Sensoria Festival reports back from Sonar 2017 Written by Jo Wingate


Sonar+D, Barcelona, is an international conference and series of AV exhibits and installations that explore the relationship between creativity and technology. As a cross artform festival, it was of interest to me to explore the latest developments and tools that will shape future creative experiences in visual, music and interactive content.

Initially I was most interested in the Sonar360° dome but as it transpired the highlight for me was Bjork Digital, which proved a creative and absorbing retreat from the blistering (even for Barcelona) heat of the city. This exhibition was designed so that visitors could find themselves immersed in the unique creative universe of Björk, with Virtual Reality playing a major role in the journey.

The first installation, Black Lake featured cutting edge spatial use of sound – participants could move around the space enjoying a full, almost multi layered sound complemented by 2 huge screens on opposite sides of the room. An HD projection of the Black Lake video by LA-based filmmaker Andrew Thomas Huang combined with the music to complete a very visceral, moving, almost melancholy start to the journey. The video mainly captures a dramatic and dark Icelandic landscape and a barefoot Bjork.

Several VR experiences follow in succession including StoneMilker VR also shot by the award-winning Huang. Perhaps the simplest in VR presentation but still very personal, like a one-to-one concert but in a 360 panorama. The sound was remixed into a circular form and the visuals matched with binaural sound. The track details the first realisations that Björk’s relationship with her partner was breaking down. It was written in the same Icelandic beach location that the video was filmed.

The VR experiences seem to grow in ambition and intimacy, some more successful than others – the adaptation of the existing Mouthmantra video for me was the most difficult in some ways (inside Bjork’ mouth) though an interesting concept to actually see Bjork’s vocal chords.

I found Family VR the most immersive, almost dizzying experience, perhaps moreso than Not Get VR, though the latter was certainly ambitious, interactive (hand sensors are supplied) and interesting as the viewer witnesses the formation of a digital moth giantess.

A pretty intense journey finishes with the opportunity to enjoy the many interesting pop videos Bjork has made in collaboration with various artists over the years. There is also a chance to re-visit the super impressive music-meets-science-meets-education Biophilia project.

A very effective combination of film, music and immersive technologies and a great way to enjoy an immense body of work from a true creative pioneer who pushes the boundaries of technology which seem to barely keep up with her vision.

The festival also hosted the immersive Sonar360° dome featuring a selection of pieces produced at SAT (Montreal) by well-known visual artists such as Joanie Lemercier, Will Joung and Nicolas Noël Jodoin. The pieces I tried were all pretty abstract and so made effective use of the format to achieve an immersive experience. Two of the pieces I viewed were:

Tim, directed by Nicolas Noël Jodoin with music from Joël-Aimé Beauchamps:

A man tries to free himself from the domination of time passing, to take back control over his life. During this immersive film, we’re plunged inside tim’s inner world through imagery such as speeding trains and then fall into dreamlike scenery.

Versus by French/Japanese duo Nonotak, with visuals by Noemi Schipfer, questions the relationship between 360° image and sound. The viewer is submerged with visuals, breaking distances between projection, audience and screen. The geometric work gives optical illusions that shatter boundaries and aim to suggest ideas of infinity.

Many of the audience stayed only very shortly for most pieces and the sound bleed at such a massive festival was, perhaps inevitably, an issue. The pieces I viewed had the potential of being seamlessly immersive but perhaps better located elsewhere.

The Virtual Reality hub was immensely popular, high quality work but also difficult to gain access. Of about 20 virtual reality pieces, I found 'Fight' by Memo Akten interesting from a sensory perspective, a VR experience in which the viewer's two eyes are individually presented with different images that trigger 'binocular rivalry'. The mind 'sees' - or perceives - only one of the two images, and unpredictably alternates between them. Which of the two images the viewer perceives, how and when they alternate, depends on the viewer's physiology. Everybody 'sees' something unique, even though they are presented with the same images. ‘Fight’ felt like a great selection for Sonar participants and the piece forms part of a broader line of inquiry about our unconscious tendency to selectively only see what we would like to see.

Other pieces ranged from Home: VR Spacewalk, which puts the viewer in the body of an astronaut through to Dear Angelica, the very first animated experience created entirely in VR.

An accompanying programme of talks included An Eye to a Virtual Future with Google’s principal filmmaker Jessica Brillhart, Within's Jess Engel and UNVR’s founder Gabo Arora explored VR’s specific language for storytelling in this new medium. In VR, the frame, the keystone of audiovisual language, is no longer useful and the speakers also discussed the need for new styles of editing.

Finally the "Lightforms / Soundforms" exhibition of work by Brian Eno felt like a fitting end to the visit. The exhibition included the iconic ‘77 Million Paintings’, a large-scale generative audiovisual installation which is constantly evolving. The work is mesmerising and kaleidoscopic. According to Eno’s calculations, the piece is capable of producing around 77 million different images. The exhibition also features his Light Boxes, ‘colourscapes’ or ‘light paintings’, which Eno considers ‘visual music’.

"Lightforms / Soundforms" also included Eno’s own notebooks which gave an interesting context and also hints of his everyday life butting in on the creative process at times.

The experience overall proved an interesting exploration of immersive technologies but especially inspiring was the way in which music stars were invited to exhibit their multimedia work and, they in turn, invited us into ever more interesting creative insights and journeys.