We got the presence, but where is the essence?* – Unsound Cracow 2018 essay

Andżelika Kaczorowska / 10 paź 2018

The 2018 edition has attracted 30,000 attendees from all over the world and featured 129 music acts, finally making Unsound comparable to Berlin’s CTM with its 35,000 attendees and 190 music acts. But these are just numbers. The two events have gone their separate ways, even if their recent themes ironically dialogue with each other – while the festival in Berlin will celebrate its 20 years under the title “Persistence”, the festival in Cracow (only 4 years younger and with a similar number of attendees) announced its new guiding theme “Presence”… Poland is still developing its infrastructure for cultural events, so Unsound has to deal with more obstacles than festivals in old-EU metropolises. This is especially true for Berlin, where CTM has its “longtime partners” like “Berghain, HAU Hebbel am Ufer, and Kunstquartier Bethanien”. During the last few years such clubs as Szpitalna 1, which has a few high-quality bookings every weekend and a stable team of resident DJs, have appeared on Cracow’s map. Although it’s only 3 years old, it’s already a senior citizen by Polish standards – Warsaw’s techno-oriented Jasna and Smolna as well as the underground Pogłos are all no older than 2 years. Maybe this is why Unsound became more politically conscious than it was in the beginning?

This context is especially important because this year’s edition tried to discuss the Polish perspective within a broader framework. It’s coded in the title itself – “Presence” directly refers to the Department of Presence, an ongoing project of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw which uses strategies reminiscent of the documenta 14’s public program. Drawing a parallel between the Unsound festival and documenta might be a bit too much but, to be fair, this year’s edition makes Unsound a more special place than ever for intersectional reflection on the music industry. Some issues certainly reflect current trends, like reclaiming a sense of activism, but Unsound offered more opportunities than ever to subvert what is here and now.

Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Cracow, Unsound Festival archive

Re-reading Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher’s suicide, a radical gesture by a person whose writings served as a gateway to political activism and made us question everything we do and think, shocked the music community. The premiere of an anthology of his writings with previously unpublished fragments on Repeater Books – a publishing imprint that Mark Fisher co-founded – was the highlight of Unsound’s program and influenced the whole festival. There were the two reading groups of Mark Fisher’s essays, but his influence also manifested itself in many curatorial choices of topics and music acts.

The thought of “Capitalist Realism” author would serve as a great narrative for the music festival because musicians are one of the most vivid examples of exploitation in capitalism. In order to “make it happen”, they decide to put themselves under enormous expectations and even if they achieve a success – at least in the capitalist realist sense – it rarely reflects what they have sacrificed, and all this affects their mental and physical health. Media workers and PR specialists are constantly searching for something new to generate buzz, simply because clicks mean more money from advertisements. A perfect example of this is the media coverage of Unsound – the very first reviews came just a day or two after the end of the festival and they mentioned only a few artists. How to choose the most relevant stories to tell from 120 acts? During the whole week I managed to see only 60 of them, and I could say more than a few words about maybe 40. How to process such a huge amount of information? Maybe I should have seen more, or maybe I should have focused on just a few things. This leaves me with a tough decision to make, as I know how hard it is for artists to appear at the festival.

Last year I mentioned Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” as a reference to the “Flower Power” theme. This year it was more like “The Bleeding Edge” – especially during weekdays, Crakow tried to act like the Silicon Valley of the music industry. The workshop of coders using algorithms to make dance music, the band with Oracle instead of a real-life vocalist, a bot that not only generates answers, but also anonymously connects attendees with each other – all of these projects use technologies that already exist and are used on a daily basis, but gathering them all in one place reminds me of the Jamiroquai song – are we living in “virtual insanity”? Are these technologies “useless” and “twisting”? Yeah, I’m a little bit sarcastic about fearmongering technophobia, but at the festival I observed many different reactions – from anxiety about a dystopian future to a feeling of being overwhelmed and bored with technological advancements and the never-ending flow of information. Of course, today’s music communities rely on online media platforms and most of us wouldn’t know about each other without the Internet (which is the core idea of the book entitled “Hearing The Cloud”) and every concert and set requires a sound system, because their quality depends on that. We need technology. Therefore, we can’t and don’t want to bring back the past, even if we are sometimes sentimental about it. But we hardly understand what is happening around us because there is too much of it. Unsound 2018 asks questions about what it takes and means for all of us to be present at a festival which once had the motto “living a dream”, as well as about the festival’s paradox: how can we contribute to the event to make the music scene(s) and the world around us more bearable?

Colin Self, fot. Dominika Filipowicz

This hopeful, yet naive, attitude towards activism manifested itself in many ways. The utopian visions of such authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Donna Haraway, and even Mark Fisher with his idea of “Acid Communism” seemed to be a direct or more hidden source of inspiration for many artists presenting their work at the festival. The most thought-provoking work was Colin Self’s operetta based on Donna Haraway’s 2016 book “Staying with the Trouble…” with a song from his new album entitled “Siblings.” Colin performed with a Polish trio of string players, including Resina, Julia Zietek and Maria Tomala. The whole idea of making an operetta (which was based on Haraway’s vision of world based on i.e. kinship beyond blood ties, and communal composting) with Disney-like songs sung by the choir made up of workshop participants reminded me of Jack Halberstam’s “The Queer Art of Failure”, because, spoiler alert… the whole piece was created to fail. In the middle of the show Self said that they do not want to lie to the public and are confused by the whole thing. They even apologized to Resina and Xchoir and then… continued the performance, which made me even more confused. Some left, some cried. Self also explained that all of this had to happen because they lack the infrastructure of people that taught them how to care about each other. This raises the question of touring with larger projects – how to present an artwork beyond its specific socio-economic context?

Along the same line of thinking, I have to mention Eris Drew – a resident DJ at the Chicago club-institution, Smart Bar, and a co-founder (together with Justin Aulis Long, Sevron, and Sold) of the ritual-like, polysexual party Hugo Ball. Her DJ skills could be best described as “let the music speak for itself”, but her talk with Justyna Stasiowska, a contributor to the Glissando magazine, about the concept behind her party convinced me that it is almost impossible to experience its atmosphere at a festival. I said “almost”, because I wish Drew had more time to share her knowledge about the potential of club culture and to show how it works in practice. But her anecdote about having an epiphany in the car while listening to the drone of the engine was similar to the story told by Phill Niblock, a minimalist composer, jazz photographer, and filmmaker, whose birthday was celebrated with cake at Hotel Forum during the Saturday rave. Just imagine, the biggest sold-out event of the entire festival with the most hyped headliners like Amnesia Scanner, Marie Davidson, and Olof Dreijer from The Knife starts with a two-hour minimalist live act and a screening of the arthouse slow cinema masterpiece, “The Movement of People Working”. Niblock is known for playing sets that last 8 hours, but experiencing 2 hours, or even just 20 minutes of his music in these exceptional circumstances can completely change the whole perception of the event. Attending the performances at Hotel Forum – a venue overcrowded not only with people, but also with sets – is more like flipping through channels or scrolling through a newsfeed than experiencing music (Fisher would call it “depressive hedonia”). This event provided an opportunity to zone out. After almost 2 hours of keeping stimuli to a minimum and listening to the rarely changing frames and clusters, any loud chaotic sounds sounded like they were coming from behind a wall. This psychedelic sensation was produced merely by music (without any drugs), which is what pop-coaching tries to sell as “active meditation” or “mindfulness” but, as one experienced practitioner suggested, it requires only patience, not over-intellectualism. Niblock once said that he starts thinking about what to play only 5 minutes before the concert, without using any specific articulation, not even Just Intonation. At age 85, Niblock travels the world for eight months a year – it proves that he still has plenty of youthful revolutionary energy. I would argue that by inviting Drew McDowall from Coil to play “Time Machines”, the festival contributed to a little revival of drone-like music. Maybe it seems absurd to talk about the revival of a phenomenon whose origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages, but it shows that the buzz generated by festival lineups can also be used for educational purposes. Unsound also brought together another minimalist superstar, Terry Riley, the tuba virtuoso Zdzisław Piernik, and the live performance of Todd Barton and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Music And Poetry Of The Kesh” which reconnected the festival with its experimental side. The program proposed by Unsound is much more accessible than the programs proposed by the two leading contemporary music festivals in Poland, Warsaw Autumn and Sacrum Profanum, and there is nothing wrong about that. The most inspiring thing was to observe how avant-garde techniques like deep listening invaded lighter genres. Or maybe it is just “back to the roots”? However, it should be noted that sounds which tend to be hard for listeners didn’t emerge from concert halls – they were appropriated from other cultures.

Eris Drew, fot. Dominika Filipowicz

This is probably why so many forward-thinking concepts were revealed in the way Unsound consequently promotes consciousness of rhythm in music and searches for its new mutations. Interestingly, another source of inspiration was the Polish scene with its few active footwork producers and a strong representation of percussionists and free-form improvisation artists, like Miłosz Pękala, Adam Gołębiewski, and Teo Olter from the Pokusa jazz band – all of them performed at the festival. These two very different worlds have recently come together – the busiest Polish drummer Hubert Zemler contributed to a compilation with the reinterpretation of footwork by Polish artists and played an intro to RP Boo’s live set at Unsound.

The evolution of footwork – from Chicago’s streets to concert halls – happened thanks to Jlin who is a part of Unsound’s booking agency. A ballet show with Company Wayne McGregor will probably achieve commercial success because the project revealed the pop potential of the genre. Unsound also showcased the Uganda-based label Nyege Nyege, which promotes new genres of electronic dance music from East Africa. Recently, the Nyege Nyege Festival received much attention in Western media, which described a wide range of genres presented at the events. Combining traditional folk music, new technologies, Western house, hip hop, and gabber, the festival became a widely discussed phenomenon. Surely, it’s way too idealistic to think that Eastern African producers will flood European or American clubs, but the growing popularity of such artists as Slikback is real and early adopters of music trends already get it. That means new challenges – some time ago I read press release about Slikback which misspelled his name and gave the wrong country of origin, and it made me realize that this territory is completely unknown to promoters and media. There is a very fine line between white guilt, exoticization, and ignorance. How not to exploit Africa and devastate its environment more than the West already does, as evidenced by a documentary entitled “Welcome To Sodom”,which was shown at the festival?

Drew McDowall & Florence To, fot. Dominika Filipowicz

The awareness about such issues as geopolitics and ecology was always “present” at Unsound, but the 2018 edition is about rethinking activism at its core. In the year that DJs for Palestine is a thing, and many parties and even booking agencies label themselves as feminist, there is some inner reflection about making music business more ethical. Maybe political PR is still PR, so it still has to make a profit, but it seems that the growing popularity of feminism and gender fluidity made it possible for the festival to provide safe spaces during the entire event and to feature a lineup where over 50% of the performances were from female and non-binary artists. There is something very uplifting about that, even for the biggest skeptics. This is especially meaningful in Poland, where sexual harassment, homophobia, and transphobia are the everyday reality – there is an ongoing movement of building spaces that are free of them. Unsound certainly doesn’t provide any “ready-made solutions,” but luckily there were a few panelists who loudly asked what is at all for. I think this is a very good place to start.


* Thanks to Janek from the Mondoj label, whose reaction to Eartheater’s concert inspired the title