The opening night of roBOt08 gathered Bologna’s most polished looking urbanites to a 13th century palazzo, the scent of cologne hanging muskily on the air. Not a disheveled 4chan dirtbag or a K-ed out philosophy student in sight, the debonair crowd might have looked better placed on a yacht than at an electronic arts and music festival posing as an arena for sociopolitical ideas.
For the central theme of roBOt festival’s eighth edition was “#XLR8”, a social media friendly referral to “Accelerationism”; the contemporary political theory which suggests that the most appropriate response to late capitalism is to use technology to accelerate it’s tendencies (specifically those seen as harmful or problematic) as a form of subversion. Think of the hyper-fast, faux-corporate sound and aesthetics of the divisive PC Music artists, or the stylized club violence of Total Freedom and Gatekeeper. Yet both subversion and contemporary digital aesthetics felt a little flat against Bologna’s magnificent backdrops.
It’s not often one gets the chance to down a Jäger shot while sprawled on a beanbag atop Italian Marble or experience waves of sound and light crash against the same 13th century vaulted ceilings where legend has it an incarcerated prince spent his nights strung up in a cage...But there we were.
Thursday was started off gently by Snow in Mexico’s fuzzy synth-led shoegaze in the Palazzo de Re Enzo’s main hall before Flako kicked things into gear for the spangled crowd. Wandering up into the Sala de Enzo was rewarded with an experimental performance from Yen Tzu Chang using what can only be described as some sort of theremin lightsaber shrouded in party fog, shortly followed by the world’s “first robotic lego band”, Toa Mata. The palazzo offered three stages besides installations from local artists scattered locally and a darkened booth in the courtyard providing an opportunity to capture the perfect selfie bathed in projections of geometric lines. Several ‘subversive’ Snapchats later and it was time to turn in.
Friday saw the festival expand to second site, BolognaFiere, and the change in scenery summoned a more conventional festival atmosphere. After enjoying the previous evening’s festivities in the 13th century palazzo and most of Friday afternoon wandering through Bologna’s medieval squares, porticos and bombastic churches; the bowels of a gargantuan exhibition hall framed by strobes and kids in snapback hats waving their limbs in the air felt vaguely reassuring. There were strong sets from the UK contingent at both locations, with Evian Christ sending out a mesmerizing chorus of operatic shrills and grimey drum machine snaps that might be described as “belligerent dance music” to the swelling Red Bull stage crowd.
Back at the palazzo, Glasgow producer Koreless spun out an enjoyable fractured stream of ambient loops and transcendent bass beneath enormous twinkling chandeliers. The night came to a close at BolognaFiere with an energetic hour provided by Ben UFO and Jackmaster playing back to back on a main stage thudding under alternating red and blue spotlights before Nina Kraviz pulled in an ocean of anticipation and happy, steaming bodies through which to wade quickly in search of the exit at around 5am.
On Saturday Scott Herren (as Prefuse 73) supplied the perfect intimate yet undemanding soundtrack for browsing one’s social media feed of choice to, so the discovery that Thursday’s beanbags had been whisked away was met with mild disappointment. Caterina Barbieri brought some consolation with her intense crescendo to nowhere built from psychy electronic loops, before Clap! Clap! perked up the main hall and Rabit played to a smaller audience in the blue mists of the Sala Degli Atti. The crowd swelled as the sound became eerier and more aggressive. Here was the “accelerationist sound” journalist Adam Harper had spoken of at a panel talk earlier that day with the festivals founders; the dungeon door thuds and industrial blasts that make up certain factions of so-called “vapor wave” and “shadow rap”.
Harper’s talk echoed the sentiments within the official festival manifesto, claiming that after a decade of “retromania” and excessive nostalgia, independent music appears to be reconquering a future “close to the hyper-technologized and interconnected present”. The “XLR8” theme promised a platform for ideas in political, cultural and social discourse to congregate, not unlike the meeting point at any large public event. But like said meeting point, occasionally ideas can get lost or distracted along the way.
Aside from the broadly digital sound of the line-up’s artists, the festival’s IRL experience didn’t quite match the thematic vision proposed by its organisers. Many of the artists namedropped on Saturday’s panel weren’t present on the line-up and the experience in person didn’t feel particularly accelerationist. Where was the official app? The Segway or hoverboard shuttles between venues and the promotional discounts at Uber or Airbnb? Where were the hooded millennials huddled around designated electronic charging points and QR-coded hotspots? Who were we supposed to tweet at and where should we have checked in to? These are just some of the precocious questions that a millennial journalist might have jotted into her notes app over the weekend.
But there comes a certain point at any festival when smartphones inevitably die and we’re forced to let go of any wifi-tweaker urges to enjoy a rare musical experience unmediated by SoundCloud, iTunes or Youtube. Saturday turned into Sunday at the capable hands and sounds of Nathan Fake, Clark and John Talabot, with some twitchy techno from Siriusmodeselektor and a rousing, sweaty set from Daphni with Floating Points to keep pulses up. TIGA played a set that felt as retro as any performance from an artist whose last hit single came out in 2001 could: unsophisticated visuals of seductive capitalist excess (big cars! big houses! big objectified bodies!) paired with vacuous electroclash vocals and dated beats. Eyes were rolled and tweets were mentally drafted but never sent.
The highlight of the night (and indeed of the festival itself) was unquestionably Holly Herndon’s performance with Mat Dryhurst and Colin Self. The trio were cast as silhouettes before simulated landscapes displayed on an LED curtain; interactive scenes as generated live by Dryhurst on stage using software specifically created for Herndon’s performances by Tokyo based artist and software engineer Akihiko Taniguchi. Self and Herndon crafted a convulsive vocal harmony veering between primal scream and aquatic yelp as Colin danced around the stage in a shirt proclaiming “Gender is Over” that was just visible against the Otaku lairs and tunneling screensaver worlds adorned with pixelated ramen, pears, steaks, and mixing decks.
The scenery was occasionally punctuated by earnest messages typed live on screen by Dryhurst. The ubiquity of smartphones and other personal electronics in 2015 make any distinctions in the credibility of biological versus digital modes of experience and communication laughable, and here was a performance that set out to demonstrate this in a profoundly optimistic and intimate way. An IRL digital experience at it’s best: bountifully human, expressive, sophisticated and curious, a synergistic marriage of bits and atoms, of flesh and data. And for a moment at least it felt natural to leave our constant companions – those friends that were 'Designed in California' – switched off to bask instead in the uplifting sights and sounds that the final night of roBOt08 had to offer.
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Words: Ella Plevin