Abandon Normal Devices festival – Manchester 2010

This weekend I boarded a train heading two hours north to absorb the rest of the weird and wonderful bits and bobs at the Abandon Normal Devices festival. I say ‘the rest’ because I’d already popped up so see part of the festival on behalf of Wired – you can read about that bit here! For anyone not in the know AND is an ongoing celebration of digital culture held on alternate years in Manchester and Liverpool as part of the 2012 Olympic investment.

This time Manchester plays host to the events, some of which will continue long after the festival ends on October 7th. Here are some of my highlights from this year’s program – if you hurry you can still catch most of them!

Designed Disorder (Cube Gallery) 1-30 October [also part of Manchester Science Festival]

This is a group show exploring possible and potential designs which exist in future scenarios. The purpose is “making the design of human experience an altogether uncomfortable encounter.”

Discomfort seems to be built into the designs, whether it comes from something abject (whisky made from urine), something physically painful (a device which simulates the experience of having a period), or something requiring effort which far outweighs the output (a toaster built from scratch). To my mind this is no bad thing. The level of discomfort is low enough that it would encourage questions or consideration from a visitor rather than being too difficult to contemplate or engage with.

Diabetes Public Engagement - James Gilpin

Diabetes Public Engagement - James Gilpin

Out of curiosity I tried a shot of the whisky and found it more pleasant than the stuff aged in oak barrels – it (unsurprisingly) doesn’t have that woody kick that hits you somewhere between the nose and the brain.

UnSpooling (Cornerhouse)

As you can probably guess from the title, UnSpooling is an exhibition dedicated to cinema. My personal favourites pieces from the two galleries of work were Ming Wong’s ‘Life and Death in Venice’ and Roman Kirschner’s ‘Roots’.

Ming Wong’s piece is a three channel video piece which uses the 1971 film ‘Death in Venice’ as its reference. On one screen Wong takes the part of the dying composer Aschenbach and on one positioned opposite he is the angelic young Tadzio. A third screen is set into the wall and features the artists playing the ‘Adagietto by Mahler which was the theme of the original film. Even without knowing the original reference the piece is wonderful to watch. The divide between the role the artist is too old to play and the one he as he is not yet ready to occupy feel like a chasm, bridged only by the imperfect soundtrack he provides himself.

Life and Death in Venice - Ming Wong

Life and Death in Venice - Ming Wong

Roman Kischner’s piece does not appear to quite fit the literal cinematic brief in the way that the other pieces do and it takes more work to understand, however I found it fascinating. Electricity pulses in a tank of brown fluid causing iron crystals to grow. Branches of the structure gradually break off and sink then dissolve to become thick clouds. The cycle of composition and decomposition repeats roughly every three hours. As the piece changes itself it causes the electric pulses to alter too and Kirschner turns them into a soundtrack via a resonance filter. ‘Roots’ is a reference to the birth of the idea of the synthesis of sound, image and memory.

Roots - Roman Kirschner

Roots - Roman Kirschner

Shrink

Lawrence Malstaf has been performing ‘Shrink’ since 1996. During the piece the artist or volunteer climbs between two sheets of plastic  while a vacuum cleaner type device sucks the air out. Two transparent tubes let air in and out and allow the performer to regulate the pressure. The person inside the plastic can then hold a variety of poses. Two of the most visually striking types of pose are those which are curled up and embryonic and those which imitate a crucifixion.

Shrink - Lawrence Malstaf

Shrink - Lawrence Malstaf

The pressure of the plastic on the skin makes the body look both vulnerable and protected – the similarity between it and pieces of packaged raw meat is unavoidable. There’s also a distance which comes from the strangeness of what you are seeing as well as the physical layer between you and the performer. Listening to the conversations going on round the auditorium which housed the performance, a lot of people were genuinely concerned – what if it all went wrong? In conversation with the artist I learned that the anxiety in the performance is entirely on the part of the audience. Between the sheets is a meditative calmness – the material will guide the performance and a well positioned thumb can ease the cocoon at any time. Volunteers attending Malstaf’s performance workshop reported the same experience – cede control to the environment and everything becomes easy. Apparently, even after all these years this is still one of Malstaf’s favourite pieces to perform.

If you missed Lawrence at AND you can catch his work as part of the STRP festival in Eindhoven from 18-28 Nov.

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