Arie Altena

1994–2019: 25 years of Sonic Acts

Arie Altena & Lucas van der Velden


This text was co-written with Lucas van der Velden, using archival research by Victoria Douka-Doukopoulou. It was published in the Sonic Acts book HEREAFTER, 2019.


The first Sonic Acts festival took place a quarter-century ago. Since then, what started out as an attempt to bring electronic dance music and “serious” electronic music closer together has grown into a prominent platform uniting the latest developments in music, art, technology, science, film and related fields and presenting them to a broad audience, driven by curiosity and a critical eye. The history of Sonic Acts mirrors the development of artists’ relationship to technology since 1994. During that time, technology has changed the world in fundamental ways. Along the way, Sonic Acts has shone a spotlight on artists, performances, and artworks that have reflected on those changes and often foreshadowed them.


The first Sonic Acts festival took place on August 18 and 19, 1994, at the live music club Paradiso in Amsterdam. It arose out of a collaboration between the venue and the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, with its Sonology department and Interfaculty of Image and Sound. Sonic Acts aimed to showcase the latest developments in the field known as image and sound, and technological and digital innovations in the interdisciplinary performing arts.

In 1994, with the ascent of house music and the lowering of computer prices, a new generation of musicians and imagemakers began appearing on stage, making live music and visuals using laptops. DJ culture emerged, and artistic practice became concerned with mixing sound and image. The dance music scene took on a visual side, and VJing flourished, eventually giving rise to “live cinema” as a genre in its own right. For the makers in the Sonic Acts scene, the revolutionary music theater of the group Hollandia and its productions of works by artists such as Dick Raaijmakers also served as a major source of inspiration. Around the same time, people in the house, techno and other electronic dance scenes began to discover the work of their predecessors in the field of serious electronic music, which after being pushed into the margins in the 1980s was attracting attention again thanks to electronic dance music. Looking back today, in 2019, this may seem less than surprising, but in the mid-1990s it was fresh and unexpected. Xenakis meets Autechre; Stockhausen meets DJ Spooky.

After CJP Magazine published an article by Minou op den Velde on the experiments in live electronics and new-media art being done by the students in the Sonology and Image and Sound programs at the Royal Conservatoire, Paradiso decided to organize a “festival of sounds and images.” The club was looking for ways to shake up its programming, and then-director Pierre Ballings gave the green light to the development of a festival “in which the experimental composers and sound artists would be confronted with the producers of the new forms of popular electronic music.”

At the time, there were few forums for interdisciplinary and technological experimentation in the Netherlands. The early 1990s also saw the founding of other new-media and electronic art festivals, including Impakt in Utrecht and DEAF in Rotterdam. They started out relatively small and fulfilled a new role in the Dutch art ecosystem, serving as meeting places for artists, an international community of curators, and audience members interested in new developments in technology and art. Sonic Acts struck a chord with makers and audience members who wanted to know what was happening at the intersection where the audiovisual arts, club culture, music theater and serious electronic music and sound art came together. 


The earliest editions of Sonic Acts provided a stage for young artists exploring the creative possibilities of new technology in depth. They experimented with celluloid, video and Amiga computers and performed using new interfaces for making live electronic music, with close links to projects then being developed at STEIM. During the day, there were demonstrations of new instruments and interfaces; in the evenings, serious concerts segued into a nighttime program dominated by the emerging VJ, techno, electro and IDM scene. At the second festival, in 1995, talks and workshops were added to the program; these primarily concerned audio technology, sampling, live electronics, and the history of electronic music. The VPRO broadcasting company’s digital department built the first Sonic Acts website. Among the performers of the early years, standout names include Sensorband (Edwin van der Heide, Zbigniew Karkowski and Atau Tanaka), Autechre, Plaid, Mike Paradinas (performing as µ-ziq), and David Toop, who gave an opening address in 1996 on his book Ocean of Sound. In the early years, performances by Image and Sound students from the Royal Conservatoire were a regular fixture at Sonic Acts; the festival was actually part of the curriculum. Students performed new work, usually under the supervision of artists and theater makers like Paul Koek, Joost Rekveld, Jan Zoet and Edwin van der Heide.

In 1997 the Dutch filmmaker Frank Scheffer used the Sonic Acts formula for  the last installment of his TV documentary series on 20th-century music. The broadcast of Sonic Acts: From Stockhausen to Squarepusher  which features footage recorded at the festival, undoubtedly brought it to the attention of a wider public. It also provided some context for the new developments in music and interdisciplinary arts. The 1997 festival included performances by, or of works by, artists including Karlheinz Stockhausen, DJ Spooky, Panasonic and Merzbow. Whether by coincidence or not, the same edition was the focus of an NPS documentary which aired on Dutch public TV in 1998.

The festival was organized by a constantly changing team, to prevent any formula from arising that could be used in subsequent years. Special attention was paid to the dramaturgy of the programme: evenings of music theater and serious electronic music melted into nights showcasing the latest developments in dance music. Sonic Acts sought to allow different art forms and disciplines to merge in an integrated program rather than presenting the genres separately. Alterations were often made to the space to create a fitting context for a particular work. Standard setups – a stage facing the audience with speakers at either side, a black box with a movie screen at the front – were not unquestioningly deployed. This practice remains characteristic of Sonic Acts: since 1995, it has specialized in custom installations, from multispeaker systems to specially built cinematic environments, with the aim of allowing artistic visions to be manifested to full advantage.


In 1999, a thematic unity became visible in the program for the first time, with a number of performances taking the work of Claudio Monteverdi, the first opera composer, as a point of departure. The 2000 edition marked the first time Sonic Acts had an overarching theme, as expressed in its title: Point-Pixel-Programming. Taco Stolk, Dick Raaijmakers and Vincent Icke gave talks on the subject of the pixel, each from the perspective of his own disciplinary background. Thus did the contours of Sonic Acts in the 21st century emerge: henceforth, it would be a themed festival featuring performances alongside lectures that provided context for the increasingly sophisticated field of digital art, music and culture. That year saw performances by artists from the Raster-Noton label, such as Ivan Pavlov, Frank Brettschneider and Carsten Nicolaï, along with Antye Greie-Fuchs.

The approach taken in 2000 was carried forward in 2001 with the theme The Art of Programming and lectures by the electronic art pioneer Roy Ascott, the artist Casey Reas – who wrote Processing with Stephen Fry – and the musician Robert Henke, who put out the first version of Ableton with Gerhard Behles in 2001. The underlying connection between the various program components was digital-technological culture. A special focus was placed on artists working with computer-generated images and using software tools such as MaxMSP or the then-infamous NATO. For the first time, an extensive festival book was compiled, containing specially commissioned essays and participants’ writings.

The next edition, which took place in 2003, was entitled Sonic Light and took “visual music” as its theme. The programming was expanded to include a weeklong film program, a three-day conference, a small exhibition, and three nights of live performances and light projections at Paradiso in the specially designed “Sonic Light Box.” Sonic Light’s central theme was “the fascination held by artists for the creative possibilities offered by giving musical form to light and space.” The Sonic Acts festivals continued to focus on “music for the eye” – abstract films, light projections, expanded cinema and generative computer visuals – and the spatiality of sound. Sonic Light also paid plenty of attention to historical context, and this would continue to characterize the later festivals. Sonic Light featured screenings of films by people such as Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Bill Etra, John and James Whitney, Stan Brakhage, and Jordan Belson. Speakers at the conference included the computer graphics pioneer Larry Cuba, Bart Vegter, and Golan Levin. Noteworthy performances included those by Naut Humon and Maryanne Amacher, as well as those by Christian Marclay, Lia, and Francisco Lopez. The first performer on the nighttime schedule was 50-year-old Yasunao Tone, who amazed his fellow musicians from the younger generation with his radical glitches and prepared skipping CDs. Next up was breakcore pioneer Venetian Snares, whose mouth fell open during Tone’s set and who felt the need to take things up a notch in his own overwhelming, aggressive live DJ set. It all bore witness to a desire to make music using the fundamentals of electronics and digital technology rather than via slick interfaces.

The 10th Sonic Acts, 2004’s Unsorted, explored the idea of information arts – art forms centered on the concept of information – and provided a taste of the investigations that would take place in the years to follow. Musically, the focus was on artists from the Raster-Noton and Touch labels and on the breakcore scene, with performances by the MIMEO orchestra, Fennesz, Chris Watson and others. In Benjamin Gaulon’s installation RES, located in the Paradiso basement and comprising part of the exhibition, four visitors at a time could make music together using discarded Nintendo game controllers.

In 2006, The Anthology of Computer Art focused on the history of that genre, in “a tribute to the work of the early pioneers.” An impetus had been provided by Casey Reas’s 2004 survey of young computer artists, which revealed that they were barely aware of the work of their early predecessors, like the Whitneys, Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar and Frieder Nake. The book published alongside the festival refocused attention on their pioneering work, while a double DVD spotlighted the work of the new generation. Speakers at the conference included Jasia Reichardt (of the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition, which has since become famous again) as well as Manfred Mohr and Frieder Nake, whose work was on show in the small exhibition. DJ/rupture assembled a musical program that placed noise, grime, breakcore, free improv, and non-Western music in dialogue – prefiguring the post-2016 Progress Bar programs – and Maja Ratkje and Granular Synthesis also performed.


With each successive edition, Sonic Acts grew in terms of both visitor numbers and the scope of its programming. It evolved from a niche event for enthusiasts blending academic music with cutting-edge electronic sounds into a themed festival spotlighting cross-pollinations between art, music, science and technology. While it continued to focus on new developments in interdisciplinary digital art and electronic music, in-depth examination of the context around them – technological advances; the artistic, cultural and social impact of technology; the history of interdisciplinary art – became an increasingly important part of the program. There was deep interest in the artistic possibilities afforded by new and old technologies, the expressive opportunities they offered, and the agency of technology.

The conference eventually became the heart of the festival, attracting speakers including internationally renowned philosophers, scholars and artists. From 2008, a carefully curated exhibition, lasting at least three weeks and examining the festival’s theme, became an integral part of the program. Evenings saw a mix of musical performances, immersive installations and radical audiovisual work. There was a film program, and workshops and master classes enabled a younger generation to learn about the working methods of artists like Pauline Oliveros, C.C. Hennix, and the Vasulkas. The festival book got bigger every year, with more commissioned essays and in-depth artist interviews.

In those years, Sonic Acts regaled visitors with stroboscopic lighting effects, thick fog, non-figurative computer-generated imagery, immersive expanded cinema, spatial manipulations of sound, and plenty of electronic music and noise. Many performances were designed to plunge visitors into an experience that manipulated, tuned, confused, overwhelmed or expanded their senses. Sonic Acts was always deeply interested in the ways art could sharpen and broaden human sensory experience, and in attempts to enable people to experience the invisible or inaudible through the subtle or experimental use of technology.


2008’s The Cinematic Experience focused primarily on new ways of generating such an experience, specifically an immersive one of a type outside the bounds of classical narrative cinema. Cinema was understood as “a physical and psychological audiovisual tool that makes us aware of our sensory system.” A program of immersive environments was put together, taking inspiration from avant-garde films and Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome project. The conference included panels with titles like “The Dream Machine,” “The Defeat of Time,” and “Perception and Illusion.” There were audiovisual performances with celluloid film and digital video by artists such as Bruce McClure, Ken Jacobs, Ryoichi Kurokawa and Ulf Langheinrich. The Drone People, a collective made up of Stephen O’Malley, C. Spencer Yeh, Mika Vainio and others, filled Paradiso with a drone lasting four hours. And on the Sunday night at Paradiso, the Acousmomium – a groundbreaking loudspeaker orchestra developed by François Bayle at GRM in Paris in 1974 – was installed and work by Eliane Radigue and others performed on it. The exhibition, held at NIMK, showcased work by artists including Kurt Hentschläger and Julien Maire.

The 13th festival, 2010’s The Poetics of Space, investigated the notion of spatiality in art and music. The opening program featured field recordings and spatial electronic music by artists including Annea Lockwood, Hildegard Westerkamp and Jakob Kirkegaard. Anthony McCall’s classic work Light Describing a Cone was installed to perfection in Paradiso. Makino Takashi’s Still in Cosmos was a highlight of the film program. Audiovisual works were performed in the planetarium at Artis zoo; one was PlayThing by Maryanne Amacher, who had died shortly before the festival. The conference program, exhibition, film program and performance lineup were so packed that it’s almost impossible to keep listing highlights – there are simply too many (Naut Humon, Branden Joseph, Robert Whitman, Annea Lockwood, HC Gilje, Paul Prudence, Keith Rowe, Fred Worden, Haswell & Hecker, Lis Rhodes, Yutaka Makino...). This edition of Sonic Acts enjoyed a publicity coup: the daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad devoted almost its entire cultural supplement to the festival.

In 2012, with Travelling Time, the festival focused on the experience of temporality. In format and scope it was comparable to the 2010 edition. Noteworthy events on the agenda included a reading by George Dyson on computer time, a concert by C.C. Hennix’s Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage – more or less her first in more than 20 years, and featuring Hilary Jeffrey and Robin Hayward in the ensemble – and performances by Ellen Fullman, with the Long String Instrument; Pauline Oliveros (who also gave a talk and a workshop); and Keith Fullerton Whitman.

The Dark Universe in 2013 looked to cosmology and physics for inspiration and took theories of dark matter and dark energy as a point of departure. Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s freq_out project, featuring artists including Jana Winderen, appeared on the program, as did Gert-Jan Prins and Bas van Koolwijk’s Synchronator Orchestra, and conference speakers included Nobel Prize winner Gerard ’t Hooft, astronomer Raphael Bousso, Saskia Sassen and Keller Easterling. The art exhibition included installations by the likes of Matthijs Munnik, Ivana Franke, Félicie d’Estienne d’Orves and Matthew Biedermann.


Driven by an inquisitive attitude, curiosity, interest in the subject matter, and close friendships with artists and musicians, in spite of cultural-economic and political opposition, the Sonic Acts festival continued to grow in terms of its number of venues, programming scope, and visitor figures. The organizers' interest in the field and close involvement with the performers’ practice led to a desire to commission more work. Sonic Acts thus gradually evolved into an independent platform for research, commissioning, and international collaboration that curated a festival on the side, showcasing new developments taking place at the crossroads of art, music, technology and science. A vast international network was built, and Sonic Acts curated three editions of the Kontraste Festival in Austria between 2011 and 2013. Collaborative projects with the Stedelijk Museum and the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ took shape. The Vertical Cinema project, which can be regarded as an investigation into different ways of experiencing the cinematic image, began: a setup was developed for vertically projecting 35mm celluloid film, and 16 new works were made for it by artists including Rosa Menkman, Esther Urlus, Makino Takashi and Susan Schuppli and shown internationally. Sonic Acts also initiated the research and commissioning project Dark Ecology (2014–2016), which led to three research trips in the Norwegian-Russian border area (to Kirkenes, Nikel and Murmansk) and the development and presentation of more than 20 new works. Inspired by the ideas of thinkers such as Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour, Dark Ecology addressed the intertwinement of ecology and technology in the context of climate change and looked at how art might help to shape new kinds of relationships between human beings and the earth. New works included a soundwalk made by Justin Bennett at the Kola Superdeep Borehole, a video installation by Signe Lidén, and an infrasound installation by Raviv Ganchrow. Many Dark Ecology works were shown at festivals in Amsterdam. 

Sonic Acts’ master classes and workshops were successful and greatly valued by the participants. Education and talent development were becoming increasingly important to the organization. It had always been closely involved in young makers’ practice, and it wanted to do more to help develop emerging talent. Because the festival had grown into a large-scale event showcasing new, often international productions, the smaller Sonic Acts Academy was set up in 2016 to focus more on artistic research, experimentation and talent development. It worked closely with leading art schools; in 2018 these included Utrecht University and Goldsmiths, University of London.


In 2015, the festival took place under the title The Geologic Imagination. This time, the emphasis shifted to ecology and theories of the Anthropocene. The programming was driven by a searching interest in cultural and social transformations caused in part by technological progress. If in the 1990s Sonic Acts’ starting point was often a desire to investigate the new possibilities technology presented for art, in the second decade of the 21st century the starting point was a socially oriented interest in real-world problems, which subsequently found form in art via the experimental use of technological tools. The focus no longer lay primarily on the new worlds and experiences that new technology made possible but on the relationship between technology and current social, ecological and political problems. Key factors were, on the one hand, an increased awareness of how both politics and human behavior are shaped by technological protocols and, on the other hand, the impact of climate change. The Geologic Imagination featured talks by Timothy Morton, Graham Harman, Jananne Al-Ani and Jana Winderen; performances by Florian Hecker, Espen Sommer Eide, Karen Gwyer, BJ Nilsen and Karl Lemieux; and installations by Raviv Ganchrow and Mario de Vega.

Since 2016, Sonic Acts has organized Progress Bar nights throughout the year, showcasing the off-mainstream musical and visual culture of a new generation of makers from diverse cultural backgrounds. The festivals also feature a Progress Bar program. Progress Bar calls itself “a political party you can dance to”, blending a club night with talks, interviews and discussions on urgent political and social issues. It gives young makers a venue, fosters new connections, and seeks to promote cultural diversity. The talks and performances celebrate the new political consciousness of the young generation.

In 2017, things continued in the same vein as The Geologic Imagination, but with attention focused this time on the question of what exactly the “human” is against the backdrop of the Anthropocene and a human-machine relationship that is rapidly being altered by big data and AI. The Noise of Being drew more than 10,000 visitors to events at locations like the Stedelijk Museum, the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, Paradiso, and De Brakke Grond, including an excursion to the St. Jansklooster in Overijssel to witness a new work by Signe Lidén and Espen Sommer Eide. The Stedelijk hosted an ambitious performance of Maryanne Amacher’s Mini Sound Series by the New York composers’ collective Supreme Connections. There was an opening program of Vertical Cinema films. Conference speakers included Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, Nina Power, Ben Russell, Wendy Chun and Eyal Weizman. There was a comprehensive schedule of films, and performing artists included JK Flesh, Kara-Lis Coverdale, Jennifer Walshe with the Arditti Quartet, Le1f, Evian Christ and Christina Vantzou. The Wire described the festival as “triggering the imagination necessary for an urgent debate.”


In 2019, the Sonic Acts festival continues to function as a stage for young talent, new voices, cutting-edge productions and forgotten artists. Out of a deep interest in the complex connections between art and science, the festival has become a place of research. Through the years, research, following personal interests, and sticking close to interdisciplinary, technology-based art practice have remained essential touchstones for Sonic Acts. Its roots lie in digital and technological culture, and from those roots stems an interest in an expanded field of historical and contemporary interdisciplinary art forms, including film and music, that refuse to be pigeonholed. Sonic Acts always proceeds on the assumption that art and science inform our view of the world, connect us to it, and give it meaning. Art and science meet in their enthusiasm for experimentation and investigation. The role of art is not to supply answers or practical solutions but to formulate questions, to experiment, and to make visible things that are not visible of their own accord. Art is an attempt to imagine the impossible, and in doing so, it sets out down new, uncharted paths. The work that Sonic Acts commissions and presents asks us to spend more time thinking about the essential questions of our time and provides space for critical reflection and wonder.

Social themes have a stronger, more self-evident hold on art’s attention in 2019 than they did in 1994. This is even more true for the technological arts, and therefore for Sonic Acts. The disruptive influence of technology affects us all, and thanks to events like WikiLeaks and the Cambridge Analytica affair, the understanding that technological issues are always political is widespread. Art cogently shows us the dark side of technology and its disastrous effects on society and ecology. Artists feel compelled by social and technological changes to investigate causes and consequences and look for space for alternatives. Much of what was brand-new and not yet codified in 1994 is now commonplace – working with technology, with software, and with one’s own combinations of soft- and hardware; installation art; performing with laptops hooked up to one’s own input and output sources; linking media to data; mixing audio streams. The early explorations of 1994 – into the aesthetics of interaction, of generative art, of image-and-sound work, of music made on laptops – are familiar themes today. But in 2019 technology-based art is no longer just about challenging our understanding of audiovisual experience, exploring human-machine interaction or experimenting with new technology; it is also, and first and foremost, about investigating the social repercussions of technologies and their impact on everyday life in a world mired in neoliberalism and neocolonialism and threatened by the rise of a new fascism, even as climate change compels us to make fundamental changes. Experimentation is perhaps even more important today than it was 25 years ago. We need innovative ideas, radically different visions, and an activation of audiences’ imaginations.

So what’s changed over the past 25 years in the relationship between technology and art? We can turn to the history of Sonic Acts for an answer. In brief, art has evolved from focusing on the possibilities new technologies offer for art itself (Sonic Acts in 1994) to asking questions about how technological apparatuses are fundamentally altering human beings, society and the world (Sonic Acts in 2019). There has been a shift in interest from the technological aspects of art to art that holds out a vision of ecological and technological transformation, that activates our imaginations and offers proposals for a radical rearrangement of the world, society, and our idea of humanity. 

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Arie Altena