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Considering Technology and the State of the Art(s) at Sónar+D


Widely considered one of the most storied European electronic music and pop festivals, Sónar is a cultural engine in its own right. Bringing tens of thousands of music lovers and revellers from across Europe (and all over the world) to Barcelona each summer it has always asked questions above and beyond its programme, and conversations about commerce and sustainability have been ‘baked in’ to the festival since its inception in 1994. The most recent iteration of this stocktaking is Sónar+D—a sidebar to the Sónar by Day programme—which was launched three years ago and dedicated to the entangled mesh of creative ecosystems associated with digital culture. Artists, record labels, festival organizers, hardware and software designers, hackathon and open source enthusiasts, startups—From June 18th-20th Sónar+D brought approximately 4,000 cultural producers together to exchange ideas, experience some wild multimedia projects first hand, and party with reckless abandon, and CAN was there to participate in the proceedings.

↑ Producer Arthur Baker discusses 808 The movie, his documentary about Roland’s legendary drum machine

Sónar+D is a lot like an airport; not in a ‘rushing around maniacally to catch your flight’ kind of way, but in terms of scale and energy. Gigantic and bustling, the congress took place in a ramped structure in Barcelona’s impressive Fira de Montjuic fair/conference facility. With criss-crossing circulation that spanned four floors, the congress was assemblage of cosy lecture halls, ‘hands on’ workshop areas, exhibition spaces, cafes, and more informal lounges. Hordes of delegates streamed through the main thoroughfares and the atmosphere was electric, quite ideal for boisterous conversations about emergent modes of practice.

Lectures and talks ranged tremendously in focus and tone: Jeremy Boxer from Vimeo and Yancey Strickler from Kickstarter pitched their web services while ruminating on the broader implications for creators; In discussion with the music journalist Anne Hilde, Peter Rehberg from the fabled Editions Mego imprint reflected on two decades in the experimental music game, and Jim Kolmar outlined the growth and evolution of SXSW Film, and how the festival has leveraged tools like the ‘panel picker’ as a barometer to read and learn from their audience. Venturing into more philosophical territory were Bruce Sterling and Holly Herndon: the former sketched out a ‘doom and gloom’ endgame of tech-driven culture and the waning rule of the stacks and the latter (quite thoughtfully) reflected on artistry and influence in the 21st century.

Beyond lectures there were several solid panel discussions. Sónar+D curator José Luis de Vicente engaged Joe Gerhardt from Semiconductor, Julia Kaganskiy from NEW INC, Jussi Ängeslevä from ART+COM, and Fernando Cucchietti of the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre about what happens when artists work in scientific institutions or become more entrepreneurial in their thinking. Create Digital Music’s Peter Kirn discussed ‘de-westernizing’ music with Xavi Serra of Pompeu Fabra University’s Music Technology Group and producer Ariel Tagar. CAN presented the Creative Technologies Café, which saw us in discussion with projection artist Joanie Lemercier, Kamil Nawratil (of Volvox Labs), and the lighting designer Emmanuel Biard about audiovisual production design across performance and installation contexts.

↑ Squarepusher eggs on the crowd, Cod.Act’s Nyloïd flexes and flails, and ART+COM’s RGB | CMY Kinetic engages in luminescent choreography

Sónar+D’s programme also featured several interactive projects, the star of which was ART+COM’s RGB | CMY Kinetic. In the piece, five suspended reflective discs engage in a synchronized choreography that sees them glide in and out of formation relative to three red, blue, and green spotlights—casting RGB reflections in one direction and cyan, magenta, and blue in another. Accompanied by a suitably ethereal score composed by Ólafur Arnalds the secluded installation offered the perfect respite to the busy congress. Less attuned to innate introspective tendencies was Cod.Act’s Nyloïd, the slightly maniacal kinetic sculpture that flailed itself into near-oblivion every hour on the hour.

Figuring out where Sónar+D’s programming ends and Sonar by Day’s starts is a little pointless as everything happened in venues within steps of each other. Our previously mentioned Creative Technologies Café discussants Joanie Lemercier and Emmanuel Biard both presented AV works: Lemercier performed Blueprint, his multi-screened collaboration with James Ginzburg (of Emptyset), and Biard presented The Well, which leveraged lasers and a large parabolic mirror to accompany a set by Koreless. The proximity of the congress and Sonar by Day’s stellar musical programme was a little overwhelming—but in the best way possible; we chased Bruce Sterling’s closing talk with a Squarepusher live set, how great is that? Autechre, Arca, Holly Herndon, Mika Vainio, The Bug, many stellar musicians graced the various stages.

The most exciting thing about Sónar+D was how it effortlessly blended business and pleasure; hackathons, VR demos, informal networking activities, or even just schmoozing in the sunny and idyllic SónarVillage over a pint. Not a symposium anchored by a narrow bandwidth of disciplinary outlooks and certainly not a trade show, the congress brought creators and entrepreneurs together to consider the many facets of contemporary cultural production. Barcelona has weathered the post-austerity economic storm much better than other cities in Spain, and we can’t help but wonder if the enthusiasm that coursed through the congress was related to this resilience. It was one of those rare festivals where the entire audience felt engaged and was not only armed with astute questions and input, but as active and ambitious in their activities as the speakers; CAN felt right at home and was thrilled to facilitate a conversation within this milieu.