• Macs

Surreal Moments At The Sonica Festival, Kings Place, London

Updated: Aug 1, 2018

I pull the door open and step into complete darkness. It's profoundly unnerving, but I have to keep moving - more people are entering the room behind me. The temporary loss of vision is disorientating and I have no idea where to head. My eyes adjust enough to see hundreds of tiny specks of light dotted across the floor and up the walls. Every step is high stakes. I make my refuge by the nearest wall feeling immediate relief at not having accidentally murdered one of the stars of the show.

Near Future Sonic Artwork

I'm standing somewhere in London in a large room full of snails wearing little LED backpacks. It doesn't get much more surreal then this. The room is mostly silent save for the odd conversation in hushed tones, and the sticky sounds of shoe soles stepping across sheet plastic. Despite having queued for 25 minutes to see this artwork thinking I knew what to expect, I feel utterly discombobulated. The snail on the wall next to my arm begins to move – a wise march away from the perilous floor space below. A small diode on the snail's shell shines forward like a miniature headlight; backlighting its textured gelatinous head and casting an eerie dancing shadow. Observing this little fellow finally puts me at ease.

This is Cryptic’s Sonica Festival; 'sonic art for the visually minded', at Kings Place in London. And so far, it's a sensorial experience that has far exceeded my expectations.

Slow Pixel, Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes & Cyril Leclerc.

Slow Pixel Sonic Artwork

I can see around the whole room now, and there's many more people in here then I can hear. The artist, Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes, walks carefully around carrying a basket lit with sleeping snails, some food for the 'on-duty' snails and plant sprayer to keep them all comfortably moist. I cross the room to talk to her and discover that these performing snails are on rotational duty – if they stop to sleep they are scooped up and replaced with freshly rested ones. Having never considered the dynamics of snail-art performance, I find them more endearing by the moment.

These prized snails, rescued from the fate of being served up as someone's dinner, are the esteemed artists of this installation.

After several minutes the hushed tones give way to unexpected crisp, brassy notes. The artist kneels with a French horn in hand intently watching her shelled co-performers. Inspired by the movements of the snails she improvises an accompanying soundscape.

Kings Place promote this event as 'a live sonic installation like no other', and they are absolutely correct. Time slows as I watch the memorialisingly gentle movements of the 176 snails unhurriedly draw their individual trajectories across the floor.

Phase Transition, Kathy Hinde.

Phase Transition Sonic Artwork

At first glance, the set-up of the room looks akin to a disused laboratory. Industrial-looking stands hold blocks of ice in funnels above rusted metal pans. Large infra-red light bulbs heat the ice and cast an eerie crimson glow around the room. Meltwater drips into the large pans with an amplified metallic 'plink', and sends reflected ripples across the ceiling. A low pulsating bass fills the room, reminiscent of the throbbing reverberation from the engines of a WW2 bomber. This soundscape recreates the feeling of having stepped into a hidden underground bunker or cave during a time of great danger. The sense of foreboding is palpable.

This is Kathy Hinde's sculptural sound installation inviting us to consider global climate change.

The melt-rates of the ice are determined by real-life climate-change data.

And the drips are not steady, adding to the unnerving ambience. They audibly change tempo, speeding up and slowing down along with the nearby turntables, creating an unpredictable cadence and disconcertingly fluctuating tones. My mood has darkened by the time I'd left this installation.

Singularity, Solveig Settemsdal & Kathy Hinde.

Singularity Sonic Artwork

I open the door to another darkened room. This time it's clear where I should go and I make my way to a plush bean-bag on the floor. Other visitors are spread out languorously, transfixed by the film projected onto one of the walls. I, however, can't get comfortable. For me there is a discord between the evolving delicate images on screen and the accompanying sound.

A white amorphous blob throbs and flickers with life, throwing out new lines with all the promise of a perfectly developing foetus – a biological art-work in creation.

Each fragile stroke adds a new and expanding layer of complexity and beauty.

What we are watching is white ink suspended in gelatine being sculpted before our eyes. And yet the music from a string quartet is scratchy, melancholic and abstract, with all the elements of an ominous horror film score. The tension between what my eyes see and my ears hear makes it disconcertingly difficult to watch, and yet it's hard to look away. The dissonance of the soundscape overwhelms me – I'm literally feeling such physical discomfort that I have to leave.

Nearer Future, Heather Lander.

Near Future Heather Lander

This room is alive with a kaleidoscopic web of colours and lines, weaving and dancing across the space towards me. The comparative boldness of colour and dynamism of this installation almost immediately washes away my tension from the previous exhibit. The bean-bags placed in neat rows are empty and I am the only one here. An ambient stringed composition played on a traditional Swedish nyckelharpa provides a haunting and folksy accompaniment.

This sculpture is composed of sheets of clear plastic, splayed like the pages of an opened upright book. Brightly coloured laser lines projected from behind create symmetrical, specular reflections and moving contour lines of light. Drifting across the floor, these create the illusion that I'm soaring high above a digital map and over a vast and bleak alien landscape. I take a deep breath and let go. Outlines of birds pass and the music swells and mellows as the waves of light construct and dissipate like ethereal cumulus clouds.

It's hypnotic and utterly immersive.

Nearer Future is a sound and light sculpture which poses questions about where technology has taken us and where it will head next. How might we retain a sense of reality in a world where technological advancement offers ever more opportunities for immersion in the virtual? It's a profound question when the virtual can have very real emotional and physiological effects. I emerge from the exhibit feeling mentally revived, as though I have been swimming under the crystal clear waters of a pristine lake on a beautiful day.

Have you been to any of Cryptic's Sonica Festivals? If so which art-works did you find most sensorially stimulating? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.


 Welcome to Sensorama - a blog to tickle the senses.


This blog is dedicated to curiously exploring the world via the 5 senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
Our perception of reality is determined by our own senses - and there are millions of sensory experiences out there for us to explore. Join sensorama bloggers Macs and Oliver as we take you on an extraordinary tour of the world all around us through sensory science, experiences, stories and sensations.


Via Sight : Beautiful faces, amazing colours, hidden lights spectrums, optical illusions, incredible animals and emotive art - our ability to see is central to nearly every part of our everyday lives. Yet how often do we stop and take a fresh look at the world? At Sensorama we take a second glance at the everyday, the unusual and the at times invisible.

Via Sound : Hearing is the key to communication and how we interact. Like a heartbeat, it is also highly personal. From thrash metal to choral hymns which make the heart soar - what we love to listen to can determine our mood, emotional state, and sense of identity. At Sensorama we take a in depth listen to the beats of life.  

Via Smell : Smell is the sense that much of the animal kingdom relies on to find food, sense danger or attract a mate. It is the sense which can evoke a long distant memory and silently affect our perceptions and behaviours. At Sensorama we pay attention to what’s right under our nose.  

Via Taste : What some cultures find delicious, others find repulsive. Taste is so often a matter of, well, taste. Starting as an evolutionary way to avoid poisoning, we have mastered the sense of taste to tickle some of the strongest pleasure centres of our brains. At Sensorama we search out the tantalizing and delicious.


Via Touch : Touch can be anything from comforting to terrifying and take us anywhere from excruciating pain to heightened ecstasy. As humans, we feel everything but so rarely pay attention to what our bodies are telling us. At Sensorama we get hands on with all the textures of the world.

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