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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.