Can An A/V Laptop Set Be Interesting? MIRA Festival Reviewed

Visuals accompanying electronic music has been an obvious match for some time now—it didn’t take long for people to realize that laptop performances aren’t much to look at. MIRA Festival, which launched its inaugural event in Berlin this past Saturday after five years in Barcelona, dedicates the entirety of its concept to this pairing with a small conference followed by a night of performances.

The former East German radio headquarters and recording studios of the Funkhaus are a brilliant location for this idea. Its 1950s Bauhaus architecture is full of Soviet era, tastefully understated design features and elegantly appointed, wood-paneled and floored (superior for sound) rooms: two for concerts and the smallest one containing Tundra’s Hyperjump installation. The Saint Petersburg “artistic community” installed 30 pillars mounted with synced moving lights—concentrated beams of red that would occasionally switch to white—while speakers in each corner of the room discharged layers of drone and ambient drift. The effect is to make an environment that, thanks to volume and darkness, is immersive enough, but feels neither technologically nor artistically cutting-edge. Artists such as Marcus Schmickler use similar tools and more advanced musical ideas with more effective results. (Read more about that here.)

Across the foyer, visitors to Recording Hall 1 are greeted with a gorgeous, 1,000-square-meter room with a sunken orchestra pit and a small section of audience seating. Experiencing music in this room alone is worth the journey to the edges of the city. Here, multi-disciplinary German artist group Transforma and French video artist Yro presented Bsynthome, the night’s first example of the potential in an audio-visual concept and an experimental delight. Arrayed on four tables and various objects, the intriguing cross-platform performance combined music with magnified imagery from cameras stationed above each table to give it the feeling of both science experiment and installation. While it was difficult to tell the source of most of the musical layers (my money would be that the drones of altered strings and heartbeat bass came from an inconspicuous laptop), small sounds that came from the manipulations of the objects like rocks, sand, cubes of various materials, a balloon and paper were probably contact mic’d and worked in with pre-recorded elements. It was intriguing not being able to exactly work out the mechanics of it, as was the table, which appeared to be a modernized-take on an Oramics machine.

In another building, the Kultursaal space was the night’s main performance space, where the headliners—judging from the lack of schedule competition and the amount of bodies in the room—Kode9 and artist Lawrence Lek presented The Nøtel. Although a more familiar set-up than Bsynthome, the tight conceptual framework that tied both music and imagery into one unified performance was the second success of the night, perhaps in large part due to the simple fact that the music, based on Kode9’s recent album Nothing, absolutely stood on its own. Hearing the echoes of footwork, drum ‘n’ bass, and the farther reaches of club sounds as the soundtrack to the first-person perspective of a drone flying through the empty virtual space of a luxury hotel rendered in video game graphics was an energetic dance excursion made more searching and curious by layers of politics, sci-fi vision and social commentary, which in turn were made more explicit by the addition of visuals. As such, it’s also the performance that most left something implanted, giving the audience much to consider.

The MIRA Dome was a nice festival conceit. The small pneumatic plastic semicircle had limited space, but boasted a 360-degree screen best enjoyed while lying on the ground. A rotating schedule of brief presentations were followed by longer sets. I caught one of the former: Carla Chan’s Black Moves, who made use of the curved screen with black and white lava forms oozing down its sides to pitched drones. It was pleasant enough, but like the installation felt too comfortable and familiar. It also reinforced lazy electronic AV tropes: the overuse of drones and the preponderance of black and white visuals.

Ultimately, laziness was MIRA’s biggest problem. The two truly synergistic and stimulating examples of A/V performance were surrounded by bog-standard examples of some musical act paired with some visual artist and no tangible connection between the two. Even when both elements were beautifully crafted—such as the inexorable rhythm of The Field’s hypnotic house and techno matched to Pfadfinderai’s evocative visuals—there was little else to make it feel special. Many of the performances lacked something in one of the elements: Lone’s addition of a live drummer actually detracts from his music; Iglooghost’s own fun, colorful visuals were just on loop; Kyson’s gentle, melodic indie-electronica felt awfully dated; the brighter elements of Andy Stott’s music were lost to a sluggish four-to-the-floor to vaguely Raster-Noton-esque black and white patterns.

In a particular disappointment, Vessel’s pleasantly primal groove of noisy beats—post-industrial in texture with a rock sensibility—were accompanied by Pedro Maia’s damaged film loops inspired by visual artist Harry Wright. The latter’s oblivious male gaze—a topless woman licking from a saucer of milk on the floor, for instance—instead of evoking sexual energy was a big turn-off and highlighted the glaring lack of female artists. MIRA may have been competently organized with a whiff of professionalism, but they are going to have to work much harder to make better use of both their ideas and their resources.