Kraków's Unsound is one of the globe’s most challenging festivals. Continually pushing the envelope through a fiercely eclectic line-up and one-off programming, designed to surprise and delight its audience, it has earned plaudits for exclusive works and interesting choice of venues around the city. A cursory glance down this year's line-up sees a lecture from the KLF’s Bill Drummond, Holly Herndon debuting a live show with a full choir, and Dre Skull and Jubilee going b2b.
Gosia Płysa is someone who’s spent eleven years building the event up from the ground — as executive director, she’s been responsible for the cult name that the brand’s made for itself. We headed to Warsaw, Poland, for a series of panel talks organised by Boiler Room and Ballantine’s — the True Music Forum, which discussed topics such as the new media landscape, Poland’s underground music scene, and the role of artists in 2017.
Sitting down with Gosia prior to her talk, we found out about the logistics of running an event like Unsound, the 2017 theme of 'flower power', and the political and social context which it lives and breathes.
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You've got the 15th edition of Unsound coming up in less than two weeks. How does it feel to have reached this milestone?
It's a rewarding experience, definitely, seeing it go from the super DIY, Kraków basement-based place to this international event which sells out in 60 seconds… Two years ago, more than half of our programme wasn't announced at all — we had the ‘Surprise’ edition. Our audience trusts us, so we can book the most obscure stuff, and people will still come. But it's also thanks to our curatorial research and finding the freshest, newest things that are up-and-coming. Aside from having this super risk-taking and ambitious, artistic programme, we’ve also created an amazing platform for people from the music industry to meet and look for new talent and help artists break through. I think these are the things we should be most proud of.
The theme for this year is ‘flower power’. What was the thinking behind that choice?
Apart from the historical context — the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love ‘67, it's also a trigger to think about the counterculture that inspires the underground scene at the moment. We were also thinking about this ironic take on our audience — we all dress in black and listen to loud, dark music. But at the same time, we're hippies, travelling around and living in the Internet bubble, not working 9 to 5 jobs — most of us — doing freelance art stuff. So yeah, this ironic take on the word ‘hippy’, and hippy tendencies. But also ecology - that’s an important theme which will be discussed in the programme.
Last year you combatted Brexit by programming lots of UK artists. I noticed you’ve got a load of US artists on the bill this year, was that an intentional commentary on Trump?
Yeah, absolutely. Our themes are always based around the socio-political context. We can't ignore the general tendency of the world to go into this populist, negative side, and we feel with our friends in America, especially from underground and independent scenes that are suffering with the choices their country has made. But it's also showing a certain global crisis that brings a challenge to the art scene.
Poland has an especially right-wing government at the moment, is Unsound tackling or exploring that in some way?
Well, definitely. Obviously we watch what's happening and all the negativity around the right wing government legislation. During the summer, our whole team went to protest against the legislation limiting the independence of the court system, for example, which was going to be voted through by the parliament. It hasn't been, yet, and I think those mass protests really helped stop that situation happening. But also, the situation connected with the chopping of the primaeval forest of Puszcza Białowieża — it's the last primaeval forest left in Europe. The current government chops it down and sells the wood, pretending it's infected with something. It's a super idiotic idea. So our programme has a few works and talks about that situation. I think the devastation of our natural environment has a much more profound effect on the world than some of the political changes — this is something that will be very destructive, and we’re very opposed to that, for sure.
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I was wondering what the government make of festivals or events like Unsound, whether they take notice of what you’re doing or not...?
I mean, definitely, the cultural agenda of the current government is very different to what we do and our celebration of independence and diversity than the government's vision, which is very focused on Christian values and Catholicism, as well as national values. We proudly represent the best Polish scene and Polish acts that we have — so in a way we're very patriotic as well. But it's a different type of patriotism to our government. In terms of public funding, we get support from local governments, so from city councils, the City of Kraków. But we’re not directly supported by the Ministry of Culture any more, because I think there are other agendas that are different to what we do. I don't feel any particular obstacles as such, but also not support.
Some years ago you decided to have a no-camera policy, how come you decided to allow cameras again?
Yeah, in 2013 — it was part of our idea of making people's festival experience different. We like to play with the idea of the festival. We actually stopped using the word ‘festival’ to describe Unsound. There's so many at the moment, and when the average person thinks ‘festival’, they think of a big outdoor summer event; a Coachella-type thing, or Glastonbury. What we do obviously has the festival format, but it's more focused on commissioning new works and knowledge-sharing. It's more of a community-oriented thing; a community-building thing that’s trying to keep its DIY ethos rather than turning into a bigger commercial thing. Which it probably could be, but we believe in growing from the inside rather than turning into a massive rave or something. Nothing against raves! But it's not what I think Unsound should be. But yeah, it was a one-off. I think now, four years later, it would be hard to tell people not to. It was more about suggesting they try and focus on the experience rather than documenting it and looking at the performance through the screen of your phone or iPad. iPads are the worst. But I feel like our audience is much more respectful, they get into the shows.
There’s nothing worse than viewing a performance through a series of screens in front of you.
I don't think it happens that much at Unsound — I think we probably had some effect. But, yeah, it was kind of a social experiment rather than a strict policy, throwing people out of the venue. It was more like: “Hey, if you see someone doing it, please ask them not to”.
I'm interested in the choice of places Unsound has taken its satellite events to; Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Tajikistan. How have you found crowds respond differently to say, places like Poland, New York, London?
From the very beginning, Unsound has done partner events, whether in Poland or in the East, like Belarus, Ukraine, Czech and Slovakia. We got asked by the Goethe-Institut to create this event which focuses on the idea of creating cultural scenes and focusing on scenes outside of typical cultural centres. I mean, Unsound takes place in Kraków, which isn't an obvious place, it's not London, New York, Paris, or LA. For us, interesting things might also happen in Bishkek, or Murmansk in Russia, these kinds of places. The Goethe-Institut asked us to create a series of events over two years in former USSR republics or Russia, which wasn't just a franchise model where we bring our brand, and that's it. It was more of a knowledge-sharing exchange/experience, where we talk with the local organisers and teach them how to build this model of a festival. I think it had quite a profound, to a degree, effect. For example, the Almaty event in Kazakhstan was one of the best things ever. I think it will keep going. We're very keen on helping it develop and go its own way.
Is there any particular place you’d love to throw a satellite event at, that you haven't already?
I don't really like summer festivals too much — the massive ones, but I think a nice tropical Unsound would be cool, something different to what we normally do. I mean, we do have Adelaide, which is very hot, but maybe a more low-key and chill version of Unsound would be nice. Yeah, and also Asia. We haven't really been to China or Japan yet. I haven't been to Japan at all. I think those places would be interesting, and I think they have super big scenes. I mean, Japan has, and it's super connected to the West as well. But I don't know much about what's going on in China, and I think that would be something worth discovering at some point. But, step by step!
Is there one particular kind of performance or work you've commissioned for this edition that you're particularly looking forward to?
I'm really looking forward to seeing Liz Harris, Grouper. In this project she’s called Nivhek, with Marcel Weber, the German visual artist. That should be an interesting collaboration. Also Lillevan, the German visual artist's work with the Prometheus Institute, which is based in Kazan in Russia. It's one of the first institutes that developed the idea of synesthesia, connecting sound and visual art, since the '60s. It’s a super unique approach to visual art, so I'm very curious to see what Lillevan comes up with. Also the Ukrainian club music scene is very interesting these days. We're doing a party with Схема, the Kiev clubnight.
Your choice of venues and spaces in Kraków is always really interesting, will you be using any new ones this year?
Yeah, this year we have the Slowacki Theatre, which we’ve always tried to do something with, but it was out of our reach for various reasons. It's like this opera-style, golden room, based on an Italian or Austrian opera theatre. It's super lush and red-velvety and gold, which I think is not very Unsound style! But it's a very traditional Kraków place. We're also doing something in the former steel mill offices in the Nowa Huta, the industrial Communist area on the outskirts of Kraków centre. Lee Gamble and Lanark Artefax are playing there. Oh, also the botanical gardens. We're going to do one installation there, which should be quite interesting. With the ‘Flower Power’ theme, we have to use them. There will be lots of nature in the festival, for sure.
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Unsound is a really diverse event — and I think festivals should do more to have diverse line-ups, but on the other hand, event organisers seem to get the majority of criticsm, and it seems unfair to place the blame solely at their door. How do you see it?
Those issues are super important to us, yeah. Obviously it's not always possible to fit all the needs we should fulfil. It's really hard to find a 50% gender ratio, for example. Or give fair representation to different minority groups that don't even perform in Poland yet. It's really hard, but I think we're doing whatever we can to give voices to people who might not be heard. Aside from the gender representation, which is crucial for me as a woman, I think it's important that so many people talk about it and see the need. And even if there is criticism, which we also were given for not having enough women on our line-ups, I think it's positive that people talk about it. For us, it's important to also give geographic representation to people who create something interesting, but don't necessarily live in Berlin or London, and they might not be heard even if they're a white guy from Kazakhstan, who I think would find it harder to break through than a woman of colour from Berlin. So there are those different issues that you have to balance. It's tricky, but I hope we're getting there.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone starting a festival now?
Think outside the box. Just do things a different way. Especially if you can afford it — don't look for headliners, do your thing. Do something that you're really passionate about, that's different from what someone else is doing. Which would probably be really hard now! But I think something that relates to the local scene and also is different to whatever else is happening somewhere else. Maybe try not to invest your personal money, either!
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You can watch Gosia in conversation on the True Music Forum's Lens On Poland panel here:
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Discover more from the True Music Forum over at http://truemusic.boilerroom.tv/.