NONOTAK’S Shiro is a hypnotic encounter with pure aesthetic, says Robert Reid
It’s not often – at least for me – that one has a purely aesthetic encounter. NONOTAK’s Shiro is just such an experience. No possible narrative, no story elements to hang on to, no signals to construct a world from – it’s a crashing ocean of sound, light and shadow. A digital rock concert built out of manipulated data.
NONOTAK is a collaboration between visual artist Noemi Schlipfer and architect-musician Takami Nakamoto. For Asia TOPA it was paired with Ryoji Ikeda’s Datamatics (ver. 2.0). Ikeda is best known for towering works of digital light and dark twisted into furious energies that overwhelm and consume the viewer and, if I’m honest, I really only booked because I want to see Ikeda’s work (which I don’t end up staying for). So I’m glad to have been introduced to NONOTAK.
‘Shiro is a world built of static and feedback that is too big to take in all at once and instead invites you to fall into the void that somehow lies behind the screens of flickering patterns’
The publicity material speaks in breathless admiration of the pairing of Ikeda’s visual art and glitch poppy soundtracks, but I’m a bit more sanguine. This kind of work has been floating around the internet for decades (I won’t deny Ikeda has been a pioneer of it) and its influence can be found in the work from artists as varied as Girl Talk and Eclectic Method to DeadMau5. I can’t help but wonder if this reflects the insularity of festival programmers, recognising innovation in artists who headline other festivals but not seeing it everywhere else at the ground level. Ah, but maybe I’m being too cynical.
Shiro is a world built of static and feedback that is too big to take in all at once. Instead, it invites you to fall into the void that somehow lies behind the screens of flickering patterns. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, but something I’ve always imagined. It draws inevitable comparisons with the cyberpunk canon: Tron, Neuromancer and Akira. It’s also hypnotic in the same as screensavers and the old win amp visualiser; but infinitely more complex.
Four screens are arranged in a cross at the centre of the stage. The two performers, Noemi Schlipfer and Takami Nakamoto, enter and stand in between the axes, a screen each between them and the audience, and a screen behind each of them. Both have a simple stand that holds their instruments before them.
From where I’m sitting I can’t quite see her rig, two laptops certainly, but he has a laptop and a control surface on which I can almost make out the logo (maybe Ableton or Akai). The laptops, grey rectangles, occasionally catch the light of the projections and reflect it back as irregularly angled parallelograms that interrupt the strictly organised patterns that flicker on and off the screens. There are also small table-mounted striplights that flash occasionally, illuminating the screens from behind with a diffuse, almost purple, glow, which calls to the organic, the spill of unconstructed light.
‘The bodies of the two performers are an anchor to the real which I constantly have to resist to make the illusion work’
The music establishes itself gradually. A regular beat, four to the bar, is laid down and then grows into a relentless ocean of glitchy clicks and scratches and subterranean dubstep beats. Nothing so loud as to feel it in your body too much, a tiny bit at the start but either it stops or I become quickly accustomed to it. I wonder how much more affecting it might have been if I could feel the rhythm of the geometry physically in my body throughout.
Under and above the industrial percussion there are whispering synth sounds, breathy chords and an almost church organ-like harmonics. There are silences and darkness that occasionally punctuate the onslaught and a few of the audience applaud, these absences signalling to them that one movement has ended and another is to begin, instead of how I (and I think most of the rest of the audience) experience them, as stillness to contrast everything else.
At his deck Nakamoto rocks back and forth to the rhythms, twisting and flicking the dials and slides on the control surface, banging his head like a heavy metal guitarist. Schlipfer, on the other hand, is serene, gently, almost imperceptibly, keeping time to the rhythm with her body.
The patterns that flow across the screens emphasise the three dimensionality of the experience. They create a dance of geometric permutations. The light flickers over the performers, carving them out of shadow, throwing their silhouettes onto the screens around them, the concert hall walls behind gently sculpting them with back light. For all the movement, I find that it’s a very static experience.
It’s remarkable how distracting the human body is. It’s only after 10 or 15 minutes that I understand not to watch the performers but to watch the patterns on the screen themselves. I try to defocus and let the racing shapes fill my vision, try to lose the sense of physical presence in the space in order to hover in the penumbral in-betweenness on the border between light and dark. I try to hold onto that moment of obscurity as my eyes want to adjust to the sudden shifts, make the fleeting flashes of intense dark that obliterate perception of anything other than the light or its absence that happen sometimes in snap black outs at the end of a show.
The bodies of the two performers are an anchor to the real which I constantly have to resist to make the illusion work. Maybe it’s the theatre maker in me; real bodies in space have always trumped anything on a screen. Occasionally the patterns become boxes that frame the performers; at other times they obscure them entirely, especially once I‘ve learnt to let go of my focus on the live presence and instead leave my perception open wide enough to take in the whole frame, defocusing my gaze to somewhere in the middle.
The screens pulse and undulate, they’re almost hypnotic. I imagine this must be an amazing experience if you’re high. The pulsing black and white patterns remind me of Bridget Riley’s op art. The optical illusions, the sense of movement even though nothing’s really moving. My eye is tricked occasionally into seeing colour where I’m pretty sure there is none. Everything is black and white: the screens are white, the performers dressed in simple basic black. But I see flashes of green, like little screen glitches, that sometimes cross the screens. The contrast between the hyper motion of the patterns and the noisy industrial rock with the stillness of the whole is here again. There’s little movement in the crowd. Too much movement in your chair or looking around the room breaks the illusion, anyway.
I’m not convinced Hamer Hall is the best venue for this. The patterns of light spill out past the screens and fall on the irregular surfaces of the stage and the auditorium. Sometimes this has a pleasingly immersive effect, almost drawing us deeper into the illusion, enveloping us in the waves of light; but more often they break up unevenly and the wood panelling is lit that gives it an ugly organic cast.
The silhouettes of photographers moving around to get their shots is also very distracting and, on a further nitpicking note about the venue, the show goes up at least 15 minutes late. While you get used to expecting this at smaller independent venues – nothing ever goes up on time in Melbourne indie theatre – you expect rather better punctuality at the Arts Centre.
I only manage to stay for NONOTAK’s piece. As much as I wanted to see Datamatic’s (ver. 2.0) by the interval I can start to feel the beginning of a migraine coming on – not surprising really, after keeping my focus as wide as possible 50 fifty minutes to let the manic test-pattern lights and mechanical pounding beats flood into my head. I’ve still gotta drive home, and have an early flight in the morning, so I decide discretion is the better part of valour, and slip away.
Shiro, by NONOTAK, performed by Noemi Schlipfer and Takami Nakamoto Presented at Hamer Hall as part of Asia TOPA SUBSONIC program curated by the SubStation, February 27.