brexit negotiations, it is spirit-raising to hear Boyd and her team talk so confidently and with such enthusiasm about international artistic partnerships. During my three-day visit, I met delegates from the Canadian Embassy, who were supporting artist Martin Messier with his pulsating live show Field (2015) – in which he vigorously plugs and unplugs ‘electromagnetic transducer microphones’ on stage, constructing a manic performance that sounds something like an electrical storm infused with a defibrillator bringing someone back to life – plus curators from Australian and Croatian galleries who were looking to host multiple Sonica artists back home. This year’s festival has 28 international funders, including the Swiss Arts Council and the Goethe Institute. As Boyd told me: ‘the relationship with the embassies is crucial. We don’t have the work without them.’ And long may these relationships continue if they are to bring such extraordinary acts to the UK.

As Sonica focuses on the cutting edge of sonic artistic practice, visitors can get swept up in its exciting technical elements. But the artists’ intellectual concerns – like any good festival – do rise to the surface despite the organization leaning away from any one theme. Sonica 2017 spoke to common anxieties, particularly around the human race’s relationship with the elements – including human disruption in (and destruction of) the landscape, and nature’s own potential for catastrophe. Sonica artists managed to make storms and climate change feel personal.

Martin Messier, Field, 2015, installation view, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Sonica 2017

Martin Messier, Field, 2015, installation view, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Sonica 2017

Martin Messier, Field, 2015, installation view, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Sonica 2017

Directed by Cryptic Associate Josh Armstrong, with a composition by cellist Oliver Coates (who also worked on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool), Shorelines (2017) at Tramway featured an astonishing central performance by Dutch artists Ragazze Quartet. Billed as a ‘reflective memorial to lives lost’ during Britain’s worst peacetime disaster, it is a startling, subtle and harrowing piece, conjuring scenes from the real night of 31 January 1953, in which the North Sea overwhelmed Canvey Island in Essex, as well as areas in Belgium and The Netherlands. On a pitch-black set, four simply-lit women played strings whilst tethered to heavy props – a window frame, bed, lamp, a cow – pulling them slowly around the stage, as if wading through freezing cold waters. As the imagined tide climbed higher and higher in the darkness, a pram was pulled away from a mother’s outstretched arms; furniture spun together, suggesting water gushing through windows and doors and blocking exits. Abruptly, the repetitive turmoil of the strings stopped to play a real, archival account over the speakers, in which a woman plainly, and with barely disguised anger, described losing everything that night – the clothes on her back, her mother-in-law, husband, and, later in hospital, her baby boy.

Shorelines, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: Sonica 2017; photograph: Nichon Glerum

Shorelines, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: Sonica 2017; photograph: Nichon Glerum

Shorelines, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: Sonica 2017; photograph: Nichon Glerum

In a completely different presentation, techno duo Lakker’s Struggle & Emerge (also at Tramway) mapped water as a daily, constant threat to the Dutch. Water, we learned, is always rising, and if their pumps and flood defences fail, the canal-veined country will submerge. An audio-visual showcase of their 2016 album of the same name, this was a repetitive, palpitating soundtrack against collaged and stuttering footage from The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision; the same frames of 20th century life flashing again and again like a zoetrope. Upbeat scenes of children diving and swimming were ominously compared to the spectacle of aeroplanes dropping rubber dinghies onto flood plains. A perfectly fitting title, it is an exhausting and addictive insight into an uncertain future that reaches far beyond the Netherlands. With sea levels rising three times faster than in 1990, NASA’s former head of climate research has recently warned that Earth could become ‘practically ungovernable’ in 50-150 years.

Lakker, Struggle & Emerge, 2016/2017, film still. Courtesy: the artists and Sonica 2017

Lakker, Struggle & Emerge, 2016/2017, film still. Courtesy: the artists and Sonica 2017

Lakker, Struggle & Emerge, 2016/2017, film still. Courtesy: the artists and Sonica 2017

With mankind’s wanton destruction firmly set in mind, it is fitting that Sonica gave a platform to director Lynette Wallworth’s Australian-set and now Emmy-nominated documentary Collisions (2015) at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, which highlights the continent’s dangerous flirtation with atomic weapons via the personal experiences of indigenous Martu tribe elder Nyarri Morgan. Morgan is an internationally exhibited artist in his own right, and as we watch him paint an atomic mushroom cloud on canvas, it becomes apparent that he witnessed nuclear testing first-hand here in the 1950s. We hover, drone-like, as he lights bush fires to encourage new growth; little pockets of smoky destruction, expertly controlled. His family are currently protesting against a uranium mine. Wallworth uses Morgan’s fragile community as a lens through which to view destructive technological forces barely kept at bay.

Lakker, Struggle & Emerge, 2016/2017, film still. Courtesy: the artists and Sonica 2017

Lakker, Struggle & Emerge, 2016/2017, film still. Courtesy: the artists and Sonica 2017

Lakker, Struggle & Emerge, 2016/2017, film still. Courtesy: the artists and Sonica 2017

As Wallworth developed this piece during a Sundance Institute New Frontier | Jaunt VR Residency, I expected a fully immersive experience; strapped, as I was, into virtual reality headgear and sat on a swivel chair in one of CCA’s cinema spaces. Collisions is composed of lush 360 degree camerawork of the Pilbara desert (and accompanied by a tender soundtrack by Max Richter and Nick Cave) – but I was unable to focus the gear to anything sharper than slightly blurry, thus dampening the overall experience. I do wonder how showing the film on an actual cinema screen – or even in 2D – would alter the reading of Collisions. At this point in time with this set up, it might even improve it.

Dear Esther Live, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: Sonica 2017

Dear Esther Live, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: Sonica 2017

Dear Esther Live, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: Sonica 2017

In contrast, Dear Esther Live (2017) at Tramway used its gaming tools to tell a story with greater effect. Created by BAFTA-award winning composer Jessica Curry and her Brighton-based game studio The Chinese Room, Dear Esther (originally released in 2008) is an ambitious videogame set on a deserted Hebridean island, featuring a central, male character haunted by the absent Esther of the title. At Sonica, it was played live on stage by an unassuming young man with a games console in hand; the visuals projected onto a large screen so as to suggest a first person-player view to the audience. We collectively ‘hiked’ around the island; through rustling wild flora, over pebbles and stone steps, and down into phosphorescent caves.

It is with a certain irony that I admit to being more thoroughly impacted by the ‘unreal’ graphics of Dear Esther than the ‘real’ visuals of Collisions, with setting and atmosphere as the context. The rendered graphics of the former are so crisp and life-like that the occasional glitch (like smoothly gliding, rather than stumbling, over a couple of huge boulders) jolts you back into remembering: This isn’t real. And then there’s the show: wandering gameplay led by a narrator, piano, cello, violins, viola, a conductor and soprano in front of a large audience. Never before have I experienced gaming as a theatrical experience – and I loved it. As letters beginning with ‘Dear Esther’ were read out (a fabulously gruff performance by actor Ferdy Roberts) to the wind-swept score, more of the mystery was revealed – has Esther been killed? Who by? Is there something very wrong with this island? Dark humour infused throughout (‘I’ve heard it said that human ashes make great fertiliser’). Hemmed in by water, and lost in the landscape like our protagonist, we might never emerge.

Dear Esther, 2008/2012, game still. Courtesy: Thechineseroom

Dear Esther, 2008/2012, game still. Courtesy: Thechineseroom

Dear Esther, 2008/2012, game still. Courtesy: Thechineseroom

In this dream-like state, these are the narratives from Sonica that pervade and linger – tragedies imagined and hitherto unimagined. The visual sonic arts in this case are simply tools to tell the tale: Sonica is a festival of stories. And on reflection, the enjoyment of very accomplished technical artwork – or work that prides itself in experimenting with technology in all its forms, from the humble guitar string to complex electronic arrangements – most often grows from sharing that experience with others. As in Shorelines, as the house lights came up and the applause faded; excitedly discussing each spare production detail and plot device with the equally enthralled and complete stranger sat next to me.

Main image: Dear Esther, 2008/2012, game still. Courtesy: Thechineseroom

Laura Robertson is an arts editor and writer based in Liverpool. She is co-founder of thedoublenegative.co.uk.

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