Voices of Sónar+D for ME by Meliá! An interview with Curator José Luis de Vicente
During my trip to London for ME by Meliá, I got the chance to meet José Luis de Vicente, curator of the Sonar + D festival. He was in London for this conference: „Voices of Sonar+D for Me by Melia“, where he was joined by Robin McNicholas, one of the founders of the acclaimed study Marshmallow Laser Feast, pioneers in the creation of experiential content for virtual reality, performance, and installations.
KALTBLUT: How long have you been a curator for Sónar+D? José: I have been doing this since the beginning. In 2013, for the 20th anniversary of the festival, we moved to a new venue and that is when we started Sónar+D.
KALTBLUT: How did you start working with Sónar? José: I had worked with Sónar before, in 2005-2007, when I curated SónarMatica, a multimedia exhibit that took place during the festival. And I was of course a Sónar visitor and user for many years before that!
KALTBLUT: How do you explain the loyalty of Sónar festival goers over the years? José: Sónar is a whole experience. It doesn’t feel exactly like a regular festival. The magical thing about Sónar’s audience is that they attend the festival to discover and to be presented with things that they know nothing about. And I think that Sónar has done a very good job of identifying things that 2 or 3 years down the road end up getting a lot of attention.
KALTBLUT: Some of the topics this year are Artificial Intelligence, experience design, sound technology… how do you pick the themes? José: Well, we spend the better part of the year watching what is happening in the creative communities that we are interested in and close to. How the push of new technologies, new methodologies are influencing them. We’re like sensors in a way, detecting something interesting happening in that space or hearing about this promising technology that enough artists and creators are taking an interest in for us to sense that there is the possibility of creating a new language, a new study, a new way of doing things around it. We’re trying to cover the creative incubation period, that space between the moment something comes out of the lab and the moment it reaches the mainstream. Festivals are a collection of results, but Sónar and Sónar+D show you the whole process, from the moment a new tool emerges when it’s only an idea, to the moment when something that looks like a sketchy prototype ends up being presented in front of 25.000 people at Sónar. Our job is to have conversations with creators in their studios, to talk about the ideas they’re pursuing and to use those as indicators of things we want to explore in further details.
KALTBLUT: Are the people who attend Sónar the same people who are interested in Sónar+D? José: Not necessarily. There are many different audiences and communities using the device of the festival in various ways. Some people felt a bit too old for the Sónar experience and ended up joining Sónar+D. Most complex festivals are not a single entity but many micro-festivals rolled into one. Sónar is a great example of this. So there are people who gravitate towards the outdoors, stages in the sand and drinking beer, and there’s others. On Friday, Sónar starts at 7am and finishes at 7am the next day. No human being can stay awake and alert for that long! So we said OK, maybe Sónar+D starting at 10am that same day isn’t what they want. But they still came, there was an audience for that! And then two years ago we decided to start Sónar+D earlier than the music. So Wednesday is now dedicated exclusively to Sónar+D, and then on Thursday Sónar and Sónar+D start overlapping. The no-music concept on Wednesdays was a completely radical idea at the time. But again, it worked! People really liked the pace, because with Sónar so many things are going on at the same time that it is hard to focus on just one.
KALTBLUT: Does the way you curate Sónar+D intersect with the way Sónar is curated? Like an artist performing at Sónar who would also happen to illustrate some of the themes that are highlighted at Sónar+D? José: Absolutely. And this is what I love about my job. The shape and form of concerts are changing so much these days. Sometimes there are many ways of exploring an idea on stage. We work very closely with the booking department and the audiences are also starting to demand more and more from us. An artist like Holly Herndon, one of this year’s big names, is to me a quintessential Sónar artist. She is not just coming here to do a live show but she’s also here to explain why research and A.I. are important to her. Another example is three years ago with Bjork. She didn’t play live, she showed her collection of VR projects, she did a talk and played a DJ set. And the festival could accommodate her and the different things that she wanted to do. For us, this is the future of festivals. One of the shows I am most looking forward to this year is by Daito Manabe, a Japanese creator/technologist who always comes to do very radical experiments. He’s collaborated with A.I. researchers from Japan who are trying to capture and use neural activity in the brain to try and reproduce images that we think about. And he’s doing these live experiments in front of thousands of people. We will have succeeded when the line separating Sónar and Sónar+D will be blurred to the point that you won’t know for sure if you’re joining a lecture or attending a concert or if you’re part of a live experiment. During regular festivals, you’re usually watching one thing after another but nothing really happens in between. That is not the spirit of this festival which is full of in-betweens, like those conversations that happen about what you’re watching, hearing and seeing.
KALTBLUT: As a festival goer what first attracted you to Sónar: the music or the technology? José: So I’m from the generation that got into music during the late eighties and early nineties when the concept of clubs exploded. In the late eighties, the acid house movement and the rave culture emerged, and they were as much about the community as they were about the sensory experiences. They were immersive and interactive. Then in the early nineties, we had the first emergence of net culture, of interactivity as a new medium, and during these seminal years, music and technology were both part of a new cultural paradigm. Then in the second part of the nineties internet became more mainstream and that changed everything.
KALTBLUT: It seems that a lot of people don’t have access to digital technology because of a lack of knowledge. Do you think that we should make more of an effort to educate ourselves? José: I don’t think it has to do with access but we have reached a saturation point. Social media has become totally transversal in society whether you’re 7 or 87. It is the new mainstream medium, the new television. The problem with technology is that it can be very opaque in its ways and its intentions. We’re seeing it with clickbait and fake news, and in the way our attention is exploited and turned into personal data. We’ve had a very non-critical attitude towards the people running these systems and how they were making money and mediating some of the things that were being used against us. One of our goals is to help people develop a critical approach towards technology and explore what it wants from us, who controls it and how. What habits is it making me adopt? What is it allowing me to do and what is it distracting me from? We should neither celebrate nor demonize it. This is more and more the kind of conversation that we should be having around technology. The older generation doesn’t necessarily have the knowledge to make sense of all the news, posts and ads that they are flooded with on social media, to understand that these things exist together but are very, very different when taken separately. So it’s important if we want to have a mature relationship with these systems, for everybody to be able to interpret them.
KALTBLUT: You’re part of so many other festivals… are you a workaholic? José: Another word for workaholic is freelance! No, I really like my job. Each of these platforms allows me to do different things. I love exhibitions because they are an authorial medium that can be very powerful. I love Sónar because it is an important celebration of all the things that I am interested in, but I also like doing smaller events. They have a different energy. Every conversation, every idea has its own code, I could never put them under the same umbrella so they become different projects. But it’s a lot of fun and you meet a lot of people and you discover all these exciting works, which to me is the most awesome feeling in the world. I am also working with 8 other festivals called We Are Europe and we are trying to identify 50 people doing groundbreaking work, discussing and thinking about what the next internet will be.
KALTBLUT: Can you tell us a bit more about the topics that will be presented at the festival this year? José: It is all about knowing what is the emerging language that creators are taking an interest in and how are they channeling their ideas. The language now isn’t moving image or sound or interactions because you can’t just pick one. The key word is the idea of experience. What I noticed is that these creators are researching, investigating and innovating how we experience the world. It can go from reimagining museums or live concerts, it touches on theater, film, art… today this willingness to rethink how we engage with the world is transversal. It has to do with the emergence of VR and AR, with immersion, with the fact that today works of art have to be around you and not just in front of you anymore. This is one of the ideas that we are exploring this year. There’s also the advent of A.I. and quantum computing which represents a change of paradigm of what the experience of computing is. Science has always been a big theme for us because of the relationship between the scientific and the creative communities which is very fertile ground. With neuroscience, the brain turns out to be the ultimate creative interface for both artists and scientists. And of course, there’s sound, one medium that is super important and relevant to us.