Puddle after puddle, rusted steel hangs above piles of rubble as crumpled automobiles line the walkways of the post-apocalyptic, industrial wasteland that is the RL Hearn Generating Station—"the star of Unsound Toronto."
That is rarely the description of Friday and Saturday-night electronic music event in Toronto. Poland's Unsound Festival takes the atmospheric interpretation of venues to depths not experienced often in Toronto. Since adapting old synagogues and fourteenth century cathedrals into musical and artistic platforms in Krakow, Poland, the directors of Unsound, Mat Schulz and Gosia Plysa, took to Toronto's Port Lands on June 19 and 20 for their next challenge.
However, it was the idea of Jorn Weisbrodt, the artistic director of Toronto's Luminato Festival, to reinvigorate the old generating station. After attending Unsound in Adelaide, Australia he decided to contact Schulz and Plysa with his pitch, armed with pictures of the Hearn.
Schulz and Plysa were immediately intrigued and dove into the potential of bringing such an immense structure back to life—this time for the public. Decommissioned in 1983, the Hearn has been used as an event space before, during Luminato's opening gala for example, but always by invitation only. This was something both Unsound and Luminato were key to change.
The notion of Unsound adapting spaces is nothing new. The festival, which originated in Poland in 2003, has been steadily developing for over a decade, all the while maintaining integrity to its industrial, cellar-bar roots, regardless of its inauspicious beginnings. "The first one—financially—was a complete disaster, and also in other ways," says Schulz. "At this club, where we held the second night of the festival, bouncers came on stage and turned down the levels because they didn't like the music—and then the club threw us out."
After touring a number of European cities and becoming a non-profit organization along the way, the festival arrived on North American shores in 2009. "The initial idea was to screen silent Warhol films with 16 mm projectors, along with live scores of electronic music or experimental music," Schulz tells THUMP. "When I went there for a research trip in 2008, to work out how we could do this, certain key people I met said, 'do Unsound here, you could do it, it will work in New York.'"
Its success, with the help of funding from the Goethe Institute, and the Polish Cultural Institute of New York propelled Unsound further forward, although Schulz says the event itself only worked because the setting was right. Five years on, Schulz says the scene has changed. "It wasn't that present—especially techno and certain kinds of electronic music," he says, "it was really underground." Seeking to expand the horizons of Unsound, the Krakow edition of Unsound in 2010 would prove to be a milestone for the festival, featuring Unsound's largest commissioned project to date. Innovations at Krakow, such as Solaris paved the way for further breakthrough projects, most notably experiences such as Ephemera, which debuted in Toronto at Unsound. Previously, it had been presented as an installation and created as perfumes.
The project was conceived at a dinner party in Berlin and features custom-made scents by German niche-perfume maker Geza Schoen and accompanying music by Ben Frost, Steve Goodman (aka Kode9), and Tim Hecker—the latter two both claim PhDs as well as musical talent.
The experience is based upon the notion of Synaesthesia, which is a sort of fusion of the senses involved with audible and olfactory journeys. From broken vacuum cleaners to Ash Wednesday, the three artists described their memories linked to scent—the same experience that Ephemera is trying to induce. "It's kind of fun to play on those expectations mixed with really abrasive and experimental sounds in the installation context," says Plysa. Comparing the perfumery world to an underground improv-jazz scene, she says the idea didn't come to fruition without doubters. "Connecting those two worlds in terms of experimental music and experimental perfumery was very provocative and some people really hated it," she says. "It actually works though—as an immersive kind of experience."
Toronto was given the opportunity to experience the Ephemera live show, which has taken place in New York, Adelaide, and Krakow before. Inside a sealed, extremely foggy and dimly lit room at Toronto's Hearn Generating Station, the scent of the Drone perfume and its corresponding sounds immediately overwhelm you. From the moment you gain entrance to the exclusive room, the sensory overload, consisting with the waist-level lighting and the surrealist nature of the ambient music of Tim Hecker, forces you to consider and question what your experience consists of. Staying true to its name, the experience concluded, here for a moment and gone the next.
Unsound's platform in Toronto is based entirely within Toronto's Luminato Art Festival. "We're reaching a wider audience, more eclectic audience through the arts festival framework," says Schulz. "People will come and be like, 'What's that?.'"
Schulz proved this joy, as crowds clad in black clothing and horn-rimmed glasses filed into the Generating Station began their experience. While expecting a wide array of performances, Unsound did not disappoint in curating a program consisting of highlights like electronic pioneer Morton Subotnick, Robert Henke, Atom TM, Robin Fox, MFO, Ben Frost, and Emptyset. While Friday's program was slightly more downtempo and atmospheric in nature, Saturday evening's festivities were highlighted by the Canadian debuts of a number of Polish, German, and Canadian acts specifically in the intensity of the environment when complemented by the experimental music of groups like RSS Boys.
The wide range to which Unsound reaches in part, is due to their attitude towards art interpretation says Plysa. "We can't really separate high art from underground art anymore. All those tendencies are no longer accurate in a way." By bringing the grunge of Unsound into the art festival context of Luminato, experimentation is finally breaching grounds previously deterred by lack of interaction between the fields. "It's not just a simple booking and gathering artists together, but working with the artists and creating new work," says Plysa. "I think the audience is important as well," adds Schulz. "In Krakow it's like a big laboratory in a sense—they're aware that the new commissioned projects and collaborations won't be perfect, it's part of the process."
The notion of imperfection is visibly present in the Toronto edition of Unsound. The abandoned setting played the perfect stage for musical and artistic experimentation—something even the Toronto crowd seemed in favour of. "When you have such a special space," reflects Schulz, "it's part of the performance itself."