In art, industrial spaces in disrepair are not new. There’s nothing left to wring from either the glory-of-human-progress, man-vs-nature thread, and the globalization-made-this-rubble anti-capitalist critique is so played out, the concept itself ought to be in a museum. And yet, wandering among the enormous hulking I-beams in the decommissioned Hearn Generating Station in Toronto’s port lands, hired and lit up for Luminato by European music presenters Unsound, I felt roughly the same way I did wandering along the Cleveland Dam in Vancouver, or looking down from the CN Tower for the first time: damn, that’s really big, and people made that, not nature.
Loooook! Rocks! And lasers!
So much for theory. I wouldn’t necessarily give the act of putting abstract electronic music in a big empty building the Turner Prize, but that doesn’t make seeing Robert Henke’s Lumiere II in an awe-inspiring space any less worthwhile.
Bringing in a performance involving lasers was an inspired choice for the venue; a little dry ice for the light to play off before hitting the screen heightened the anticipation, despite whatever comparisons to Cirque du Soleil it may also have invited. The music was, it has to be said, less inspired. Henke is certainly no slouch in the electronic production department, having written more software than most producers will ever use. But while techno and its offshoots don’t need much in the way of melody to move a crowd, the bar is higher in experimental/’listening’ music. Personally after living through the IDM thing, and having given far too many hours of my 20s to wilderness-years Autechre records, my feelings on extended metallic-sounding percussion workouts are about the same as a classic rock morning show host’s – indifferent, bordering on hostile. Still, I expected to like Henke’s performance anyways, and I’m surprised by how much I ultimately did. He’s an inventive programmer, and the interplay between the visuals and the beats was perfectly hypnotic. A series of fuzzy shapes flitting across the screen gave me a feeling of being on a merry go round, or looking at a rave siren revolving away, while rumbling bass prodded insistently at my insides like a nutritionist asking me how many carbs I eat in a day.
I’m really glad I didn’t give up on the piece after its first few minutes, either, because the middle section managed to grab me and pull me back in with – wait for it – melody. Sounding like a piano’s strings being plucked, the second act made the Hearn space feel even more like a haunted house, a place where ghosts mourn their passing by throwing huge, post-corporeal-form raves and screenings of Blade Runner. It totally lived up to the potential of the evening, and I was swooning.
The side-room event, Ephemera, was more confusing, mostly in a good way. I’m not going to spoil it for anybody with too many details, but let’s just say that it takes place in a smaller, windowless space that purports to use smell (curated by “conceptual perfumer” Geza Schoen, whose business cards must be a hoot) as well as visuals by Marcel Weber a.k.a. MFO and sound by Tim Hecker. I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic disorientation of the visuals, felt the music was below Hecker’s usual standards thanks to some fairly aimless noise-drone sections, and couldn’t discern the smell part at all. Worth the extra $10, but not for claustrophobes. Nuff said.
Throwing events like these are hard, finding the right act for the room is harder, and using the space properly is harder still. It wasn’t quite an unqualified success, but Unsound Toronto was really exciting in ways I didn’t anticipate, and I would love for it to be an annual thing. Hint hint: Bitchin Bajas. Make it happen.