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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Lets Active

By Marc Weidenbaum

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — This year’s Activating the Medium Festival began with a pair of mini-marathons on consecutive nights celebrating all manner of sound art. The music ranged from the theatrical to the minimalist, from chains rattling on hard wood to delicate noises pulled from radio waves.

Founded in 1998, the Activating the Medium Festival, now in its seventh year, describes its mission as follows: “to expose and educate new audiences to trans-disciplinary themes explored within the genre of Sound Art.” This year’s events were curated by Randy H.Y. Yau and David Prochaska. Yau is a principal at 23five, the sponsoring non-profit organization.

Both of these two initial nights took place at the SomArts gallery and performance space. The second, on February 7, started with a solo set by Joe Colley, who recently moved to San Francisco from Sacramento. At a time when laptops and digital synthesis command much of the attention in electronic music, Colley tends to work with common stereo equipment, spare parts and raw feedback. He has recorded under the name Povertech, which aptly describes his barebones system, and the evening’s music exemplified his visceral, hands-on approach.

Once the pre-concert music had faded, Colley emerged from backstage and sat himself on a folding chair, the dimmed stage lights exaggerating his long, angular build. He then stood and approached his simple set up, a stack of components on a wheeled cart, from which wires and cords extended. Over the course of half an hour he built a wall of feedback, with static clicks amid rich noise. He tapped a wire into an exposed, oversized speaker cone. As the feedback thickened, Colley took to rocking back and forth, like a pinball wizard, and the music seemed to move with him, matching his nervous energy. He ended the piece by literally pulling the plug. Off went the music, and out went the light that illuminated his equipment. He was economical to the end.

Colley exited stage left and another man entered. Replacing the lanky, casually dressed Colley was Trevor Paglen, an Oakland-based artist, wearing coat and tie. His piece, titled “Listening to Pelican Bay,” used the tools of a corporate presentation to deliver its message. The piece was as much a performance as it was a sound event, taking as its subject the practical concerns of California’s controversial Pelican Bay prison (a notorious location even by the standards of the state’s troubled prison network) as well as the more theoretical issues of privacy and silence.

Directing video sequences from a Windows laptop, and speaking occasionally in a near-monotone, Paglen presented his work as a kind of agit-PowerPoint. He has described it as an “experimental lecture,” and spoke eloquently about silence and its various manifestations, like Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish distilled to an infomercial. Video segments showed the driver’s-eye-view of a trip north from the Bay Area by car, eventually leading to the gates of Pelican Bay. By showing the tape in fast forward, a kind of low-budget Koyaanisqatsi, Paglen highlighted visual patterns, in particular the winnowing car traffic, which narrowed from multi-lane highway to empty country road. He was emphasizing the sense of isolation at the prison, whose own solitary confinement cells are the subject of complaints from human-rights activists. In another sequence, pictures of slaves, graphs of crime statistics, photos of celebrity suspects, like OJ Simpson, and of nameless terrorists urged the audience to extrapolate a general image from the prison’s specifics: America as police state.

Paglen showed a video of a himself attaching hidden microphones to his torso, then played audio in which he solicited surveillance advice on a phone conversation. Occasionally he interrupted his presentation to play stark sounds that, the audience might surmise, were recorded on the sly at the prison. A broader inference was implicit. Silence is the foundation of much electronic music, bringing with it such associations as meditation, peace, and the white walls of gallery space. Paglen however focused on the mind-numbing despair of loneliness, in particular the reality of solitary confinement. He also drew a connection between the affordable technology that has spurred the electronic-music community, and the price we pay for our own security by not questioning the surveillance equipment all around us.

Paglen’s presentation was followed not by another solo performer, but by a trio of sound-making robots designed by Matt Heckert. One pair of machines consisted of short wooden bleachers, maybe 10 feet long, painted in bright, highway-worker orange. Draped along each of a bleacher’s three horizontal planks was a single long chain. When activated, those chains, either in unison or in ear-damaging cacophony, pounded out a simple rhythm, like percussive chamber music performed by Survival Research Labs (of which Heckert is one of the founders). Toward the end of the performance, they pounded so heavily as to fill the space above them with woodchips and dust.

A third machine, center stage, was feminine to the bleachers’ masculine, a hemispherical metal cauldron that rotated. It emitted a more downtempo sound, abetted by a loose chain that dangled from the top of its head. (Attendees who had witnessed the same robot’s performance the previous night reported that this headdress was a new addition.) This third machine moved sensually, like Jabba the Hut’s idea of a Sony Aibo. At times the trio sounded like minimal house music from the Chain Reaction label. At others, perhaps thanks to lingering images from Paglen’s presentation, not to mention of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, the chains sounded like the rhythms of slave music.

Generally speaking, these first three performances of the evening’s five would have been nowhere near as interesting as audio recordings. Colley’s nervous energy and opaque technique, Paglen’s deadly serious demeanor, and Heckert’s wondrous inventions all made for great theater, as well as interesting sound-work.

The second half of the night consisted of two separate duos, and were more like traditional concerts. Solid Eye, from Los Angeles, performed for close to half an hour. The two men produced what amounted to three sound elements, heard in varying combinations: background electronic atmospheres, snippets of prerecorded music and semi-intelligible spoken word, and member Rick Potts’ guitar, which he used for its textural properties, and the neck of which he bent like a piece of fresh licorice.

The final act of the night teamed hometown favorite Thomas Dimuzio with Michael Thomas Jackson, visiting from North Carolina. Dimuzio’s nook of electronics resembled some prog-rock keyboardist’s touring setup, and contrasted with Jackson’s eccentric collection of tools: a clarinet mouthpiece, an AM/FM radio, a tape recorder, an electric razor, a mixer and a kalimba, an African thumb piano, to which he had added a handful of springs. Their half-hour set was delicate, and if it benefited from an attentive audience, it also suffered from occurring at the end of a long and occasionally demanding night. When Colley first appeared, three hours earlier, the crowd was standing-room only. By the time Dimuzio and Jackson started to play, a good quarter of the seats were empty. The lessons to sound art curators were clear: work with an active visual component is compelling; however, one can have too much of a good thing.

The previous night had featured work by Canadian Jean-Francois Laporte and East Bay residents John Bischoff and Kenneth Atchley, in addition to Heckert’s machines. The remaining events in this year’s Activating the Medium festival include a February 20 performances at Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, by Solid Eye and Dimuzio, with works by Aaron Ximm (aka Quiet American); an exhibit from February 6 – 29 of work by Ted Apel at the Cuesta College Fine Arts Gallery; and a March 4 lecture by Heckert at UC Santa Cruz.

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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