SÅLE. Photo: Achy Oafik.

Ultima 2022: Real presence is difficult, and meaningful

SÅLE. Photo: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard.

Ultima 2022: Real presence is difficult, and meaningful

My view is that contemporary music challenges the role of music as a commodity. It is not immediately satisfying, but rather an acquired taste. It does not aim to be immediately satisfying either. It is in fact a counterpart to the commodified music we consume, and which understandably pleases, because it pacifies. In an increasingly unstable and less progressive world, especially after this last year, it becomes tempting to lull oneself into a comfort zone. We want to get away from the anxieties of reality by any means possible (music, sex, drugs etc). But contemporary music is not a sedative. It challenges, and demands your presence - on its own terms.

Limitations, movements and intoxication in SÅLE

This tripartite dance work by ANNA&COs tarted on the outskirts of Hukodden. A helmeted figure, half-dressed in a heavy motorcycle suit, appears almost as an alien. Maybe she just arrived at thei sland from someplace threatening. She is entangled in anchor ropes that stretch out in criss-crossing patterns across the beach. It is desorienting. The piece ends with a tug of war the figure has already lost: The ropes aretied to a gigantic rock. Her struggles are painful to watch, since we know they are futile. We are surrounded by a soundscape of the slight hum of nature. Overlaid with Nils Petter Molvær’s mournful but beautiful trumpet sounds, the gripping atmosphere is enhanced, making it sublime. The girl’s struggles are her own, and her stay on the island is unmoored, not grounded.

SÅLE. Photo: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard.

As we transition into the second part of the piece, we see the spontaneous movements of the body as a central element. The free, unfettered self has succeeded the conflicted and limited self of the first part. The body has surpassed its most primitive functions off light and fear. Seven dancers move with controlled motions past, over and around each other, between arched steel pillars. I wonder if the flexible metal (an oxymoron) is a conscious choice. At the same time as they are pliable, the dancers also have the solidity of a Taekwondo master. This piece is so energetic that I feel an urge to move, rather than sit still and watch.

In the third part of this chamber play, we explore the decadence of the bourgeoisie, in the shapeof a long, nightmarish hangover. A man dressed in furs seems barely conscious as he crawls around among silver cutlery spread on thefloor. Chalices, plates and spoonsare symbols of material superfluosness. As they are all empty, they signal something that has been full. This part is interesting, because nothing really happens. Yet the scenography and the bizarre dramaturgy creates tension and a sense of anticipation and joyful confusion.

A woman lies down on top of the man in a clumsy position, as if she were a mollusc with only feelers to navigate. Another man, wearing nothing but underwear, is grooming himself inside a fireplace. The blindness and irrationality of it all is striking. Vague human cries create an uncertain and dark atmosphere. Maybe these people are no longer anchored by reality, but live in a hallucinated world. I am not tempted to join them - I just wonder what they’re on.

The black arts of algorithm in MEDIUM

In our economy of attention, we are prey to the offals of the internet. When a certain content has won our attention, we spread it like wildfire in our digital and personal sphere until it is all we see - and seem - and talk about. MEDIUM av Nuria Guiu og Ingri Fiksdal problematizes this. We follow a body whose humanity gradually dissolves and is replaced by a machine-like cognition. The work is presented as a haunting ritual dance at the Black Box theatre.

A handful of light-sources form a circle around the dancer in the first part of the piece. They go on and off in time with her presence, or so I think, as I watch the dancer interact with a digital system that responds to the user’s input. With her wild and whirling movements, the dancer ends up locked into a forced pattern. The loop will not end until she herself breaks it. In the second part of this work she is facing the audience, and doing a staccato dance in a myriad of different styles: Kung fu, ballet and more. In the middle of the dance, something unexpected happens: TikTok’s popular floss dance, that became a meme and went viral on the Internet in 2014, appears. The collage technique is spot on, emulating how the algorithmic recommendations are random and incoherent and lacking in inner narrative (as humans also are). The result is fragmented and haunted.

Like a machine emulating contents from the most frequently visited sites of the memory banks, so does the dancer mimics this ritual. And, as the description of the work reminds us, the body functions as a medium for spiritual communication in cultural rites from all over the world. As I exerience it, the work expands the operational field of the supernatural, and demonstrates how our digital presence in itself becomes a medium, controlled by us and from within ourselves. This analogy is forcefully and terrifyingly demonstrated in the last part of the work, where the dancer is simultaneously the puppet and the puppet master.

The voice commands: Voice Affairs

As opposed to, for instance, bird song, the human voice can be manipulated and can imitate. When it imitates, it can become animal-like and resemble the snake, as in Raed Yassin’s A Short Biography of a Snake. This evening was a head-on collision between various voices of the modern Middle East. But I also felt that I was in the presence of ceremonies dedicated to antique gods, and sometimes even demons.

The latter was particularly prominent in Manoli Manousaki’s State of Exception/Confli.ct. Overlaying an extremely noisy and shrill soundscape, I can hear the bass articulated in single syllables. The expression is fragmented, flat and extremely disturbing. I wait for a turning point, but it never quite arrives. Instead it lurks just beneath the surface. As the work concludes, I hear police sirens outside. The timing is striking because what goes on here, appears to be beyond the criminal. It sounds like demonic torture, a blasphemy in Jakob’s church, which is the venue.

Samir Odeh-Tamini’s VROS sets the stage for an exorcism. As the tenor chants percussively and frantically, I am immediately reminded of Mike Patton, ca. 2:40 into Mr. Bungle’s “Goodbye Sober Day”. This style of singing is derived from the Indonesian dance drama kecak. The drama is based on a fight from one of the great Indian epics, which is exactly how I hear it: A fight between a demon and a chief. The rustling of percussive instruments and the repetitive chanting culminates in a wild, tribal climax which feels cathartic.

In the “old” Middle East, which is also the present, no one commands with their voice - not artists, and especially not women. If the carrier of the voice serves only herself, speech is forbidden. Voice Affairs can be interpreted as a re-conquest of the freedom of speech, and as such feels imperative in this moment.

Voice Affairs. Foto: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard.

Creating spaces through listening

During the festival, I wasn’t just considering the actual works. I also had the opportunituy to enter into listening environments, such as Natasha Barrett’s PRESENCE/NÆRVÆR. This hyper-realistic sound installation conveyed a meditative dimension, where markers of time disappeared, or rather flatlined. Field recordings from every season and every time of day and night were brought to the foreground and given similar processing. The limited and somewhat secluded space at the Akershus fortress became a portal to the performance, where I could envision every spatial event under the heavens - real and imagined.

Ultima invited me first and foremost to explore uncharted territory, to uncover things that were previously unknown to me. What reveals itself through a work is obviously interesting, and it is what can start dialogues. But even more important is the simple fact THAT it reveals itself. As a shelter or as an alternative reality: The encounter with the artwork initiates a spatial displacement, where your mind occupies the space of the artwork for a precious moment. Behavioural therapy teaches us that this kind of mental flexibility allows for a way out of diffictult, human experiences, because we are able to imagine a different reality.

To encounter the work of art where it exists, without letting your attention drift, no matter how difficult, is indeed a liberation. Because, when the radio would rather becalm, and allow you to escape your anxiety, it is actually just a means of control, to keep the “peace”.

Sally Sayehdār. Photo: Nicolai Berg Hansson.

Sally Sayehdār is one of seven participants at the Ultima Festival Curating Lab in 2022-2023. The aim of the project is to develop the curators of the future and to create spaces for new voices and perspectives in the field of experimental music and sound art.

Here, Sally presents a retrospective of the 2022 Ultima Festival, and shares her personal reflections and impressions from the many and varied artistic experiences of last year’s festival.

English translation by Jacob Holm-Lupo
Cover photo: Achy Oafik.

Published Thursday, 12 January 2023