Contemporary art, performance and music meld into a rush of images, feelings and physical presence at the Les Urbaines festival, which takes place in Lausanne on the first weekend of December each year. Impossible to capture the whole experience, we decided to look closer at some artistic positions, accompanied by images by Marie Haefner.
The thick dust settles while a spectacular light storm slowly calms down. The last notes of Frank Ocean’s »Seigfried«, that fragile ode about self-doubt and the fear of living a standardized life, fade out. On stage, Tiran is already circling the spotlights for minutes on end. His performance »BLACKMILK/TROMPOPPIES«, performed in a black box at the Arsenic theatre – which is also the festival central –, asks with a sincere but broken sensibility in empathetic but also spectacular back- and side-lit images for the possibility of a representation of black masculinity beyond macho gestures. tiran himself describes this with the term ‘black male melancholia’: »It’s open-endedness, its resistance to easy summary or categorisation. Dwells on dignity, beauty and terrible vulnerability of black bodies, on the existential and physical matter of black lives. To work out the connection between one’s own confused desires, how tough, how tender and how brave you’re supposed to be.«
In doing so, he blends the hand gestures of trompoppies – a term in Afrikaans for uniformed drum majorettes performing a formation dance – with those of divas and gestures associated with black male rap stars. In a stage of exhaustion, a white projection of a rectangle appears, almost like a cross, over the scenery. An empty image – completely dissolved.
Somehow, dissolution feels intuitive conncected to what one could call noise, to the personal need to merge with the environment, to become one with the dissonances. This is a different noise than the noise of information that accompanies the digital accumulation of capital in which »immaterial« resources are layered on top of each other to form the »stack« [Benjamin Bratton] of a global, vectorial supply chain, of surveillance and exploitation. In the 70s, French theorist Jacques Attalia already expressed in his book »Noise« the thesis that music – but this could also apply to other art forms – can carry prophetic components in itself, if it can free itself from the cycle of repetition and thus, so to speak, perform the future: »A noise of Festival and Freedom, it may create the conditions for a major discontinuity extending far beyond its field. It may be the essential element in a strategy for the emergence of a truly new society.«
At »Les Urbaines« 2021 (Curatorial committee: Alienze, Mathias Ringgenberg, Mina Squalli-Houssaïni, Samuel Antoine, Ysaline Rochat), a particular and also diffuse sound crystallizes in diverse spaces, such as industrial halls, skate halls, youth centers, but also in more representative art spaces. Here, this hazy frequencies serves as a guide through the omnipresent noise, one that does not follow a single narrative thread but relates an assemblage of heterogeneous artistic positions. The temporality refers to the present, which is already the future, and, through this opaque layering and shifting of the status quo, shows this potentiality without claiming completeness.
The festival starts in the center of Lausanne, in a neoclassical building, at the exhibition space Espace Arleau. The contrasts between dark and light, transparent and impenetrable materialize on three exhibition floors curated by the Vienna-based artist-run space Alienze, which unites 13 artistic positions from different backgrounds and practices. The intimacy between objects and bodies invites viewers to come closer and wander freely through the exhibition space. Particularly striking are the almost obsessively fine lines of the artist AZZEAZY, which condense into detailed distorted figures that speak of violence as well as security. An accumulation of shimmering bodies that seem to be from another dimension hang in a kind of perpetuum mobile. They are at once vengeful goddesses with pointed claw-like toes and prophetesses of alternative futures, all pressed into copper plates using an 18th century process.
In the same exhibition, one floor up, James Bantone approaches barbershops with blurred images printed on transparent material usually used to cover constructions sides »The use of surveillance camera clips in this work accentuates the weight of the gaze, which is so dominant in these spaces. Whereas I usually focus on this aspect within the barbershop itself and between its occupants, those new images expand the frame and ask how these bodies and those spaces are being perceived, potentially including the viewer itself in this observation.«
With text elements consisting of individual embroidered letters and letters partially supplemented with stereotypical images of beard styles, he twists statements. Resembling a large mirror, the transparent materiality of the three works presents their content in a new light, not only in terms of masculinity but also with regard to their spatial fixation in a different reality. This way, an alternative physical relationship between viewers and space emerges in which macho statements and classically »male« cultivated behavior are being challenged.
This queer perspective on occupied »spaces«, using familiar parameters of reception, is also used by caner teker in the performance »KIRKPINAR« at Théâtre Sévelin 36. Here, caner teker appropriates the aesthetics of traditional Turkish oil wrestling, once considered the most difficult sport in the world: Every year since 1362, during a three-day event, young bare-chested men in long leather pants try to wrestle each other to the ground. Hands slip into pants, naked torsos clash.
Together with Élie Autin, caner teker transforms this ritual of masculinity – as representative as it is aggressive – into a safe space where care and vulnerability take center stage while a pulsating score by Lou Drago embeds the scene in a club-like setting and heightens the ritual’s intensity. What looks staged like wrestling are improvised gestures and movements. Mutual engagement and trust in a setting with rules, a struggle of visible realities, non-standardized bodies or those bodies that do not fit into a society of norms. A transgressive space opens, a new temporality that allows for the departure from what is perceived as masculinity. Instead of striving for a heightened atmosphere, caner and Elie emphasize its gravitas. Functional wear gets swapped for leather motorcycle pants, torsos gently rub against each other. Instead of a struggle, there are mutual acts of letting go and holding onto one another. Stay vulnerable! »You Say Power, We say Consent«, caner’s »shame manifesto« states with reference to Paul B. Preciado.
Just a few hours later, New York based D3AD6OY bring their own coordinate system and performative negotiations of ambivalence to the stage. Autofictional DIY extravaganza with snowboard goggles. At some point, the rap tracks are replaced by a DJ set, sometimes almost upbeat DnB with Gabber, without nostalgia but with Britney samples. Being a rap star always means finding the right pose without clinging to it, to become a projection surface. It is an overperformance that reflects the experiences and cultural imprint of the audience.
London-based musician Oxhy also delivers himself reeling to his audience. The only source of light is a small strobe light fixed to the microphone stand: the crunching lower jaw as a state of emergency. Oscar Kahn wonders what a new folk music could sound like, one that could survive the catastrophe that has already happened and which we have already lived through, as Mark Fisher would say. On his 2021 album »Woodland«, Oxhy uses his voice for the first time ever, weaving it into the raw soundscapes of field recordings, dull drum patterns and analog instrumentation. It all sounds haunted, but it never surrenders to despair. Without being illustrative, his sounds, his performance almost refer back to Jacques Attalia’s thoughts on noise and future forms of society.
Testing alternative forms of coexistence also plays a major role in Olivia Riviere and Lisen Pousette’s work. In their performance »ever losing«, the two seek turmoil and peace in noise, or more precisely, in growling, the vocal technique unique to Death Metal. A piece about friendship and queer love unfolds from reliving grief. In the process, the two crawl into their sound material, sometimes quietly, cheek to cheek, then deafening; sound instead of lyrics; hugs instead of Grindcore instrumentation. By surrendering to and encountering the transgressive and aggressive act of screaming a different beauty arises from the sound. The scratching screams form an analytical movement material for broken bodies. In the stripped industrial hall, their voices echo, while, in the early evening, one can see the backlights of cars rushing by through the large window front.
In the same wide, uncanny and clean space, Lara Dâmaso presents her performance »HER HARSH HIGH AND DEEP VOICE – A POLYPHONY«. Amplified by four speakers, she goes beyond the appropriate and normalized use of the voice, filling the physical and emotional space with vibrations created by body movements and poses. Using a recording device, she assembles these and creates a new, unknown landscape. Screaming permeates the physical space. Loud and insistent. Penetrating the bodies of the spectators. At times, almost unbearable. A roaring that awakens the body. The now becomes so clear in this situation and shows a strong and simultaneously fragile person dressed in white. The beauty lies within the scream. It unfolds in layering and looping and allows the audience to lose themselves.
Another industrial wasteland in the neighboring town Renens provides the space for the operatic performance »To Grass«, in which Florian Schlessmann reinterprets the figure of the Goblin: A Gen Z Barthley between ashtrays in the form of cigarettes, debris and strobe lights, Florian Schlessmann maneuvers through the space – sometimes theatrically, sometimes abstractly, but always with caution. A state of openness. Leaning forward, hands stretching upwards, like figures from paintings from the Middle Ages. The ephemeral space of Schlessmann’s fine voice and the live music by the Zurich based label and collective CZARNAGORA always seem to comment on tragedy without succumbing to zaniness. They articulate a preform of hope that can exist precisely in the balance of appropriating and connecting different systems of thought. CZARNAGORA takes this even further with a curated concert evening in an off-the-beaten-path youth center, where Hypermobile plays a wholesome saxophone concert and Zustand D uses contact microphones to conjure new sounds from a 1-meter metal plate to accompany their almost seductive clarinet solos.
Back to the Arsenic – but instead of a high theater hall, glaring neon lights on the low ceilings present the space in an office-like atmosphere. Facing each other and crossing the room, Raffaela Boss and Yann Slattery use their bodies as moving spaces in »Moving Patterns III«. Dressed in festive attire, they lapse into repetitive gestures. For three hours, every day of the festival, from corner to corner, to the camera, always in motion. Perceiving each other, they exist as one, as two, and merge in the distance. The reading of bodies as spaces as a possibility to create a political space – in a white cube. Raffaela Boss and Yann Slattery become distorted mirrors, sometimes through projection, sometimes through the exchange of glances: »Different settings of stages, stages that merge into each other. Leaving and entering the stage, leaving empty stages behind.« The two artists approach their bodies as moving spaces, joining, separating, expanding or shrinking together in repetition and exhaustion, under a fragmented gaze. The only way out is the door.
In a state of exhaustion, clarity can manifest itself in a most peculiar way. The chaos, the accumulation of impressions that respond to and do not simply confirm our presence, can become an orientation in which physical spaces, physical bodies and the sense of time experience a shift that comes not from merely watching but participating. Always with the option to determine the distance oneself. In the end, the noise of dissolution confronts the not yet known and triggers feelings of familiarity. The superimposition of sounds creates its own harmonies. Dissolving the present in order to understand it and oneself, in order to generate an openness from which something like the future or utopia can emerge. »Now, you see me. Now, you don’t!«, tiran repeats over and over again during his performance. Perhaps one of the few possible responses to the permanent noise of the »age of information« is to create this »counterstack« in which experience is rather an act of witnessing than spectating a complex presence.
Text by Luca Büchler and Lewon Heublein