syn_ @ Southbank
Having variously stared at the floor and attempted to disappear behind his own hand during the event organisers’ laudatory introductions of him, Ryoichi Kurokawa takes the stage quickly and silently. BFI Southbank’s NFT1 is sold to capacity1 and in near complete darkness, the brightest light source in the room being the glowing apple on the lid of one of Kurokawa’s MacBooks. This is the debut UK performance of syn_ (2011), a powerful and complex sensory experience which is at times designedly overwhelming. The piece is an evolution of cm: av_c (2005), a version of which was presented at Tate Modern in 2007, and the performance is Kurokawa’s first in the UK since appearing at The Roundhouse in 2010.
Just about discernible, silhouetted against a pair of giant projected screens, Kurokawa works concentratedly and fluidly at a pair of laptops, mixing and affecting image and sound which comes now in a stream, now in a barrage, and then in fits & starts. Skittering, incomplete breakbeats loop in and out of beds of white and pink noise; bass or synth throbs, crescendos, dies; the seeming randomness of this least-hummable of music actively combats the tendency of ear and mind to relax into the familiarity of pattern recognition.
It goes similarly with the visuals: they flare up, flash, morph one to another to another, spawn unanticipated lines of connection. Whilst the event notes entreat the viewer / listener not to ‘digest gradually with the head’ but rather to ‘feel simultaneously with the eyes and ears’ I found myself able to experience the work at this pre-cognitive level only for very short periods. The mind’s tendency toward processing and categorisation is too strong and too deeply ingrained to consistently suppress, and even making the effort to do so with respect to higher cognition I found myself incapable of not perceiving the visual elements of the piece as belonging to particular sets: organic, geometric, topographical…
As brilliantly matched as the aural & visual elements of syn_ are, the differences between the acts of listening and looking become starkly apparent. I was aware of sonic elements shifting between the left and right speakers, but never felt that I was hearing only part of the composition. Conversely, the separation of the visuals over two screens (combined with my relative closeness to the stage) meant that it was only possible to take in the visuals from one or other at any one time. The volume and frequencies of the music are judged to be loud but not challenging, whereas the visuals are occasionally tuned to be difficult to watch: too bright and too sudden, bracketed by periods of darkness.
As both a live music and a visual arts experience the 45 minute performance was quite unlike anything I’ve witnessed before: enthralling and powerful, it makes a compelling case for the digital arts as live event.2