On a cold, windy Tuesday evening in the basement theatre of the Japanese cultural museum in Krakow, Siksa brushed by her audience, turned around and spit on the crowd. It was a typical midweek performance at Unsound, Poland’s long running experimental music and arts festival.
Musically, Siksa was a combination of aggressive, accusatory vocals and a powerfully distorted guitar. It was definitely more of a passionate provocation than a technical display but more importantly, it was a distinctly Unsound booking. Relatively unheard of, Siksa was raw, energetic and inspiring in their demolition of the preconception of performance and stomping on their idea of the conservative Polish perspective. They proved an excellent example of how Unsound curators continue to showcase new and local talent without using geography as a driving force to do so.
Manggha, the riverside Japanese culture museum, played host to the majority of Unsound’s early programming. Over the weeklong festival, gold-plated theatres were used for documentary screenings — and a performance by GAS — while defunct hotels, tramway museums and palaces played host to workshops, panels and raves.
After 15 editions in the former Polish capital of Krakow, things run smoothly. Lines are rare, there is always food, fresh, free water is ever present — and beer is affordably priced. Since being famously kicked off the stage in their inaugural festival, the annual October event has become a mecca for intellectually oriented visitors, artists and industry folk.
It’s not only the affordability that attracts people to Unsound; it’s a stimulating and multi-faceted experience. Although the club bookings are some of the best on the European club circuit — this year saw the world debut of DJ Bone b2b DJ Stingray — the festival’s composition only becomes clear after a few days of programming.
A typical day began with an artist panel on a subject like techno-feminism, then would shift to a guest speaker on the current state of psychedelic drug research in the Czech Republic. After a bowl of traditional Polish soup, it would be time to head to the evening audio-visual performance featuring experimental film and live sound. Acts like Vincent Moon and Rabih Beaini’s Hibridos proved especially thrilling. Naturally, the night ended with a rave, often an enigmatic combination of fast techno and UK-inspired bass music.
While Poland is slowly acclimatizing to the culture and customs of Western Europe, its conservative and religious nature didn’t pass undetected, most notably in the perception towards the law. Drug use was seldom seen and not noticeably a large part of Unsound’s clubbing culture. Nonetheless, Unsound audiences kept the massive Hotel Forum packed each for of its three club nights until past 7 a. m.
Taking over a decade to build before it opened in 1989, the Hotel Forum is a jewel of communist architecture and it intimidatingly stands over the Vistula river in Krakow. While it also houses one of the longest billboards in Poland, across its façade, the interior is home to a booming soundsystem and a network of abandoned spaces, all carpeted in faded turquoise with the smell of a poorly ventilated smoking room. Below sits the red-velvet-lined 89, the sneaky venue opened for last year’s festival and used sparingly ever since.
Highlights included Nina Kraviz and her labelmates PTU, who brought their live set from Russia as well as Avalon Emerson, who blistered samples and house beats well past sunrise on the final evening. But it was the duo from Michigan that made the biggest impact the night before.
Detroit ambassadors DJ Bone and DJ Stingray went b2b for the first time to applause from the packed Polish audience, sometime around 6:15 a.m. It turned into a classics set quickly, even going so far as Bone’s Detroit Is…Soul and slightly less original selections like Green Velvet’s La La Land.
Part of Unsound’s efficacy in presenting eight days of programming is rooted in balance. The festival does a good job of giving ears a soft break from the hard noise. Acts like the UK’s legendary Mike Cooper were a good example of that, while also reflecting 2017’s tranquil theme of Flower Power. Midweek at 11:00 a.m., Cooper created a serene and hypnotic mixture of steel guitar loops to a relaxed crowd, most of which were lying down on the verge of sleep, deeply entranced in the Brit’s performance.
Unsound rounded off the week with classical performances by Laura Cannell on the fiddle, electronic ambience by Portland’s Visual Cloaks and the debut of Moondog by Stefan Lakatos. The performance, which featured Indonesian instruments specifically built for that tour, was a brilliant display of synchronization and minimalism. The orchestra, led by Iwan Gunawan, was succeeded by a standing ovation in Krakow’s ICE convention centre.
From the genesis of techno in two of Detroit’s most faithful, to the organic and natural rhythms of the South Pacific, Unsound is the iconic leader in artistic juxtaposition.