17 December 2010

What need is there for fish to sing?

A few weeks ago I hopped over to Eindhoven to catch up with friends, check out a music and technology conference, and see Underworld, pretty much in that order. Geography, the economy and time have conspired together to throw what was once a quite tightly knit group of friends out to the four corners of the globe (and Wicklow), and now it seems that holiday festivities and festivaling holidays are the only things that regularly bring folks together once more.

With a chalet for BangFace 2011 already secured, and Festivus Drinks just around the corner, it was as much the need to Be Elsewhere and away from our ongoing national nightmare as the desire to be social and see good friends that drove me to a former Philips factory in the shadow of Philips Stadion (home of PSV Eindhoven), just a stone's throw away from the small unassuming building in which Anton and Gerard Philips started to build lightbulbs in the 1890s and founded an industrial giant that is pretty much responsible for everything in this part of town, for STRP 2010, and all in all a good time was had by all.

The festival consists of series of art/music/technology workshops, an area of interactive technological art, and two weekends of live music (the weekend I was there included Underworld, Chris Cunningham, Modeselektor, Hudson Mohawk and many others, the following weekend was headlined by M.I.A. and Soulwax). Overall the music was good, I was surprised to find I liked both Chromeo and The Bloody Beetroots live (altogether cheesy, but perfect for a festival), really disliked Chris Cunningham (his video set was marred by portraying a distressing amount of violence against women, any amount is unacceptable and this was altogether rather offensive), and Underworld did exactly what it is that Underworld do best, new song, old song, new song, old song, bum-tish-bum-tish-bum-tish-bum-tish, shouting lager, lager, lager, and rest. Thank you. And I feel obliged to say that after initially disliking their latest offering 'Barking' I had come around to it by the time I saw them perform it live, not their greatest album, but not altogether bad either.

Gig-going in the Netherlands is something altogether different. I am 6 feet tall, but occasionally I too end up standing behind someone even taller, blocking my view and swaying in an unpredictably pendulous manner, threatening at any time to come crashing down on top of me in an implosion of beer and cigarettes. This happened a lot at STRP. However it was almost always women. Giant Amazon women soaring above me into the sky, who still seemed to find the wearing of high heels a necessity. Giant Dutch Amazons soaring into the sky with sharpened knives descending from their heels. Before you laugh, a friend required an emergency trip to the hospital the following afternoon when his stiletto-pierced toe became nastily infected.

Now you may laugh.

Despite the lack of a Three AM pasta break I acquitted myself quite well in the "staying up well past my bedtime" stakes, and the morning after my body wasn't objecting too strenuously to the indignities heaped upon it the night before.

Reports of me moving in a rhythmic syncopated fashion to dubstep are, however, greatly exaggerated.

The technology part was very interesting, mostly the work of Belgian artist Lawrence Malstaf, you could immerse yourself in an artificial snow storm, experience a sushi-conveyer belt from the sushi's point of view, have plates hurled at your face and smash inches away from your eyes (more fun than it sounds) and, most amazingly, be suspended ten feet above the ground, shrink-wrapped and vacuum-packed between two giant sheets of plastic. There were robots playing football (sock-ah), chromatic walls whose colour changes were controlled by motion sensing cameras passing over flowers, morphable mazes, face-recognition software that only seemed to match you up with serial killers, and much much more.

This is what the Science Gallery would be like with a bit more alcohol and a lot more space.

The installation that most fired my imagination, however, was created by visual and conceptual artist Marlena Novak, neurobiologist and engineer Malcolm MacIver, and composer and sound designer Jay Alan Yim, with whom I had the opportunity to chat for a while. Entitled 'Scale', the installation featured twelve perspex tanks each containing a single fish. The fish, each from a different species of Amazonian electric fish, each produced an electrical field that can be heard with the naked ear, though each tank contained a microfone, the output of which was run through an amp and controlled through a Lemur multi-touch controller. While Yim explained that some of the fish produce an almost perfect sawtooth wave, they decided to include two basic filters in addition to the volume control on the Lemur to give users a wider range of variations to play with. Thus Yin and his colleagues have created a live synth using fish. Yup, fish.

I had to be dragged away from this room kicking and screaming.

Good friends, good tunes and musical electric fish. What more could a body ask for?

STRP website
Scale article from Northwestern University, home of its creators.
More Photos

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