This past Friday and Saturday, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA) was host for performances of “Poèmes Électroniques,” billed as a one-hour “work in progress” that combined texts, images and electronic soundscapes into an immersive multimedia event. The performance took place in MOCA’s lower gallery level, accessed at the back of its 75 Bennett Street location.
The first caveat for the reader is to not confuse this “Poèmes Électroniques” with the similarly named but historically famous “Poème électronique,” an eight-minute piece of electronic music by composer Edgard Varèse, composed specifically to inhabit the interior of the Philips Pavilion designed by architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris) for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium.
Synchronized projected visual images, spatial manipulation of sound and shifting patterns of colored lights made it one of the earliest examples of a multimedia installation and certainly the most prominent. “Concret PH,” a shorter musique concrète work by Iannis Xenakis, provided sonics for the building’s entrance and exit.
Nevertheless, that Varèse-Le Corbusier-Xenakis multimedia collaboration of 1958 in large part inspired this contemporary “Poèmes Électroniques,” subtitled “The Bird’s Eye View,” performed at MOCA, which was co-conceived by Christof Veillon and Marc Fleury. According to Fleury, “Poèmes Électroniques” had its origins as a six-hour jam session in Berlin, Germany. From that, they decided to make an “academic” (formal) multimedia event of it, with its de facto world premiere presented here even as a work in progress.
Veillon was born in Paris, France, and studied acting there. In 2010, he moved to Atlanta, where he is coproducing artistic director of Théâtre du Rêve (Theater of the Dream). He is both director of “Poèmes Électroniques” and performer, reading a variety of texts by Le Corbusier, Victor Hugo, Bertolt Brecht, Ahmed Azeggagh and others.
Fleury, who also resides in Atlanta and is best known in the computer software industry as the creator of JBoss, was sound designer for the event, creating and shaping the work’s soundscape in real-time processing. Among his setup of sound-generating and -manipulating equipment was a rare contemporary realization of a 1970s Don Buchla–designed synthesizer, but with 21st-century technology to implement it.
Hamburg-based DJ baze.djunkiii provided additional sound design, spinning vinyl on a pair of Technics turntables to produce input into Fleury’s setup. Headphones allowed him to monitor his own output before being mixed by Fleury.
German visual artist Uli Sigg designed the visuals, simultaneously projected on four walls. Sigg selected, mixed, superimposed and otherwise manipulated images as well as projections of the texts read by Veillon, all in real-time processing of the visual materials.
Although Veillon nominally directed the project, in practice it is a thoroughly collaborative work among the artists involved. The texts, images and electronic soundscape of “Poèmes Électroniques” are unified by a theme of war. It explores, from a mostly Euro-American perspective, how technology has impacted our perceptions of war and its evolution over the course of the last two centuries as well as the evolution of human soldiers and how they are perceived
An excerpt from Le Corbusier’s “Aircraft” is one of the texts that exemplifies that theme, tracing the early wartime evolution of aviation and how it offered up a ”bird’s eye view,” making possible the ability to wage war from the air, the means of warfare influenced by obtaining the visual perspective from above.
That perspective itself evolved, as other narrative and images related — for example, the weapon targeting screen of a drone, and its ability to home in on individual human figures. One could sense evolution of armies of massed soldiers and heavy equipment on the ground to unmanned technology in the air that could wage war on even a selected human being.
But this was not presented in a linear dramatic narrative fashion; rather, the hourlong fusion of voice, sound and images constantly recomposed themselves and the performance environment in a more chaotic, multiplexed experience from which the audience had to weave their own threaded stream of consciousness — a kind of dreamlike experience, even if a topically disturbing one. The overall sonic and visual experience was rich and complex enough to allow that but without becoming unintelligible.