Arie Altena

Report about The Noise of Being

A shortish report touching on some of the highlights of the 2017 Sonic Acts Festival, written by a biased insider

Arie Altena

I wrote this report of the Sonic Acts Festival 2017 The Noise of Being immediately after the festival was finished. It was published on the blog of Sonic Acts. I was a biased insider as I was involved with the festival, mostly on the communication and writing of subsidy applications. You can also read the text, illustrated with photos and video's at

The Sonic Acts festival opened on Thursday, 23rd February at the Paradiso with a full evening of Vertical Cinema films, but it had actually already started three weeks earlier on the 1st of February. That Wednesday about 60 people convened at the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ to travel by coach to St. Jansklooster, 100 kilometres from Amsterdam, the heart of the nature reserve ‘De Wieden’. There, Signe Lidén and Espen Sommer Eide had developed Vertical Studies, a vertical soundscape in the old, 46-metre-tall water tower. The audience, spread out over the spiral staircase inside the tower, experienced a performance with sounds that slowly ascended the tower, and using environmental sounds, took full advantage of the specific characteristics and possibilities of the architecture. The piece was performed several times over the next three weeks, each time with many attentive visitors.

Back in Amsterdam Jana Winderen’s new sound piece Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone opened at the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ. Outside on the terrace, by the waterside, an array of speakers played a precise composition of field recordings made in the Arctic during the brief plankton bloom in Spring – ecologically a very important event for Earth. Shrieks of seagulls blend in with the sounds of seals, cracking ice, fish, and underwater sounds. Jana Winderen was present and explained her work on the piece over the past two years, and what motivated her – also politically – to make it.

That same evening the exhibition The Noise of Being opened in Arti. Five rooms, each with a room-filling installation, each with its own atmosphere, all meticulously produced. Five works by Justin Bennett, Pinar Yoldas, Kate Cooper, Joey Holder, and Zach Blas. Kitty AI by Pinar Yoldas, who uses an Internet or post-Internet aesthetic for her design fictions, might have been the favourite of the younger visitors. Joey Holder’s large installation, which felt like a hospital room, provoked the most questions from the audience. Justin Bennett’s fictional narrative of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Wolf Lake on the Mountains – a remake in installation format of the soundwalk he presented earlier in the year at the Superdeep Borehole near Zapolyarnye in Northwest Russia – seemed to be the overall favourite. Over the weeks I heard many people talking about it enthusiastically. (But that might have been just my friends…) The opening was packed, which meant that probably not all the visitors could enjoy the works fully, as each work demanded and deserved attention and time. Many came back over the next three weeks.

So the festival had already begun prior to the opening. On the 8th of February during Taste the Doom I heard a great concert by Eisbein, with Gert-Jan Prins on drums and electronics, and BJ Nilsen playing field recordings; a week later we had an ‘evening with Joey Holder’. Yet, despite all these pre-activities, the opening at the Paradiso truly felt like the opening. (With some added stress for the Sonic Acts team as a storm raged over Western Europe causing many flights to be delayed, and some cancelled. But everyone did make it in time). The opening: a full house for the première of four new Vertical Cinema films, commissioned by Sonic Acts (and partner organisations). With a vertical science documentary on the meteorological research facility in Cabauw by Susan Schuppli, featuring the dizzying perspective of drone footage of the 300-metre-tall tower; a film on the urban and industrial landscape of Murmansk by Lukas Marxt; Karl Lemieux and BJ Nilsen’s almost abstract meditation on empty cities in China; and phenomenal abstract colour play by HC Gilje in his vertical film. The evening continued with Rainer Kohlberger, Roly Porter with MFO, and a screening of two earlier Vertical Cinema films.

As before, this festival was probably more ambitious than the previous edition. For sure it was more ambitious in terms of night programming: three nights this time, and by night I mean after midnight. The first one was on Thursday at De School, located in a former school building far from the city centre in Amsterdam-West. (Conforming to the trend where new and adventurous culture finds a home in the periphery, not in the city centre). My highlight here was the Emptyset performance, which I enjoyed immensely once I started to listen to them as if they were a two-man noise metal band – which they are in a sense. It had been a long day and I only stayed for about 10 minutes of Violence, and not for Aisha Devi and JK Flesh.

On Friday the conference kicked-off with a lecture by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi about cultural and political aspects of the face and the covering of the face. Very poignant, nuanced, not offering any simplified solution to any simplified problem. This was followed by Metahaven’s presentation that – though it was very strong and timely – seemed to be ensnared in the issue (timeline occupation by fake news and extreme distraction) it tried to analyse. But maybe that was the point. Erica Scourti performed living in a social media temporality. In the afternoon sessions, Nina Power, Isabell Lorey, and Peter Frase discussed the paradoxes of capitalism, and possible ways to escape from capitalist domination (either in a social or political sense). The first full conference day ended with John Palmesino (on some of the paradoxes of the Anthropocene) and Nathasha Ginwalla. There was an interesting film programme running partly parallel to the conference which I alas missed completely. (I would have loved to see Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s SF documentary Homo Sapiens).

The readout on the counter said: 1354. That’s how many visitors came to the Stedelijk Museum on Friday evening for a full programme of concerts and performances. I decided to start by listening to the first episode of Supreme Connections’ re-interpretation of Maryanne Amacher’s Mini-Sound Series. This was a recreation of an Amacher work, or better, an iteration of how Amacher might have approached making a new work at the Stedelijk, using visual and sounds materials from her archive. Amy Cimini, Keiko Prince, Woody Sullender, Sergei and Stefan Tcherepnin, Kabir Carter, and Bill Dietz – all former collaborators and friends of Amacher – worked in the auditorium and the cellar for more than a week to create this work. The overall effect was very moving, especially because of the way the sounds interacted with the architecture: creating strange and beautiful pockets of sound with physical and emotional impact. All the performers were dressed-up, as if they were channelling Maryanne Amacher. I stayed until the end of the first episode, which meant I was way too late to get into the performance of Jennifer Walshe’s Everything is Important with none other than the Arditti Quartet. I heard it was great and one of the best events at the festival. I also missed Jennifer Walshe’s second performance. I love Microtub’s work, but having heard them before I just dipped into their exploration of microtonality for a few minutes: that room was also packed. I decided to forget about trying to hear everything and simply experience the second episode of the Mini-Sound Series instead, going from the auditorium to the cellar a few times, and revisiting some of my favourite sound spots. The only other performance I caught was Cilantro, subtle free improv noise by Billy Roisz and Angélica Castelló.

The night hadn’t ended. Not at all. In fact, in retrospect it seems as if it had only just begun. From 11 pm, Paradiso hosted the Progress Bar with a truly incredible line-up of very contemporary ‘Internet dance music’: wild, diverse and hybrid in all respects. Progress Bar is a series of club nights that has been running for a while now at the Tolhuistuin – and with this XL-edition it has definitely put itself on the map as the most forward-looking club night in Amsterdam. I needed to be fresh for the conference the next morning, so I regret missing out on Nidia Minaj, DJ Earl and Kamixlo – who I would have loved to hear live – but at least I was there for the wild set by My Sword, the show by Flohio, and I did stay till the end of Le1f’s performance which so-to-say ‘blew the roof’ off the Paradiso. The diversity of Progress Bar – with so many genres and cultures in the mix – made it a true party. And that as such is a political statement as well.

On Saturday I had two panels to moderate at de Brakke Grond, the venue for the conference. I’ll only briefly mention that I was very happy to see how well Sarah Whatmore’s practical approach to political potency connected to the more philosophical talks by Rick Dolphijn and David Roden. Many people left towards the end of the panel, but this was because they wanted to see Fabrizio Terranova’s documentary about Donna Haraway, which started at 12.00 sharp. Though we hadn’t been able to convince Haraway to speak at Sonic Acts, her ideas were very present at the conference, and the room where the film was shown was completely packed, with many sitting on the floor. After lunch Erika Balsom powerfully and polemically called for a rehabilitation of observation in documentary film, in a world where fake news proliferates. She was followed by Ben Russell, whose films were also screened in the film programme. Helen Verran forced the audience to slow down with her oral account of cultural difference and the encounter with others. At first, this felt a bit irritating – in times of speedy Powerpoints and snappy presentations – but was very effective. Through nuanced repetitions she stressed the respectfulness of the encounter with the other and experimented with negotiating cultural and linguistic difference. The last panel of the day was with Noortje Marres, Jennifer Gabrys, Wendy Chun, and Armen Avanessian. This seemed like a strange combination, with Avanessian, who is often identified as an accellerationist, paired with the political philosophy of Noortje Marres, Jennifer Gabrys, and Wendy Chun’s critical media theory, but it worked. Chun’s talk was most powerfully delivered, and examined the erasure of difference – leading to racism – at the core of network theory. Noortje Marres spoke about street trials and self-driving cars, Jennifer Gabrys about practical experiments in political participation using sensing networks, and Armen Avanessian about the temporality of our ‘postcontemporary times’.

In the evening the festival changed its location to the beautiful Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, with a night programme at the Bimhuis. To be honest, by now my head was filled with so many impressions and new ideas that I didn’t feel ready for more, and I decided to ‘take it easy’. I only caught the last 10 minutes of Pierce Warnecke and Matthew Biederman’s audiovisual performance, which was a wonderful ‘classic Sonic Acts work’: electronic music and abstract imagery with a powerful effect on the senses. I was very curious to hear Kara-Lis Coverdale: there was a lot that I found interesting musically, or in terms of composition. For instance, the way she juxtaposed live organ with pure electronic sounds. Sometimes it sounded like music without any reference. Musically it was my highlight of the evening. I did stay longer, even until after midnight, catching a bit of MSHR’s performance with self-built noise machines, and the no-wave of Yeah You at the Bimhuis (great atmosphere), but as I wrote: my head was already full.

As usual, the conference on Sunday started early in the morning – early for a Sunday, that is – with presentations by two artists who were part of the exhibition in Arti, Zach Blas and Pinar Yoldas, who provided a lot of background to their works. The talks by Daniel Rourke, Ytasha Womack, and Laurie Penny were about speculative fiction, SF, and the imagination: Daniel Rourke zoomed in on monsters, Ytasha Womack celebrated the imagination of Afrofuturism, and Laurie Penny took a powerful feminist stance against the proliferation of misogynistic new fascists (largely based on her piece ‘Fear of a Feminist Future’, published last year in The Baffler). I missed out on the Q&A and the last panel of the conference (with Jamon van den Hoek, Ingrid Burrington and Eyal Weizman) because I had to introduce the film Hyperstition and do the Q&A with Armen Avanessian afterwards. It was definitely a day that was very much about today, and – like the entire conference – about understanding what it means to be human, now.

The final event of the festival was a celebration of the composer and musician Martin Bartlett, whose work remained obscure during his lifetime, and also afterwards. Luke Fowler made a documentary film about him, Electro Pythagorus: A Portrait of Martin Bartlett. The film was commissioned by Sonic Acts and the Stedelijk, and premièred at the Brakke Grond. I love the portraits that Luke Fowler makes of musicians and composers, and this one was no exception: a careful consideration of Bartlett’s life and legacy. The evening was also a rare opportunity to hear Martin Bartlett’s music, both in the film, and as mixed by Ernst Karel afterwards: a curious and interesting type of computer music that to my surprise sometimes did sound ahead of its time (considering it was composed in the 1980s and early 1990s). Fowler discussed the film and Bartlett with Amy Cimini. A double 16mm projection was also shown with sound by Richard McMaster, and then the festival was over. (Save for an afterparty, an occasion to catch up some more with old and new friends).

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Arie Altena