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HAPPENINGText: Phil Petty

The Optronica festival marked something of a breakthrough for audio visual art in the UK, being the first event to showcase such a wide range of international VJs, electronic musicians and video artists in a setting at the heart of mainstream culture – the South Bank. The lively riverside area is home to the National Film Theatre and IMAX – Britain’s largest cinema screen – both run by the British Film Institute, which hosted the event in collaboration with multi-media artists and producers Addictive TV and curators Cinefeel.

The festival kicks off on Wednesday night in the packed IMAX, when AV performers The Mellowtrons blast us into space for a playful mix of science fiction and 1960s TV samples, interspersed with more serious meditations on the state of planet Earth. The atmosphere darkens with the world premiere of Greedy Baby by Plaid and video artist Bob Jaroc. The imagery moves from menacing urban landscapes to a cartoon vision of Mexico’s streets, where comic hero Super Bario Man fights for the poor. I’m close enough to feel immersed in the screen, and the thundering techno beats and bright, flashing, abstract sequences make this a mighty – if somewhat overpowering – experience for eyes, ears and brain.

Karl Bartos

A more measured, minimalist performer graces the IMAX on Thursday night, as computer music pioneer and former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos delights another full house with the sound and vision that inspired a wave of not just electronic artists, but whole genres. Kraftwerk songs such as Trans Europe Express and The Model sound fresh and rhythmically crisp through the excellent sound system, while recent works like Electronic Apeman show Bartos still has a gift for writing simple but effective songs exploring life in our computer world. The visuals – largely Kraftwerk-style sequences of bold, graphic symbols – seem somewhat secondary to the music, but with music this good, that’s hardly surprising.

Optronica Lounge

On Friday, the festival steps up a gear with performances at both the IMAX and NFT, while the Optronica lounge, a chill-out space decorated with projections and screens showing video installations from the likes of The Sancho Plan, offers a cool place to relax and grab a beer between shows.

Optronica lounge installation

Impressed by last night’s performance, I opt to see Karl Bartos’s lecture The Interpositions of Media, in which he outlines how different forms of communication have shaped the development of society, exploring Marshal McLuhan’s idea that ‘the medium is the message’. It’s interesting to hear Bartos, a figure so closely linked to modern technology, decrying its limitations (particularly in the form of television), admitting he often doesn’t enjoy using computers, and professing his love for the simple three-minute pop song.

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