What is there to see and do at the (sprawling) Sónar Festival 2016 ?

The Sónar Festival in Barcelona has brought multimedia artists, musicians and performers together from all over the world since 1994. With several hundred digital events squeezed in from 16th to 18th June, it is a mean feat to pick out the most interesting. Let’s take a closer look at the 3 buzzing days.

In the space of two decades, Sónar has positioned itself to act as an excellent barometer for digital trends. Sometimes considered the best festival for electronic music in Europe, or even internationally, the line-up of digital works does not disappoint. On the contrary, a clever mix of established artists and avant-garde creators lends particular character to these few outstanding days. After an in-depth perusal, the extremely packed programme, promises a number of novel experiences. For enlightened enthusiasts this is the attraction: previewing creations that, sometimes, will only be performed once. Here is a summary of the 23rd festival’s key digital events.

Music, festival’s DNA…

Sónar’s reputation is built on the ability of the inhabitants of Barcelona to unite around electronic music. For any festivalgoer the conclusion is clear: the Catalan capital lives day and night for Sónar. Several venues are called upon for this. Several art centres positioned in the historical city centre are grouped together under the name “Sónar By Day”, whereas the main stages, located on the outskirts of the city, are part of “Sónar By Night”. This twofold formula is well known in France (Nuits Sonores uses the same organisation) but its similarities mirror the Barcelona festival. The “day” and “night” concerts are therefore the common thread. Many of today’s stars (James BlakeFlumeBoys Noize…) are headlining the event as well as other artists that have taken on a mythical status (Jean-Michel JarreNew OrderFat Boy Slim…). Many conferences are being held by celebrities from the world of music: Brian EnoRichie Hawtin and Jeff Smith (Director of Music of prestigious BBC Radio 2, to name but a few as proof finally that music is exploited in every sense.

Lineup Sónar 2016 from Sónar 

A multitude of digitalscapes

However, it would be a shame to think that the pleasure derived from of music is limited to hearing. Live performances and group stage designs take on a particular dimension here. The first that comes to mind is Jean-Michel Jarre’s long-awaited show. 

Jean Michel Jarre - Oxygene (just for pleasure, the original clip of Oxygene from 1977)

The French musician, a pioneer who brought together sound and image in the 80s, is preparing what is anticipated to be an awe-inspiring project, but that has until now been kept secret. Other scenographies, although more modest, nonetheless deserve attention. The one by the Austro-German duo Howling, produced by the excellent Children Of The Light (spotted during Darkside’s tour), is a good example. The minimalist installation comprising white light accentuates the lightness of the compositions, without going overboard.

Howling, Children Of The Light 

Another sensory experience: the British music artist Kode9, a key reference on the bass music scene, will play The Notel. Lawrence Lek, a young German living in London, will be responsible for the staging. The artist, a creator of ambiguous spaces, conceives a mysterious hotel designed like a cheap video shop. By using volatile sculptures, landscapes defying gravity and holograms, the master of ceremony invite us to enjoy an anxiety provoking wander that never takes precedence over the DJ’s compositions, one of the memorable moments from the most recent Mapping Festival in Geneva (see the summary). Lastly the eye-opener this year is perhaps from Bruna & Wooky. The Spanish duo engaged the services of Alba G.Corral, an expert in generative and monumental images, who justifies going beyond borders.

Cyclo, Ryoji Ikeda et Carsten Nicolai © landon_speers

Lastly, the twentieth anniversary of the legendary label Raster Noton should be noted, sadly stripped of its superb White Circle presented last March at the ZKM Karlsruhe. Nonetheless Byetone and Alva Noto, no strangers to sensational audiovisual performances, should not disappoint. The same goes for Cyclo that will delight even the most nostalgic. This project was initiated in 2001 and brings together two legendary figures in the visual arts arena (Ryoji Ikeda and Carsten Nicolai). The performance has evolved over the years without losing its original essence. It is about stimulating retinas, as well as eardrums, by blending repetitive algorithmic techno with powerful visual performances. De facto the music becomes an image and vice versa. A legendary live performance to rediscover with gusto, like a cult film that has been dusted off and taken out of the attic.


Several outstanding performances

It turns out that few audiovisual artists are performing (in proportion to the overall programme), the talented Canadians Martin Messier and Myriam Bleau will be part of the event. The former is presenting Field, his most recent project overflowing with energy where electromagnetic fields imperceptible to the naked eye are employed. 

Martin Messier "FIELD" for Sónar+D 

With her four spinning tops the latter will compose an audio and visual score. Although the talent of the Montrealer is not called into question, quite the contrary, a slight feeling of weariness may have overcome the globe trotter/digital arts enthusiast. Indeed the artist, who has been on tour for many months, has already presented her work in most of the major festivals (Elektra, Transmédiale, LEV, EXIT, Mirage, Némo…) and as a consequence fails to surprise us as much as before. V.I.C.T.O.R, an innovative project by the French producer Antoine Harispuru and the graphic studio Desilence, alternating a restricted use of techno and mapped retro-futuristic visuals or No Man’s Sky by 65daysofstatic, a sort of infinite soundtrack of the eponymous video game, could be the best picks of 2016. Watch this space.

Golden Bug & Desilence - V.I.C.T.O.R LIVE from Desilence 

Two monumental installations: Microtonal and Earthworks

Sonar D earthworks

It is interesting to note that Sónar doesn’t consider itself a digital arts festival. Yet its receptiveness to the discipline is increasingly blatant. Two monumental digital installations will be among those presented this year. Microtonal, by the New Yorker Tristan Perich, follows in the sound-art tradition. 1,500 loudspeakers are arranged over a white board. 

Tristan Perich - Microtonal Wall at Interaccess - Walkthrough 

The visual impression is as striking as the work’s audible spatiality. The second installation is even more remarkable. Earthworks results from the joint initiative between Sónar and the Sorigué Foundation. Together, the two Catalan structures intend to promote research on creative digital languages. Each year a monumental piece is therefore created for the festival. 

Earthworks Semiconductor installation Sonar PLANTA
The installation Earthworks by Sónar and Fondation Sorigué. 

In 2015 the kinetic installation RGB|CMY by the studio ART+COM was a resounding success. This year British artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt (Semiconductor) continue the exercise. Capturing scientific data from nature (earthquakes, volcanic activity, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the movement of stars, data from satellites), the artists represent the process of the Earth’s formation through the centuries and man’s impact on its evolution. Earthworks consists of five x five metre screens, arranged in a zig-zag shape. This video fresco, touted as a work of scientific mediation, projects the data gathered by various colourful graphics.

Sónar +D: a laboratory for digital exchange

In parallel to the “By Day” and “By Night” programme, the organisers have created Sónar+D. Since 2013, the aim of this laboratory for exchange has been to question the place of technology in the music and creative industries. Sónar+D is mainly structured around a huge congress with several internationally renowned speakers (Matthew Ogle & Ajay Kalia de Spotify / cyber activist Jacob Appelbaum / Adam Clarke one of the creative heads of Minecraft…). These same stars provide several workshops. In addition to Startup Garden and MarketLab, Realities+D attracts the most attention.

We are talking about selecting the most innovative content and technology of the year in terms of virtual reality. Genre regulars are of course attending: the comic-strip artist Marc-Antoine Mathieu and the studio Felix&Paul. A distinction for the project Notes on Blindness. This documentary, awarded at the recent Sundance and Tribeca festivals, is an invitation to experience what it is like for the writer John Hull, a victim to blindness in the 80s. The viewer is guided by Hull’s voice in an abstract world in a sensitive and highly creative project. 

Notes on Blindness Teaser

Lastly Sónar+D provides many opportunities for social networking. Dozens of meetings with experts (Xavier Bové director of Mapping Festival in Gijon / Pierre-Marie Ouillon, artistic director of Arty Farty / Mónica Bello, programmer for CERN…), investors (Luís Gutierrez Roy, founder of Telegraph Hill Capital…) and start-up specialists (Caroline Matte, manager at NUMA in Paris…) are possible. A means to definitively reconcile art, innovation and business.

Sonar+D teaser

By Adrien Cornelissen

Digitalarti Media is partner of Sonar+D

16-18 June 2016

sonar.es/es/2016 | sonarplusd.com