Luke Spencer spent nine months in Mexico as part of our Language Assistants Programme. Here he recounts his experience of VOLTA Abismal, a cross-cultural ecological music festival supported by the British Council, and how he spoke to some of the artists involved.
I spent five months in the heart of Mexico City and the most thrilling thing was the cornucopia of cultural and artistic activities that seemed to always be brewing behind the scenes. I first stumbled across the VOLTA Abismal festival poster in early April via social media. I then realised it was supported by the British Council. I had a light-bulb moment and immediately wanted to get involved.
VOLTA is an amazing community of interdisciplinary DIY artists, independent builders, hackers, engineers, sound artists and noisemakers that create ‘sounds’ ranging from experimental music, sound art, glitch, sound artefacts and improvised live sets, to name a few. They have been at the forefront of the transgressive electronic and sound art scene in Mexico since its inception in 2010.
This festival marked the 12th anniversary of VOLTA, with a broad environmental theme underpinning it this year, including four overarching sub-genres: Bioacoustics, Soundscape, Hauntology and the Inaudible. The festival aimed to promote sustainability, ecology and climate change awareness using the medium of electronics and technology to push the boundaries of what we know as ‘sound’ and how it relates to our broader existence in the natural world.
I had never heard of this type of electronic ‘sound’ before, so I decided to attend each of the three days with an open mind. At first, the sounds were disorienting and incomprehensible; to describe them accurately would almost be impossible and remove their illusionary quality. Alien and tremor-like reverberations were being emitted and I could feel them as a palpable and engulfing physical body. Each day they made more sense to me, somehow.
The performers were an eclectic mix of experimental artists from diverse backgrounds: four British, four Mexican and one Polish. The performances ranged from academic presentations on what ‘sound’ could be defined as from a cerebral perspective, to others showcasing visceral, digital sounds at pulsating frequencies, and the most curious of all, the strange and captivating sounds coming from everyday life. Artists were isolating and amplifying sounds we normally don’t pay attention to, such as bird song and live fungi, making us appreciate them as unique sounds that are intrinsically interwoven with the natural world and the heartbeat of our own existence.
Each day I was seeing and hearing things I had never heard before. I didn’t know exactly what was happening, but something was definitely happening…
With the electronic buzz still lingering in my pores, I took it upon myself to attempt to interview as many artists from the festival lineup as possible, gaining exclusive access to personal stories behind their art, background and influences, including some desert island disc choices. These are the highlights of my series of interviews, which took place in May 2023.
J Milo Taylor
J Milo Taylor is a UK artist, musician, producer, DJ, researcher and academic whose work ranges from radio, sound installations, gallery-based sound work and anything creative with sound. We met inside a fancy bar in Roma Sur called Bacar.
When I ask Milo about his ‘music’, he quickly corrects me “I don’t think what I do is music at all particularly, I think of it as sort of an extension of sound art.” I reacted with a baffled face and started to question whether I was out of my depth, but I began to dig deeper.
What are you trying to achieve and communicate with the work you do? What is the purpose of what you do?
“What I think is shared with many artists and the audiences is about making meaning; it’s a meaning-making experience in a meaningless world. Records, art, film and theatre has meant much more than any political party, politician or sports star. That is the stuff which makes the world make sense to me. It’s a way of finding out who I am and who I am in relationship to the rest of the world and who the rest of the world is in relationship to me.”
Robert Piotrowicz was the only non-Mexican and non-British artist in the VOLTA Abismal lineup. Growing up in cold-war Poland, Robert has no formal music education and learnt to sculpt his own sound through endless hours of experimentation with electronic equipment. I met Robert at 316centro, a ‘sound gallery’.
How do you think music has changed, in terms of how young people consume music?
“What is very interesting about young people in Poland today is that they really prefer to find some kind of comfort, rather than be disturbed. It’s very different to who I was when I was younger. I looked for something which really pushed me over or that moved me somewhere.”
Arcangelo, a long-time VOLTA performer and collaborator with JuanJosé, was the first Mexican artist I interviewed. He is an inventor, sound artefact builder, engineer and sound artist. I knew I had to be on my toes and my Spanish had to be at a Chilango (Mexico City local) level.
The moment I walked into his flat I stood in awe at the sonic emporium he had created from scratch. The living room was filled with invention after invention; lamps in the shape of amplifiers hung precariously from the ceiling, guitars with DIY electric wiring attached were scattered around and an old Atari 2600 video console that he planned to showcase in his next performance. I was amazed at how infinite the possibilities were for creating with sound.
Is sound something more abstract for you?
“Yes. Society conditions us to appreciate things by melody, rhythm and certain patterns. They label and box us in, but sound is much richer and more diverse. Noise has a very high capacity for expression when one breaks through those boundaries and listens or appreciates sounds as they are. Normally one is rejecting these sounds as a society and as individuals.”
Juanjosé Rivas is a Mexico City-based multi-media artist and academic, as well as the director and creator of VOLTA and the mastermind behind this year’s historic festival. His deeply rooted artistic upbringing led him to study traditional art in Mexico, moving to Germany to study electronic art and then to Barcelona, where he diverted from the traditional route to pursue experimental electronic music creation. In the early 2000s, he formed part of the crest of the new wave of the experimental electronic DIY movement in Mexico City.
I could not wait to hear from Juanjosé. We met at Café Regina, where we discussed the history of VOLTA, where he finds inspiration and the relevance of art coming from the peripherical circles.
What is your opinion of music that is provocative or from the periphery? Why do you think it has value in today’s society?
“The periphery is really where those boundaries and spaces on the threshold push contemporary aesthetics and make the perception of what we understand as music change over time. For example, the movement of glitch art and glitch music in the early 2000s that used warp and greasy micro sounds from ‘electronic waste’, was seen as weird and transgressive. Now, we see it in most electronic dance music.”
I found VOLTA Abismal was a testament to how fundamental experimental art is in illuminating us not only spiritually and in the artistic sense, but also how it has the power and capacity to elevate our consciousness surrounding vital issues facing our world today, in ways mainstream art could not achieve.