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Festival Review: Tuned City Tallinn

img  Tobias Fischer

Early July in Tallinn was summery hot – as it usually is, presumably. It was also dense with vapour rising from the pavements after a light rain, full of tourists and continuous never ending motion and hubbub in the main streets of the old town. This is a time, when „culture“ starts loosing its battle against „nature“, or at least they become intertwined in an indistinguishable manner. This year, The Tuned City Festival, which started in 2008 in Berlin and consisting of an exhibition and a conference, also took place within the frame of Culture Capital programme. For this very reason I found leaflets announcing audio-walks created by Christina Kubisch (one can confidently call her a living classic in the field of sound art) simply lying among the first pile of flyers in the bus station. The audio-walks constituted an invitation to visit various city places wearing special headphones and to pay attention to the sounds effects caused by various devices generating electromagnetic waves. During the first event in Berlin, the main thematic landmarks of this continuous project (as later appeared) had evolved – the relations and intersections of the contexts of architecture, urban life and sound art. Its scope of interest is remarkably wide: from attention to qualities of sound in particular spaces towards aspects of urban planning that relate to a variety of sonic phenomena. This year the main part of the festival programme (excluding some preparatory phases) took place on July 4-10 and featured an exceptionally intense programme, which consisted of the conference, several workshops, various artistic practices (installations, performances, audio-walks, interactive situations, radio etc.) and concerts. The website of the festival offers complex information consisting of rich documentation material and detailed descriptions related to the programme and nearly every participant (practical note: using some browsers, the navigation menu may appear in an unusual place – on the right side, at the bottom of the page). It provides visitors an opportunity to take a virtual tour following the traces of the festival even without a guide – a role I'l try to fulfill in this text.   

Ernst Karel and Helen Mirra on a Christina Kubisch walk. Foto © John Grzinich
Already the title of the festival seems to be highly concentrated and “charged“ with possible meanings. The polysemous English word “tuned” in a pair with a “city” may refer to an acoustically tuned city as an analogy to a tuned instrument. It may also describe a radio wave tuned to the frequency of a certain radio station (“tuned to BBC”) – in this case it could metaphorically point to the attention of audio nomads “tuned” towards frequencies of the city sounds. The expression may also mean the state of being tuned, so it can serve as a technological reference towards an active plugging into the organism of the city. And if one remembers the famous slogan of psychedelic culture “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, Tuned City can also take on a metaphorical meaning, related to one's state of affection. At the end of the festival, all these references, however, don't seem to only suite themselves as linguistic exercises, but as paradigms for the artistic and research practices employed during the festival, as words of living magic.

Map of Tallinn
Thus the crucial space of the festival was the city itself. Or rather a city within the city, bearing in mind the communal nature of activities and the context of “the city in the summer”, an everyday Tallinn full of holiday entertainment. Consciously or not, continuing the good old traditions of the situationist movement and extending ideas of some of their practices and, of course, trying out many of the new ones, participants of the festival went out under the open sky or set up temporary lodgings under the roofs of highly specific objects of architecture. They were redrawing the maps of urban environment according to their own criteria, inventing their own routes and exploring experiences of following those routes, engaging into continuous mindful attention towards non-visual senses (primarily, hearing), employing collective, performative, participatory site-specific tactics of art, equipped with sophisticated technologies or trusting only their own bodies.      

Inside Cromatico installation. Foto © Carsten Stabenow.
Sonic cartography, which makes use of various methods to create maps of sounds, is a genre, which has evolved hand in hand with audio-walks. The specific tools for such audio-walks multiply as the vocabulary of sounds increasingly expands – terms for various acoustic parameters and effects appear, certain groups, schemes, ways of classification of sound crystallize, etc. – and ways of visualizations become more and more fertile. The organizers of the festival employed audio-walks along with methods of anthropology to initiate a map of sounds, which is rich with exceptionally complex content. It was created by anthropology students of Tallinn university, guided by sound artist John Grzinich and anthropologist Carlo Cubero. One can find approximately sixty places in Tallinn and descriptions of each of them on the map. There are also groups of places classified according to acoustic characteristics (Sound and interaction, Islands of silence or contrast, Traffic and invasive sounds) as well as an invitation to pay attention to such subtleties as echo in the staircase of National Library of Tallinn, a white noise of a fountain and it’s changes relative to the position of the listener, or the sounds and resonances caused by passing trains on the bridge – each of them frequently having something extraordinary in their character. Blind-walks led by the group Ici-Même from Grenoble were taking place according to a different, but also pre-planned scenario, devised in a preparatory workshop. They created to some extent theatrical and playful situations as the participants of the walks experienced an intermix of natural and pre-recorded sounds interacting with the environment, and their senses were subtly manipulated by the guides who were using urban surroundings as more or less abstract materials for invoking unusual modes of attention.              

Between market place and train station. Ici-Même: blind walks
These walks reminded me of an experience which wasn't directly related to the programme of the festival. During my stay in Tallinn, I had the opportunity to also visit science centre-museum AHHAA, where, besides a small exposition of interactive exhibits of an educational character, the exhibition Dialogue in Dark! was taking place. In the exhibition, visitors rely on the instructions of their guides in a total darkness. They follow a route, which imitates a city park, touch the objects that are placed there, travel across the artificial lake or river by taking a motor-ship (this is the most entertaining part of the tour, as when the engine of the motorship is turned on, you feel waves and vibration, wind and tiny little drops of water, pouring down on the skin of hands and face – in a total darkness, this simulation proves to be amazingly convincing and realistic). Then visitors find themselves in a café, where the same darkness is present, and have a conversation with a guide. The project thus provides one with a chance to experience the nuances of non-visual senses. But what is perhaps even more important, that it brought together a community of visually impaired people, who work as guides in the exhibition – Dialougue in Dark! gives an opportunity to share the experience of everyday life of blind people and understand the basic nature of perception, which shapes it. Coming back to Tuned City, on the first day of the conference, Carlo Cubero presented a documentary film, made together with anthropology students of Tallinn university under his own guidance and that of sound artist Patrick McGinley. It tells a story about the everyday life of Kerti, who is visually impaired. The film is unusual, as we see only a blank dark screen and the story unfolds only by sounds from her living surroundings.      

Restricting or distancing oneself from visual impressions encourages attention to other senses and reality, which is always given to us, but quite often remains taken for granted and unnoticed due to our daily habits. However, artificial mixing soundscapes at the same place, which we also see at the same time, induces experiences of a slightly psychedelic nature. Tuned City presented several variations of such artistic strategies. Maxims Shentelevs was offering a walk along Tallinn's city markets while wearing headphones and listening to the sounds, recorded in city markets in Thailand, Jamaica, France and other places from all over the world. Even walking at the same place were sounds had been recorded earlier, and listening to those recorded sounds induces almost hallucinatory effects – objects, voices, people appear and evaporate; the eyes contradict the ears and vice versa; objects that you hear on headphones but which are not present in the surroundings that you see become vividly imagined and almost materialized. Similar effect occur in places, which are similar by their function, structure and other characteristics – as on Tallinn's city market, where sounds from other city markets (much bigger in scale and quite exotic in relation to this place) interfere naturally when listened to on headphones. An almost hyperreal and in this sense even more hallucinatory effect was provoked by the performance Transphere by Pierre-Laurent Cassière (the performance is vividly described by Felicity Ford in her blog). The artist uses two main interconnected devices, enfolded by glass hoods. In one hand, he is holding a microphone, which allows him to capture a sound or miniature soundscape of a particular object and exclude it from its surroundings. In the other hand, he is holding a speaker, which amplifies and directs sounds, which are then captured by a microphone and channeled towards a certain direction. You can imagine the feeling, when a flutter of a seagull, flying over the roofs, suddenly becomes audible somewhere nearby in the street, at the height of your shoulders. Pierre-Laurrent Cassière was creating similar situations by mixing sounds and their directions while evoking the astonishment of those passing by, followed by differing reactions, most often – playful and curious.                    

12 tone filter. Foto @ Rene Rissland / Jürgen Lehmeier

Various tools or machineries, “plugged” into city soundscapes, provided opportunities for interpreting them in new ways. Quite often sounds become an abstract material, which changes its characteristics, proportions, functions and other features according to the ideas of artists manipulating these sounds. For example, 12-tone filter by Florian Tuercke, Jürgen Lehmeier, and René Risslando (eyland 07), was transforming city sounds into resounding harmonized drones. Besides this initial function, the installation also attracted attention thanks to its look – the object, “exhibited” in a public space, was reminiscent of something in between a stylized satellite antenna and a futuristic tank. A documentation of the project is available via this link.

Framework radio team. Foto @ John Grzinich
Most of these actions, events, happenings, situations and installations, and those that will remain unnamed here, were documented by a team from Framework radio, which organised an intense workshop during the festival. You can have a close look at it while reading a personal diary by Felicity Ford (part 1, part 2), who was one of the initiators of the workshop. The broadcasting of city soundscapes in a radio format almost always creates a dense, cinematic atmosphere, where documentary, subjective, musical aspects of sonic media fuse. Framework radio consciously develops such teleportations of units with sensory and informative features of a particular time and space (most often – directly from the streets – via studio – towards personal listening lounges). The context of Tuned City was more than suitable for such practices. 

1st day of the conference programme. Foto @ John Grzinich
The same goes for conferences and the themes discussed therein as part of the conference programme. The spaces used to debate them were a former industrial building, which is now being reconstructed and where a culture centre is expected to be established; a space in an urban area, quite distant from the old town, a bit reminiscent of Stonehenge of a much bigger scale, an example of a quite utopian urban planning (although the buildings of it do not distinguish themselves significantly from the flat blocks which are so common for living areas in the cities of Eastern Europe); and most conventional places – a conference hall of KUMU museum of 20th century and contemporary art (though this conventionality was compensated for by the impressive architecture of the building and a certain solemnity, quite unusual for the festival). The programme of the conference, as everything at the festival, was full of intensity and richness of content. It featured artistic practices (such as interpretations of architectural visions by using sound in the projects by Justin Bennet or complex and contextual pieces by Louise K. Wilson, which interpret military bases of the cold war period – places-ghosts at the moment, however still not so easily accessible), Internet maps and archives of sounds (Peter Cusack presented sonic maps and stories by emigrants about changes and memories of soundscapes after they had moved; Udo Noll, one of the initiators of radio aporee, uncovered sonic treasure – an Internet archive of several thousands of sounds, collected using mobile technologies), independent initiatives (Ann Goosens presented an independent institution Q-O2, activities of which are devoted to the interrelations between field recordings, experimental music, science and art; she also presented international project Sounds of Europe, which bridges all these modes of activities; initiatives Sons de Barcelona and The City Rings are exceptional for their aim of bringing sound art practices to general audiences and for their educational aspect – for example, workshops for children – are of great concern here), historical perspectives and theoretical insights (a fact which I found particularly interesting, was Sabine’s von Fisher’s thesis that the appearance of acoustic chambers, used for testing sonic characteristics and the isolation of sound, coincided in time with the proliferation of broadcasting technologies; her analyses, based on sociological methods, were followed by a complementing paper by Carlotta Darò, who analyzed the discourse of ideas, related to broadcasting and ideological visions in the context of commodification and standardisation of broadcast sound), perspectives of analysis, which employ methods of anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, however, frequently non-academic, interdisciplinary, flexible and exploratory.          

Concert Program
However, to be honest, the man reason for my journey to Tallinn were the various performances as part of the programme. They also attracted wider audiences not directly related to participation in the festival. As the title of the programme – Speaking with Spaces – already indicates, the main emphasis was related to the specificity of the spaces, where the performances took place. Thus in this sense, the “stage performance” part of the festival reflected the context of Tuned City perfectly. On the other hand, it was marked by a certain contrast or otherness, which resulted from what one could refer to as the “magic of the stage”. Collective experiments, research, games, actions, the sharing of knowledge and discussions provide pleasure and aesthetic satisfaction first of all by common discoveries, that are accessible by participation and democratic interaction. Artistic practice, or mysteries of the medium itself are being deconstructed, playfully interpreted and creatively transferred. By contrast, the mystery of the stage and its rituals with all relevant attributes (for example, the strong mythology of authorship and charisma) is distanced from the audience by the fourth, invisible wall and remains sedately inaccessible, which is what ultimately makes a stage so suggestive. As with melancholia, it is strongest when its object is intangible and not present, sometimes – totally vanished, enfolded by an empty and thus absolute longing, the condition of aesthetic fascination is frequently grounded in this distance, delay, silk-screen and, in some sense, loneliness. In the case of Tuned City, these two radically divergent forms of experience emphasized each other's character in a complementary way.          

Charles Curtis. Foto @ John Grzinich
Perhaps this impression was caused by the many different relations between performers and spaces, which were confidently, authoritatively, astonishingly domesticated by sound. Cellist Charles Curtis was playing in a Horse Mill Theatre, a building of a huge rotunda-like form, situated almost exactly at the centre of Tallinn's old town. Here he performed Naldjorlak, a meditative, silent work consisting of long sounds of the same pitch by renowned composer Eliane Radigue. Acoustic reflections were subtly turning round the walls of rotunda.

Charlemagne Palestine, as usual, placed himself near the organs, but this time in highly impressive St. Nicholas (est. Niguliste) church. After welcoming listeners by playing with a glass of water and playfully chanting in a falsetto, he built up a reverberant mass of organ drones layer by layer, further amplified by speakers, installed within immediate proximity of the audience. In St. Nicholas church, where a sense of gothic dignity is so evident, Charlemange Palestine’s performance created an atmosphere, which resembled sacral rituals by it’s density and intensity.

Thomas Ankersmit. Foto @ John Grzinich
Thomas Ankersmit was one of the most noticeable figures of the festival. He made several site-specific performances – for the acoustically specific sculptural-architectural construction Cromatico, and for former Palace  of Culture and Sport Linnahall – and a concert in the abovementioned industrial building Kultuurikatel, which is now being reconstructed. Performances were also interactive situations, tests of acoustics. Ankersmit took on the role of a pathfinder with an instrument – a saxophone – and  listeners followed his spontaneously discovered route within the spaces of certain acoustic qualities. A documentation of a similar performance was released by Touch (you can download the recording by following the link), also recorded in Tallinn, in 2010. In these concert settings, Ankersmith was using visible and invisible speakers, surrounding the audience from all sides, using midi synthesizer and saxophone. He combined immersive sounds, resonance of the space and improvisational logic of composition.

Maja S.K. Ratkje. Foto @ John Grzinich
Norwegian sound artist Maja S.K. Ratkje has never failed to enchant with her virtuoso, expressive, transgressive voice surrounded and transformed by  sophisticated machinery and deep, psychedelic sonic textures. Her performance took place in a huge, empty concrete cube in a Rotermann city area, which is known as a warehouse. The artist created an atmosphere of an expressive pageantry on the stage and a thrilling sonic palette full of whispers, sharp recitatives, hypnotic singing, humming, scratching of wires, microphones and other equipment, crackle, waves of noise, roaring vibration, which made the building quiver and turned it into a giant instrument.   

Tuned City offered a multitude of inspirations, based on the communal sharing of experience and knowledge, bringing together artists, theoreticians and all those interested in sonic media in general. A sense of community and sharing was probably its most prominent feature and the fact that themes of interest, practices and experiences, discussed and lived here, gives a chance to bring together a global, highly dynamic, fluid community, open to interdisciplinary expression, where different personal or collective backgrounds and contexts coexist. The motion towards city spaces and urban environments offered an opportunity to explore temporary alternatives of urban rhythms of life or just pay attention to phenomena, that are deeply and unconsciously rooted in our habits. All these practices were unified under the thematic umbrella of sound. As is quite common for the majority of media-related events, this principle leads to some extent of formalism, i.e. exceptional attention is devoted to the media itself, their characteristics and potential uses. However, the variety and intensity of the festival’s programme offered a vast spectrum of choices capable of fitting the most diverse expectations. Even if we could speak about international festivals of such type as about a specific genre (which is quite doubtful yet), Tuned City appears to be a truly exceptional event in this context.       

By Tautvydas Bajarkevičius

Tautvydas Bajarkevičius is a sound artist, curator and writer from Lithuania.

Photo credits:
Ernst Karel and Helen Mirra on a Christina Kubisch walk. Foto © John Grzinich
Inside Cromatico installation. Foto © Carsten Stabenow
Between market place and train station. Ici-Même: blind walks
Pierre-Laurent Cassière. Performance Transphere. Foto @ John Grzinich
12 tone filter. Foto @ Rene Rissland / Jürgen Lehmeier
Framework radio team. Foto @ John Grzinich
1st day of the conference programme. Foto @ John Grzinich
Charles Curtis. Foto @ John Grzinich
Thomas Ankersmit. Foto @ John Grzinich
Maja S.K. Ratkje. Foto @ John Grzinich

Homepage: Tuned City Festival

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