Words

Electronic Music Festivals Hire Art Curators Now

By Michelle Lhooq

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Images courtesy of Glowing Pictures and Oliver Correa. 
Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival happens November 8-10 at a selection of Williamsburg's best venues. Find out all about it here. Join THUMP on Sunday, November 10 at Glasslands with Kaytranada, Jerome LOL, Groundislava and Jubilee.
 
Going to an electronic music show used to mean watching DJs crouching in a dark corner, with nothing but shadows and like, maybe a couple lasers to entertain your eyeballs. But not anymore, because the future is visual. These days, performances look a lot like how they sound: sometimes big and dazzling, other times abstract and experimental, and often quasi-scientific… if you happen to be Amon Tobin
 
Live gigs are increasingly turning into hotbeds of room-filling spectacle. A heady combination of LED walls, projection mapping, sound visualization and other technical wizardry almost guarantees mindfuckery. The industry is chugging along healthily too—while they certainly don't make Afrojack-level big bucks, top VJs these days charge upwards of $100,000 for an hour and a half of tour-quality video. (Visual artists at concerts, however, make far less.) 
 
If you need further evidence of the rising importance of visual whizbang in electronic music, look no further: The Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival, which unfolds over three days in Williamsburg this weekend, hired an art curator this year to ensure maximum stimulation of everyone’s visual cortexes. And not just any stodgy old guy who shuffles around dusty museums. We’re talking Paul Amitai—a former Senior Curator at Eyebeam, New York’s epicenter of everything related to art and technology. 
 
Paul Amitai
 
Paul also curated last year’s festival, but this year presented a host of new challenges: namely, figuring out how to coordinate a coherent spectacle across seven wildly different venues—ranging from the velvet-roped nightclub Output to the barebones warehouse 285 Kent, with café-style venues like Cameo and glossy rock bars like Brooklyn Bowl falling somewhere in between. 
 
Paul took a breather from the mega shitshow circus that I’m assuming is his life right now to answer all my burning questions about how to curate an electronic music festival—and drop some intel on old-school rave balloons and disco ball-inspired mirror domes that will fill this year's spectacle. 
 
THUMP: Hey Paul! What have you got cooking for us this weekend?  
Paul Amitai: I’m working mostly with a group called Glowing Pictures—two guys, Benton-C Bainbridge and Owen Bush, who do live visuals for all kind of acts, from the Beastie Boys to Animal Collective. 
 
Glowing Pictures performing live
 
One thing I’ve always wondered is how you discern what kind of art works better with a certain style of music.
I think there’s something quite different from Oneohtrix Point Never and John Digweed, just like there are differences between straight DJ sets that are more dancefloor-oriented and others that are more abstract and experimental. 
 
So is there a direction correlation between experimental music getting abstract visuals, and dancefloor stuff getting more, like, representational visuals? 
I actually think it might be the opposite. If you have a banging house set that’s more dancefloor-oriented, people aren’t necessarily as focused on just looking at the stage. So maybe it’s more about creating something in the room that’s more abstract and about mood. Whereas if it’s a low-key set where people are standing around looking at the stage, there’s more of an opportunity to do something content-driven with the visuals. 
 
I see. So what exactly do you have planned? 
The plan right now is to create inflatable structures that will hover above the audience, and function as something to throw a light on to. It has a sculptural and architectural impact, but also become a signature element you’d recognize in the different venues. 
 
Warped screen shots from Minecraft that Glowing Pictures will use at the festival
 
So it’s a way of tying them all together. 
Right, one of the challenges is that we have all these different venues with their own things going on, so how do you connect them each other, and make sure it all feels like the same festival? It’s kind of a brand element as well, that’s different from like, having the logo thrown up everywhere. I’m also thinking about how inflatables are a way to connect the festival to Williamsburg in the 90s, and that whole loft party experience. 
 
By inflatables, do you just mean... balloons?
Essentially. But we’re talking a bit more customized, like the idea of taking existing helium balloon forms and connecting them to create larger clusters of structures.
 
A concept sketch of the inflables that will fill the festival's many venues
 
Okay, so not like, Banky balloons. 
Yeah, it also references a bit of Andy Warhol’s factory balloons. We didn’t want it to be all about lasers and hazers—although there will be a fair amount of that. It’s all about contrast. You’re moving through large environments and punctuating that with various colors, which is what you tend to do with lasers. It’s really about the contrast between moments of complete darkness and blasts of intensive light. 

Were there particular parties, clubs or festivals that inspired you while you were planning this all out?
Well New York has a really nice history of live VJs, and this festival is an opportunity to showcase some of those people, especially since a lot of the acts will be bringing in New York visual artists. 
 
I guess what I was trying to ask though is, like, if there’s been a recent show that has really blown you away with its visuals? 
Amon Tobin's visual projection and sculptural environment is influencing a lot of people right now. Projection mapping has become almost like a cliché, but I think that brought it to a different state. There are lot of people like Anti-VJ in Paris that do visual installations for festivals or architectural environments. I think that stuff inspires me more than the stuff you see at festivals. Like, making the experience more immersive so it’s not just looking at the stage.

One of the things I like about going to electronic music shows rather than like, a rock concert, is that the energy is more dispersed in the crowd, and not just focused up on stage. 
Yeah, that’s the kind of thing these guys are playing with. Particularly for Music Hall where they have this mirror dome that’s inspired by R. Buckminster Fuller. But using that to project onto, and the image refracts and splits up all throughout the space. So it becomes less about the stage, but the projecting images that go out into the room. The nice thing about it is that the images still cohere, but it’s like broken glass all over the place. It’s basically a different take on the disco ball. With a disco ball, you shoot light at it and it shoots it all over the room. But with this, you project images onto the mirror dome that get spit out all throughout the room but retain the original imagery. 
 
Speaking generally now, what are some of the biggest challenges of curating visual content for a music festival versus a traditional art exhibition?
A big challenge sometimes is if you’re trying to do too much with the video content. Because it’s playing a kind of secondary role in festivals of this type. But you're also trying to create mood, and there’s a lot you can do with light and video that can help to enhance that. There are times where it’s really more about enhancing the energy of the set and building off the energy of the acts as much as possible. 
 
Michelle Lhooq can't stop looking at the light, it's so beautiful - @MichelleLHOOQ
 

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