Entering the old railway tunnels behind the Loco Klub on the opening night of Submerge Festival, one of the first things I see is a woman dancing naked to swing music on a stage opposite the bar, performing the same looped sequence of movements again and again.
This is Jade Montserrat, a researcher and performance artist using her body as a platform for exploring narratives of otherness. The piece, Shadowing Josephine, refers to dancer Josephine Baker, one of the few black female celebrities of the early twentieth century. The boldness of the performance is startling, to the extent that some of the audience seem unsure of where to look, distracting themselves by texting or chatting, whereas others are fully mesmerised.
I wander back into the main hall, which is being hosted by CHK One. Away from their usual home at the Attic Bar, the outfit, who run a monthly electronic open mic night, have very rapidly transformed themselves into a highly professional and media-savvy operation, complete with live video feeds of each artist performing. I catch brief snippets of the opening set of spectral, minimalist soundscapes from Cornish artist Lorcan Thompson, as well as techno/electronica producer Al Kilinity, who gives a beautifully awkward interview beforehand explaining how he composed one of the tracks that very morning.
But the musical highlight of the evening is undoubtedly Claire Northey. A classically-trained violinist, Northey uses a loop machine to stretch expectations of what a violin can do. Drawing on Balkan and North African melodies as well has her background playing in metal bands as a teenager, the sounds she produces are both sublime and abrasive, set jarringly against her sugary vocals. The overall effect is very refreshing, and the act that seems to fit Submerge’s intention to blur boundaries of form, genre and convention.
Things become more unsettling as the evening goes on, and I return to the railway arches to see Francesca Fini and her partner Inanna Trillis on stage. At first, Trillis is decked out in a white burqa and is having ice lollies shoved into her mouth, before being stripped of the burka and revealed to be wearing a bikini and pink wig. It gets weirder when a bunch of balloons get extracted from her vagina, while Francesca tries to destroy a face shaped from a block of ice. All of this seems to tip towards an interrogation of issues of permission and control of women’s bodies, but the effect didn’t sink in until I’d had a few hours to digest it.
The highlight of the evening for me was by Canadian sound artist Adam Basanta. Set in one of the darkened arches, waves of ambient music begin filling the space, and a series of dimmable halogen bulbs, each with a small speaker located above it, begin flickering, as though about to burst into flame. With Basanta manipulating both the sound and light simultaneously, it feels as though each bulb is producing its own brittle and glitchy sound. The effect is ethereal and strangely meditative, almost like watching giant fireflies dance against the wall of a cave. It seemed to me to encapsulate the territory Submerge is trying to navigate: between experimental music, performance art and audio-visual installation, straddling terrains both familiar and thoroughly alien.
Photographs by Andrzej Zajac