Outside at ground level, a Fortnum & Mason pop up store is selling premium christmas gifts. Ice skaters glide on an endless loop on Somerset House’s seasonal ice rink, propelled by the sound of pop hits and festive cheer. Few, if any, amongst this idyllic scene realise that paces away there is a different category of paying customer, who has chosen instead to be taken underground and locked up in a cage, to be rattled and screamed at relentlessly, by a viscerally physical Polish woman with a face mask and disarmingly ‘innocent’ pigtails.
This is The Cage, a new show by Agnes Gryczkowska and Alexander Johnston aka electronic/experiential duo NAKED, in which extreme electronics meets the careful crafting of light, audience and space.
It’s an experiential intervention that is symptomatic of Somerset House’s inaugural ‘Assembly’ series, a festival of emerging music, sound and hybrid performance arts, that draws heavily upon Somerset House Studio’s own in-house creative residents, but acts as a manifesto for emerging music and performance culture.
Inside NAKED’s specially constructed mini-arena, chains hang claustrophobically low, amidst roses that lead performer Agnes will eventually eat. She begins by circling her audience outside the cage in which they are trapped, performing vocals that would equally be suited to a grindcore metal show, against an overbearing sonic backdrop of industrial noise, that weaves in an out of textured beats that occasionally hit a pace that the mind could ordinarily reach for as being ‘music’. The experience is visceral and disarming, all the more so when Agnes breaks the rules of engagement and enters the cage, oscillating amongst the people. Challenging the master/slave power dynamic, whilst dramatically breaking down the barriers between audience and artist, the show is a metonym for broader breakdown of rules in experiential / immersive music, art and inter-personal human relations.
Elsewhere on the bill, technology find its place amidst sound and dance. French producer / technologist NSDOS performs using the Minority Report-esque Leap Motion tool – a piece of kit that can monitor hand gestures in the air – to control his highly dance-able patchwork of sounds with the physicality of his body. As he breaks out from his set up to perform ecstatic dance routines in amongst the crowd, it beautifully blends the digital and the physical, bringing the two spheres closer together.
Similarly bridging the uncanny AI/human divide is singer Jennifer Walshe who, with technologist Memo Akten, performs a generative duet with an AI neural network that has spent six months ‘learning’ how to sing like her. As she sings, the super computer attempts to sing along, and a ghostly, algorithmically generated visual of her face, along with an appropriation of her voice, ooze out of the PA like a half-formed ghost. It is uncanny, exciting and an image of AI’s slow birth into our reality, that one day we will no doubt look back on being its quaint, but none the less game-changing baby steps towards its own machine consciousness.
The Assembly program also covers talks, lectures and workshops, drawing a broad crowd ranging from experimental music fans, ravers and creative technologists. All in all it’s a gripping five days of bleeding edge experimentation that unanimously inspires, paving the way for creative music futures still to come.
Images: Anne Tetzlaff