Another Bubble

5 October 2022

The Unsound festival has never stood still, and the path it has taken over the last two decades has changed its status entirely. Is it still just a music event?

Unsound 2022: Bubbles

By Bartek Chaciński

The festival will definitely happen. How do we know this? Given its recent history, when it overcame the pandemic restrictions by moving entirely online, we can rest assured that in October Kraków will once again resound with artists from all over the world, showcasing myriad styles. Unsound presents unusual aspects of the dance scene (Phelimuncasi, Loraine James) and improv (the Ghosted trio), fascinating takes on pop music (Caroline Polachek, Lucrecia Dalt) and artists breaking down boundaries between trends and styles (the latest enterprise of the multi-award-winning composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, London-based audiovisual artist Wojciech Rusin), and brings together artists from different countries (Aho Ssan from Paris performing with the Polish cellist Resina). That’s the sound of contemporary music, especially if we forget about chasing mass popularity and obsessing over English-language audiences.

Although Unsound is based in Kraków, the organisers have regularly exported the brand to New York, London, Adelaide and Warsaw, and ran events with local artists and curators in 13 cities in the post-Soviet region as part of the Dislocation project. They have been working closely with the Ukrainian scene for many years, long before this collaboration has taken on the extra dimension of solidarity during the time of war. They have been serving as a link between artists from the East and West, as noted by “The New York Times”. The paper describes the event as drawing artists from all over the globe to Kraków and serving as an entry point to the West for musicians from Central and Eastern Europe. The expanding team of curators, led by the event’s Australian founder Mat Schulz and executive director Małgorzata Płysa, has created perhaps the most international music event in Poland, widely covered by the media at home and abroad.

The theme of this year’s Unsound is Bubbles – a popular term in discourse on the internet and the era of social media. We’ll also be raising a toast with a glass of bubbly to celebrate the event’s 20th anniversary. We’ll be keeping things low-key but remain hopeful for the future. “Sadly, after the pandemic it seems that we are facing an even greater crisis of the ongoing war and economic collapse, bound to affect all industries,” says Płysa. “Culture and festivals associated with it are likely to be the first victims of cuts. On the flip side, the pandemic has made it abundantly clear how much we all need to take part in in-person events, so I am hopeful that we will overcome.”

The two decades of Unsound have chronicled changes which have occurred in Kraków over the period. The festival presents the city in a somewhat different light than major literary or classical music events. Of course it makes full use of Kraków’s concert halls, clubs, cinemas, theatres and churches; at the same time it has converted the Soviet-era Feniks club into a space showcasing experimental electronic music, presented sound installations in the abandoned Miraculum factory in Zabłocie, and held a spectacular audiovisual performance by Hildur Guðnadóttir with her music from the TV drama Chernobyl at the former Telkom-Telos factory. This is not the image of Kraków familiar from postcards, but it is all the more interesting for it.

One of the most important festival venues has been the massive, modernist Forum Hotel, hosting the club section of the event. Unsound has played an important role in revitalising this space, abandoned for decades and best known for the giant advertised banners covering the façade. Although the anniversary celebrations will be held elsewhere, the organisers admit that finding a replacement has not been easy. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to find spaces which haven’t been gentrified, but we have a few venues in mind to host festival events before they become the latest hotels or restaurants,” says Płysa. “We are also returning to spaces familiar to audiences from before the pandemic, such as Kijów Cinema, the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre and the Kraków Philharmonic.”

The evolution of Unsound has also brought an expansion towards visual arts, dance, literature, fashion and even fragrances. The starting point is frequently a bold curatorial decision, such as presenting concerts by secret artists (the Surprise edition in 2015) and banning photography at concerts (the Interference edition two years before that). All this means Unsound is frequently discussed in contexts beyond music.

When asked about the event’s greatest achievements, the organisers note its very survival in its independent format without becoming a mass, commercial festival, and using Unsound’s model to create new works as well as presenting existing ones. This year has been particularly fruitful, with Unsound publishing a series of recordings of its commissions. The transnational enterprise crossing the boundaries of composition and improvisation Weavings led by Nicolás Jaar, and Zofia Hołubowska and Julia Giertz’s Community of Grieving are available now, and the album recorded by the Danish sound artist Sofie Birch and Polish vocalist Antonina Nowacka is due out soon.

The third achievement, perhaps the most important in the context of today, is the creation of a loyal artistic community around the festival – a highly international community, as shown in Kraków every autumn. “For us, culture has always been an important means of building a community, breaking the stereotypical image of the world painted by the media and bureaucratic requirements,” says Mat Schulz explaining how these relationships are maintained throughout the year. They become all the stronger during times of crises such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which have a powerful effect on the artistic community.

“It’s very important that Unsound has allowed us to create a platform giving us access to many people all over the globe, not just in the West. It means we are able to present important ideas all the way from Poland to Vladivostok,” adds Schulz. “This changes our perspective as to what we should do in any given situation.”

It also certainly changes how we perceive the event which has gradually shifted from importing and exporting music to promoting ideas of the contemporary world over the last two decades.

Bartek Chaciński
Editor of the cultural section of the “Polityka” weekly, music journalist and member of the Council for the Polish Language. He works with Polish Radio (Channel 2) and runs a music blog Polifonia. He has published a series of dictionaries of the latest Polish words and phrases.

Photo: Marina Herlop by Anxo Casal

The article published in the 3/2022 issue of “Kraków Culture” quarterly.



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