The Quietus SEPTEMBER 14, 2011 - by Rory Gibb


Rory Gibb visits the European Culture Congress in Wroclaw, Poland, to find out how its aims on a wider scale dovetail with its underground arts and music scheduling.

Leaving for the bleak, dual carriageway-surrounded expanse that is Luton Airport at the unholy hour of 4:30am is hardly the most auspicious way to start any trip. When it's to an event whose first event (around twelve hours later, with no opportunity for a nap in the interim period) features a group of prominent political figures from Poland and the EU delivering speeches on the importance of culture for a modern Europe, translated in glorious monotone through a rented audio-subtitling device, it's a fair way to ensure that the first day abroad is marred by heavy lids and a thousand yard stare. Organised largely by Poland's Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the European Culture Congress is billed as a meeting of minds, gathering together artists, critics, political entities and cultural organizations. Alongside a full programme of discussion panels and meetings, the four-day event involves art installations, sound cinema, a water feature by Brian Eno and a series of gigs, including a pair of much vaunted - and intriguing - concerts by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, in collaboration with Aphex Twin and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.

A packed schedule, to be sure. In fact, my interest in attending, after being invited along with a handful of other overseas journalists to cover the event, is largely driven by curiosity around how it all fits together. The ECC's website offers an absolute glut of interesting stuff - seven-page critical, vaguely philosophical manifestos on ideas of culture and a united Europe stacked alongside statements from politicians, rubbing shoulders descriptions of performers like Zun Zun Egui and Anika. But it's something of a vortex: in the days running up to the event I regularly found myself being drawn further through its maze of clickable links with scant idea of how exactly each area was supposed to fit with those around it. The overall impression, while a fascinating way to spend a few hours, was contradictory - at once hyper-specific and infuriatingly vague, it focused intensely on individual subjects while not quite managing to draw them into a coherent whole. Actually attending the Congress, moving from panels with names like The Cyberiad: New Culture, New Media & New Aesthetics to live music to cheap beer to interactive sound art, presumably would provide the context with which to tie all of its disparate strands together.

In the end it doesn't, though that proves of little consequence. But more on that subject later.

After touching down in Wroclaw, much of Thursday is spent half-snoozing in the hotel lobby, where the touch screen replacement for a receptionist is, frankly, perplexing. Once checked-in several hours later, the hotel room turns out to be dominated by a huge, completely transparent glass bathroom, whose only concession to roomshare modesty is a curtain that can only be drawn from the outside. It's like showering in a goldfish tank.

One of the first challenges upon arrival is to learn how to pronounce Wroclaw properly. It's obvious from the get-go that it won't be pronounced 'Rock-law', and it turns out it's not 'Rotch-larv' either. It eventually becomes clear that it's pronounced 'Vrot-suave', a take on the name I repeatedly have to mentally refer to during conversations across the course of the weekend. As the ECC's location, it has one of the most fascinating histories of any European city. Originally in German-held territory, and named Breslau, it was almost entirely flattened during the Second World War and abandoned by the majority of its residents. Once part of Poland after 1945, its empty shell was gradually recolonised by an entirely new population, allowing a new cultural identity to take residence and slowly develop in its ruins. As a result the city's architecture is a real mixture of styles from different periods, and the German-built Centennial Hall and its surrounds, where the Congress takes place, has a stark, concrete-and-steel grandeur. During the inauguration on Thursday evening, a fellow journalist comments that the inside of the hall is like something out of a Jules Verne novel. It's an astute observation - the largest concrete structure in the world at the time of its construction, it gives the Tardis-like impression of being larger on the inside than out, and with its ceiling lit in shimmering blue it's as though we're sat on the seabed.

The Inauguration Ceremony on Thursday afternoon is jarring, and that's not simply down to tiredness and the flat tones of the live translation piped into my ear. With security in the red due to the attendance of the Polish President and several high-ranking Polish and European politicians, it's presented with a showy glamour that grates slightly against its aim of providing an open and accessible cultural forum. Outside, a handful of protestors demonstrate. The ECC's presence in Wroclaw - a 2016 European Capital of Culture - during the Polish EU Presidency is clearly intended to make a strong statement about the government's commitment to culture. Crucially though, the political element doesn't distract from everything else occurring over the course of the weekend. Rather, the presence of public notables and elevated security in certain locations throughout the weekend gives the distinct impression of two events running parallel to one another. Like its website, the Congress itself is divided into several sections, each interesting in its own right but only thoroughly integrated by location rather than thematic crossover. A series of panel discussions that take place over the course of the weekend, accompanied by some excellent free biscuits, run adjacent to - but separate from - the arts and music that make up the most interesting portion of the weekend.

The arts are based within the Four Domes Pavilion, a great square of a building surrounding a central quadrangle. Bearing the marks of nearly a century of use - and seemingly very little upkeep - its innards are reminiscent of a squatted warehouse, while its outer surfaces are scarred and lined like an old, careworn face. It's a wonderful building, its very lived-in character again contrasting sharply with the slick slogans of Thursday night's opening gambit. Inside is a cheap buffet doing marvelous vegetarian food (I gorge on piergoi - literally stodge within stodge, mashed potatoes and cottage cheese wrapped in dumpling dough), bars with £1 pints, art installations and a DJ booth. At the Pavilion's entrance, one artist has set up a petition about the Congress, saying something to the effect of 'I believe that the money spent on this congress has been well spent and necessary, and the people who think otherwise are stupid and jealous'. In exchange for your signature you're given a free cup of coffee. A lot of people sign. Again, the withering sarcasm of the petition's presentation grates at the notion of a completely united Congress space; here lies a series of individually fascinating projects existing in the same space, at the same time. At night, screens inside the Pavilion bar screen adverts for Orange, while their equivalents in the next room show experimental films. I sip a beer, listen to experimental electronica, and wonder whether I'm paying too much for my phone contract.

Brian Eno's water feature - a globe projected onto a huge fountain next door to the Pavilion, is entitled Future Perfect, and shows each evening at 9:30. To the low hum of music and Eno's own quiet vocals, a vision of a brightly coloured Earth coalesces out of the windswept spray, flickering back and forth. It's very pretty, though there's scant information about what it's intended to mean; at one point, the Polish for "My God" passes across its surface. I'm struck by the desire to ask Eno more about it, and spend the weekend trying to track him down.

The bulk of the music takes place in a car park adjacent to the Centennial Hall, an advantage on Friday and Saturday when the weather takes a turn for the midsummer, but rather less so on Thursday, in high winds and constant spitting rain. Curated by the organizer of Katowice's excellent OFF Festival, Artur Rojek, the musical programme is titled a Bowie-referencing Scary Monsters & Super Creeps. Its aim is to bring together bands from across Europe that span genre lines, and to Rojek's credit it does a fine job of that. Bristolians Zun Zun Egui are an appropriate opener for Thursday - on top of taking a stack-'em-high approach to genre, they do the same for geography, piling elements of post-punk, tropicalia, psychedelic rock and African musics on top of one another into a dizzying stew. Swedish minimalist blues types Wildbirds & Peacedrums later that evening are just as impressive. Though their recent recorded output hasn't quite matched the visceral energy of their first couple of records, the duo's stage dynamic serves to ratchet up their songs' sexual tension to breaking point. Later in the weekend, Anika's performance feels peculiarly distant, her stage presence stock still and separate from the admittedly sparse crowd. Norwegian metal group Killl are tremendous though, a purging flame of electronically processed blastbeats, scorched riffage and the odd bout of death metal roaring from a quite terrifying looking drummer.

"If someone looks a bit aggressive," warns my Polish companion with the slightest hint of amusement in his voice, as we wander through a bustling centre of Wroclaw not long after Friday midnight, "Don't speak English, they'll beat you up." We take a few more steps. "In fact, don't speak Polish either," he continues after a pause. "They'll probably beat you up anyway, it might just take a little bit longer." Sage advice indeed, which thankfully isn't required, as we find some benches near the river and settle down to a drink in the dark, away from party crowds. Sat a few metres from a weir, the swoosh of dark water swirling downstream is soporific.

The following day, after a rickety, nausea-inducing but strangely thrilling tram ride, the same fluid rush fills one of the domes off the Pavilion's central quadrangle. The dull thwack of running water hitting hollow metal is heightened by the room's resonance into a soothing rush of white noise. Former Tate turbine hall artist Miroslaw Balka has installed a vast sheet metal container inside, into which pours a dark purple liquid from a pipe at near-ceiling level. From the bottom of the vessel a black hosepipe siphons the liquid back to the top in a closed circuit. Wege zur Behandlung von Schmerzen, it's called, and it's one of the weekend's most powerful pieces, evocative of the constant flux of the mind: memory stuff pours in, while older material drains away over time, the substrate to be endlessly recycled.

It's a beautiful day outside, a July throwback of an afternoon which contrasts sharply with both the introspective nature of Balka's installation and the free-associative chaos of the Sound Cinema's playback of John Cage's Roaratorio, the composer's radio play based on Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. The Sound Cinema itself is a delightful experience and easily the most enjoyable thing of the weekend. As its name suggests, a cinema for sound, it consists of a wood-panelled room, a floor covered in beanbags and a monster of a surround sound system. At high volume with the lights out it's as immersive as a regular cinema, with the added bonus of providing the perfect opportunity to drift off into half-sleep. One such reverie during a Friday show is cut violently short by the roar of explosives ricocheting from one side of the room to the other.

Which neatly segues into the weekend's biggest, and certainly most intriguing, prospect - performances of some of Krzysztof Penderecki's best known avant garde pieces alongside tribute/remix efforts from Jonny Greenwood and Aphex Twin (on alternate nights). Penderecki's contributions - with the man himself conducting - are the same on both nights. Opening with Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima, his conducting is economical and considered, in contrast to the jerky, billowing dissonance of the orchestra themselves, whose bows sweep back and forth in unison like the legs of some giant insect. Onscreen in the background, the shadow of a plane passes over monochrome autumn leaves, which scatter like ash in the nuclear wind of the piece's second half. Polymorphia is even more horrifying than its recorded counterparts in the alien surrounds of the Centennial Hall; before the backdrop of a neverending blank corridor, its perfect acoustics amplify every bowed screech to almost overwhelming intensity.

Greenwood's and Aphex Twin's takes on Penderecki's music are fascinating. While Greenwood's compositions riff on the same themes, offering responses to the original pieces, they remain in the same mode and are occasionally difficult to distinguish. The latter's are more successful in that they subvert the usual concert format - after Threnody, Richard D. James offers his own remix, the lights dropping and the reverent hall suddenly filled with lasers. While the original charts an emotional map through Hiroshima, the remix is the atomic explosion itself - a wall of shrieking noise and volcanic low-end rumble, its echoes remain long after the music has stopped. For most of the performance I'm sat behind a pair of people subtly filming, and looking around angrily to shush anyone coughing or using a camera with a loud shutter - it's interesting to find the videos online later, from exactly the same viewpoint. Later in the concert, after a pair of his own tracks, James conducts the orchestra plus singers using a visual score, providing onscreen instructions to the performers that enable him to remix the players themselves live; it's a clever and visually involving bridge between the real and digital worlds each separately inhabit. While James' versions don't exactly stray beyond the same sound palettes and moods as Penderecki's originals, they're inventive within those boundaries (and prove even more unsettling sonically).

It's hard to complain about the European Culture Congress itself. Wroclaw is a beautiful place, with a history that ties the ECC to the city's 1948 World Congress Of Intellectuals For Peace (attended by a similar mix of politicians, artists and thinkers, Picasso, Brecht and Aldous Huxley among them). The opportunities it presents for people to see music, art and discussion - or to lie in a darkened room listening to the sound of bombs going off for an hour - result in an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. While it exists the ECC creates a space where comparatively underground arts rub up against political and corporate agendas. The question, as ever, is whether that's something that ever ought to be welcomed; although the independence of each section from one another helps diminish any sense of conflict of interest. Despite little dissonances like the presence of corporate advertising inside a gallery, the integrity of the arts and music presented here is never called into question.

On a wider level though, the ECC does provoke the question whether, at this juncture in time, with so many governments pushing for spending cuts left, right and centre (with arts often the worst hit), simply providing an 'open space for discussion' is really enough. Life will go on afterwards, and a large proportion of EU governments will likely continue - in the vein of the rest of the world - to savagely cut funding to the arts, all the while loudly proclaiming their importance.

On the way home, I share a Ryanair flight with Brian Eno. We're stood next to one another at the baggage collection, but I decide it's a bit late to ask about his water feature.