NTS and the ICA. No, not two new shady government surveillance organisations, but a Dalston-based online radio station, and promoter of ‘radical art and culture’ the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Amongst their diverse endeavours, both have invested plenty of effort in promoting the more sonically challenging ends of the electronic music spectrum, and in 2014 NTS was announced as one of the ICA’s ‘Associate Artist Partners’, a pairing that has seen the two collaborate on a programme of events at the institute.
For this latest collaboration, the ICA ran an exhibition entitled Enter The Dragon across 13 days in October, inspired by the 1973 Bruce Lee film of the same name. The climax of the film sees Lee – spoiler alert – barehandedly tackle his clawed opponent in a disorientating hall of mirrors, and it is this setting that the ICA theatre took inspiration from as the space for a series of musical performances. Each of the hour-long sessions saw a pair of musicians responding to and playing off each other in largely improvised performances, communicating – or failing to – from either end of the room on facing stages. The stages were partially obscured by several ceiling high, rotating mirrored panels, hindering easy dialogue between the musicians and creating a bedazzling effect for the audience sandwiched in the middle.
Conceived by Chinese artist Zhang Ding in association with NTS, the series saw all manner of styles grace the space, from the industrial-electro beat poems of Lord Tusk to the snarling punk rock indebted stylings of Wild Daughter. The series culminated with a crushing face-off between PAN founder Bill Kouligas, aka Family Battle Snake, and Gum Artefacts duo, Amnesia Scanner.
Some of the previous shows had felt disjointed, as one might expect from an experimental venture that often set contradictory styles against each other; but the potential for failure was what gave the series a unique point of interest. Although the musicians had been given some limited time to prepare in an open rehearsal earlier in the day, the performances were mostly spontaneous and so carried all the attending aleatoric risks. Moreover, this approach felt right at home at the ICA, which operates as a ‘live’ home of contemporary culture – a place where culture happens, rather than somewhere cultural artefacts are presented in their finished form.
Amnesia Scanner and Bill Kouligas proved more conciliatory adversaries, providing a perfect mix of both contrasting and complimentary sounds. It was also pleasing to see (or rather hear) the two acts improvising successfully together – for example, Amnesia Scanner contributing broken shockwaves of low-end between Kouligas’s stuttered ambience.
What could have felt like something of a pastiche of in-vogue leftfield electronica – huge creaking glacial roars and sharp fragments of broken techno – was much enlivened by Kouligas & Scanner crowbarring in a number of amusingly unexpected sounds. Roaring F1 samples, SEGA videogame commandments and digitalised psychedelia all made appearances between the frenetic post-rave soundscapes. Within the glittering and disorientating space, the artists’ electronic expulsions refracted through each other and spliced together to create a sonic environment that vacillated between intricate detail and a satisfying crudeness.