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REVIEW: Kontraste (Krems) – The Best Festival of 2012

We took some time thinking about this, but the conclusion seems unavoidable: even though this year has not yet drawn to a close, we would like to declare the Kontraste Festival in Krems (12–14 October 2012) by far and away the best festival of 2012.
In 2012 the curatorial team of Amsterdam’s Sonic Acts festival compiled a programme for the Kontraste festival held in the beautiful Austrian town of Krems for the second time. Their efforts once again resulted in a wonderful festival in terms of artistic content, organisation, culinary delights and social interaction.

Electric Shadows

Yolanda Uriz Elizalde
Yolanda Uriz Elizalde

Krems has 23,000 inhabitants and is situated in a region (Wachau) about 80 kilometres from Vienna that is included on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites. The city is home to remarkable churches and is open to and provides a striking amount of space for (avant-garde) art. During the festival the local Kunsthalle exhibited a retrospective of Francis Picabia, the French (Cubist, Dadaist and Surrealist) painter, poet and typographer. The former, thirteenth-century Minorite church, once part of a monastery, was secularised in the eighteenth century, and since 1992 has been a place where sound art is exhibited (Klangraum Krems). An adjoining building was converted into the Kunstraum Stein exhibition space.

The theme of the festival was ‘Electric Shadows’. Humans can only perceive a very limited range of frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. Our eyes only ‘see’ ‘visible’ light (and not infrared or ultraviolet), our hearing is limited to perceiving between 20 Hz and 20 kHz, and so forth. The curatorial team wanted ‘Electric Shadows’ to be ‘a journey through the electromagnetic spectrum’.
This was achieved by linear programming (films and lectures during the day, music and projections during live performances in the evenings, all neatly combined and sequenced with sufficient time between events), with the opportunity to participate in several soundwalks for the duration of the festival. The installations were accessible throughout the festival period (Friday 12 to Sunday 14 October).


The lectures on Saturday by Simon Ings, Raviv Ganchrow and an interview with Semiconductor in the cinema Kino im Kesselhaus on the the Kremser University campus (once the location of the the Österreichischen Tabakregie factories), were very well attended, despite the glorious summer weather.
In his somewhat messy presentation entitled ‘What Colour Is the Moon’, Simon Ings, author of, among others, the novels The Weight of Numbers (2006) and Dead Water (2010), the non-fiction book The Eye: A Natural History (2007), and editor of Arc, a magazine that explores the future through cutting-edge science fiction and forward-looking essays, emphasised the urgent need for space travel (because we have ruined our planet), and what it could mean and involve for observations of the universe. It was a pleasant enough story, more Utopian than practical – and it’s such a pity that the majority of the global population is so far removed from his suggestions….

Raviv GanchrowIn his lecture Raviv Ganchrow discussed his search for a suitable location for his installation Play. He used words, images and sounds, making it a very lively lecture that drew listeners into his discourse about the pros and cons of various sites and the possibilities or impossibilities presented by different locations in Krems’ (spacious) surroundings.
Next, Arie Altena interviewed Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt of Semiconductor about their choices for and how they created some of their films such as Brilliant Noise, Heliocentric and Magnetic Movie. Brilliant Noise is a beautiful ‘compilation’ of found black-and-white footage of the sun (including spectacular eruptions) from the archives of scientific research institutes, accompanied by a soundtrack consisting of radio frequencies and additional audio manipulations.
Heliocentric used an ingenious set-up of images and ‘astronomical tracking’ to prove that the Earth really does revolve around the sun, by constantly keeping the sun static at the centre of the image while the surroundings kept on moving around it. Magnetic Movie – a cinematic representation of the electromagnetic fields in our living and working environments – was actually intended as an art (joke). Apparently, it was so convincing that scientists asked the duo some serious questions about the veracity of the images and the possibility of Semiconductor doing something similar for them.


Peter Kubelka – Adeb

The first part of the three-part film programme followed, under the overarching theme of ‘Shadowplay’. Besides the powerful and now more than 25-year-old work Surface Tension by William Raban and, to a lesser extent, Peter Kubelka‘s famous Adebar (and despite names like Iimura, Becks and Lebrat), this was not such a strong beginning to the film programme, largely because of the lack of urgency and mediocre development of ideas.
The film programme on Sunday was more coherent and much stronger (although it was a bit too long, leaving too little time to eat before the evening programme began). The theme of the second programme was the ‘Dark Side of the Sun’, with some (very) powerful films from Mika Taanila (The Zone of Total Eclipse, 2006), Peter Tscherkassy (Outer Space, 1999), Phil Solomon (Nocturne, 1980) and especially Manuel Knapp (Voidov ~ State of Obliteration, 2012), where the images (black and white, with constantly mutating geometric figures and shifting blocks and lines) and sound (noise, drones, and subtle elaborations on these) interacted superbly.

Makino Takashi‘s Makino Takashi’s The Intimate Stars, a compilation of short, poetic films made between 2002 and 2004, and based on images of nature, was – also because of it being a compilation – just a little too long to be engaging.
The third part of the film programme, ‘Distant Planets’, was about unknown worlds and secret, hidden places. The best works in this section came from Jennifer Reeves (Landfill, 2011, 16’00) and Jeanne Liotta (Observando el Cielo, 2007, although at 19 minutes, a bit too long as well). Alexander Steward’s Crusts (2011), impressive but also on the long side, combined psychedelic imagery of natural artifacts with a drone soundtrack.


The overarching theme of the soundwalks was ‘Probing Acoustic and Electromagnetic Waves’. Justin Bennett’s Spectral Analysis used a series of audible resonances as the starting point of an hour-long walk through Krems’ medieval centre, with five stops at selected locations. The resonances were (mostly) caused by the interplay between the size, bulk, contours and material used in the streets, buildings, squares, courtyards, arcades and underpasses. These were combined with typical city sounds such as church bells, a car starting, or the sound of steel on steel from a workshop.
Bennett’s theoretical roots for this project lie with lesser known researchers and discoverers of specific radiation phenomena, including Heinrich Herz, Nikola Tesla, Winfried Otto Schumann, Franz Anton Mesmer and Ernst Hartmann. At one of the stops, in a courtyard, Bennett also incorporated resonances from the area in the (sound) spectrum that is inaudible to humans such as the Schumann resonances in the extremely low frequency portion (7.86 Hz) of the Earth’s electromagnetic field spectrum.

Small and intimate, Piaristen Park was another beautiful stop on this walk. Bennett let participants hear the sound of skin tension changing because of frequency fluctuations in the electromagnetic field and in ground currents. Each spot thus became a place where theory and practise merged, with a ‘soundtrack’ full of sounds and resonances specific to each place. Not every place was necessarily very exciting, but the complete experience – the collection of five stories and soundtracks – was well worth the walk.

Walking with sound

The walk by the British trio Duncan Speakman, Sarah Anderson and Emilie Grenier, aka Circumstance (title: There was always our Voice) was primarily a group activity that initially appeared to be somewhat dull and simplistic, but eventually produced beautiful effects: groups of six walked through the beautiful medieval city centre, carrying a square sound box (including a GPS tracker)Every few hundred yards a person from each group was asked to stand still while the others continued walking until everyone had a designated location. After a particular sound was emitted by the box participants began looking for each other, using the creaks and squeaks produced by the sound box as a guide. The interaction between the (autonomous sound-producing) boxes was especially beautiful, sometimes prompting frowns, an occasional smile or even a curious question from shoppers and passersby.
Netherlands-based, American artist Raviv Ganchrow installed his installation Play approximately eight kilometers from Krems in two service tunnels adjacent to a car tunnel beneath the town of Dürnstein. The location was open from 10.00 to 18.00 for the duration of the festival, and the organisation arranged a trip to it on Sunday: those who wanted to could take a bus to the installation.
Ganchrow suspended (special and sometimes prepared) microphones in and near the tunnel to record specific sounds (from different spectra). These were then played through loudspeakers. By making restricted parts of the tunnel accessible for this project, Ganchrow created a very special atmosphere for a sometimes extraordinarily beautiful (random-generated) soundtrack of the tunnel and its surroundings.The radiant summer weather meant that the scheduled lunch, including fine wines from the restaurant’s own vineyard, could be enjoyed outdoors.


The installations were the greatest triumph of the festival, and were open to the public for it duration. Ivana Franke, Yolanda Uriz Elizalde and Matthew Biederman realised their works under the overarching title ‘Reflections of the Mind’. Yolanda Uriz Elizalde (ES) located ‘~~ Kulunka~~ ‘, her immersive installation that stimulated all of our senses except the olfactory, in an underground room of the Archives Zeitgenossen (beneath the Kino im Kesselhaus cinema). A maximum of five visitors (at one time) sat on mats with their heads resting on a specific spot on the mat. The dark, closed (and soundproofed) room was only dimly lit by a number of LEDs beneath a bucket filled with water that was set in motion by low-frequency sound, creating beautiful wave patterns on the ceiling. The mats also vibrated with the sound frequencies. Making this a supine experience for the audience and the careful design of this installation (in itself a fairly basic setup), created a powerful experience.
Seeing With Your Eyes Closed (2011) by Ivana Franke (HR) in the darkened chapter-house of the Minorite church was a multisensory experience. One visitor at a time sat on a low bench opposite a metre-tall, arched ‘lightbox’ with hundreds of LEDs (that, because of its shape, mostly surrounded the visitor). After pressing a button that started a program controlling the LEDs, visitors closed their eyes and experienced the’light show’ as an intense, visually exciting and stimulating cerebral experience that was made all the more powerful by the silence in the room.
Matthew Biederman (US) installed his multi-channel HD audiovisual installation Event Horizon in the nearby Forum Frohner. The work was a remake of a version he produced earlier in 2012 as a commission from the Montreal Biennale for Electronic Arts. For Krems he changed the size, and altered a geometric shape on the floor between the projector and the screen.
The hall in the Forum Frohner was built for 50 people, but anyone taking a look in the early morning after it had just opened, could peacefully enjoy the interplay between the wonderful colours and shapes that were randomly generated by a computer. The screen was divided into three horizontal planes, with the centre panel (sometimes broad, sometimes narrow) separating the upper and lower panels. The centre plane functioned as a ‘horizon’, with the ‘soil’ below and the ‘air’ above in states of constant flux.
However, the title Event Horizon suggested there might be more philosophical horizons behind what was visible, where events unfold (whether or not in your own mind). The coloured areas were based on red, blue and green, mixed with black. This resulted in extremely bright colours one moment and more subdued colours the next, shaped in all possible variations of length and breadth. This work was accompanied by mainly low droney tones, with a fair amount of noise, combined in a beautiful and compelling soundtrack.
Those who spent at least half an hour here witnessed the full glory of the evolving forms and colours. The only downside was that there weren’t enough seats, so the average (standing) visitor probably didn’t last the full half hour. Perhaps at its next showing a row of chairs that don’t obstruct the view could maximise the viewing and listening experience.
What these three works make clear is that locating them in special surroundings intensifies the way visitors experience them. Everyone know this, of course, but the average gallery and/or art institute should take special note: works included in the light-and-sound carnivals that characterise so many other festivals are often plagued by varying degrees of inteference (especially sound) from adjacent works. After all, such festivals should focus on the intensity of each experience (which require hermetic environments), rather than maximising the number of installations and creating clutter. In such situations no single work can be fully appreciated and make little lasting impact on the visitors. This is insulting to visitors, and downright rude to the makers of the works.

Matthew Biederman
Matthew Biederman

Live performances: Friday

The live performances were all held in the Minorite church that is well equipped for this purpose. The young Dutch media artist Matthijs Munnik kicked started the festival on Friday evening (theme: ‘Stroboscopic Noise’) with his spectacular work Citadels: Lightscape. The physical setting was redolent of a light box, two metres high, four feet wide and two feet deep, that had been placed on its widest side. At first the seam between the plexiglass plates that interrupted the image was a little disturbing, but this faded.
Munnik started his light show slowly with a strobe behind plexiglass, using different colours, intensities and frequencies of light. These gradually evolved into a bright, monochrome light, whereby the differences in intensity and frequency (both the abstract and the more figurative) produced images on the retina. All the visitors had this psychedelic experience, though it was not clear whether they saw the same images at any particular point in the performance – perhaps something Munnik might like to research further?
Bruce McClure (US), who uses the film projector as an instrument, only managed to engage his audience for about half an hour with his As yours so mine to reconstruct. It was light and airy in the beginning with some in-jokes, but soon after the projector was turned on he used a microphone and a host of effect devices to mutate its mechanical rattle into a swathe of industrial-noise (redolent of a fan’s motor or an aircraft engine), and also began playing with two strobes. These robbed the performance of its tension, because when they were switched on they completely outshone the ‘white’ light from the film projector, and the nuances on the screen completely disappeared.
The Synchronatorchestra, with Gert-Jan Prins, Bas Koolwijk, Justin Bennett, Billy Roisz, Jerome Noetinger, and Robin Fox, premiered a new work. Central to the sextet is the Syncronator, invented by Prins and Koolwijk, which converts (analogue) audio inputs to (video) signals. Three audio channels input to the three primary colours R(ed), Y(ellow), B(lue).
Each perfomer stood in front of a stack of three monitors with identical projections that created a video wall consisting of six times three (identical) images. It was was very powerful at times, but in the beginning it seemed as if they still had to find each other; they weren’t performing as a unit. They seemed to coalesce as the performance progressed, and it all became much more interesting and intense.

Live performances: Saturday

Saturday evening’s theme was ‘Bending Light’. Unfortunately the concert Abberation of Light: Dark Chamber Disclosure by opening act (Sandra) Recoder, (Luis) Gibson & (Olivia) Block was unsuccessful: Recoder and Gibson’s flowing images were scattered across the vaults of the entire church instead of being projected on the screen, so some of their work was lost. Playing fragments of film (in reverse, some very recognisable) through the live images was effective enough, but did not result in a memorable performance, also because the music (by Block) failed to captivate.
Optical Machines (Rikkert Brok and Maarten Halmans, both Dutch) stole the show this evening with ‘SHIFT’; their ‘simple’ images made using pieces of perforated material were utterly convincing, and were even more impressive when you saw how they were created (by ‘simply’ moving a hand in front of the light source). Musically, the soundtrack accompanying ‘SHIFT’, with its dark tones and semi-industrial sounds, was equally compelling.
Makino Takashi (JP) ended this evening’s programme with a fine perfomance of 2012 act.4. Act.4 consisted of Takashi’s by now signature grainy images (and sounds) that refer to (or evoke) rain, water and (radioactive) fallout; these propelled particles (read: noise) created an almost apocalyptic atmosphere, until about three quarters of the way through this ‘cloud cover’ tore apart and structures somewhat geometric and resembling a polder landscape became visible. Like much of his work this was also a very poetic piece.

Live performances: Sunday

Sunday’s theme was ‘Spectral Discharge’. Yamila Rios (ES), who lives in the Netherlands, and Joris Strijbos (NL) started the evening with their COVEX performance. Strijbos used a laser to conjure up slow-moving, shape-shifting projections while Ríos overlaid these with drones and noise. The performance went up a notch when Ríos started interacting with the drone/noise soundtrack using her prepared cello (‘Marcelino’).
Otolab were less subtle. In their performance titled Bleeding, Fabio Volpi and Luigi Massimiliano Gusmini, both from Italy, used a screen divided into two parts and projected a rapid stream of constantly shifting and contrasting, often geometric shapes (lines, crosses, etc.), which also relied on retention, to create an exciting piece – especially because the music was underpinned by rather ragged, brutal beats, the tempo and volume of which were sometimes reminiscent of gabber music. The absence of subtlety amplified the effectiveness of this work.

HC Gilje
Maja Ratke & HC Gilje

Visual artist HC Gilje and sound artist Maja Ratkje ended the festival. The setting was impressive: eighteen large (40 x 40 cm) monitors were stacked in a semicircle about eight feet high. Ratkje stood with her equipment in the centre of this monitor array, while Gilje, on a slightly raised platform in the audience, watched the monitors. Besides the familiar noise sounds, Ratkje also squeezed a strikingly number of high frequencies out of her equipment. This was an event in itself, because (white) noise and drones had prevailed during the rest of the festival. So many possibilities, yet so much was confined to specific dynamic and frequency spectra that many wondered if these performance artists (or this generation of performance artists) have agreed to a convention about this, or simply have a limited approach to sound. Ratkje also manipulated her impressive voice with electronics, evoking references to Laurie Anderson, often peaking in high tones as well. Gilje improvised with the intensity of the colours and the shapes on the monitors, producing intensely beautiful images, with Ratkje as a black silhouette in front them.

Give the public and the artists more wonderful festivals

This was a perfect ending to an amazing festival that drew a lot of people (though the number of paying visitors was modest), with artists lyrically praising the production team’s professionalism and attention to detail that even embraced the catering.
Kontraste is the ideal example of what a festival should be: well curated, with linear programming, professionally produced, and good food. All of this took place at a few (special) locations where the audience and artists could mingle and chat with each other, fostering an intimate, almost familial atmosphere. Where else could you team up with Gusmini of Otolab in a game of table football against Maja Ratkje and others (and win) in the backstage area at one in the morning, or enjoy a delicious lunch with Gert Jan Prins, Bas Koolwijk, Semiconductor and media artist Tina Frank? Next year, let’s all rent a bus and go to Krems. At the very least, a unique festival such as this deserves a large audience – and we a wonderful festival.

Beeld Photos (besides Peter Kubelka): Florian Schulte
Where: Kontraste, 12–14 October, Krems
Kontraste 2013: 11–13 October. www.kontraste.at

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