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Sight & Sound’s digital self-reflexivity

Eastern Bloc festival explores New Media

Currently in its fifth year, Eastern Bloc’s Sight & Sound art festival continues to circumvent narrative clichés surrounding the intersection of art and technology, blazing its own alternative path. With almost a month of round-the-clock installations, performances, and workshops, the festival has set its eye on making a highway out of this path.

Located in Parc-Extension, Eastern Bloc is an arts production centre focusing on New Media and interdisciplinary art exhibitions. The centre is known for supporting young artists and recent graduates. Correspondingly, the pieces in their Sight & Sound festival attract younger and technologically inclined audiences.

In selecting pieces to showcase in the festival, Eastern Bloc Artistic Director Eliane Ellbogen told The Daily that curators took into account “the artist’s process; their critical engagement towards digital media; the quality of [the] project, and how it relates to the proposed theme of the festival.”

This year, Sight & Sound is exploring the theme of the “Black Market” in an attempt to lay bare its dark aura and “clandestine networks.” “We are committed to presenting work that provides strong socio-political content, especially in an era of networked technologies where we aren’t always familiar with or aware of how this technology affects our daily life,” says Ellbogen. “We seek to uncover the mechanisms that dictate how we relate to technology, to demystify the artistic process as it applies to New Media. The proposed theme ‘Black Market’ allowed us to fully explore these concerns, which to a certain extent influence most of our curatorial decisions at Eastern Bloc,” she continued.

With this in mind, one of Sight & Sound’s biggest strengths is its ability to deal with and question its own artistic medium. Replete with self-referential elements, the festival’s installations avoid the aesthetics and gimmicks of traditional high-tech exhibits and, instead, reflect the very nature of technology as it relates to bigger societal structures. Thanks to coherent curatorial decisions, Sight & Sound excels in its goal of deconstructing narratives surrounding New Media.

In The Pirate Cinema, one such self-referential installation, Nicolas Maigret and Brendan Howell expose the ubiquitous yet covert surveillance mechanisms embedded in the virtual black market. The artists create a space reminiscent of a control-room, with three screens each showcasing a different digital, illegal transaction as it happens in real time. Fragments of cultural and pornographic iconography appear on screen, accompanied by a host and receiving IP address, which, in turn, denotes a specific physical location. Here, the artists explore the much-discussed overload of media consumption as the viewer’s attention shifts quickly from product to product. Yet the installation digs deep beneath the surface of digital space, showing its foundations and construing it as an improvised topography where the illegal, contingent, and cultural converge.

With three pieces included in Sight & Sound, Constant Dullaart also injects his own critique of New Media into the festival’s wider scrutiny of technology. Dullaart turns to some of the world’s best-known websites to assess how they have transformed social relations, and how these relations translate to structural power imbalances.

In Terms of Service, Dullaart anthropomorphizes the Google homepage as a search bar-cum-mouth reads the website’s terms of service aloud. Dullaart politicizes the aesthetically-simple, apparently-politically-neutral website, transforming it into a spokesperson against power inequalities in internet user-product relations. The piece sheds a light on the unequal distribution of information inherent in the most common of internet transactions, portraying how often users unknowingly fall into illegality and the cyber black market.

In his video essay Crystal Pillars, Dullaart turns his social commentary to Facebook as a voice actor creates a narrative of personal experiences mediated by a perceived commodification of social interactions. With a deeply emotional and affecting narrative, the Berlin-based artist unveils the ways in which social media has changed the social landscape, transforming groups of friends into networks of contacts, and giving cyber-subjects an illusory sense of control in the curation of their idealized self.

The festival also featured experimental performances, including Erin Sexton’s Phase Space, a hybrid of a lab experiment and rave in which the Montreal-based artist manipulates sugar, copper sulfate, sodium, and other substances that usually belong in a chemistry class to create an enticing visual and auditory spectacle. Using a microscopic camera, Sexton projects magnified views of crystals on a screen while amplifying the sound of the friction made when camera meets matter.

The piece developed out of Sexton’s installation work Crystalline Domains, which, as she told The Daily, was born out of her decision to teach herself how to grow crystals and do basic chemistry. “It started as lab experiments, which I documented, in microscope video,” explained Sexton. Along with “sonifying crystal solutions and crystals themselves, and the documentation process, I’m in the process of turning [this] into audiovisual installation works […] I am a performance artist and a sound artist first and foremost, so I want to do performance work, so [Phase Space] was the culmination of that.”

The performance is at times a parade of textures, at others fiercely grounded in the artist’s physical presence, as Sexton integrates her own body into her magnification and manipulation by making the microscopic camera scrutinize her hair.

“My sound performance is always very physical, it’s always me touching things, me like smashing the table to make feedback, it’s very gritty, but I did a performance a year and a half ago…and then all of the sudden I just decided to put my face down on the table and start making mouth sounds into a microphone and my hair was in the camera that I was using. I love the aesthetic and that sort of raw, visceral, getting right into it, not caring, you know, just going for it…”

Apart from its physically affecting aspect – at a point the artist even gave me a headache by repeating loud, high-pitched sounds – Sexton also engages in a conversation of individual subjectivity by comparing the human time scale to the time scale of nature.

“Nature is very slow, things happen very slowly, especially when you’re growing crystals…it takes a lot of patience and it really makes you reflect on your own subjectivity and your process of perception. It’s about trying to have a dialogue with the time scale of nature,” Sexton explained.

Sight & Sound also features other fascinating installations like Melissa Clarke’s Sila and several workshops where audience and artist interact, which, according to Ellbogen, have been received very positively.

“People are really into the workshop programming because [the workshops] offer a new point of entry into New Media art, another way to engage with these artistic practices,” she said. “The audience also appreciates the opportunity to interact with the artists and our programming allows them to do that.”

“What we are trying to do with the festival and the rest of our programming is let people know – the larger art community, the Montreal residential community, for example – that we are all somehow involved with digital culture,” explained Ellbogen. “Our smartphones are evidence to this.”

The future looks bright for Eastern Bloc, the Sight & Sound festival, and its featured artists, but this is perhaps because they are already ahead of their time. In the meantime, it is for the rest to try and catch up.


Sight & Sound will run till Wednesday, May 29 at Eastern Bloc.