News Column

Dense and disorienting: Beirut's audiovisual festival

October 28, 2013


Oct. 28--BEIRUT -- In mainstream film -- and daily life, for that matter -- sound and image match up to form two facets by which we are able to experience and process events. In audiovisual art they are often disjointed or seemingly completely unrelated, forcing those listening and watching to simultaneously assess two independent art forms and ascertain how each affects and is affected by the other. The opening night of "The Dream Machine 2: Beirut Festival of Audiovisual Arts" took place Friday at the Beirut Art Center. A small crowd gathered for a series of performances by Canada-based media artist Katherine Liberovskaya -- whose live video was accompanied by experimental music from Mazen Kerbaj -- Dutch musician and installation artist Thomas Ankersmit and legendary American intermedia artist Phill Niblock.

The opening performance was the most accessible to those uninitiated into the vagaries of the relationship between sound and visuals explored in this festival's performances. Liberovskaya's fast-moving, abstract video, coupled with Kerbaj's imaginative use of the trumpet -- which he manipulates to create a dizzying array of sounds -- naturally gelled, each facilitating an interpretation of the other.

Colorful video footage of black shapes resembling spinning propellers, watery vistas of multiplying ovals evoking organisms under a microscope, and fiery sheets of shifting color helped to induce interpretive readings of the sounds issuing from Kerbaj's trumpet, rendered surprisingly versatile with the addition of a number of unidentifiable household accessories.

In conjunction with a shifting blue screen, a muffled buzzing became the sound of a motorboat heard from beneath the sea. The regular whump of rotating helicopter blades segued into the sound of an old car engine idling, before evolving into a burst of static resembling a poorly tuned radio.

The audio portion also influenced readings of the visuals, the painful intensity of a single, piercing note on the trumpet suggesting the outward movement of a blob of darkness on screen might be a man's head exploding.

Ankersmit's performance was more audio than visual, though his swaying form as he coaxed calculated whines, howls and feedback from his analogue modular synthesizer provided a hypnotic counterpoint to the waves of sound.

"Serge" was an intense and at times taxing performance. Sustained, densely layered bleeps, whines and thunderous blasts came together to form a soundscape that recalled climactic scenes from an alien-invasion movie. A restiveness among the audience by the end suggested the performance may have been overlong. Ankersmit's atonal, semicacophonous sound, however, was complex enough to hold its own without visual accompaniment.

The second half of the evening consisted of work by Phill Niblock, a veteran American audiovisual artists who turns 80 this year. It began with a collaboration with Liberovskaya, in which he created a live soundtrack and she live video, and continued with a performance of several works from his series "The Movement of People Working," which has been ongoing since 1973.

Niblock's work was somewhat harder to penetrate than the opening performances and the abrupt departure of several members of the audience as the night wore on attested to the fact that it may have exhausted the patience of some not attuned to his unique brand of minimalist composition.

The audio portion of Niblock's performance consisted of a droning chord, from which melody and breathing space have been eliminated. This loud, all-pervasive sound, somewhat akin to the noise of a bagpipe playing a single sustained note, appeared to remain constant even as it subtly evolved, its vibrations shifting minutely in response to microtonal changes.

In this context his video footage, shot all over the world over a period of 20 years, provided a fascinating counterpoint to the sustained drone of his music, imparting a sense of rhythm. The repetitious movement of South Asian fishermen hauling in nets hand-over-hand, hooking floating strands of seaweed from the waves or skinning their catch became hypnotic, punctuating the linear shape of Niblock's music.

"The Dream Machine 2: Beirut Festival of Audiovisual Arts" continues until Oct. 30 at the Beirut Art Center in Karantina and Dawawine in Gemmayzeh. For more information, please call 01-397-018.


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