Electrofringe will eat itself

October 15, 2008 — October 15, 2008

First published in Realtime magazine.

Once, this was a festival whose name summarised it neatly, at least in my rapidly decaying memory. Electrofringe was the crook between the burgeoning branches of fringe doof culture, and the emerging electronic arts. Flocks of darkwave cyberpunk fashionistas and squat activists gathered there. The coin in trade was esoteric skills learned on the knee of expensive and time-consuming experience beyond the reach of the owners manual. But these days everyone totes subscriptions to MAKE magazine and workshops in the ubiquitous Arduino microcontroller are regular in every major city… Locative art projects are a consumer commodity and major companies compete in elaborate excursions into augmented and virtual realities, and dance music seems to have fallen out of vague as a vector of revolution since Australian Idol. The idea of turning up in person to learn how to get into the esoteric new media seems about as timely as taking a bachelor degree in alchemical transmutation of elements.

The directors seem ready to ride the zeitgeist. The festival this year is exhaustingly diverse, with a line-up examining hybrid arts and fringe culture from all manner of unexpected angle. Technological art is no longer something held together with string scavenged from the dumpster and japanese mail order — although Aras Vaichas gave an impressive workshop in building his Wävrüta digital effect unit from little more than that. Rather, the new media skillset is a commercially valuable commodity. Where electrofringe is still fringey is the collaborative, defiantly independent atmosphere it fosters.

I’m betting that by most plausible measures the technical sophistication of technology on display has decreased over time. The exception might be the online works — my favourite example of this is Pip Shea’s amusing interactive Neoconfessional, a hybrid online/video installation piece. Online, a social video sharing network collects uploaded footage of TINA’s compulsively boundary-testing punters admitting their trespasses into conservatism; offline, projectors and speakers in the performance venue toilets play those clips, and stalls echo with a novel variety of public obscenity: “I don’t even like new media art”…

In general, though, the shows this year have steered away from competing with the staunchly funded technological extravaganzas of your ISEAs and Biennales. Most of the successful works cluster around the ideas of the collaborative, the interactive, the site specific, and the low-budget.

The Tape Projects show certainly looks to an op-shop kind of electronics for their display, filling a gallery with flip book animations and turntables playing copiers of a single locked-groove record through second-hand stereos, speakers arranged at random. The spartan presentation hides some sophisticated production; tracks on the disc include dozens of micro-compositions from as many luminary composers jumbled together with little to identify them to the listener (although the flip books have front-page credits). Punters lower the tone arm at whim and find themselves participants in a centreless, endless performance of phasing sound. I’ll admit I am unnecessarily fond of multi-speaker installations, but this is quite something. The gallery space sports a handful of listeners seated on the floor transfixed — I can’t recall the last time i saw that outside of a performance.

They have handmade aesthetic, but with a chaotic flavour; in labcoats and glasses they distribute parodical school kid activity packs filled with the bits of simple cardboard and lenses and invite your to stake out real estate space with the telescope you make from the parts. There’s some dance and a bit of live video too, so that we can call it new media art, but it hinges upon the engaging personalities of the performance more than any technology. Indeed, at their artist talk at DORKBOT/Sydney the preceding week, they left the audience dumbfounded by the absence of technological obscurity behind the presentation. Their subject matter is inversions of space and time; riding a bike back into your childhood, passing objects through a video camera, colonising the stars with cardboard and plastic because the planet is doomed. It’s the most cheerful investigations of our dire planetary circumstances that I can imagine, pulling at least a wry utopianism out of our scientifically projected apocalypse.

At the other end of the technological spectrum, the intricate algorithmic stylings of the Advanced Beauty show were one component of the festival that have been getting a lot of media anticipation. This is a series of algorithmic single-channel video pieces exploring ideas of synaesthesia, and the algorithmic cogeneration of sound and visuals, and were projected on the wall of the John Paynter gallery for a 2 week season overlapping the festival proper. But if that experience is to even start to approach the totality that synaesthesia implies, it is worth sticking to the surround-sound cinema screening (which i sadly missed). Otherwise, you may as well watch it at your leisure on the web.

By contrast, across the hallway from the John Paynter Gallery in the old gaol museum, Fiona McGregor stages you Have The Body, a site-specific one-on-one durational performance. It’s a didactic endurance piece, which is to say: precisely what I would avoid seeing if I had read about it. In the flesh, totally engrossing. You are led into the venue bound with a bag over your head, and drawn through a weird transmutation of the gallery-going experience into an Orwellian abduction. Her attention to detail makes this a formidable piece, a pastiche of totalitarian horror and Australian bureaucratic mundanity. I won’t divulge the whole piece, mind, since that’s half the point of the experience and performances are ongoing.

Back in the Paynter Gallery, Sengewald’s interactive video works arrests a few of us — an interactive video projection on the gallery appends shadow tails to gallery visitors and places them amidst a swarm of rats that flee from their outline. However, the simplest and most interactive for all, by my statistically questionable 10 minutes survey of the space. German collective TheGreenEyl has covered a gallery wall with removable orange stickers and invited the public to do what they will with them in a work they call Appeel. The name is a low point, but the work is better — the negative space left by the absent stickers leave a fascinating trace as much as do the orange dots that soon adorn every sufficiently slow-moving dry surface in the city. The evolving, democratic negative image in the gallery is satisfying; but so is the sporulation of dots across the city as the gallery-goers become willing dispersers to the day-glo seed- and later on, new orange sticker walls germinate across the city, until my sleeves come away fluorescent from the table at the festival club.

Between Birchville Cat Motel (NZ), KK NULL (Japan) and Maruosa (Japan) there is a bouquet of noise musics, worth hearing indeed but less interesting to write about. (“Loud!”) RAVENATION, though is a performance worth detailing — worth, even getting thrown out of for disorderly behaviour and sneaking back in over the beergarden fence. Curated by Melbourne performance collective , the show assembles a kind of mocking electro cabaret that veers between deft satire and simple mockery but mostly hangs out in the vicinity of general mayhem. Half a generation since the festival was founded, electrofringe’s early days are already fodder for (re)appropriation by the young turks as much as the pop culture canon; everything from breakcore to cabaret is compressed into a parodical 3 hour hyper-rave, smoke machine, lasers, and fake MDMA included, not to mention an animatronic latex penis mask, all broadcast in animated GIF art on Myspace. These folks are not just staking out claiming their area of practice on the fringes of the mainstream, but wresting that back from the aging cohort who now run the flagship, and producing an impressively slick show while they are at it. Touring international artists is fantastic for electrofringe’s profile; but it’s this ability to invite the cream of troublemakers into the halls of marginally-more-power that keep it alive and relevant. I can’t wait until Gooey on the Inside get their comeuppance in turn in a few years’ time.

Dan MacKinlay was co-manager of the National Young Writers Festival back in 2001, and despite the intervening 6 years, has only just enough detachment at that remove to cover TINA.

Electrofringe was directed by Alex White, Somaya Trefz and Somaya Langley