Thousands of people descended on a derelict power station in Moscow for a historic festival of experimental music and art in late February, before work began on transforming the iconic pre-Soviet building into a vast art site set to revolutionize Russia’s cultural scene. The weeklong festival “Geometry of Now,” organized by the private V-A-C Foundation founded by Russian billionaire Leonid Mikhelson, brought together some 50 Russian and international artists and musicians. The lineup featured musicians and artists who work with sound including German sound-artist Florian Hecker, French minimalist composer Éliane Radigue, American-born (and Japan-based) transgender media producer Terre Thaemlitz, and Russian electronic musician CoH, among many others.
The idea was to showcase emerging and established artists without hierarchy or genre distinction from across the experimental spectrum. Suitably, the eight-day festival included a DJ set from dub reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry together with a performance of Radigue’s meditative three-part work Naldjorlak, which began with virtuoso cellist Charles Curtis playing subtle variations and tones while using every part of his instrument, including the spike, as a sounding vessel. The second part was a similarly uncompromising duet for basset horns, and the third was a dynamic interplay involving all the instruments. It was challenging stuff, but a euphoric response from the mostly young audience demonstrated an appetite for such thought-provoking work.
“Every field, like art and music—especially classical and club music—is a separate world in Russia,” said Victoria Mikhelson, an NYU art-history graduate (and daughter of Leonid Mikhelson) who co-produced the festival with Greta Mavica, daughter of V-A-C director Teresa Iarocci Mavica. “Being young and crazy, we went to a couple of festivals and thought you can place sound not only in the museum context but also make people see a sound installation next to a DJ set and ask why those two things can be compared.”
The occasion marked an important transition for the 54,000-square-foot power station known as GES2, located on the Moskva River in Moscow’s hip Red October district. Renzo Piano’s Building Workshop will convert the pre-Soviet structure into a cultural cathedral scheduled to open in 2019.
“Geometry of Now” curator Mark Fell, a multidisciplinary artist from northern England, told me, “We’re in the building at a turning point in its history. It’s being deconstructed as a power station and reconstructed into a museum, so my concern was foregrounding that and the tensions and relationships at play in that moment.”
The festival opened on February 20 with 14 site-specific installations over four floors, while a full program of daytime workshops and lectures, seated evening performances, and all-night DJ sets began midweek. Inside the venue on the first night of performances, the cavernous central nave was lit by myriad electric heaters casting a red glow over the girders’ ornate ironwork. The sense of otherworldliness was exacerbated by vast spatial layers of throat-chanting fused with electric-guitar noise washing up from a stage set among concrete tomblike forms. This was the inaugural live performance, a collaboration between American composer/guitarist Stephen O’Malley and Alexey Tegin, a veteran of Russia’s underground music scene renowned for his work in the Tibetan Bon tradition. Combining diverse influences and sonic materials in mesmerizing dialogue, it set the tone for what was to come.
The next day, the nave’s atmosphere was entirely altered. The Norwegian artist Jana Winderen had installed 27 speakers around the space to create a sphere of sound via field recordings of mating shrimp, seal songs, and other underwater noises she had captured on travels from Belize to the North Pole.
In the main space, various rooms housed audiovisual works, each offering a different multisensory encounter. Among the strangest was Russian artist Philippe Ilinsky’s labyrinth in pitch darkness, for which touch and sound were the only guides. “It’s a message to just listen; we don’t pay enough attention to sound,” Ilinsky noted. After several minutes of inching around the felt walls, it was unnerving—and exhilarating in retrospect—to find a dead-end instead of the exit.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the lineup was a guest appearance from Vasily Kandinsky, who during his canonized early-20th-century career considered sound and vision inextricably linked. His 1932 geometric painting Krass und Mild, owned by the V-A-C, was displayed in a tiny nicotine-stained workers’ break room, complete with samovar and chintzy curtains, up some stairs in the nave. “I just thought it was amazing,” curator Fell said, “to reposition this piece in this space casually, bringing it back not to the museum setting but to the people and in the context of a festival that’s trying to bridge these disciplines. He’s an important ancestor of what we’re doing now.”
On one of two huge floors upstairs, L.A.-based Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon activated her space with dancers moving through an acoustic structure of vinyl, carpeting, and silicone screens in response to a soundtrack that was absorbed and reflected by the materials. Elsewhere, the pure strains of a female vocalist wafted from an elaborately tiled room. Here James Richards presented three near-static video projections, each featuring a subtly shifting detail of tightly packed animals from a Giuseppe Arcimboldo painting paired with an image of moving gas molecules. “This idea of surface that’s made up of a writhing animal mass really attracted me,” Richards explained. “It’s a still thing, but it’s got this motion.”
In the basement, Russian artist Gleb Glonti’s installation in the dark, Thoughts on collective sensory deprivation, recalled an S&M dungeon with shiny black drapes and chains hanging from multiple columns. It came as a relief then to find the composer Laurie Spiegel’s three Respite Rooms, filled with chairs and ambient music evoking a sense of a fictional narrative.
There wasn’t a dud in the festival’s lineup, which blended classical and electronic music, photography, dance, sculpture, and video. And intriguing new collaborations were orchestrated by Fell, who has himself produced numerous electronic records and installations, and is exhibited widely around the world. For example, Japanese composer Ryoko Akama and Russian engineer Boris Shershenkov created a work by moving objects slowly and methodically around two tabletops fitted with microphones. Video projections from two cameras above the tables showed a sequence of abstract compositions, accompanied by a crescendo of clicks, rattles, and whirs as the musicians added layers of sound texture.
Another standout was Thaemlitz’s 2012 multimedia work Soulnessless (Parts 1-4), a powerful critique of religion, spirituality, and binary notions of gender interwoven with deeply personal accounts, a radical proposition about the Virgin Mary as a model of gender transitioning, and graphic medical footage of vaginoplasty surgery. Fell initially had a job convincing Thaemlitz to participate because, when the work was first presented in Moscow five years ago, police shut down the venue (and Thaemlitz has been concerned ever since about the risk of retribution for local people associating with art of the kind). Fortunately, the performance ran without incident this time—despite the Kremlin’s presence just over a mile away.
The biggest challenge for certain festivalgoers was to stay the course for the late-night DJ sets, but they were well worth the sleep deprivation. RP Boo, an originator of rhythmically abstracted footwork music in Chicago, electrified the room, as did pioneering British producer Adrian Sherwood and Lee “Scratch” Perry, at 80 years old still a force of nature.
“It would be nice if in 200 years’ time some researchers digging out the history of what happened focused on this,” said Fell. “In the 20th century, there are pivotal moments—I’m not pretending it’s one of those, but it feels to me to have had that kind of significance.”
Elizabeth Fullerton, a writer based in London, is the author of Artrage! The Story of the BritArt Revolution, published by Thames & Hudson.