Alpha-Ville Festival 2010

New digital arts festival, Alpha-Ville, dished up a diverse mix of electronic music, interactive installations and futuristic cinema in east London last weekend. Despite some teething problems, the event, under the theme of ‘Visionary Cities’, brought together a fierce line up of talent.

The festival kicked off at the Whitechapel Gallery with a series of architectural films by the Bartlett School of Architecture, inspired by David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, a tale of addiction and obsession set in a parodic future. One film renders London’s Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre as a post-Christian temple of fire, while another depicts a gloomy island ‘resort’ from which there is no escape.

Multimedia installations located around the site included a startling and disturbing project by artist Kafai Choy, who records movements and transmits them to others’ bodies via electrical signals. Apprehensive but curious, I offered myself as a guinea pig. Choy attached pads to my arm which transmitted pulses that made it flex and bend in a pre-set way. It was an unsettling experience that seemed as though it belonged in one of the Bartlett’s dystopian visions. But far from delving into more sinister areas, Choy is exploring the possibility of creating a library of movement, and wants to work with choreographers to record dance sequences.

Elsewhere in the venue a mix of emerging and established musicians (including The Boats, Giganta, Uniform, Actress and Soundhacker) performed live sets. But the festival retained a disconnected feel, mostly due to the fact that the main gallery space was out of bounds, making accessibility difficult. Frustrations were forgotten, though, when crowds gathered on the top floor studio to see renown experimental musician Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud), who built up multi-layered soundscapes and storming beats that transfixed the audience. Later Bola (Darrell Fitton) created a perfect cinematic score to accompany stunning views over London from the studio’s windows.

The following night, Rich Mix in Shoreditch provided a much more streamlined space for Alpha-Ville’s ‘live cinema’ programme. The audience filed in to watch electronic composer Zan Lyons build up haunting viola loops and stormy base sounds to accompany his atmospheric, dream-like film. Later, female duo The Space in Between created visuals in real time: mesmerising constellations of dots suggesting fireflies, cells and fireworks.

Despite some compelling performances and driving beats over the two days the atmosphere remained a little dry, with self-conscious head nodding and beard stroking being the only signs of appreciation until the odd act got the crowd moving (like ‘hyperdub’ artist Subeena on the first night, and deranged French duo Gangpol und Mit on the second). The festival’s ‘Visionary Cities’ theme seemed like an afterthought, only brought together by the opening films and the closing act, a powerful collaboration between musician Pixel and artist Graphset, exploring a 3D virtual city.

But despite its shortcomings, Alpha-Ville brings to the capital a welcome platform for talented digital artists and their forward-looking visions, and it deserves the chance to iron out its first time hiccups. I sincerely hope it returns next year to find a firm place in the capital’s creative calendar.

Alpha-Ville Festival took place at the Whitechapel Gallery and Rich Mix Cultural Foundation on 17 and 18 September 2010.

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