Flatpack is Birmingham’s annual festival of “films, performances, contraptions, and surprises”, taking place in numerous venues across the city. Now in it’s tenth year, it features everything from major feature films from international directors to cult animation and historical classics. From its inception, Flatpack’s curators have shown an interest not only in film as conventionally defined, but in exploring the possibilities of the many innovations that have made film possible throughout the cinematic age, and of the complex interweaving of light and sound upon which the art of the cinema depends. For 2016 this latter focus was granted its own strand, called Optical Sound, prompting further investigation from your intrepid Fluid Radio correspondent.
The programme for Flatpack 2016 was incredibly diverse, covering a wide range of styles and approaches from around the world and from across different eras. If I was to try to describe a ‘Flatpack aesthetic’, I would say it tends towards the handmade, taking pleasure in revealing moving parts and inner workings; towards going all-for-broke and risking failure in pursuit of magic, rather than aiming for slick, safe, and polished. From this perspective, analogue grain and the clatter of the projector aren’t peripheral distractions, but part of the experience — an acknowledgement of the materiality of the filmic medium that is present even in ‘digital’ works (light and sound being always continuous, even if the spell that invokes them is stored in binary form). The Optical Sound strand embodies and perhaps epitomises this aesthetic.
In many of the live audiovisual performances, the audio and the visual were very much equal partners, being produced through the same process or created specifically to be combined together. The rhythms produced by Dutch duo Optical Machines’ analogue synthesizer triggered pulses of LED light that were fed through a simple-looking but cleverly-designed series of slotted cards. This produced linear patterns of light that, when projected, resembled film strips speeding up and slowing down, becoming three-dimensional before fading back into primeval haze. Brian Duffy and Chris Plant married epic synth pop to visuals created using cathode ray televisions, prisms, and other devices, producing a soaring and moving opera for the 8-bit age. Mothwasp used footage of Birmingham, including topical scenes showing the destruction of the Central Library, to accompany their doomy, metally guitar and drums.
Another common form of performance across the Optical Sound strand and the festival in general was the live score. Larva’s soundtrack for Chris Marker’s classic film ‘La Jetée’ chose drama over melancholy in its interpretation of the story’s uncanny final twist, but for the most part their music merged unobtrusively with the visuals, as one would hope. The piece they played afterwards, using the Birmingham and Midlands Institute’s organ to shake the room, was also very good. Giant Axe Field’s musical accompaniment to a mashup of films from magic surrealist director Georges Franju was relentlessly intense, the seemingly odd mix of drums, bass, electronics, and tenor horn proving effective in creating towering pillars of white-hot metal. I really enjoyed Andrew Woodhead’s piano accompaniment to Francis Thompson’s dazzling, kaleidoscopic portrait of New York in the Fifties, and Bruce Baillie’s ‘Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness)’ was sensitively soundtracked by Hannah Marshall’s sonorous and driving cello. The pair were joined by the talented Corey Mwamba on vibraphone and Bruce Coates on saxophone to accompany an utterly bizarre collage film by Lawrence Jordan, featuring women with bulbous heads and fish swimming on the moon.
As well as music accompanying original or found visuals, the Flatpack programme also included several performances and installations that worked more abstractly with the relationship between sound and vision, or that delved into the mechanics of analogue equipment to produce surprising and imaginative results. Graham Dunning’s incredible ‘Mechanical Techno’ involved the artist building up a tower of spinning vinyl records to create thumping rhythms and loops — not normally my musical cup of tea, but the imaginative and theatrical nature of the performance made this one of my festival highlights. As their name suggests, the Sound Book Project made sounds with books — hitting them, modifying them with elastic bands or cables, ripping them to shreds, reading from them — in a charming and inventive performance. Chris Plant’s installation ‘Frequency Response’ drew on correspondences between colour and music theory to create a soothing, subtle blend of light and sound.
Of several films about musicians on offer, I was only able to catch Joern Utkilen’s portrait of Norwegian musician Arvid Sletta and Greg Butler’s documentary about confrontational performer David Thomas Broughton, both of which were very enjoyable. I particularly liked Utkilen’s direct addresses to the audience, and his footage of a miniscule Sletta dwarfed but yet somehow not quite lost in a gorgeous Norwegian landscape (maybe I’ll get there one day). The most informative event I attended at the festival, however, was Dr. Clare Jonas’ fascinating and thought-provoking talk ‘Seeing Sound, Hearing Colour’, during which she shared insights from her research into synaesthesia and her experiences as a synaesthete.
I’m still a little disappointed whenever I see people invent imaginative new ways of creating sound, and then use them to create conventional music led by regular beats and simple melodies. Breaking new ground on a musical level isn’t really part of Flatpack’s remit, however; for that, Brummies have to wait just a few days until BEAST FEaST kicks off at the University of Birmingham. Festivals such as Flatpack breathe life and colour into the city, and it was great to see events packed out with film and sound fans; with such backing, let’s hope that the now-decade-old project will continue to bring on the magic for many years to come.
Image: Graham Dunning, photo by Jonathan Waring