Signal and Noise 2011

Black Moon/Hole Punch Number 9 (2010) by Amie Siegel
Black Moon/Hole Punch Number 9 (2010) by Amie Siegel

Ever shot through a hole in a dimension on your way to another universe? If you have, I hope you’re okay, because those rifts in space and time sure can do a number on any clean underwear you have. For those of us who haven’t experienced multi-dimensional travel, though, there’s still the Signal & Noise Festival to open up doors to a terrific new world.

Signal & Noise features a pangalactic array of incredible interdisciplinary media and sound artists. This year’s programme is inspired by old forms and the offerings are many and varied. By taking a fresh look at outmoded formats, each work hints at a unique insight into the future.This idea just crackles like static on your brain. So much of the popular idea of the future depends on new technology and techniques, but it’s easy to forget that we’re just building on the work of people who came before us.

Variations on the theme include Aleksandra Domanović’s 19:30, an anthology of TV station ID tags from the former Yugoslavia, and Anu Sahota’s similarly themed Network Service, which uses station tags from CBUT-TV (the old analog CBC station in B.C.).

The Western Front will host Slow Action, a 4-screen, 16mm film show by London-based Ben Rivers in collaboration with science fiction novelist Mark von Schlegell that juxtaposes film of real-world island paradises like the Canary Islands against projections of imagined future utopias. While locales like Western Front and Pacific Cinémathèque will be used throughout the fest, VIVO Media Arts Centre will be hosting the lion’s share of the events.

Another notable festival offering, The Experimental Theremin Orchestra, was birthed from the womb of creativity that is VIVO’s Studio Lab (SLAB). Invented by Russian physicist and musician Léon Theremin in 1919, the theremin is an electronic instrument played without actually being touched. On the outside, it doesn’t look very musical, usually having an appearance very much like a normal box with a large, metal loop on one side and a rod sticking into the air. But those odd metal bits are actually electrical antennae, and the air they’re sticking into is filled with energy. How close a performer’s hands are to the loop and rod controls the volume and pitch of the instrument. The machine was used extensively for both melody and swooping, out-of-this-world sound effects in science fiction movie films like The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Theremin believed that one day his machines would replace organic instruments in the orchestra, and this year, SLAB is taking inspiration from that vision. Led by artists-in-residence David Leith, Rob Symmers and Kate Rissiek, a roomful of quizzical vibronauts are currently wiring up the circuits of their very own, homemade high-quality theremins.

“It’s a real theremin and it works quite well,” said Symmers of the design the group is building from in a break from instruction – he’s a workhorse machinist and kinetic sculptor with more than 30 years under his belt in the world of electronics. “The range is excellent, and that seems to be the defining factor.” Symmers also talked about the possibilities of applying the instrument as a control interface for other equipment and the possibility of manipulating the sounds from the machine through dance.

“The dancing thing,” Symmers started, “Theremin did try it before, it was pretty much a regimented type of dance. Maybe it won’t be dancing, it may just be funny body movements, but it will be entertainment.”

Leith is an audiovisual artist who, along with guitarist Scott Aitken, interpreted Edgard Varèse’s Octandre for last year’s Square Waves festival. Leith also teaches electronics workshops at VIVO when he’s not busy crafting his own modular synths.“Theremins just seem to have this certain fascination for people,” he said from VIVO’s kitchen, which is situated just next to an archival room stuffed with video-art and gear dating back to the late ‘60s.

“It’s still very mysterious to people even though it’s been around for so long,” Rissiek says of the instrument’s bizarre sound. She’s been a lifelong theremin lover since seeing early sci-fi movies as a kid, and now she makes weird sounds for a living – recent releases from her solo act, Rusalka, include such titles as Perpetual Repetition in the Forbidden Conduit and Missing Skin.

According to Rissiek, something that has attracted a lot of moths to the proverbial theremin flame is that “you’re not physically touching it so it’s reminding you that everything is connected and everything is energy. That futuristic aspect to it is sort of symbolic of the exploration and realization that surrounds the theremin.”

Though their battle stations weren’t yet operational on my visit, you could swear the place was buzzing. SLAB is an electro-magnet for the criminally inventive. Participating artist Ryan Amadore is whipping up a mad-science electrosonic painting apparatus with his machine, while Julie Andreyev is planning to work with her dog, Tom, on the project to generate some canine acoustic mayhem – everyone has something great in the works.

Then you have Frederick Brummer of Vancouver New Music, whose top-secret sound sculpture Dimension X will be revealed at VIVO June 23, along with the Experimental Theremin Orchestra. All we can tell you at this point is that the piece will involve the gear from VIVO’s extensive archive. Brummer says “it will be more about function than form.” Sexy. His work seeks out the most direct interaction between user and end phenomenon, and since he’s also part of the Experimental Theremin Orchestra, the SLAB group is hoping to tap into his unique skill set in their quest to control other machines or phenomena.

“We’re working with an open concept here and things are yet to take shape,” said SLAB Coordinator Dinka Pignon about the risky nature of the orchestra project. “We all know what a theremin is and what an orchestra may sound like, but the outcome of having 15 people improvise on instruments they’re only learning how to play, while using them to also control visuals at the same time, is rather unpredictable.” The audience is warned on the Signal & Noise website: “Blurring the lines between experimentation, creation and public presentation, the event will be a risk-sharing experience for both the performers and the audience.” It’s like sci-fi jazz, man! Nobody really knows what exactly is going to happen, and that’s just beautiful.

The theremin’s antique futurism is an aromatic blend of the past and possibilities, highlighting festival coordinator Amy Kazymerchyk’s philosophy that “talking about history is implicit in talking about the future.” VIVO’s SLAB project is a window into the insane amount of work that goes into the heavily thematic fugue of a festival that is Signal & Noise.

Signal & Noise runs June 23-26. Check out the full schedule at