2020 Festival Report: Case Study

Subsonic

AUSTRALIA / JAPAN / FRANCE

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SUBSONIC was a series of experimental and electronic music events showcasing iconic artists from Japan curated for Asia TOPA - alongside innovative emerging and established Australian artists - by Brad Spolding and Lawrence English.

Presented across 3 venues, and featuring a line-up of 14 artists, SUBSONIC provided audiences with an immersive chronology of experimental and electronic arts practice spanning from its 70’s foundations to its future legacy.

"By presenting seminal works alongside contemporary performances, the aim is to illustrate how important these artists continue to be and the impact they still have on music today. (Brad Spolding, Artistic Director The SUBSTATION)

Performances

Akio Suzuki + Aki Onda
Werner Dafeldecker + Scott Morisson – Parallel Darks

The Substation, Newport
January 31
Aligned Exhibition
Akio Suzuki – Retrospective
The Substation, Newport
January 30 – March 5
Ryoji Ikeda – datamatics [ver. 2.0]
NONOTAK – Shiro

Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
February 27
Ryoji Ikeda – datamatics [ver. 2.0]
NONOTAK – Shiro

Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
February 27
Lawrence English + Makino Takashi – Double Phase
The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
February 28
Boris with Merzbow
CORIN

The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
February 29
Terre Thaemlitz – Lovebomb
The Substation, Newport
March 12
Terre Thaemlitz – Soulnessless: Cantos I – IV
The Substation, Newport
March 13
Aligned Exhibition:
Aligned exhibition
Terre Thaemlitz – Reframed Positions
The Substation, Newport
March 12 – April 17



Creation

In 2018, Asia TOPA approached Brad Spolding (Artistic Director, The SUBSTATION) to consider curating a series of events featuring contemporary experimental music from Asia.

Conceived as a ‘festival within a festival’ SUBSONIC, as it was later named, built from The Substation’s success attracting broad audiences for contemporary and experimental arts practice.

Located in Newport, The Substation is a 100-year-old repurposed industrial building, now a multi-disciplinary arts mecca in Melbourne’s western suburbs, presenting an annual program of creative developments, artist residencies, exhibitions, installations, and performances.

“We take a very broad view of experimentation and experimental arts practice” said Spolding, “and I think we’ve been able to show there is an audience for this kind of work.”

For SUBSONIC, Spolding enlisted the support of Lawrence English, a Brisbane-based composer and artist who had been working regularly with The Substation as a freelance curator and performer.

In developing SUBSONIC, Lawrence drew from his experience establishing recording label Room40, which he describes as featuring “people from different kinds of backgrounds, whether they’d be cultural backgrounds, social situations, aesthetic proposals but they’re all very deeply interested in this idea of sound as a language.”

“What ties the label together” says English, “is the intensity of the focus on that idea of sound as a language and the articulation of that language might be in the accent, it might be pop music or hardcore noise, but the interrogation of that material is from two different aesthetically opposite ends.”

Brad Spolding and Lawrence English had both been supported by a Playking Foundation/ACM Travel Grant to travel to Japan.  In 2018, English focused his travel research on the work of Akio Suzuki.

In 2019, Spolding and English travelled together to Yokohama attending TPAM, a globally significant arts networking event, where they were met with Aki Onda and Terre Thaemlitz – two highly influential artists of the experimental music genre.

In creating SUBSONIC, Spolding and English were influenced by Onda’s work with José Maceda, a Filipino ethnomusicologist-turned-composer with a Western art music background who documented musical practices across South East and East Asia.

It was also through TPAM that Spolding and English became more connected with festivals such as ATONAL (Berlin) and MUTEK (Montreal), both focused on digital creativity and electronic music. It was through these connections that Spolding and English were introduced to many of the artists that would feature in SUBSONIC.

The idea to split the SUBSONIC program across The Substation, we well as larger capacity venues at Arts Centre Melbourne was a result of The Substation’s earlier presentation of Merzbow (2019) selling out two smaller performances. It provided Spolding, and Asia TOPA creative director Stephen Armstrong, the confidence to program Merzbow in the 880 seat Playhouse at Arts Centre Melbourne.

Two further high-profile events were identified for presentation at Arts Centre Melbourne, including headliners Ryoji Ikeda and NONOTAK who appeared in a double-bill performance in the 2,600 seat Hamer Hall.

An open, collaborative approach to curation formed between Asia TOPA and The Substation, where multiple voices helped shape the final program. Spolding described the program’s evolution as “A simpatico in terms of how the overall Asia TOPA program developed and also how they worked with The Substation.”




Presentation

In presenting SUBSONIC, Spolding and English featured performing artists alongside installations and exhibitions – a format setting up dialogue and commentary on each artist’s work. Spolding explained “We’re taking a person who is really important to this entire practice and curating an exhibition of their visual arts work and documentation of their practice. You come to the show, see the exhibition and get a really good understanding of their work over decades.”

From 12 – 17 March, The Substation featured Terre Thaemlitz, whose work critically explores themes of identity politics, presenting both her exhibition Reframed Positions, alongside performances on consecutive nights, Lovebomb and Soulnessless: Cantos I-IV. Each performance was followed by a Q&A providing audiences further insight to Thaemlitz’s practice, as well as her presence as public speaker. Some of Thaemlitz’s work, selected by the artist specifically for Asia TOPA, had never been seen elsewhere.

Lawrence English said, “I think what is really valuable about having people like Terre come is that she is very good at opening up these opportunities for dialogue, and the works in some respects kind of facilitate that. I think that structure that she has, of presentation of the performance of the work and then this extended conversation that comes out of that is really useful because it gives her and the work and opportunity to be contextualised in a way that isn’t so much about consumption but about a provocation and subsequent dialogue.”

Hosted at Arts Centre Melbourne, Japan’s leading electronic composer and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda is a giant in the field. He elaborately orchestrates sound, visuals, materials and mathematical notions into immersive live performances and installations.

For Asia TOPA, Ikeda was paired with visual artist Noemi Schipfer and architect-musician Takami Nakamoto, who together form NONOTAK – a new generation of electronic artists influenced by Ikeda.

For the duo, performing with Ikeda was an honour “We are so proud to finally share the stage. The first show we attended by him was in 2012 in Paris and, even before that, he has been such an important inspirational artist to us – and we think that’s been the case for numerous artists of our generation.”

Spolding said that in curating the performance “I think a big reason [Ikeda] agreed to do the show was because he wanted to do it for NONOTAK, because he wanted to be there to help create a platform for younger artists to present in a bigger scale. That was the biggest show that NONOTAK had ever done.”

Boris & Merzbow

On February 29, Arts Centre Melbourne hosted two masters of the Japanese noise genre – Merzbow (Masami Akita) and genre-defying heavy metal band Boris, who performed together in Australia for the first time. Australian artist CORIN was invited by Spolding and English to open the show with her audio-visual work Manifest, a collaboration with Vietnamese video artist Tristan Jalleh.

The performance attracted a vastly new demographic to Arts Centre Melbourne, with The Playhouse (usually home to the world’s finest dramatic theatre and dance) transformed into a mosh pit of heavy metal fans. 50% of audiences who attended were new-to-file for Arts Centre Melbourne, a trend seen across the SUBSONIC programming. Spolding commented “It was really exciting to see those people in the venue I think a lot of them wouldn’t have been there before, to see people queue up outside before the gig because they go to gigs, they don’t go to the opera.”




Legacy

The curatorial framework, presenting high-profile international acts with local and emerging practioners was a platform for audience exposure and career development for Australian artists, as well as a successful strategy for broadening audience engagement with Asia TOPA.

Cross-disciplinary presentation of performances and exhibitions offered audiences an in-depth, multi-faceted perspective on genre-defining artists who have shaped and influenced the development of experimental musical.

Four of the curatorial pairings achieved sell-out performances, with both The Substation and Arts Centre Melbourne attracting new and more diverse audiences. As Spolding described “The metal heads were there on the Saturday night, the club people were there on Thursday night, I think it was a really great welcoming environment for them to come in to those venues that they wouldn’t normally perhaps go to…and I think this was able to show there is a massive audience for this kind of work.”

Spolding believes that this will encourage both venues to take more risks in future, to present more experimental work, and to build from the audience base firmly established through SUBSONIC.

With its focus on electronic and experimental music, SUBSONIC added breadth and depth to the Asia TOPA line-up. The highly-successful partnership had mutual benefit:

  • For The Substation, partnering with Asia TOPA to present SUBSONIC offered an opportunity to work at a much larger scale, both in terms of the calibre of international artists invited to Melbourne as well as developing programming for the larger venues at Arts Centre Melbourne
  • For Asia TOPA, partnering with The Substation helped to access the specialist knowledge of co-curators Brad Spolding and Lawrence English, to connect with The Substation’s existing audience for experimental arts practice, while activating more intimate venues in which to present niche events that would not otherwise have been commercially viable in a large theatre.

Through the process of creation, both Spolding and Lawrence enhanced their networks with artists and festivals around the world. Spolding is already leveraging this experience for a new project for the Melbourne International Arts Festival (Rising) focussed on digital and electronic arts practice. He sees The Substation presenting more electronic, dance and club genre music as a way to engage a broader audience, confident there is an audience for such events, and looks forward to continuing to collaborate with Arts Centre Melbourne.


Images credits:
Ryoji Ikeda Studios – Gallery 5
Michelle Pitiris – Gallery 2, 3
Kiki Papadopoulou – Gallery 6
Michelle Grace Hunder – Gallery 7, 8, ‘Presentation’ embedded image (Boris with Merzbow)
Comatonse Recordings – Gallery 9
Arnaud Deprez - Main Image, Gallery images 1, 4