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31 July 2007

Cinema for the Ears, Music for the Eyes

Liquid Architecture 8 // Nat. // 28-30.06.07

Performance by Runzelstirn and Gurgelstock Image: Performance by Runzelstirn and Gurgelstock  
© Shannon O’Neill

To my ears, contemporary experimental electronic music seldom strays far from its revered musique concrète origins. Much of the sound art of recent years bears the indelible imprint of the tape-splicing generation epitomised by Cage and Varèse, an aesthetic now re-imagined for digital means. One might wonder whether using new technological resources to create effects so similar to earlier efforts can be considered innovative. Some may argue, then, that ‘laptop artists’ can no longer project to a live audience through sound alone and must adopt other modes of performance in order to engage listeners on a meaningful level.

Fortunately, this year’s Liquid Architecture festival (held in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane over two weeks) offered a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, with local and international acts exercising an all-inclusive approach to noise experimentation, visual media and performance art. Organisers of the Sydney gigs Ben Byrne and Shannon O’Neill must be praised for assembling such an eclectic array of artists – from an elderly purveyor of bawdy limericks (Tony Mason-Cox) to a postmodern glam-rock band (Winner) – all manipulating and interacting with sound in strikingly different ways. Throughout the sprawling Carriageworks interior, the sculptures and interactive artworks on display featured prominent aural components, emphasising the focus on sound design that has been the hallmark of Liquid Architecture for eight years running. Alongside the performances themselves, these installation pieces attest to the diverse trends now thriving in the realm of sonic experimentation, both in Australia and abroad.

One such trend, championed by several artists involved in the festival, mingles new technology with archaic, outmoded equipment, endowing the antiquated elements with a fresh and distinctive voice. Melbourne-based artist Natasha Anderson explored this confluence of ancient and modern in an electroacoustic performance combining Renaissance-style contrabass and garklein (piccolo) recorders, electronics, and experimental vocal techniques. Wielding a towering bass recorder whose deep, mellow tone was processed beyond recognition, she constructed a churning, nebulous soundscape punctuated by panoply of squelches, shrieks, and other unusual noises. Anderson’s treatment of the instrument was rather like the taming of a wild beast. Motion sensors added a dynamic visual element to the fray, enabling her to exploit the recorder in a more percussive role and to trigger sounds by enacting a sequence of stylised, almost violent, bodily gestures. Natasha Anderson’s work embraces juxtaposition; of the old and the new, of the high and low frequencies emanating from her exotic breeds of recorder, of intense physicality and aural events.

Wade Marynowsky’s sound sculpture, Ever Evolving Tracks of Delayed [Train] Lines, continued the theme of the new reinvigorating the old. Taking Nancarrow’s experiments with player piano to the next technological stratum, the work consists of a disembowelled antique pianola fitted with an internal computer. Dissonant fragments of music, played by the pianola and generated by Marynowsky’s software, seem to rewrite themselves ad infinitum, lending a mechanistic perspective to the notion of improvised performance.

Audiovisual works form an integral part of Liquid Architecture’s line-up from year to year, encouraging artists to explore colour and texture in relation to music, to tap into visual narrative, or to gear the nexus between imagery and sound to reflect a political stance. Liquid Architecture 8 presented a host of performers sensitive to the versatility of cross-disciplinary media. Brisbane-based artist Lloyd Barrett wove his Kandinskyan pastels into the glassy sounds of an Ebow, while whimsical text added a narrative element to the dreamscape.

Demonstrating a thoroughly different approach, French guests Cellule d’Intervention Metamkine used no less than six 16mm film projectors and a series of mirrors to edit their visual acrobatics in real time. An improvised soundtrack, constructed using an arsenal of analogue synthesisers, crowned the unique audiovisual experience for which they are internationally renowned.

Swiss artist and activist Dave Phillips harnessed the power of imagery, text and sound to express his own ethical convictions, unleashing a confronting tirade against animal cruelty. Nightmarish footage of abuse and systematic slaughter rolled over distorted dog barks, torturous squeals and Phillips’s own visceral vocals. Spliced subliminal text, urging members of the audience to examine their role in the carnage, completed the ideological onslaught. Through intricately combined technological resources, Phillips delivered a probing indictment of a society’s willingness to look the other way.

Unlike the overt vegan propaganda dispensed by his fellow Swiss artist, the works of Runzelstirn and Gurgelstock (a.k.a. Rudolf Eb.er) are ambiguous in content and meaning, though by no means less unsettling. In the same way that Natasha Anderson’s sharp gestures imbued her act with a sense of immediacy, his boldly physical performance art held the audience enthralled. Decked out in forbidding black latex (he is perhaps best described as the Marilyn Manson of the art world), breathing heavily through a gas mask and shackled to his own audio equipment, R&G cued raucous industrial sounds through hand-held triggers that he pointed at members of the audience as if to shoot them. A pot of vinegar, set at centre stage and brought gradually to boiling point during this volatile display, kept everyone on edge; I began to wish I’d sat a few rows back.

The raw, unflinching intensity of his first act seemed rather tame compared to the finale. The screening of a filmed R&G performance piece drew Liquid Architecture attendees into a disturbing spectacle. The artist issued three rounds of coloured liquids to three young Japanese women clad in ghostly white. After dutifully guzzling the beverages, and with ritualistic drums urging them on, the girls vomited onstage into plastic basins for the best part of half an hour. Close-up shots and gratuitous noises captured the event in all its grotesque intimacy, causing widespread offence among viewers and provoking complaints that reached far beyond mere loss of appetite. From booing and pointed walk-outs (the audience was vastly depleted by the end of the evening) to verbal protest (‘you sexist fuckers!’), there can be no denying that Runzelstirn and Gurgelstock sparked controversy.

For me, the range of reactions was far more interesting than the performance itself. Gross-out factor aside, most detractors of the work adopted a feminist stance, likening the artist’s supposed violation of his subjects to pornography. Others expressed admiration of the women’s dedication to the task and their openness to extreme life experiences. But the question of artistic intent remains: can a performance specifically designed to sicken and disgust be termed ‘art’ on polemical grounds, and can a viewer transcend gut reaction (excuse the pun) to arrive at a layer of meaning more profound than what shock value alone can ascribe?

Runzelstirn and Gurgelstock’s inflammatory piece bears witness, at least, to a community of Sydneysiders passionately engaged in discussing and supporting a wide range of electroacoustic, audiovisual and performance projects. The Brisbane and Melbourne branches of LA8, too, each featured a diverse selection of local and international acts, catering to crowds equally devoted to experimental art forms. Along with the annual Electrofringe and NOW Now festivals, Liquid Architecture provides one of the most important forums for the exploration of Australia’s emerging and evolving sound culture.

Performance Details

Liquid Architecture, Sydney Performance Space, Carriageworks, Sydney
28th–30th June, 2007
Featuring Abject Leader, Natasha Anderson, Lloyd Barrett, Cellule d’Intervention Metamkine, Tony Mason-Cox with Ann Onymous, The Daniel Green Tribute Show, Lucas Darklord, Kamusta, Wade Marynowsky, Peter Newman, Dave Phillips, Rik Rue, Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock, Jasper Streit, and Winner.

Further Links

Liquid Architecture (www.liquidarchitecture.org.au)

Melissa Lesnie currently studies musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where her main interests lie in early music and 20th century composition. She works at the classical CD specialist store Fish Fine Music. In her spare time, Melissa sings in the Sydneian Bach Chamber Choir and records as one half of an electroacoustic duo, Lady Lazarus.


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