Article categories: Issue 57
March 11th, 2010

Melbourne’s festival of sound art, Liquid Architecture, originated in 2000 at RMIT University, when RMIT’s Union Arts offered the ((tRansMIT)) student sound collective the chance to stage a festival promoting the talents of ((tRansMIT)) members. Since then, Liquid Architecture has grown to the point where it is now attracting top-line international guests, while still holding true to the promotion of local talent.

Bruce Mowson and Nat Bates. Image: Mark Derbyshire

Liquid Architecture’s program explores sound art in everything from the moving image to popular and experimental music, contemporary arts practice and new media forms. This year, special guests include Tony Conrad, a formative influence on the Velvet Underground, and robot orchestra maestro Pierre Bastien. The program also features specially commissioned works by leading Australian sound artists at Melbourne’s Planetarium.

Simon Sellars spoke to festival directors Nat Bates and Bruce Mowson about Liquid Architecture’s past and future.

How has Liquid Architecture evolved over the years?
Bruce: The festival has grown at the maximum sustainable rate every year – and only just sustainable! Liquid Architecture 2 was a comfortable expansion, with just a couple of interstate guests. Liquid Architecture 3 took on a gallery-exhibition program, larger-scale performances and our first international guest, Thomas Koner. Liquid Architecture 4 was highly successful and featured French composer/filmmaker/theorist Bernard Parmegiani, a master of his art.

What’s your approach this year?
Nat: Liquid Architecture 5 is growing internally, consolidating existing partnerships and building new ones. Brisbane, in particular, has become a major part of the festival for us, but, essentially, our philosophy and approach remains the same: we try to put on things that don’t get heard often, ranging from emerging artists playing their first gigs to major international figures. We try to be as blind as possible to genre boundaries every year, as a way of re-presenting or re-contextualising something that we find interesting.

How did Liquid Architecture branch out into Brisbane?
Bruce: Going to Brisbane was borne out of raw curiosity and ambition: “Hey, let’s do other cities”. At a cultural level, we are keen to see how other groups work and to bring Melbourne material to them. Stimulating a conversation has always been a prime objective.

Sound art can be a difficult discipline for the uninitiated. Does Liquid Architecture preach to the converted, or do you think it’s genuinely opened the public’s ears to new ways of listening?

Bruce: Punters love the material – it’s just a matter of getting them there and into the right frame of mind. The most common response is that the material is different, unlike what they’ve heard before, and that it touches something within them. We just need more resources to bring people in!

Although I know people who’ve had their ideas about music turned around by an AC/DC concert, so whether we go out of our way to open the public’s ears to new ways of listening or not is somewhat irrelevant.

The Sydney-based What is Music? festival often has similar artists on its bill, but Liquid Architecture’s program of installations and gallery projects is a substantial difference. What other points of divergence are there? Is there room for both events?

Bruce: What is Music? trades on the ‘carnival’ format: the freak show comes to town. It’s fun, and a good way to promote art music and bring people in. Liquid Architecture comes out of Media Arts’ polytechnic approach, which in turn came from English art schools in the ’70s, where the aim was to work in a variety of media, but without sacrificing expertise. But your comparison shouldn’t be about Liquid Architecture versus What is Music?. It should be about experimental music, which is a very alive culture – look at what teenagers are doing with their guitars and computers at home – against the dead culture of orchestral music, opera, ballet and so on. These establishment forms only survive because of the huge sums of money, infrastructure and promotion behind them.

In previous incarnations of Liquid Architecture, there was an abundance of academically orientated lectures and talks, but there seems less of that in this year’s model.

Nat: It is perhaps misguided to view this year’s program as having less of that than in the past. We just want to have the talks more focussed and overflowing in quality rather than quantity. Lectures and talks have been there since the start and always will be, because we come from a discussion-heavy background and value information exchange and critical debate.

Do you reckon film and its focus on the marriage of sound and vision has brought the art of sound design to a wider audience?

Set-up for Bernard Parmegiani's performance, RMIT Storey Hall, Liquid Architecture 4, 2003. Image: Mark Derbyshire

Nat: I don’t agree that film focuses upon the marriage of sound and vision. In fact, the multitude of audio-visual possibilities is mostly ignored in favour of conventions working to continue satisfying expectations. This results in the most conservative of mediums: film and television.

Bruce: Do many people appreciate the design of the chair they are sitting on?

Do you think the steady rise in the popularity of sound art and appreciation, in Melbourne especially, is due to the predominance of crap, bland electronic music in clubs and on the radio?

Bruce: No. It’s because there’s a certain amount of people who are passionate about sound art, and they push it.

Nat: It’s also directly related to the accessibility of technology. The means of production has become more and more available to the average person, so consequently more people making stuff means that fringe activities grow also. But you’re partly right: it’s like the Internet, where there’s an abundance of information suddenly available but so much of it is crap you don’t need.

Bruce, I’m wondering if you could have the last word. In Nat’s essay “Hotel Womb”, he wrote that he considers much of the music he listens to as an “acoustic uterine wall”. Do you share that view?

Bruce: A what?

Simon Sellars

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