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03 July 2011
Off / On

Frederic Montornés

Sonar, this monster that even ten years ago they said was growing out of control, in the desire to group under the umbrella of its interest in the experimental, has come to encompass all forms of contemporary creation and has established itself, eighteen years after it was founded, as one of the paradigms of this type of cultural product; a well-oiled musical, social, political and cultural machine. That is to say one that functions in practically all areas.

It comes as no surprise that at each of the annual Sonar press conferences, one doesn’t have the sensation of merely attending a press conference, set up to provide information about a programme that has the complexity of a Rubiks cube, but also a kind of inter-institutional catharsis, orchestrated to perfection by Enric Palau, Ricard Robles and Sergio Caballero, the founders and co-directors of this Barcelona festival. A festival that in effect, during almost two decades of existence, has not stopped growing although never without the control necessary to achieve what they have achieved. That is, to have consolidated themselves as one of the best and most prestigious events dedicated to electronic and advanced music in the world and as one of the cultural events that has known best how to combine the necessary doses of quality, profitability and risk, that have allowed them until now to harvest the fruits of success as much in the city of its birth, as in its annual appointments in New York, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Frankfurt or Chicago or as one hopes in the first semester of 2012, in the debut event being organised for Sao Paulo. Something that is highly likely, if one bears in mind that Advanced Music has associated itself with the Brazilian production company, Dream Factory –the creators of Rock in Rio- to develop, what will be, without a doubt, one of the most ambitious wagers in their international expansion.

Originally it was conceived as a showcase to capture the musical/cultural scene, distributed in day and night sessions, over three days, that could accommodate the combination of what is apparently a leisure activity, with elements from artistic universes, the avant-garde and experimental, led by artists and tendencies of electronic music, both established well as those prone to interact and hybridize with other types of genre or languages. Since 1994, Sonar has been known for seeking out and showing new ways of understanding and consuming a world the very pace of which seems to mean that we are only allowed to enjoy whatever resists its voracity. So that, in tune with this wish to show-what’s-really-happening, focusing mainly on music, it is logical that since the very beginning, it has paid special attention to what, evolving in parallel with its characteristic experimental register, is usually known as multimedia art. That is to say a sort of enormous and complex smorgasbord which although it may proffer all sorts of proposals, explicitly supports the artistic possibilities offered by the new technologies, that lead to the analysis of the socio-cultural consequences of their use while at the same time disseminating the resultant multiplicity of aesthetics.

Aware that establishing an interaction with new technologies can be a highly complex task, unless one has been born with a computer under one’s arm or if one has a particular don for computers and cybernetics, the strategy that Sonar has remained faithful to, since its appearance, is that of grouping them according to different themes, with diverse exhibitions being dedicated in each edition to the most recent and innovative international projects in digital art and new media. So even if the proposals of multimedia creation could run the risk of being relegated by the press to an inferior plane, overwhelmed by the surfeit of what is on offer musically, one should be thankful that they are still persisting, even if they are struggling to reach a public that is not always in a state to extract intellectual readings or who simply can’t see it, as up until now it has only been open during the three days of the festival and one could only gain access to it if one had previously paid the entrance fee for the daytime festival sessions. A criminal waste if one considers the cost, both economic and of human resources invested in a proposal of such characteristics.

No matter how well the form and content of a section was chosen, if it hadn’t been capable of evolving it would have simply died a death, given the glut of flyers in showcases and record albums in vitrines that it was becoming. From the themes around which the multimedia art exhibitions have revolved in this festival since 2000, one senses that they have been selected as much for their capacity to leave the spectator agog in the face of the wonders that technology is capable of, as in order to begin to reflect about the message that underlies its use. So that there is the fascination triggered by proposals such as: the wire insects of Soda Constructor in 2001, the projects of the NSK-State Slovenian industrial music collective, Laibach y Sealand in 2004, “Life: a user’s manual” by Michelle Teran –which through the use of a frequency scanner and a camera on a cart made a sort of map of invisible signals in his transit through the city. Or the world premier in 2006 of “Day of the Figurines” –the project of the British collective Blast Theory, the spectacle of psycho-cybernetic illusionism created by Nemótico in a videoconference from Tijuana in 2007, the interactive installation “We Are The Time. We Are The Famous” an interactive diptych by the collective led by Andy Cameron in 2008 or the “Robotic chair” by Max Dean, Raffaello D’Andrea, Matt Donovan, etc… Or we could also have encountered the work of outstanding artists and collectives working in London in the field of graphic design and net art, in Invisible London, 2001, or the existence of invented nations, the visual territories and fantasy kingdoms created by individuals or groups from the beginning of the seventies of the last century – in the 1st Universal Exhibition of Micronations, 2004-, or the preference for figuration over and above abstraction, increasingly predominant in the artistic formats of the avant-garde – in “Randonnée” (A walk through the 21st Century landscape), 2005-, the storytelling involved in the proposal that, in exploring the culture of the mobile-phone and projects of localization, recuperates early conversation games to create dynamic social movements – in “Always on”, 2005-, the reflection on the role and status of magic during the pre-digital technology era -in “Et Voilà”, 2007-, the recuperation of obsolete technologies and/or museum pieces for a proposal dedicated entirely to the art of cinema in “Future Past Cinema”, 2008- or the interest of a new generation of artists in robotics as a recurrent field for their investigations as well as a vision of the future, that builds on the socialization of digital tools and the generalization of creative cooperativism, that is made not so much in the mode of instrument-mechanism as in a relational context (“Back to the robots”, 2010). So that what nobody seems to care about and what has always been placed in a sort of dark space full of strange machines and an army of de-ambulating freaks, nerds and other unclassifiable people, is not just a clear example of another of the worlds that are configured in parallel with the conventional one but also a box of surprises, from which one can always extract something that can help us understand who we are and where we are going.

After their laudable efforts in support of the articulation of a nineteenth century discourse that, conceived in the form of a trilogy, centred in the last three editions on a comparative investigation of the possible relations between the idiosyncrasies of the 19th and 21st centuries; linking magic to technology, recuperating pre-cinematic formats in the creation of contemporary audiovisuals, or returning to a Do it yourself style approach to the making of instruments for the production of sound, Sonarmática has taken a new turn. In this edition it has decided to associate itself from hereon in with the festival OFFF, an event that arose over a decade ago, with the aim of exploring software aesthetics and the new languages of visual and interactive expression and that has gone from being a mere festival of post-digital culture to become, as the organisers themselves say, a way of understanding art, or to be more precise, a totally absorbing and transformational way of life. Becoming to all extents and purposes an almost religious experience, from the most experimental environments of contemporary creation, through to the complete programme of talks, workshops and happenings carried out by artists such as Joshua Davis, Stefan Sagmeister, John Maeda, Digital Kitchen, Eduard Prats or Ignore, amongst many others.

Given the opportunity of holding the Festival OFFF once again in Barcelona and the interests of the organisers of Sonar to join forces with those in charge of the cultural activities at CCCB–this multipurpose space or platform that, almost like a mother-ship, houses most of the activities of these two events, as well as many others of all different kinds, have come up with the proposal that has been called OFFFmática. An exhibition proposal, co-curated by the three parts, who have joined forces and which thanks to an agreement they have reached, it will be possible to see in the usual rooms of the CCCB from the beginning of the festival OFFF until the end of Sonar, that is to say, from 9 to 19 June.

Designed not so much as an answer to the question that we all ask – what is art? – as much as a proposal that reflects on the relation between art and technology. What one can see and experiment in the exhibition, which in the OFFFmática programme has been titled “Other Mirrors”, is a proposal that reflects on the role that new technologies play in the evolution of the portrait as an artistic genre. Something that, although it could be linked to the lines of argument explored in the three previous proposals of Sonarmática, goes one step further by focussing all its efforts on an interaction with the public. It looks at the conception of drawing and the reconfiguration of the portrait as an artistic motif not so much from the possibility that man has to portray himself with his own tools, but by allowing technology to dictate his portrait, with a curious and eclectic selection of interactive installations and prints, as well as an intriguing and carefully selected collection of online projects. In short, an exciting palette of proposals, visually as fascinating as they are incomprehensible regarding how they function, capable of inducing us to think about the concept of a portrait conceived through interactivity, the register of technology or the elements of our identity that it favours. Namely: image, movement or character. Three of the determining elements in the installation of the American programmer Joshua Davis –designed to generate portraits from the spectator’s yells – or equally the images captured by an infra-red camera drawn with the radiation of a laser on a phosphorescent screen that translate into the ephemeral portraits proposed by the Japanese artists Daito Manabe & Motoi Ishibashi or the installation of light and paper in which the shadow of the spectator is transformed into a mass of pixels. To cut a long story short, a fulfilling experience as a mere aperitif of what one could expect in the future if it could become consolidated into a curated project, with the same conceptual weight as the evident fascination it feels for the technology. There is a lot more to say, a lot more to propose and above all, much more to understand. Amongst other things, ourselves.

Frederic Montornés
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)