Previews of Unsound 2023 ~ DADA
In advance of DADA, the 2023 edition of the renowned UNSOUND festival in Kraków, Poland, Joseph Sannicandro reflects upon this year’s theme and previews some of this year’s highlights. Paid subscribers will receive daily reviews during the festival. Please support our reporting.
Unsound kicks off their home edition in Krakow, Poland, running from October 1-8, 20 years after first launching as a small experimental music series. In the intervening two decades Unsound has grown into one of the world's most beloved festivals, with satellite editions in New York, Toronto, London, Adelaide and more besides. As I've written about at length in my coverage of the 2018 edition, the city of Krakow is itself half the draw. A dense, walkable historic city, the curators consistently make use of an interesting variety of venues, showcasing artists from Poland, Eastern Europe, and around the world.
This year’s festival includes performances from Autechre, Ben Frost, claire rousay & Martyna Basta, dreamcrusher vs Kill Antlers, Negativland & SUE-C, Rrose, Heinali, Lee Gamble, Marginal Consort, Okkyung Lee, Shapednoise and so many others, including just announced DJ sets from The Knife’s Olof Dreijer, Nídia, and Mica Levi. In addition to music, which is of course the main draw, Unsound’s “Discourse” programming is always top-notch as well, this year including discussions and presentations on ecologies of care, economic instability, and various perspectives on so-called Artificial Intelligence. Mariana Berezovska, the creative force behind Ukraine’s iconic Borshch magazine, will lead several workshops for music writers aimed at decentering voices from the usual places (New York, Berlin, London), of which I am a participant. Daily updates from the festival will be sent out via our newsletter for paid subscribers, while a post-festival review essay will appear on the blog.
After going remote during the pandemic in 2020, with a hybrid edition in 2021, for which the organizers were awarded Poland’s most prestigious cultural award, Paszport Polityki, Unsound returned to a full in-person programme during the 2022 edition, BUBBLES. Even so, 2023 feels like a proper return to form, with some of their most exciting programming in years. Unsound’s themes are often slightly provocative and always generative, one of the many facets that elevates the festival above their peers.
My initial reaction to the theme of DADA, however, was slight skepticism. A reference to the intentionally nonsensical artistic movement seemed a bit random, but in fact a kind of absurdism seems to be part of the theme, including naming an Artificially Intelligent Artistic Director (AIAD) as a member of their curatorial team. It would be a shock if the curators were taking this seriously, so I was relieved to find that Unsound Artistic Director and co-founder Mat Schulz explain, “we want to think about Dada in the present, and with an ear to the future, in which non-human agency is increasingly prevalent. AIAD is part of this – an absurdist provocation, rather than a techno-utopian statement." DATA is somewhat covertly positioned as a shadow theme, and Schulz’s ambivalent orientation towards AI grants some needed humor in relation to DADA. Let’s pick this apart a bit before getting into the preview picks below.
Dada emerged as a performative art movement (Dadaism) at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland during the First World War, an environment where “revolutionary” poets like Tristan Tzara could play chess with literal revolutionaries like V.I. Lenin, where Kurt Schwitters could intone innovative sound poetry, later building his Merzbau, structures made out of refuse. Many explanations were given for the name “dada,” but the consensus is that they embraced the nonsensical term for its very lack of meaning, not unlike the sounds of Schwitters’ sound poems.
After the war, Dada spread to Berlin, Paris, and New York, and it wasn’t long before the artists were festishizing Blackness as a “primitive” Other from which to draw inspiration. This was by no means exclusive to the dadas. Modernism itself was always defined by its relationship to “the Other,” often Black or African, and often as a means of rejuvenating the decadent and dehumanizing rationalism of the so-called “West.” One famous example is Picasso’s interest in West African masks, but we might extend this to Modernist interest in abstraction in general. See also the French “negrophilia” of the 1920s, and the general Orientalism that had been in vogue across Europe since the 19th century.
Such representations needn’t be overtly negative to be considered Orientalist or racist, as even “positive” representations can be just as pernicious in their reductionism, regardless of intent. Already by 1918, dadaists George Grosz was performing in blackface while Hugo Ball was penning anti-Semitic screeds. These more problematic aspects have long been downplayed and overlooked, especially compared with the more well-known overt Fascist sympathies of Italian Futurism (the original avant-garde).
To return to my initial skepticism, then, I wonder about the timing. Earlier this year, the renowned German media artist and theorist Hito Steyerl brought these issues to the fore in refusing to accept the Hugo Ball Prize, instead requesting an open public discussion about racism and anti-semitism in Germany. Many voices also drew attention to the problematic racial dynamics of Dadaism around the 2015 centenary of the movement. For instance, Barry Schwabsky, writing for Hyperallergic, called not to “cancel” Dadaism but instead argues that “we do need to analyze this aspect of Dada more deeply and to understand how and to what extent it is interwoven with those aspects that continue to inspire.” There was also the 2017-18 Dada Africa exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie, which further explored Dada's "Non-Western Sources and Influences."
And perhaps this is what the festival organizers have in mind. Based in Poland, they were surely aware of these recent controversies, such as Steyerl’s refusal of the Hugo Ball Prize in Germany. Of course, the other commonality might be wartime. Dada was forged in response to the tragedy and traumas of the First World War, and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Poland’s neighbor Ukraine can’t help but be on their minds. In her book Irrational Modernism, art historian Amelia Jones emphasizes a different perspective. She points out that many associated with the Dada movement, particularly those who came to New York (Duchamp, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Cravan), did so to “avoid not only the senseless violence of the front but the very situation of war and its seemingly inevitable, contaminated ideological environment of reactionism, masculinism, reductive thinking, racism, and belligerence.” Maybe there is a bit of this spirit in Krakow as well.
What does Dada mean today? In the press release announcing this year’s theme and their AI curator, the organizers explain that “the Dada movement rejected ideas of progress, logic and rationality in favour of nonsense, outrage and radicalism – words and concepts Unsound will riff on while creating the 2023 program, including music, sound, performance, visual arts and discourse.” There has been no shortage of outrage and radicalism throughout the festival's two decades, so I suppose it couldn’t hurt to inject a bit of nonsense. The AI curator is not replacing human labor or evidence of a naive faith in progress (techno-utopian optimism looks outright foolish by now), but instead an absurdist response to the AI discourse. (For evidence of this humorous absurdism, just look at the names of the various events!) In the spirit of Dada, perhaps AIAD can be viewed as just a technique to inject some comedic randomness during quite a dire and dour moment, (not quite) post-pandemic, and the midst of a destructive war.
I would choose a different three terms to summarize Dada: Irrationalism, Trauma, and Neurasthenia (what today we would describe as a kind of chronic fatigue and nervousness). These three seem just as apt to describe our contemporary moment. In my 2018 coverage, I summarized the importance of the setting of Krakow to the history of the festival, so I won’t rehash that here. But how could a festival in Poland, or anywhere in Eastern Europe and probably Europe in general) not have the ongoing destruction of Ukraine in mind?
Schultz is Australian, and despite the festival’s diverse range of international artists, Polish and Eastern European artists have always made up a significant part of the programming (and the audience as well). After all, dance with the one who brought you, right? It’d be bad manners to come and set up a festival in Poland only to shun local talent. Many of us may be drawn to Unsound by the opportunity to see particular artists, but personally I love discovering new artists as well, and so many of my fondest memories of 2018 were performances by Polish musicians, often of an older generation, of whom I’d never even heard.
So what does all this mean for this year’s festival? As with PRESENCE, 2018’s theme, we can speculate, but the theme will come into sharper relief during the festival itself. So subscribe to our newsletter and keep an eye out for my review essay. Now on to my picks. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Unsound Krakow’s 2023 edition features far too many artists to do justice in this preview, but I will focus a few capsule picks here to give a sense of the great scope of the festival.
This year, Unsound begins not with a bang but a WHIZZLECLANK: Bay Area legends Negativland have been jamming up culture for more than four decades now, and will appear in Krakow for a rare live performance, with visuals courtesy of SUE-C (with whom they toured in 2021). Sunday’s bill also includes performances from the PLF trio (brutal vocals from Elvin Brandhi, rugged beats from PTP-associate Lukas König, and the DIY electronics of Peter Kutin), Rrose performing alongside a reworked version of Man Ray’s 1926 short Emak-Bakia, and an improvised intervention from Warsaw’s Anna Zaradny.
For those interested in learning more from Negativland’s pioneering plunderphonics, the group will be in conversation with Andy Battaglia on Monday, and will be presenting their new documentary Stand By For Failure at Kino Pod Baranami on Tuesday afternoon.
Monday kicks off the discourse programming, and while there are many interesting discussions scheduled, I’m particularly anticipating Luciano Chessa’s “Futurism, Dada and the Noise in Between,” on the relationship between Dada and Italian Futurism. Chessa is an expert on Luigi Russolo, author of 1913’s The Art of Noise, and has even reconstructed Russolo’s Intonarumori, perhaps the first noise instruments. While Futurism is known for its multi-media focus (including everything from noise to architecture to cooking), what was Dadaism’s relationship with sound? Sound poetry of course, but we’ll see what else Chessa may have in mind.
Gianmarco Del Re’s Ukrainian Field Notes featured a discussion with Kyiv-based composer and sound artist Heinali on the podcast earlier this year, discussing his latest album, Kyiv Eternal. Heinali will present a film version of Kyiv Eternal, comprised of crowd-sourced footage of his home city on Wednesday afternoon.
Wednesday evening also features the first event at the beautiful neo-baroque Kraków Philharmonic Hall, a presentation dedicated to young Polish composers, featuring a performance of And the Sun Stood Still by Teoniki Rożynek and Aleksandra Słyż, as well as an intimate acoustic performance by Keeley Forsyth accompanied by Matthew Bourne on piano, harmonium and organ.
And what would Unsound be without the opportunity to dance? PPENING OARTY (AKA SNICKERBOUNCE) kicks things off, beginning with Warsaw’s Krzysztof and closed out by Olivia, Unsound mainstay and one of Krakow’s most active local DJs.
One of my favorite facets of Unsound has been their hangover curing “Morning Glory” programing, here rebranded as GORNING MLORY (because DADA). The third morning concert will feature Berlin-based Aussie guitarist-composer Julia Reidy, known for their intimate dream pop based on unusual tunings.
Thursday evening’s BLARPTANGLE features two of my most anticipated performances. Cellist Okkyung Lee will be performing alongside a selection of Dada films, while claire rousay will join Krakow-based Martyna Basta for a joint exploration of their diaristic free expression. (For those interested in delving deeper into their practice, both women will appear in conversation with The Wire contributor Miloš Hroch on Wednesday afternoon). Also featuring Julek Ploski's experimental hyperpop, on the heels of his recent record on Orange Milk, and the first of several presentations of Machine Listening, a project by artist-researchers Sean Dockray, James Parker, and Joel Stern, who have created a platform designed for artists to explore the computational aesthetics of speech sound.
Thursday also features the first all-night dance party, with DJ sets divided in two room across the vast Kamienna 12, a former rail depot. ZOOBOPFIZZ includes DJ sets from Cairo’s 3Phaz, Boredoms’ Yamantaka Eye aka EYE, and The Knife’s Olof Dreijer. Also worth highlighting is Natural Wonder Beauty Concept, a live audio-visual pop project from DJ Python and Ana Roxanne!
I’ll head straight from the closing set to Friday morning’s first Ambient Brunch Chapter 1, where claire rousay will play selections of her favorite blissful music for two hours at the PURO hotel. (Saturday’s Chapter 2 will feature selections from the great Polish experimental sound artist and singer Antonina Nowacka.) Friday night over at Kamienna 12, ZIGGLEWUMP will include live performances from Ukraine’s Heinali, the dub techno of Poland’s Zaumne, Nigerian singer-rapper Aunty Razor, and DJ sets from Japan’s ¥ØU$UK€ ¥UK1MAT$U, Cairo-born/Berlin-based Rama, and Seoul's androgienia.
(I guess Friday night also includes a sold out performance of some group called Autechre?)
Early Saturday afternoon is reserved for the legendary Japanese collective improv group, Marginal Consort, who have played only one concert annually since 1997, uninterupted performances of at least three hours. Absolute must see and sure to be a festival highlight, all the more so as it marks Unsounds return to the beloved Museum of Engineering and Technology in Kazimierz. [In case you missed it, our friend Fabio Perletta recently released their 06 06 16 (St. Elisabeth Kirche, Berlin) on his excellent 901 Editions.]
The cutting edge ICE venue will feature performances on Saturday night which include Lee Gamble, whose latest record Models we’ve been anticipating for some time. The evening closes out with Ben Frost premiering new work with Greg Kubacki & Tarik Barri.
Saturday evening’s FLIBBERTWIRL probably features our most eagerly anticipated of the events at Kamienna 12: dreamcrusher’s confrontational live show will be joined by noise trio Kill Alters, Shapednoise presents Absurd Matter, a live interpretation of his recent record which features Moor Mother and Armand Hammer among many others, with visuals courtesy of Sevi Iko Dømochevsky. Tirzah’s live show fill see her singing over beats by Mica Levi, and DJ Nídia will bring Angolan kuduro to Krakow via Lisbon.
That’s a lot, and a whole lot more besides. See Unsound.Pl for the complete schedule and more information about all the artists. And look out for my post-festival review on the blog soon, but in the meanwhile subscribe to our newsletter for bonus content.