The Future of Sound at the British Library

Friday, 9 November 2007

The Sancho Plan at the British Library

The Future of Sound looks a lot like the near past, apparently. Part of a series of LATE night events at the spectacular entrance hall to the British Library in central London, “The Future of Sound’s” goal of “showcasing cutting edge artists in music and audio design” fell a bit flat in comparison the surroundings. With only two live performances, and the rest running off of DVDs, the only thing that reminded me of the avant guard were the numerous technical failures of he night.

No, that’s overly harsh. You have to give credit to head organizer Martyn Ware for attempting a show like this in a major cultural institution like the British Library. Aside from the Tate Modern and especially the ICA, I find the major British-with-a-capital-B institutions to be energetic about the new but happily clueless as to what it is. And Modified Toy Orchestra put on a solid show. Tal Rosner‘s angular, reflected, color-tweaked videos of train traveling are a Surrealist’s dream of telephone poles growing out of one another and time and space collapsing in on itself. The Sancho Plan’s stylish, weird, and intense drumming aliens, killer robots, and even sharks and jellyfish were worth the £5 admission by themselves.

The Future of Sound at the British Library

What bothers me is that I’ve seen and heard all of this before, and again what is billed as the avant guard is, in reality, another re-hash of the more popular bits of what are already accepted artists and works. None of these were near the future – if this event happened 8 years ago, it would have been perfectly at home. Perhaps this is the grip I have, as someone who helps organize a proper bi-monthly experimental audio-visual night (Immersion, at The Flea Pit – next one is Thursday Dec. 6th). The avant guard is a place for things to go wrong, but not because the DVD player didn’t work when you tried to project a 10-year-old work.

Things go wrong because the concepts themselves are experimental. Equipment will always fail, technology is not a marker of advanced thinking. More and more it’s a crutch of those who can’t see the forest through the trees.

Steve Jobs forgive me, but “The Future of Sound” in London (not to be confused with that old experimental techno group, “The Future Sound of London”) was all about the past’s fetishization of future technology. The Sancho Plan represents this perfectly, and without irony – their entire show is about pushing the limits of this technology fetish until even a simple cowbell has to be played by a hulking space warrior robot with an array of whirling grappling hooks for hands. Everything is so overly complicated and over-designed that it’s breathtaking, by design.

I spend most of my time teaching and not creating new works these days, because I’m tired of having to describe the technological parts of my work as if they had something to do with the final piece. Seriously, they don’t. Only if you want to be sponsored by Canon or Sony does it matter is you used a revolutionary micro-projection system with liquid cooled processors and a 10-axis accelerometer. I’ve seen great works from the 1960’s like Anthony McCall’s “Line Describing a Cone” that managed to be both interesting and interactive, and used nothing but film projectors and cigarette smoke. Eat that, Nintendo. (I kid, Nintendo. Feel free to sponsor me sometime…)

One of the hardest parts of teaching Interactive Art and Media is pushing away the technical constraints and asking people to really think about the point of their projects. Students fight me tooth-and-nail to show them the latest and greatest finger-tracking technology, just so they can duplicate work that’s been done very well, very long ago. The technology doesn’t always free us up to do more, sometimes it forces us to repeat the past over and over.

I did enjoy Tal Rosner’s work. Out of the modified video I’ve seen recently, I think his is some of the best. He has a poetic way of capturing the rhythms of travel and matching them to music, especially the Stravinsky pieces. His creative use of editing, screens side-by-side splicing disjointed journeys together in time to the rhythm shows a great understanding of time and visual space. I am a big sucker for geometric forms, and I find the black-on-light-blue contrasts of telephone poles and different train-side machinery growing out of themselves as if they were anchored in pools of still water utterly captivating.

Modified Toy Orchestra is a good live act, but their sound is basically a reworking of good-but-not-great electro-pop played on various modified toys (and vintage synthesizers). If you haven’t seen them live, it’s worth it to see them once. Twice, I don’t know. It feels like they ransacked their closet just before the show began and stuck LEDs and a few microphone jacks onto whatever they could find. I’d love to see them explore the various modified toys a bit more.

We have such emotional bonds with our childhood toys, and who doesn’t remember the “who is better?” GI Joe vs. Transformers vs. Go-Bots arguments of 1st grade? Sometimes these toys can be downright creepy too, like their musical half-naked Barbie(?) doll. (Doesn’t everyone have a sister who left a trail of Barbie dolls and Kens in various states of undress around the house?) The potential is there.

Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) provided a “pre-recorded performance.” Bullshit. It was a DVD. There was no performance. This was my biggest gripe of the night, because I was really interested to see a live performance by him. Can we finally establish once and for all that a DVD is not, nor will it ever be a live performance? I could have visited his website and see this “prerecorded performance.” Very disappointing.