Exploring the Aesthetic Ear

by Mark Sheerin on December 24, 2013

Ryoji Ikeda, "datamatics [ver 2.0]" (image courtesy Brighton Dome)

Ryoji Ikeda, “datamatics [ver 2.0]” (image courtesy Brighton Dome)

BRIGHTON, UK — As an expectant crowd took their seats for a recent performance by Ryoji Ikeda, none could have failed to notice the projection screen. Dominating the stage at Brighton Dome, it was one of the largest in the UK, procured internationally just for this gig. Any smaller and the vastness of creation, what Ikeda reveals to us, would not have impressed quite so much.

When the house lights went down, we were treated to a headily complex data feed. Scan bars rose and dropped over a field of mysterious calibrations; numbers flipped by at high speed, like a departure board on overload; star-like pixels added a third dimension; and all the while the soundtrack underlined the visuals with high-frequency blips and low-end booms.

Who knew data could be so sublime? Ikeda uses DNA code and astronomy the same way Caspar David Friedrich used mountains. Both artists remove us from our everyday concerns and allow us to get in touch with our spirit, such as it may be. But what you learn from the data sublime is that even our souls have flickering classification codes.

Earlier in the week, Mira Calix hinted at some equally mountainous regions. By the end of her set in the Brighton Dome Studio Theatre, a black-paper backdrop had been carved into shapes resembling a Tolkienesque mountain range. From the darkness beyond, green light streamed onto the stage, where a dancer convulsed and sprang in and out of the shadows.

Mira Calix, "The Sun is the Queen of Torches" (via Facebook)

Mira Calix, “The Sun is the Queen of Torches” (via Brighton Dome on Facebook)

Calix wore a mic on her hand, which picked up the sounds of cut paper and percussive taps on the floorboards. These were processed by a software patch on her laptop to provide the atmospheric electronic backing track for a solo violinist. The arrangement stood in for the workings of an increasingly popular energy source, photovoltaic (or solar) cells.

“Metaphorically speaking, the light was activating the dancer,” the artist and composer told me in an email. “We took the roles of electron, photon, and what the scientists term ‘holes,’ which disrupt and slow down the electricity-generating process of organic photovoltaics”. Calix has been working with a team from Imperial College, London, to represent the eco-friendly science that inspires her live show.

Calix and Ikeda were part of Earsthetic, a new event series at the Brighton Dome focusing on artists who conceive of their projects in both the visual and sonic realms. What you see is what you hear, and vice versa. The program also included PeachesPlanningtorock, and Spirit of Gravity.

“The key thing is they’re artists who start their practice with the visual and with the sound,” says coordinator Laura Ducceschi, who serves as Brighton Dome’s music producer, by phone. “So it’s not the case that they’ve created some sound works and sprinkled the visuals on.”

A performer at the Earsthetic Spirit of Gravity event (photo Georgia Rushton, via Facebook)

A performer at the Earsthetic Spirit of Gravity event (photo Georgia Rushton, via Facebook)

“In our culture, within the arts, we pigeonhole people in certain areas,” she continues. “Within arts institutions, people want to know where they are and where they fit.” Ducceschi puts this down to lessons learned at art school: “Certainly, historically, through fine art studies, people either did sculpture or painting.”

“In Sweden or in Brooklyn they’re much more comfortable with artists sitting somewhere between the mix,” says Ducceschi. “I think perhaps in the UK we’re not so good at facing that,” she adds, blaming venues and galleries that get uneasy when they can’t pigeonhole their audience. It must be said that the crowd for Ryoji Ikeda was as mixed as could be: not just aging local hipsters, but also pensioners, children, people you might meet on a bus. It was baffling.

Brighton has plenty of festivals, but Earsthetic is perhaps the first to build a bridge between the city’s vibrant music scene and that of our underserved art lovers. Ducceschi describes it as a “baby step.” And despite the electronic bias of year one, she’s keen to widen the field in the future, bringing more acoustic work into the equation.

It should be noted that the music producer is no stranger to success. Earlier this year she produced “LiveTransmission: Joy Division Reworked,” which took music from the legendary Manchester band and reinterpreted it with the help of sound artist Scanner and the Heritage Orchestra. From its humble beginnings in Brighton, the show has gone on to sell out the Royal Festival Hall in London and even the Sydney Opera House.

“I really want as many people to see Ryoji Ikeda as possible,” Ducceschi says before the gig. “It’s one of the things which has made me most speechless at the time.” She praises the Japanese artist/musician for being both minimal and three-dimensional. “It’s kind of like you’ve gone inside the data,” she says. “And you know he plays with certain frequencies. His frequency is such that it disappears inside your head, and it kind of pops out again. He’s a real sort of master of it; whatever it is he’s creating, it’s very unique.”

Days after the gig, Ikeda’s sounds and visuals are still streaming in and out of this writer’s consciousness. Is it music? Is it art? Does it matter?

Earsthetic took place at the Brighton Dome (Church Street, Brighton, UK) from December 10 to December 14.

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