Blurring the lines

The Lafayette Electronic Arts Festival returns for its fifth year

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Josh Ott performing at the 2018 Lafayette Electronic Arts Festival.
Courtesy of David Fodel

The Lafayette Electronic Arts Festival (LEAF) is a place for hackers. Not hackers like Gary McKinnon or Albert Gonzalez, but hackers like Brian Eno, disassembling and refashioning our collective vision of what music (or as Eno might say, “non-music”) and art can be.

Like Eno, the diverse artists performing and presenting at the fifth annual LEAF (March 15 and 16) all believe, in their own ways, that the world is most interesting when you manipulate it constantly. Whether it’s putting washers and glass beads on the strings of a baritone guitar to create otherworldly sounds, or creating audio-visual art through the manipulation of electronic signals, these are artists who have devoted their careers to continuing to search the haystack for hidden surprises even after they’ve found the needle.

Digging is an apt metaphor for the festival’s focus on media archaeology this year, looking at old technology in new ways and vice versa, first with a day of performances followed by a day of artist talks. Festival director and curator David Fodel landed on the theme after seeing a pattern in the type of work emerging from artists he liked.

Finding patterns is a fascination for Fodel, and a central theme in most of his work. He often uses the motion of humans — moving about spaces like art galleries and downtown intersections — to create real-time abstract projections and soundtracking. He’s worked with scientists to do similar work using solar wind data to generate patterns and sounds, and with medical professionals to capture brain waves during a seizure.

“A large LED panel was mapped to a variety of notes,” Fodel explains. “And so as brain-wave activity would change, you would hear and see the patterns that were represented.”

With LEAF, Fodel takes pleasure in curating the work of others who are blurring artistic lines, like American-born, Europe-based light and sound artist Derek Holzer.

When Holzer’s not using electronic signals to create psychedelic light and soundscapes, or building a new instrument, or creating new code for audio-visual projects, he’s teaching other people how to do it all in workshops around the world.

“I always tell my students that I do this for two reasons,” Holzer says. “One was that I failed every math class I ever took in my life and second was that I failed to learn how to play guitar when I was a teenager.

“If you told me when I was a teenager that I would be building synthesizers and programming computers for audio-visual stuff in my 30s and 40s, I would have laughed because it was just inconceivable to me that I would do these things.”

A vector synthesis by Derek Holzer.

As a teenager experimental music piqued Holzer’s interest, particularly a German band called Einstürzende Neubauten who used jackhammers and shopping carts and other oddities to create sounds in their music. It made an impression on him, but not the kind of impression that immediately drove him to the work he does today. Instead, Holzer became a jeweler and metalsmith.

“I left sound for a long time but came back to it when I realized that I’d been mixing up music and sound,” he says. “I actually wasn’t interested in composing with notes and tempos and things like that. I was interested in sound as another kind of thing.”

Holzer’s vector synthesis laser performance on Friday — and corresponding talk on Saturday —  has military roots.

“Computers as we know them are a product of World War II for the Manhattan Project,” Holzer says. “Computational stuff came out of the need to be able to calculate very accurate artillery trajectory tables and things like that.”

Holzer, on the other hand, will be making a light show. His talk will dive deeper into the military origins of computer graphics and the pioneering computational artists who usurped those technologies, like Paul Desmond Henry. An Englishman, Henry combed Army depots in the desert in Southern California in the 1960s, buying up old mechanical gun calculating computers and bomb calculators and using them to make drawing machines.

Joshua Ott will also be creating real-time visualizations like Holzer during the performance portion of LEAF, but his creations will be set to the sounds of Janet Feder’s baritone guitar. A Colorado native, Feder became “obsessed” with her father’s guitar when the guitar was bigger than she was. At 5, her parents bought her a ukulele, which the young Feder adored and learned on, but she was so obsessed with her father’s guitar that she literally dreamed of how she could learn to play using only the top four strings — the only strings her tiny arms could wrap around the body of the guitar to reach. She played that way for more than a year.

It was eventually classical guitar that became Feder’s passion, the works of J.S. Bach functioning as the verbs of her musical language.

“I did that as religiously as I’d done anything in my life,” Feder says.

And then she had a “falling out” with classical.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. “By then I was a classical guitar player. I was doing wallpaper gigs and weddings. And I was miserable. Then one day someone very dear to me made a random suggestion: Doesn’t anyone play guitar with anything but their fingers? It was like a peanut butter and chocolate moment. How do these things work with guitar? And I started putting objects on my guitar.”   

Janet Feder is a prepared guitarist. She places objects on the strings of her custom baritone guitar to create otherworldly sounds. Courtesy of Janet Feder

Using common household objects and other less readily available odds and ends, Feder makes her custom nylon-string baritone electric guitar weep, wail, creak, ring, sizzle and pop with the technique and flair of a classically trained guitarist. She creates a new atmosphere, other worlds, like listening to bells ring a cathedral or the echo of a plucked string in a canyon. It’s often hard to believe Feder is the only source of sound.

Fittingly for a soul raised on Cream, Traffic and The Beatles (not to mention her adult love of Tool and Nine Inch Nails), Feder will speak about psychedelia’s role in not only art, but across all aspects of life.

“I realized we humans have been pursuing [psychedelic experiences] for so long and then getting in our own way, to disrupt it and deny it, criminalize it, this thing that is really at the base of who we are as a human organism,” Feder says. “What is more psychedelic than just the organism? The smallest things under a microscope? What’s more fascinating than the base elements of who we are? What’s more analog than that? Nothing. We eventually attached technology to it. We’ve tried to make psychedelia digital and yet I think we’re confused about what that means. … It’s this quest to digitize this thing that fundamentally reaches us in the most analog way possible, through that thing we call our soul or spirit, that thing that’s not tangible.”

More tangibly, libi rose striegl (stylized as such), an artist and Ph.D. candidate in intermedia arts at CU Boulder, will be bringing some reimagined pieces of so-called obsolete ’80s technology for festival attendees to interact with: a Vectrex video game console and an Atari with a game that was programmed specifically for the console in 2010.

Striegl studies obsolete technologies and questions of convenience, productivity and dysfunction. She also reworks dead technologies, like dot matrix printers, to run on contemporary codes to create art.

“To me it’s this sort of fascination with what leads to things being determined no longer useful,” striegl says. “I think that same logic applies to people because we discard people who don’t function the way we want.”

As an artist, striegl enjoys the “constructive constraints” that come from using old technology in modern art, but also the escape these pursuits provide from the “homogeneity that modern user interfaces encourage.”

“If you’re no longer offered your set of 20 Instagram filters, what happens?” she asks. “They’re both sides of the same coin: the constraints of the device in its slowness or with unfamiliarity with its language, but then the endless possibilities of escaping what has been normalized.”

Both nights of the Lafayette Electronic Arts Festival will be free and open to the public.

ON THE BILL: Lafayette Electronic Arts Festival — featuring Derek Holzer, Janet Feder, Joshue Ott, L’Astra Cosmo, Sean Winter, Angie Eng, Jason and Deborah Gernagozzi and libi rose striegl. 7 p.m. March 15 and 16, Center for Musical Arts, 200 E. Baseline Road, Lafayette, leafcolorado.org/leaf2019/.