October 7 – 13, 2019
Artonov is a young festival, only in its fifth edition. Its central concept involves risk, with a strategy of marrying art forms that would most often be separated. Even if a pair of disciplines might have an established relationship, it’s unusual for three or four vocabularies to be actively intertwined in one ‘happening’—music, dance, painting, storytelling, photography, costume design, even culinary adventure. Cross-discipline experimentation can have hot-wired results, but it may not meet audience expectations and must also take a chance on falling prey to flat failure.
Another prominent character of this Brussels festival is the location of each performance. Each day offers a fresh housing in spaces that have historical and architectural interest, many of them with expansive vistas letting in the fading light for an early evening performance. If not completely sold out, most of the events were close to full; even if the capacities of each venue weren’t massive. There was a particular intimacy to most presentations. The thinking-foundation of the festival’s artistic director Vincenzo Casale is Art Nouveau (with its Brussels roots), but there are also strong elements of Bauhaus and Art Deco.
Symmetrically, two of the most successful happenings were at the opening and closing. Set in the lavish Villa Empain, down in the city’s wealthy southern extremity of Ixelles, Il Corpo Dentro brought together the sage Japanese butoh dancer Atsushi Takenouchi and the seated Hiroko Komiya (percussion/electronics), with the third collaborator, Sonia Biacchi, visible via her Bauhaus-styled costume design.
Komiya investigated a spread of small instruments, including a psaltery, mbira, and a Bangladeshi khamak Baul drum, with its wire-to-skin attachment, as well as a range of stones, shells, and small gongs, which she treated (along with her voice) with subtle drone-looping. Takenouchi had been sitting motionless, completely covered by a padded costume with a bulbous retrofuturist Jules Verne-styled diving helmet, stocky legs banded with lateral stripes, and a shoulder nest of red elephantine trunks, each ending with spherical metal baubles. Every particle of Takenouchi’s wiry frame was under microscopic control, as he slowly began to make minute movements in this waddling panda guise.
Takenouchi used the rear of the room as an impromptu dressing room, making dramatic exits and even more dramatic reentries. He returned clad only in a loincloth, his whippet form bent on interaction with the delicately crimped parchment constructions that lay waiting on the floor. He also used two vari-sized shiny red balls as balanced extensions of his body. He invoked multiple dance personas, with a commanding, serene authority evolving towards an impish drag artist episode. Another sequence found him in a striped, flared-out costume influenced by ancient Japanese traditions, a dress-style once popularized by David Bowie. Turkish dervish aspects spun in, and Takenouchi sang out with a shamanic ululation, apple bobbing in corded throat, long locks unfurled. Spatial pausing was put to dramatic use in both movement and music, it was an intense performance with many surprises.
Fusions don’t always produce radical art. The distinguished harpsichordist Bernard Foccroulle played old school Bach and Buxtehude, accompanied by paintings from Fabienne Verdier. Upon entering the 1930s Atelier Colpaert, we were asking “where are the paintings?” but they were soon revealed to be part of the 1624 instrument itself, with each set of compositions requiring the fixing of a new lid. This revealed four paintings in all, mostly greeted by gasps of audience appreciation—apart from the one minimalist streaker, which was met by a suitably minimalist response. Foccroulle surprised with an original work that opened out the harpsichord into a stark zone of isolated phrases, side-stepping the dense sound so often a part of this instrument, and then concluded with a Ligeti piece that offered something akin to a rolling ragtime embellishment within its modernity.
As much as your scribe supports environmental happenings, with mood-altering aspects, Cartographie Sensorielle completely failed, not through its general concept, but simply via the complete blandness of its audio, visual, and tasting ingredients. Piano noodlings emerged out of a laptop, with easily ignored field recordings, twinkly white jewel-lights littered the floor, a ‘chef’ presented the gathering with near-tasteless morsels that seemed like lightly spice-dusted crackling and tea-in-gelatine discs, while there were readings from a tablet. Nothing much happened for around an hour, though some members of the audience valiantly tried to become part of the happening.
There was a similar paucity with Echo, down in the windowless basement of the old home of Belgian sculptor Olivier Strebelle. Solo guitar from Clément Nourry created an entry mood, then basic lighting illuminated a large plastic sheet, behind which Liévine Hubert cast a few basic shapes, dry ice spurting. Its most engaging part was when she held up sheets of slowly revolving or gliding card, capturing old-photograph images projected as a slideshow, highlighting zoomed-in faces in reframed positions.
The odd-gig-out was played by Pierre Hamon, a specialist in pre-Columbian flutes of all sizes, shapes and materials, who has worked with Jordi Savall and Hariprasad Chaurasia. He picked up many relics from his table and cabinet of wonder, describing their background (Medieval, South American), and demonstrating their qualities. He used panpipes (one set being ceramic), a double v-shaped flute with parted tubes, a recorder with inbuilt buzz, a gaita with a bulbous mouthpiece, ankle shakers, swishing condor feathers, and tiny birdcall ocarinas. As the pieces were so short, the set had the feel of a demonstration rather than a concert, but this was undoubtedly a deliberate strategy.
Artonov’s climax was La Tentation Des Pieuvres, the largest-scale happening, at the old school Hotel Metropole, which opened in 1895. A quartet of players whose musical background is mainly in improvisation arranged themselves at the heads of long tables, with inset white-light strips, set out in a star-formation. In the centre was a chef’s station, where Claudius Tortorici had his chopping block, amplified for preparing potatoes, onions, and leeks—he was going to feed the audience. Maguelone Vidal (saxophones) cooked up the governing concept of this happening, joined by Didier Petit (cello), Christian Zanési (electronics), and Philippe Foch (drums/percussion). Popping and cracking electronics suggested the frying of eggs, while Tortorici moved around ceremonially, his chopping part of the percussion, as Foch rummaged through the kitchen utensils and drummed on Tortorici’s body. In the sweltering heat of his own kitchen, the latter might have been more intolerant.
Suddenly, Petit scampered off with his cello, singing in a Corsican fashion, looking for another table to invade. Slice-and-drag went the chef, across his metal surface. Vidal intensified from soprano to baritone, the free-form reaching towards a rocking funk repetition, with amplified food mixer held aloft, switching its tones—our olfactory senses flared once the onions were split open. Vidal began a “ssss zzzz ssss” chant, and all of the players moved to the ringing of handbells, which were sampled and arrayed by Zanési. The ritual shifted gears, the fishy, creamy potatoes were served, and the musicians transformed into waiters (perhaps the ultimate future of all musicians nowadays), who were way more efficient and enthusiastic than most “real” servers.
Even though we might have witnessed other food’n’sonics happenings (but not many), this Tentation established its own singular character, making abstract sonics more palatable (similar to movie-viewers welcoming extreme soundtracks, once married to visual antics), lending the dining experience more of a ritual nature, and allowing a nest of lighting, sound, and visual specialists to assist in shaping a curious communal reality. Strangely, none of this was unnaturally distracting, and all of the aspects aligned in dramatic unity.