- About a month ago, I attended a three-day electronic music festival with a total of two women on the lineup. It was great fun, and in a sense inclusively programmed, with local artists, newcomers and electronic music icons alike. Yet there was something undeniably bizarre about an event that catered to a crowd pretty evenly split along gender lines, but whose programme mostly ignored women's contribution to electronic music. So I was pleased to learn that this year's edition of the Wysing Arts Centre's annual music festival, Space-Time: The Future, had a nearly all-female lineup.
Festival curator Donna Lynas explained the programming choice this way: "Life, work, roles, genres, genders are becoming increasingly blurred. I think women are more willing to just try stuff out and see what happens… there is a very subtle shift happening in the world now that is recognizing the need for an alternative way of doing things." You don't need to be an ardent feminist (or a woman) to recognise male dominance in so many creative fields, and Lynas' approach to programming seems an intelligent way to counter it. The bill offered a mixture of genres quite different from the usual festival fare, ranging from alternative rock to leftfield electronic music and folk.
What this "alternative way of doing things" actually consists of wasn't necessarily clear over the course of the day, but it felt as if most of the artists had been selected not on the basis of their gender, but for the quality of their performances or their contribution to the discourse surrounding electronic and experimental music. Serious as that may sound, fun seemed to be the order of the day for many of the artists involved. Ravioli Me Away, a three-piece band dressed in silver jumpsuits and colossal wigs, made for an entertaining start to the day, their short and raucous punk-funk songs set to an absurd video showing a real estate agent's video tour of an opulent home in New York State. The festival's glut of punk-funk seemed at odds with the festival's theme of Space-Time: The Future (unless the future is an eerie rendering of 2004), but I enjoyed Ravioli Me Away's irreverent, gaudy show. Less successful was Yola Fatoush, who sang badly over cheap-sounding beats that you could easily mistake for PC Music offcuts. I had enough after a couple of songs and beat a hasty retreat, only to see the rest of the crowd leave the room a few minutes later.
The brevity of Fatoush's set may have been a relief to those who stuck it out, but by and large the performances were too short. Presumably this was deliberate, so that acts didn't overlap, but it made the programme feel more like a tasting menu than an immersive experience. Sometimes it worked. Hannah Sawtell's set packed an awful lot into its short runtime. The white-hot light of a strobe set on her table flashed fiercely at the audience, accelerating as thick slabs of digital noise sped up and intensified. The cumulative effect over 20 minutes of noise and flashing was wonderfully jarring. Nik Colk Void's set stuck too rigidly to a plodding 4/4 framework, but Karen Gwyer's performance at the second stage was a joy. I've seen her play a couple of times before, and her performances have always seemed to fall short of the bodily experience of her records, but at Wysing her set delivered. As she nodded behind a desk of hardware, her richly undulating grooves turned a Cambridgeshire hut in the early evening into a hot and packed club at peak-time.
Ashley Paul, who had played in that same room just an hour earlier, gave an altogether more sedate performance. She played solo, accompanying her hesitant and eerie singing with acoustic guitar, sax and tape noises. I could have listened to her for hours, so it was a shame that her set ended so soon. Later that evening, Holly Herndon was spectacular. Images of spiralling and collapsing clusters of items (pigeons, Amazon.jp boxes) were projected behind her, along with projections by Mat Dryhurst, who pulled up the festival's Facebook page and started delving into the public-private lives of attendees. It was a powerful, darkly comical inquiry into the subject of privacy, and the perfect complement to Herndon's performance, as she swept finger mics over her laptop to pick up its sounds, processed her vocals live, and got the room dancing to lithe techno rhythms.
Even if all the artists on Space-Time: The Future's bill weren't to my taste, every performance added a distinctly different flavour, and it's testament to the quality of the lineup that the crowd was an even mix of men and women. I only hope the name proves prescient, and that curators pay close attention to inclusive lineups in the future.
Photo credit: Michael Cameron