British Creative Flair Celebrated At Two Sonar Festival’s In Barcelona

Last week, Barcelona opened its door to the 22nd edition of Sónar Festival, welcoming an eclectic and international roster of talented artists and reaffirming its position of a catalyst for building relationships between the world of music, creativity and technology. 

If Sónar Festival is primarily known for its carefully curated music line up, Sónar+D and Sónar PLANTA associated programmes are getting global recognition as legitimate platforms for international creativity. These two creative forums showcase what’s best in the world on digital art and give the chance to local and international artists to present their most recent works to one of the widest audience a festival has developed as 115,000 visitors from 101 different countries attended the event.

 For this edition, Sónar+D or the « 4th International Congress for Digital Culture and Creative Technologies », focused on replacing the artist at the core of technological and social innovation while encouraging the creative industries to interact with the world of science, education and business and give art a new sense of practicality. This year’s most famous projects featured Olafur Eliassion’s Little Sun Charge – a high-performance solar phone charger and light designed with Eliasson’s trademark attention to detail, largely available on the entire festival site. This project is the perfect example of what Sónar+D stands for –  a cross-discipline work bridging the gap between art and techonology, or as Eliasson explained, a project where creativity not only lives in the artwork but in the consequence that the work has onto the world.

Year after year, Sonar+D confirms its creative expertise and unveils a perfectly curated cultural programme that challenges traditional art spaces. This edition notably showcased the work of New York artist Tristan Perich and his iconic Microtonal Wall. Since its creation in 2011, the piece has been exhibited in museums all around the world, including the much celebrated ‘Soundings: a Contemporary Score’ exhibition at MoMA in 2013. Microtonal Wall became an influential piece in the contemporary sound creation as well as digital art. In partnership with Mies van der Rohe Foundation where the piece was presented, Microtonal Wall is composed of 1,500 speakers arranged in a 25-foot oblong panel, each playing a sound of a different pitch in a circular and continuous audio pattern. The strong contrast between the installation’s austere visual aspect and the complexity of its acoustic dimension explores the divergent finite and infinite dimensions of digital media. Originally commissioned by Rizoma and usually on show all over America, it is refreshing for us viewers to be able to experience this work in a context that transcends the framework of the traditional art museum but as part of an explorative festival that serve as a real creative laboratory.

Indeed, Sónar creative forums are also platforms for emerging new media practices to be presented to a larger audience. The programme of activities encourages the interaction between various leading figures from the innovation ecosystem through partnerships with universities, scientific research centres and business – in order to celebrate an art that is imbricated in our everyday life. This year, British creative flair was specifically celebrated as UK-based studio Semiconductor presented the world premiere of Earthworks, the centrepiece of Sónar PLANTA programme. Sónar PLANTA is the joint initiative between Sónar and the Sorigué Foundation, which aims to promote and celebrate the research and experimentation of creative languages, based around technology and new media art.  The British artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt wish to explore the digital and natural world and specialise in science-based artworks, transforming scientific data taken from natural events (earthquakes, volcanic activity, astral movements…) into aesthetic installations. Earthworks consists of 5 x 5.5 metre screens projecting animated graphics that represent the planet’s activity around the exhibition site. Interactive and immersive, the piece calls for the viewer to consider his own impact on Earth by representing the process of evolution and constant change our planet is going through, a change caused by nature itself but also by us humans. 

For another year, Sónar+D has also partnered with The Royal College of Arts in London to showcase the work of emerging graduate artists through a series of projects by students of the Design Products and Information Experience Design departments. This collaboration has given the chance to students to work across disciplines and learn about critical making, prototype development and creative design research. This partnership aims to explore the complex and dynamic relationship between sounds, objects and technology and their impact on people. This year, the students partnered with vodka brand Absolut to create The Black Box project, together with Matt Clark, co-founder and creative director of London-based studio United Visual Artists, a multidisciplinary art studio focussing on new technologies and their contribution to the creation of new artistic directions.

The Black Box is a cultural experience showcasing two interactive installations that explore the theme of perception and how technology can reveal the limits of the human brain when it comes to sensory experiences and their interpretation. Frequency, the first immersive piece created by graduate artists Robert Thorpe and Jennifer Haugan, is a research on sound and light where capsules with sensors triggering low-frequency sounds are placed on the floor and activated by the viewers as they walk into the dark room. Each sound corresponds to and activates an LED light on the wall. Sound and light change as the viewers walk into the room and spectators are invited to form different movements and patterns to play with the light and sound they can create in a sort of audio-visual game.

Absolut Relative, the second work by graduate artists Maria Euler, Luka Kille, Ava Watson and Ker Siang Yeo, explores the limit of our perceptive mind. The piece is based on the « thermal grill illusion », a scientific theory that explains that the brain can’t discern two different thermal information in the same time. In other words, our brain can’t make the difference between cool and warm temperatures when presented together but can only send a mixed-signal resulting in one unique sensation. Absolut Relative transposes this theory into an interactive sculpture with several cool and warm mini LEDs lights. In an aesthetic and eye-pleasing display, the viewer is invited to touch the LED screen and realise how his brain is unable to differentiate the two separate pieces of information. This work reveals the limits of our own human perception in a world where technology and connectivity has led us thinking we could have access to and understand any piece of information presented to us. 

Sónar+D and Sónar PLANTA was inaugurated by British musician, producer, composer, thinker, multimedia artist and technologist Brian Eno in a speech entitled « Why We Play ». As the UK has just expressed its desire to leave the EU and force us to wonder what is going to happen to the future of British creativity, Brian Eno gave an inspiring speech on the importance of life and art at Sónar+D, celebrating international creative collaboration as Sónar’s main mission. In a passionate speech, Eno reminded us that art is what shape our international community and that « art is where we gather the sense of what we will agree on », asking how, except through the medium of art, can we possibly ever cooperate? In this time of doubt and incertitude, Eno confirmed that culture and the arts are the « lubricant » of society’s evolution and that they shouldn’t be regarded as less and less important when they are one of the last element that bring us closer. Initiatives like Sónar+D and Sónar PLANTA are collaborative spaces that give the chance to various artists to work together on projects that stimulate and contribute to the wealth of international creativity. In the light of recent events, we hope British artists will still be able to play a role in today’s international creative landscape and participate to initiatives that understand the importance of celebrating our differences through the medium of art.

Words: Lea Bourgeteau © Artlyst 2016