Presence Tense: Unsound Krakow Reviewed

John Doran and Luke Turner consider the theme of presence at the peerless Unsound festival in Krakow

House Of Kenzo by Theresa Baumgartner

The etymological root of the word presence comes from the mid-14thC French, “présence” and it means exactly what you would imagine. It refers to someone or something being at hand. A noteworthy lexical floration happens in the 16th century however, when the term starts to blossom; it refers, in less concrete terms, to someone’s “carriage, demeanour or aspect”, especially if that happens to be impressive. And then, unfurling even further into the abstract, from about 1660 onwards, the term finally gains the psychological and spiritual overtones we might associate with it today. All of these various linguistic staging posts get noted, ingested, chewed up and spat back out at the audience during several extremely invigorating performances at the austere, bordering on antiseptic, ICE Kraków Congress Centre at this year’s UNSOUND festival.

I like this huge, modern venue. It looks like an alien spacecraft has landed in the middle of Kraków and is now draining water from the Vistula in order to charge the cold fusion thunder cannons with which it will vaporise the imposing, Communist-era Forum Hotel complex and pretty tourist magnet, the Wawel Castle. Such are its hard lines and exquisitely angled sweeping staircases that it seems almost problematically art-phobic. Artists charged with performing here should worry. It must feel like they are on trial the second they enter its extravagance of unused space bound in gigantically by glass and steel and computer generated curves and plains.

Luckily for Unsound, Texan performance art group/killer ballroom collective House Of Kenzo don’t seem to give a fuck. One dancer is isolated stage left in an invisible cage of motion capture cameras (observed, overseen, processed by video artist Sam Rolfes) with her outline echoing out across (and in and out of) the rich visual cacophony resplendent on the screen at the rear of the stage. It’s too much to process at first. It’s like Zoolander on acid. (And I mean that literally, for once.) Then three more HOK dancers appear on stage, chewing gum like badasses, glaring at the crowd, throwing aggressive, sexualised shapes at all and sundry as the DJ, Rabit, develops the soundtrack. The Texan producer takes us from pristine, expensive sounding crackling ambiance into punchy sino grime and tough-edged ballroom. And before you have time to think, “Hold on, Zoolander on acid actually sounds like the greatest idea ever…” the three peripatetic dancers are off the stage charging through the crowd like they inhabit a higher plain of existence, carving out patterns that are only observable from the God perspective, knocking punters flying as they go. They clear a space in the middle of the crowd and assemble a short, temporary catwalk, taking it turns to vogue on it, the performances keeping lockstep with the digital film and the DJ set. Some clothes are lost. Some minds are blown. Certainly, mine is. ICE might be the arena for showpiece, international, statement ‘Art’ at Unsound but Rabit’s set bangs so hard I feel momentarily sorry for all of the DJs who have to perform later that night on the other side of the river at the Hotel Forum nightclub complex. I enjoy the show so much I don’t have the presence of mind to Shazam the closing song of their set. It feels like it is lasting forever, I sort of wish it would. (If anyone can ID the track, I’d appreciate it.)

Immediately afterwards in the modernist airhanger foyer I see a group of delighted nuns clapping their hands and chattering intensely to one another. “Only in Kraków!” I think to myself before realising that they have just poured out of a different theatre in the same complex and haven’t been watching the future iteration of multimedia ballroom-leaning performance art but have been attending an awards ceremony for hardworking Polish doctors which has also just ended. That’s right you nuns! I feel sorry for anyone who has to follow this! Even though obviously, Jlin and the Wayne McGregor dance company do follow it with studied ease.

Jlin And The Company Wayne McGregor by Michał_Ramus

Autobiography isn’t Jlin’s third album strictly speaking but it is a worthy companion piece to Dark Energy and Black Origami regardless. When experienced in the context of a dance performance, however, you can sense a different kind of structural dynamic in play. Members of the British choreographer’s company appear onstage as solo dancers at first, then in pairs, building up to a massed routine of fiendish complexity as they interact like cogs in a mastercrafted timepiece. “Aggressive physicality… one event is preceded by another” intones a disembodied British voice during the track ‘Unorthodox Elements’ as the dancers appear ready to all but fight one another, the stage transformed into an arena of creative resistance and ritualised sublimated violence. And, if anyone in attendance has been worried about the sonic impact of the performance (the venue not being a club and all), they are surely reassured by the time sonic battle weapon ‘The Abyss Of Doubt’ is pointed directly at them and discharged creating waves of bass face, rolling through the venue. Dancers, choreographer and producer alike receive a thoroughly deserved, epic standing ovation.

But if berserk maximalism and clear-sighted innovation are strategies with which to fight back against the austerity of ICE, another is one of complete psychic overwhelm until retreat into the interior is the only rational response. Electronic musician Drew McDowall and visual artist Florence To simply outgun the conscious brain’s ability to resist and cope, during their interpretation of Coil’s Time Machines. It would be easy to damn this work with faint praise or criticise the artists for just doing something laughably simple, after all, To is only creating a shifting (but essentially lo-fi) visual field of straight lines, which switches around about the halfway mark to undulating pointilist waves, while McDowall is only marshalling repetitive, heavy modular pulses and drones. But this is the psychedelic experience in excelsis. And you could make the same duff criticism of, say, SunnO))) or Om. Transportative, transcendent, profound, moving, exciting and almost nearly impossible to stay completely awake during, such is its hypnogogic, hypnotic siren-like succour, this nearly wipes me out for good. But then, standing on a crumbling cliff edge, so very close to slipping into the void I realise that only at my most absent am I at my most present.
John Doran

Drew McDowall and Florence To by Dominika Filipowicz

“In forests we see very little but hear everything” says Chris Watson introducing Foris, his installation that features a half hour mix of recordings made in seven forests across five continents. The playback takes place in a bright white room in an old railway yard in the north of central Krakow, with lamps shining through dry ice and a sweet scent floating through the air, commissioned by Unsound for their Ephemera series of perfumes. This almost chemistry lab atmosphere curiously enhances the sound which, as ever with Watson’s work, is not some sentimentalised interpretation of ‘nature’, but full of abrasive clicks, drones, howls and snaps. From the pristine clarity of Foris we’re ushered out around to the end of the goods shed and down a set of iron stars for Polish artist Mirosław Bałka’s a,e,i,o,u installation. Ahead stretches a long subterranean corridor, arches heading off into the gloom, cell-like chambers on either side. Dogs bark. They slaver, sound violent, purposeful, horrific and, as you walk down into the dank stench of the gloomy building, become ever more vicious and disorientating. The space becomes a dungeon, a camp, a deportation centre and as the last of my companions vanishes into the darkness, a panicked rush floods through my system. Bałka’s deeply ominous work feels timely, in the sense that it’s the sort of place that your mind summons from history to make dark predictions of the future in those difficult moments when sleep won’t come. Yet the contrast between a,e,i,o,u and Foris isn’t as stark as it might initially seen. There’s a blurring between the two, an unsettling shadow of what it means to be a modern human.
Luke Turner

Foris by Helena Majewska

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