Geometry of Now: How an experimental sound art festival allowed Moscow to re-discover an iconic industrial building

Mark Fell, curator of the festival, art critic Irina Kulik, experimental electronic musician Sergey Kasich and commissioner of Ural Industrial Biennial Alisa Prudnikova shared their impressions about the festival.

Photo by Robin Peller

On 20-27 February an audiovisual festival organised by the V- A-C Foundation, “Geometr y of Now”, took place at the former power station GES-2. According to the organisers, the main goal of the festival was to study sound via the relationship between music and space. Three floors of the enormous structure were used by artists to showcase their work. Mundane industrial spaces turned into dark labyrinths, shedding their physical shape. For a week, a power station in the very centre of Moscow turned into a cultural hotspot with a 24/7 rave going on inside, occasionally interrupted by a public talk or by a tour of the audiovisual installations on display. British multidisciplinary artist and musician Mark Fell acted as the curator of this major festival, which saw performances and works by over 70 artists from across the globe. After the festival had come to its completion, GES-2 closed its doors for the major reconstruction to resume. It is scheduled to reopen in 2019 as V-A-C’s new contemporary art museum. Strelka Magazine looked at this re-interpretation of a former industrial building and its impact on city life in an attempt to understand its meaning.

Mark Fell, curator of “Geometry of Now”

The main surprise for me was the great number of people that came to the event and the overwhelmingly positive response to the show in general. I always felt very confident about the show becoming a success and reaching out to a wider audience, but I was not aware of how audiences in Moscow usually behave, so that was a good outcome. I think what made this project special was the building itself — for me, it all centred on it. The very special feeling that everyone experienced inside GES-2 can never be recreated because the building will never be the same again. The “Geometry of Now” enabled people to see GES-2, with its history and its future, in a more contemplative way. To experience the building and the spaces in it not just as an old factory, but as something quite alive. For example, during the opening event with Stephen O’Malley, the audience was bathed in a warm glow of energy, and this for me was a kind of acknowledgement of the building’s previous function.

Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev

There was something special about the audience. Despite the large crowds, there was never any trouble, and I also noted the abundance of amazing dance moves, which you don’t often see anywhere else. For me, the most important thing was the interaction of the audience with space and the things we placed within it. The event proved that it is possible to stage unusual, challenging artworks and large numbers of people will come to enjoy them. It turned out that there is a massive audience for this kind of work in Moscow and in Russia, and that opens up a lot of possibilities for the future. I hope this event will inspire the large underground networks of experimental music and sound art in Russia, as well as the numerous institutions that can offer support to such communities.

Irina Kulik, art critic

“Geometry of Now” was a very powerful experience — both in terms of its musical programming and in terms of the incredible space. The GES-2 building has been standing on Bolotnaya embankment for decades; we’ve all passed by it many times, but this festival allowed us to look at it from a different perspective. It created an impression of a changed city discovering new locations within itself. The old power station is a very beautiful building. Architecturally, it is just as fascinating as Electrozavod (another former industrial building in Moscow turned into a creative cluster — ed. note), which sadly had to lose its wonderful art gallery, but the scale is different. The cultural transformation of these industrial monuments has become a tradition: art galleries in former power stations is nothing new. Take, for example, Tate Modern or the lesser known but just as impressive contemporary art museum in Shanghai, which also boasts a big chimney. So it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a new trick or an old one; it works just fine. But in the case of GES-2, there’s a certain sadness in the fact that we will never see it again the way we saw it during the “Geometry of Now” festival: as a romantic ruin.

Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev

It would have been nearly impossible to preserve this sense of an abandoned, surreal space belonging to an altogether different order of things, this feeling of lawlessness reminiscent of the early days of the rave movement. The most amazing thing about GES-2 was the interplay of its concert programme and installations and the architecture of the building. In one of the festival’s most impressive works, Theo Burt’s installation, “The war will feed itself,” the audience found itself in a dark room with a window into another gigantic industrial space completely out of reach and with its shape and size incomprehensible. The only way of glimpsing it was by looking at the stroboscopic flashes of multicoloured light. It remained almost virtual. As for the musical performances, I was most impressed by the two opening acts: Stephen O’Malley and Alexey Tegin. It was the only concert to take place in the gigantic boiler room. This music fit for a shamanic ritual made you feel as if you were in a kind of industrial temple.

Sergey Kasich, experimental electronic musician, performer, sound artist, Strelka Institute alumnus

The “Geometry of Now” was a fine festival that could compete with any of its European analogues. I received a mixed impression of it, but overall it was positive. The musical programme represented a line-up of some of the best experimental and semi-experimental practices of the recent years. It was the right decision to combine in one event both Russian and foreign artists. The live performances proved that Russian musicians are just as skilled as their foreign colleagues.

The exhibition attracted the most attention. It was basically one of the largest sound art showcases to date in Moscow. For many people, this festival was their introduction to this kind of art. And undoubtedly one of the main successes of this event was that the scale of the festival allowed this “non-attractive” format to be legitimated in the public consciousness.

Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev

But I also have to highlight the unfortunate fact that there wasn’t a single active and prominent Russian sound artist present in the programme. None of the most critically-acclaimed performers — both from Russia and abroad — had the honour of demonstrating their work at the “Geometry of Now”. I have nothing against the Russian artists who were invited to take part; they are my friends. I’m happy that they received this opportunity and provided a very decent showcase of their work. But for many of them, it was their first experience of installation work, while the really experienced artists, who have either received or have been short-listed for many prestigious awards, were left out. In my opinion, this was a serious flaw of this festival.

I hope that after “Geometry of Now”, crowds will start flocking to the Moscow sound art gallery, SA) )_gallery (the only permanent gallery project dedicated to sound art in Russia — ed. note) forming queues stretching from the Moscow Central Circle station “Rostokino”, the public transport hub located closest to this unique place. It hasn’t happened yet. By the way, the gallery has existed for 3 years now, and every two months there’s a new sound art exhibition on display.

An important point that the “Geometry of Now” managed to prove was that even ultra-experimental sound can become fashionable if marketed and promoted properly. The presumed elitism and narrowness of this movement makes no difference. The wider audience is just as interested, except that too often it has no access to the information flows that transmit promotional materials for the important events in the world of experimental sound.

Alisa Prudnikova, director of regional development at ROSIZO-NCCA

Cultural life in Moscow is characterised by over-saturation and other kinds of institutional density when compared to the cultural life in the regions. “Geometry of Now” saw the triumph of our love for short exclusive events and the “last chance to see” effect, and there’s nothing surprising about that. I think the organisers didn’t expect the crowds to be quite this large and intentionally did nothing to speed up the queues.

Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev
Photo by Ivan Erofeev

It was a great pleasure to see such interest in this project. I think people went primarily to look at the building. And the fact that “Geometry of Now” became an homage to this industrial ruin was a really clever move because it is very important to pay your respects to the space that soon will have to be transformed in order for your project to be realised.

In my work, I have to deal with industrial culture almost on a day-to-day basis. Just like working with heritage or with contemporary practice, this implies interaction with a particular context. When we were starting the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, one of the goals was to place the factories on the cultural map, to allow citizens to observe what constitutes the essence of urban identity. And when you are dealing with a non-functioning industrial space, it’s always a challenge for the curator in terms of the decisions to be made and the aspects to be underlined. Space can be helpful in highlighting issues that are important on a societal level, or it can turn into a metaphor for the urban environment, reflecting the new laws of urbanism.

Text: Alexandra Sivtsova
Translation: Alexandra Tumarkina

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